Two beloved UK institutions have, it appears, fallen out. I am sure there are lots of reasons behind the BBC’s decision but what I am not convinced of is that any of them are good enough to justify our national broadcaster ending a near century old relationship with our national Met Office.
The bottom line (quite literally) of the BBC rationale appears to be ‘value for money’. In common with so many other areas of our national life the BBC is definitely feeling the pain of significant cuts and inevitably this limits its room for manoeuvre.
However, this is where the government should be stepping in and taking responsibility for two very clear reasons.
Firstly, there is the strategic importance of the severe weather warnings service that the Met Office will continue to provide. Currently this is a seemless process, where a severe weather warning follows on from the scheduled weather forecasts as well as in news bulletins. These warnings are extremely important, in the last 24 months we have seen the very real dangers to people and property in the South West of severe weather incidents. To in any way compromise these warnings could have profound consequences.
Despite all the references to the 86 storm or BBQ summer, the Met Office provides an extremely reliable forecasting service – it learned from those experiences as well as countless others where it got the forecast right. It is recognised world wide as the best weather forecaster, ranked number one for forecast accuracy. It is not for nothing that airlines, airports and shipping, which are commercial operations and are utterly dependent on accurate forecasts, rely on data from the Met Office.
One of the ironic outcomes of this process would be the Met Office still providing the forecast data but not directly to the BBC. The danger with this is that it isn’t just the data that’s important, it’s the interpretation of that data. How would people react to a severe weather warning if it hadn’t been a feature of the scheduled weather forecast? There are inherent dangers in this separation of the services.
On top of that both the other bidders that have been leaked are rooted in the nationally owned met offices of their countries – the Netherlands and New Zealand. It can only be ideology that allows a government to stand back from a decision that so heavily disadvantages our strategically vital Met Office and allows the profits from such a deal to go to the another country’s weather forecasting service.
Secondly, the Met Office isn’t just a weather forecaster. With the Paris Conference later this year on Climate Change can the UK Government really afford to be seen to have allowed such a deep cut in funding to the global leader on climate change science? With its existing computer and multiple data sources the scientists at the Met Office provide more empirical evidence on Climate Change than any other national centre in the world and that’s before the new supercomputer comes online. The government is already risking Britain’s position on benefitting from green technologies by its cuts to subsidies for environmentally friendly energy sources, it would be a laughing stock abroad if it now let a leading source of science in this area have its budget slashed. As a country we can ill afford the additional reputational damage at this time.
The government has already pushed responsibility for paying for policy onto the BBC, for example by making it responsible for funding the free licence fee for people over 75. With severe cuts to the BBC’s budget it is not surprising that these cuts are resulting in damaging decisions such as this one. Clearly, I believe that the BBC should reconsider this decision but equally I do not believe that the Government can stand idly by.
Having pushed clear government financial responsibilities onto the BBC it cannot now stand back and wash its hands of this deal between the BBC and the Met Office – particularly when other country’s national met centres stand to be the beneficiaries. For once, I hope against hope that this Government will do the right thing by our national institutions and not fulfill Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic by knowing ‘the price of everything and the value of nothing’.