Framed by the Beeb

The BBC’s policy of framing the aftermath of natural disasters as managerial cock-ups can be seen in its coverage of the Philippines typhoon.

This morning’s Today Programme reporting that the Philippines government had ‘conceded’ that its response to the disaster had been impeded by the colossal scale of the devastation.

That is not very different from a sports report describing a team manager ‘admitting’ that a player with two broken legs and concussion would take longer to recover than if he’d just sprained his wrist.

This is the Beeb’s standard take on major catastrophes. Even when a a country with little wealth and poor communications to begin is ripped apart by fire, flood, wind or earthquake, a BBC reporter will helicopter themselves in within hours to say: “People are asking why the authorities are not acting faster. Why is more not being done?”

I can think of two reasons for framing events this way.

First, the BBC sees itself as a cheerleader for the modern myth of progress, the one that paints Technological Man as the master of Nature. It is just not done to report that some things – for instance a hurricane with the power of a dozen nuclear bombs – are big enough to cramp Man’s style. And it’s unthinkable to report that events of such magnitude destroy government resources as easily as those of citizens.

Second, the framing reinforces the idea that there will always always be a powerful, paternalistic authority on hand, ready to step in instantly if things go wrong. It’s as if the Beeb has a script where uniformed men drive up in lorries loaded with food, tents and medical supplies as soon as the wind abates. When they don’t – because there aren’t any and they couldn’t get through if there were – the Corporation’s journalists take it upon themselves to get cross, not on behalf of the disaster victims but on behalf of us viewers sitting comfortably here at home with our BBC-fostered view that the world should be what we want it to be, not as it is.

This narrative has a strong appeal for central media outlets. By appointing themselves as arbiters of whether disasters are being properly handled, they subtly imply that if we don’t hear the media complaining, then ‘the authorities’ (Daddy) must be on top of the situation. That way, reporters don’t have to trek back to the scene years later to focus on the real rebuilding story, which is usually of the courage and resilience of ordinary people and the unglamourous charities and NGOs helping them.

Better still, it absolves the media themselves from making concessions in situations like Fukushima, where neither technology nor the myth of progress have made any headway since the tsunami. 

Born lucky

I was born lucky.

“What?”, people who know me could say. “You’re a diagnosed depressive. Your wife and daughter both have chronic illnesses. You hardly have any friends. You work on your own and you don’t really enjoy anything except getting out on a push bike by yourself.”

OK. So I have my fair share of #firstworldproblems. But I’m still lucky.

Lucky to have been born in the 1950s when standards of living, health and life expectancy were taking off like the exciting rockets that a merry band of ex-Nazi slave drivers were designing for the USA.

Lucky to have lived all my life under the umbrella of the National Health Service. Modern dentistry, eh? If we all have to go back to the simple life, I hope that comes along with us.

Lucky to have ridden the Internet wave for 20 odd years. 90% of online activity is as banal as human life gets. But what an enjoyable way to waste time. The remaining 10% is more than enough to keep all the commerce, education, war and spying we do or don’t need ticking over nicely. And it keeps me solvent too.

Talking of being solvent… Materially, I’m unimaginably comfortably off compared with 95% of the world’s existing inhabitants. Admittedly, if I’d been born 15 or 20 years earlier I’d be even better off. Why? Because I’d have retired at the very peak of the pension Ponzi.

It’ll be all downhill for retirees in a few years’ time (i.e. when I should be winding down at work). The looting of the funds is just getting started.

But I’m not terribly annoyed about that. Some you win, some you lose. On balance I’ve won hands down in the lottery of the forces of history. After all, my good fortune has everything to do with the forces that have driven up the world’s human population from 2.5 billion to over 7 billion in my lifetime.

That was a kind of luck too. Humans broke into 500 million years worth of fossilised sunlight and burned through it in a massive 300-year industrial jamboree. The party’s beginning to roll over now. The rich energy deposits are getting depleted. We can no longer ignore the waste side of the equation.

The oceans are heating and dying. Unless we keep industrial infrastructure constantly fed with high intensity energy, huge chunks of it will quickly cease being an asset and turn to waste (at best) or a millstones round the neck of any society trying to rewind to something that can be supported by renewable energy.

How a system as complex as ours is will unravel is anyone’s guess. The Roman empire was a cake stall compared to our 21st century global civilisation. Some of it went up in flames. Other bits still trucked along in their own sweet way 600 years after the empire is popularly reckoned to have collapsed.

So who knows? Assuming my luck holds out, I could go on enjoying the fruits of our unsustainable system many more years. Although it’s getting more touch and go all the time.

Faster than you think

Immanuel Wallerstein’s concise reflections on geopolitics, sent straight to one’s inbox, make for an illuminating start to each month. (Sign up by emailing

His November essay, “Consequences of U.S. Decline”, reviews the speed with which the very idea of US decline has gone, in barely 10 years, from being laughable to a subject of serious debate within the US itself.

More to the point, Wallerstein believes that the next stages of decline will not only be unexpectedly punishing for the majority of US citizens but also that they will take place sooner than most people anticipate – that is, in this decade.

He concludes:

Finally, there are two real consequences of which we can be fairly sure in the decade to come. The first is the end of the U.S. dollar as the currency of last resort. When this happens, the United States will have lost a major protection for its national budget and for the cost of its economic operations. The second is the decline, probably a serious decline, in the relative standard of living of U.S. citizens and residents. The political consequences of this latter development are hard to predict in detail but will not be insubstantial.

Did I mention he’s also a master of understatement?