Wednesday, 1 January 2014

How the government spins a crisis: the blame game

Thousands of people in the UK had a truly miserable Christmas, with extreme weather leading to flooding and power cuts. They were shocked and cold, blundering around in the dark, sometimes for as long as three days. When David Cameron went to visit Yalding in Kent on 27th December, he got an earful from local residents, who complained they had been abandoned, and had no help from the council, who had "all decided to go on holiday."

Cameron's visit was widely seen as a PR disaster: he was criticised for using the floods as a way of getting cheap publicity, and his government's cuts in spending on flood defences were commented on.

On 30th December, we had Owen Paterson, the Energy Secretary stating that energy companies had "let customers down" in their response to the storm.

Yesterday we heard that Tim Yeo chairman of the energy select committee, planned to summon bosses of energy companies to explain their poor performance.

Now, I have no love for the energy companies, whose rapacious pricing strategies are causing real hardship to many. But I find myself wondering what exactly they were supposed to do over the Christmas period. Presumably, if a power line comes down, it requires specialised machinery and replacement parts to be sourced and brought to the site – which may well be affected by flooding – and engineers who not only have the expertise to diagnose and correct the problem, but who are also fit and brave enough to do this in horrendous weather conditions. I doubt that large numbers of such people are just sitting around waiting to be called upon, and indeed over the Christmas period, some of them may have gone away on holiday, and others may themselves be affected by the flooding.  There was much criticism concerning the lack of information given to those affected by flooding and power cuts. But it's just not realistic to expect an organization to magic up large numbers of call centre staff out of nowhere in the middle of a crisis-ridden Christmas break. It's also worth noting that much of the valiant work of helping people deal with the flooding crisis was the responsibility of the fire service, currently under pressure from cuts to funding.

I simply don't know whether the energy companies could have done better; maybe they could have done more with live updates of information through websites, Twitter or local radio. Maybe they could have issued earlier warnings, or cancelled leave for key staff. But it concerns me that we have the Environment Secretary making a very public judgement on this matter, directing blame at energy companies, just a few days after the Prime Minister has been criticised, and long before there has been a chance to evaluate what happened, and which agencies were responsible for what, in a calm and thorough manner.

Forgive me if I seem cynical, but a rapid and punitive response seems to have become a standard reaction of government to situations where they are attracting adverse publicity. Find a scapegoat and come down on them heavily, whether it be Brodie Smith, Sharon Shoesmith or David Kelly. This deflects criticism from the government and makes them look strong. All the better if the criticism can be laid instead at the door of a person or organization who is already unpopular.

By all means, let us consider the response to the crisis to see what could have been done better. But the issues are far too important to be used as propaganda to enhance a government's popularity. Let us not be distracted from a much more important priority: calling the government to account for its policy of cutting back on measures of flood prevention.


  1. Agreed, complete reliance on 'the authrorities' is unrealistic. If Citzenship is still on the curriculum then I would recommend a module on 'belt and braces' planning, including for losing connection to the Internet, and another one on resilience. If you know that you are at high risk for flooding (e.g. Yalding), power failure (me), snow, volcano eruption, whatever, then take some precautions, make some plans. It will still be a miserable experience but surely better than helplessly waiting.

  2. At least your PM showed up, even he was late. With a bad ice storm in Ontario Canada where Toronto had 300,000 customers losing electricity, with trees and branches littering streets, pumping stations flooding etc, etc, all in -12 or 14C weather and estimates that power might not be restored to some areas of the city our PM has sent out a couple of tweets.