A Blizzard of Nonsense

Whatever happened to the crazy weather the Daily Express keeps predicting?

By George Monbiot and John Mason, published on the Guardian’s website, 9th April 2015

There is bullshit, utter bullshit and Daily Express headlines. Reading the paper on Wednesday, I hadn’t the faintest idea which stories were supposed to be serious and which were April fools.

As the website expressbingo.org.uk points out, the paper has only about 12 front pages:

Benefit Cheats/Immigrants/Criminals Will Eat Your Babies

A Miracle Cure for Alzheimer’s/Diabetes/Cancer/Arthritis is Just Around the Corner

Madeline McCann is … About To Be Found/Still Missing/Somewhere Even More Improbable Than Last Time

House Prices Soar Beyond Your Wildest Dreams … etc.

The same themes come round and round, the wording marginally altered. But the story that fills more front pages than any other is the weather.

Express weather is not like normal weather. It’s not the weather we experience, or at least not yet. Express weather is what you might encounter on Mars or Venus: extreme heat or extreme cold interspersed with wild storms.

That its predictions are as contradictory as they are bizarre and that they seldom come to pass seems to deter their repetition not one jot. The newspaper appears to assume that its readers have thistledown memories: no recollection of the predictions it made even a few days before. Given that people continue to buy this rubbish, it may, unfortunately, be right.

So, on March 16, its front page told us “Britain set for HOTTEST Easter EVER as temperatures to rocket to 80F in holiday heatwave”. Needless to say, the story was helpfully illustrated with pictures of young women in bikinis, in case we could not otherwise imagine what a heatwave might be like. On March 26, this public service was followed by “Easter weather forecast: TEN inches of snow, gales and plummeting temps.” The same journalist, Nathan Rao, wrote both articles.

No winter approaches without predictions in the Express of Snowmageddon. In November 2012, Rao’s headline warned us: “Coldest Winter in 100 Years on Way”. In November 2013, he promised “100 DAYS OF HEAVY SNOW: Britain now facing worst winter in SIXTY YEARS warn forecasters”. In October 2014, a story by the same author told readers “Winter 2014 set to be ‘coldest for century’. Britain faces ARCTIC FREEZE in just weeks”. In November, another article of his was headlined “POLAR VORTEX WARNING: Latest winter weather models show UK faces MONTHS of heavy snow”. And so it went on all the way until the end of January, when the front page blared: “Britain on RED alert: ‘Displaced polar vortex’ to unleash crippling snowstorms next week”.

Needless to say, it was all bollocks with bells on. Temperatures for central England in every month of the winter just passed were slightly higher than average. There were no abnormal snow events, and no plagues of frogs, boils, lobsters or aliens. All rather disappointing in fact.

The paper’s misleading stories, and their weak links to reality, have been closely documented by John Mason, who has collaborated with me in writing this article.

But even the Express is not prepared simply to pluck this clickbait out of thin air. It must create a veneer, however flimsy, of credibility. So it leans on a number of people who call themselves forecasters, but whose credentials are often difficult to establish.

For a while, such stories made abundant use of a man called Jonathan Powell, who ran a company called Positive Weather Solutions. After I revealed in the Guardian that the forecasters employed by this company did not exist, but had made-up names attached to stock shots of models, Positive Weather Solutions immediately closed down.

It was soon replaced by another company of Powell’s, Vantage Weather Services. That company also closed after bad publicity. He now runs a firm called Principality Weather, which appears to feature only in the Welsh press, and then rarely.

Today, the man most frequently cited in improbable weather stories in the Express (and sometimes elsewhere) is James Madden, who runs a company called Exacta Weather. His wild predictions have formed the basis of Express stories for several years, and appear in several of those I’ve just mentioned. So I sent him a list of questions. (I also sent a list to the newspaper, but have not received a response).

I asked him:

– Could you explain the basis on which you made these forecasts?

– What are your qualifications as a weather forecaster?

– How do you respond to the charge that you are engaging in “stopped clock forecasting”: making the same predictions again and again in the hope that they will occasionally be proved right, allowing you to claim vindication?

– How do you respond to the claim that your “accuracy” record [published on the Exacta website] is highly selective and misleading?

– Are you deceiving potential purchasers of your service by offering this misleading account?

– Why do you not publish an independent audit of your forecasting accuracy?

Instead of specific answers, he sent me a note that seemed to me to consist largely of bluster and threats.

“I remember the last time you tried dragging me into an unfair article involving only PWS [Positive Weather Solutions], for which I still have a dated response and video to yourself, which was shown to all my clients.”

[You can read the article here].

“The previous also highlights you in previous statements/articles about weather being the weather, and sometimes forecasts will be wrong (in defence of the Met Office). No surprises there!

“After seeking advice, I will not hesitate to make an official complaint to the press complaints commission about the previous article, as I also will for any future articles that are misleading. I will also make people aware of this via the site, and your personal vendetta against myself, and your clear defensive nature of anything Met Office related.

“An explanation and detailed review of my winter forecast will be posted to subscribers and via the site shortly, and in my own time and not at deadline requests from yourself.”

I assured him that I have no vendetta against him and gave him another chance to respond, whereupon he sent me a slightly more conciliatory but similarly non-specific reply. The only question he attempted to answer was the stopped clock query, that he addressed as follows:

“May I also remind you that a broken clock is right twice in a day out of 24 hours, 1440 minutes and 86400 seconds. Have you ever thought of it that way or are you sticking to a more simplistic approach to prove some kind of point? My overall success rate is much higher than the simplistic comparison you tried to make there (with proof in various media articles and past forecasts via Exacta Weather).”

But sadly he was unable to send me any evidence for this “overall success rate”, citing health problems.

I was struck by the thought that a reputable forecaster would have the answers to hand.

All this is risible, but there’s also a serious side to it. To judge by the comments people make about weather forecasting, which has improved greatly over the past couple of decades, it appears that many mistake these lurid headlines for predictions from the Met Office.

If ever there is a genuine forecast of a rare severe blizzard, of the apocalyptic magnitude that the Express keeps predicting, people might be inclined to ignore it if they’ve heard the media cry wolf a hundred times before, and could get themselves into trouble.

And there’s the more basic issue that newspapers should not mislead their readers. But at this point I realise I am asking too much.