Editorial director Ian Carter on why we shouldn't blame the media for the panic buying of petrol
At the end of last week, as the impact of the chaos at petrol stations began to bite, we set about planning a feature on the causes of the crisis.
We thought it would be quite a complex piece, examining the combined impact of the pandemic and Brexit along with the fragility of the country’s Just In Time supply chains.
Turns out we didn’t have to bother as we soon learned the problem was much closer to home - it was my fault. All mine.
As one irate reader emailed to say, every queue at every petrol station was the responsibility of the media and I should ‘own it.’
It was a narrative that continued over the weekend and into this week. The scenes we are witnessing on our forecourts are entirely down to media scaremongering, and those people brazenly filling up 50 jerry cans with unleaded are innocent pawns in our dastardly plot to bring the country to a standstill.
It’s a theory that doesn’t stand up to a moment’s examination.
There is absolutely a reasoned debate to be had about how the press can effectively cover stories of shortages - be that of loo roll or petrol - without exacerbating the problems. Sadly reasoned debate has been in even shorter supply than fuel.
First, the facts.
The first article on fuel shortages wasn’t published in The Sun, Guardian, by the BBC and certainly not by us.
It was on the official website of BP on September 24 where a statement read: “We are experiencing some fuel supply issues at some of our retail sites in the UK and unfortunately have therefore seen some sites temporarily close due to a lack of both unleaded and diesel grades.
“These have been caused by some delays in the supply chain which has been impacted by the industry-wide driver shortages across the UK.”
Faced with such a statement, the media faced two simple choices - publish it or don’t publish it.
It was a binary choice and, no matter how many caveats you add about fuel being in plentiful supply and there being no need to panic buy, publication was always going to result in queues on the forecourts.
For all those complaining about media ‘scaremongering’, ask yourself one simple question - would you really prefer to live in a society where inconvenient truths are hidden from you?
Where the media deliberately censors information because it doesn’t feel the public can be trusted with it? Maybe you would; I wouldn’t.
Where would that end? Don’t report incidents of serious crime in case it deters people from leaving the house?
It’s also obvious that the moment the first garage ran low on fuel it would spread across social media networks at breakneck pace - and then it wouldn’t be long before the mainstream media were getting it in the neck for not warning people.
One further question I would ask our detractors is precisely WHY you think the media would want to stoke up stories of fuel shortages.
Believe it or not, we’re real people too with real cars to fill up with real petrol. Would we swap the marginal bump to our online traffic for being able to get to work, take our kids to school and go to the shops? You bet.
Bashing the MSM is something everyone in the industry has got used to and by and large we take it on the chin.
In this instance, I think remaining silent would be a disservice to readers - there are people with questions to answer about why we are where we are, and by choosing to scapegoat the media, the spotlight is in the wrong place.
The fuel crisis is a complex, concerning scenario involving covid, Brexit, the logistics of transporting hazardous materials and salary levels. Traducing it to simply ‘media scaremongering’ is plain wrong.
Ian Carter is editorial director of Iliffe Media, which publishes the Lincolnshire Free Press and Spalding Guardian.