Looking for anonymity? Just be tipped for stardom

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The Independent Culture
SUNDAY AND Monday down in this part of the world ( the western end of Wiltshire) were fine and sunny days, blue and bonny, with nary a cloud in the sky and even some warmth in the sun. I only mention it because that is not what the forecast said it was going to be. The weather forecast as practised by the witch doctors on Radio 4's Today programme promised cloudy weather, grey and dreary, bit of rain, odd shower, windy too. They got it pretty wrong. They forecast nasty weather. It was extremely nice weather. It doesn't come a lot wronger than that.

They didn't apologise, either, partly because weather forecasters never apologise, partly because weather programmes are so constructed that they always look forward and never back. They never have post-mortems and moments of self-criticism or even dispassionate explanations of how they got it wrong. They always assume that things went according to forecast, which is blatantly untrue. Even now, they still refuse to admit that they didn't really foresee the hurricane of 1987...

The odd thing is that we never take weather forecasters to task for this inability to forecast weather. On Today, Gary Richardson, the sports reporter, is often a butt of studio laughter for the inaccuracy of his racing tips, but I have never heard a weather forecaster given anything short of respect and dignity. Of course, this may be because so much of Today is devoted to speculation anyway - "The Government is expected to announce today... It looks as if the Queen's speech will contain... It may be only a matter of hours before bombs start falling on..." and so on.

And this is because so much of all journalism is devoted to speculation and guesswork. It isn't presented as speculation, of course. It's presented as hard 99 per cent certain fact. "Bosnia - The bombers will go in." "Ireland - Yes, it's peace." "Iraq - Clinton to punish Saddam with air strike." "Monica - Clinton to fall within days." We have all seen these headlines. But they weren't fact. They were guesswork, and wrong guesswork at that. And we all ignored them. We knew they weren't worth the paper they were printed on.

So why do newspapers go on printing them ?

Is it because, like racing tipsters, they know their forecasts will come true sooner or later? Or is it because they know they can never be brought to account, because nobody can ever remember what they forecast anyway? Can they bask in the certain knowledge that nobody goes through back numbers of papers, checking their certain forecasts against reality, comparing the grey cloudy forecasts with the sunny blue reality ?

Well, somebody does.

I do.

At least, I have recently been clearing out a huge amount of old papers, and I keep coming across past prognostications buried in the back numbers, and I perpetually wonder at how inaccurate they are. Here is The Independent for 30 December 1995, for instance (yes, my piles go back years ) and a feature called "These Are The Rising Stars of 1996", with the sub-heading, "Which names will you hear everywhere in the year ahead? David Benedict canvassed the views of The Independent's critics..."

Here are those names.

Gillian Wearing, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Georgina Starr, Philip Osment, Alexandra Gilbreath, James Macdonald, Daniel Harding, Natalie Clein, David Sawer, Liv Tyler, Michael Winterbottom, Elizabeth Shue, Raissa, The Bluetones, The 60 Ft Dolls, Joan Osbourne, Adam Cooper, John Hannah, Justin Bell...

One or two of these names do actually ring a bell with me, but I sure as hell didn't spend any part of 1996 hearing them everywhere.

Or 1997.

Or 1998.

And I am fairly certain the editor of the paper didn't get David Benedict in at the end of 1996 and say: "Now this is pretty serious, Benedict. We have kept a tab on the rising stars of 1996, the ones that you tipped a year ago, and very few of them seem to have perceptibly risen at all. A lot of readers have written in, wondering why we got it so wrong. Before I sack you and your critics, is there anything you'd like to say?"

If it had happened, and Benedict had had any sense, he'd have said: "Yes. It's just a game, you dolt. It's a cheerful way of filling space at the end of the year. It doesn't mean anything and nobody takes it that seriously."

Bit like the weather forecast, really. And the political soothsayers. And the football previewers. And the share tippers. And the fashion crystal- gazers. And... well, pretty well everyone, really.

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