Brolly dollies or serious scientists? As former BBC forecaster John Kettley lashes out at his ex-colleagues, Cahal Milmo looks at the high-pressure area inhabited by weathermen and women
Cahal Milmo is the chief reporter of The Independent and has been with the paper since 2000. He was born in London and previously worked at the Press Association news agency. He has reported on assignment at home and abroad, including Rwanda, Sudan and Burkina Faso, the phone hacking scandal and the London Olympics. In his spare time he is a keen runner and cyclist, and keeps an allotment.
Friday 11 February 2005
In an era when forecasters travelled by Tube to the BBC to present their bulletins and unreliable weather fronts were drawn with a stick of charcoal, it was perhaps unsurprising that Mr Cowling encountered public ire when he stood in front of a white easel to predict sunshine and showers in 1951.
But as forecast accuracy improves and computer graphics become ever more sophisticated, so the "unhappiness" identified by Mr Cowling is increasingly being replaced by another forecasting phenomenon - internecine strife.
John Kettley, the moustachioed veteran of hundreds of BBC weather bulletins until he left television in 2000, this week broke ranks with his fellow professionals by describing televised broadcasts as "absolute rubbish".
To add insult to injury, the broadcaster - who like nearly all modern BBC weather presenters trained with the Met Office as a meteorologist before hitting the airwaves - delivered the broadside during his own forecast for BBC Radio 5 Live.
Speaking during the station's breakfast show on Monday, Mr Kettley said: "I am spitting feathers at the moment. I have just been looking at the weather forecast on the television. Anybody who watches television and tries to tie it up with what I say sometimes must be very confused because they are totally different this morning, as far as the week is concerned.
"[The television forecast] talks about it being dry and mild across England and Wales this week. Absolute rubbish. Even now there's showers heading towards Cumbria ... and by Thursday we'll all be very wet across the south. So I apologise but sometimes I just can't hold it."
The tongue-lashing from the man who inspired the surreal Tribe of Toffs 1988 hit "John Kettley (Is a Weatherman)" is the latest eruption in an on-going civil war between Britain's complement of around 100 weathermen and women.
It is a struggle being fought on many levels: old-school meteorologists worried by the trend for commercial stations to use attractive but often untrained presenters - nicknamed "brolly dollies" by their detractors - concern from senior woman forecasters that the image of "weather bimbos" is used against them; through to good old-fashioned back-biting about presentation styles and the amount of weather information an armchair viewer can absorb in a 90-second bulletin.
One former senior BBC forecaster said: "John [Kettley] has a point. The televised bulletins are terrible - I don't want to know if it's going to snow for President Bush's inauguration, just so the weather can look `relevant'.
"But the real problem is the poison of celebrity. Forecasters are highly trained professionals forced to trade on their reputation four or five times a day by predicting something that remains very unpredictable - look at Boscastle last year. It's not surprising that the fur flies from time to time. It's a very pressured job and if you don't like the way someone else is doing it, there is a large temptation to speak out."
Unlike Mr Cowling, whose forecasts were based on the work of armies of meteorologists relying on slide rules and data up to 24 hours old, the modern weather presenter is backed by a formidable array of supercomputers, Nasa satellites, radar scans and predictive models. Short-term forecasts provided by the Met Office are now more than 85 per cent accurate.
But while the raw data may be vastly improved (allowing the Met Office to consign to television history such immortal moments as the insistence of Michael Fish that no hurricane was on its way the night of the 1987 Great Storm), human frailties persist.
Arguably one of the darkest hours for weather broadcasting came in 1999 when the BBC Weather Centre, staffed by Met Office meteorologists, was rocked by allegations of bullying involving the unit's senior forecaster, Bill Giles. Mr Giles was accused of taking a tyrannical approach to his staff, sending cutting memos to presenters and removing them from BBC1 bulletins - the most high-profile slot - without notice. It was claimed that one presenter, Rob McElwee, was exiled to a Met Office weather station for three months as a punishment for locking himself out of a studio and missing a Radio 4 broadcast.
Critics of the Met Office system point out that it in effect remains part of the Ministry of Defence. It is no coincidence, according to these sceptics, that Met Office forecasters hold equivalent RAF ranks.
Certainly Mr Giles made no secret of the fact that he liked to keep his staff on a tight leash. Explaining how he reduced the non-forecasting activities of colleagues Ian McCaskill and Michael Fish, he once said: "I reined them back in. I have control over what guest appearances they do on other programmes and I cut down on them. It's great to have personalities, but you don't want to turn them into buffoons. If somebody becomes a superstar you have rivalry which gets out of control."
Mr Giles, who described the allegations as a "farrago of unrelated personal gripes", was found by the Met Office to have bullied one of his forecasters but the finding of serious misconduct was thrown out on appeal.
BBC chiefs point out that the situation has now changed. The episode led to a clear-out of the BBC team and the arrival of new talent, including a 24-year-old geography graduate from Crawley who admitted to being "upset" when television bosses ordered a makeover by a Hollywood stylist. The graduate was Helen Young, now the 21-strong unit's head presenter.
But while the BBC argues that its Weather Centre is one of its busiest and most successful production teams, broadcasting 100 bulletins a day across six channels as well as producing radio and internet content, others suggest a hothouse atmosphere persists across both public and commercial TV forecasting. Philip Eden, a weather writer and Radio 5 Live forecaster, said: "It's a bit like the Cabinet, or an England cricket team. You have a small number of people working together but they all have their own egos and ambitions.
"And anybody who works in TV has an enormous and fragile ego. What the public forget is that all these presenters are delivering the guidance they receive from the Met Office. They are the public face of a much larger operation."
Underlying this point is the tension between professional forecasters and the cliched image of the untrained weathergirl on her way to a more mainstream showbusiness career, exemplified by Ulrika Jonsson and her on-screen debut as the weather presenter for the now defunct TV-AM. Established women presenters complain that television bosses have made a habit of plumping for beauty before brains.
As Sian Lloyd, who has been ITV's chief weather presenter for 10 years, put it when she launched a competition to find a new forecaster for the This Morning programme: "Let's face it, TV is run by sexist, fattist men. They'd never put a woman as old and fat as Bill Giles on TV... I resent the idea of the weather becoming a bimbo thing."
Indeed, such has been the boom in weather presenters whose physical allure outweighs their grasp of isobars and high-pressure fronts that many commercial stations are sending their untrained presenters back to school.
The Met Office now runs a two-week course to introduce students to the intricacies of climate. But it points out that "an ability to truly analyse what's going on in the atmosphere requires a longer course".
Others argue that whatever the clashes of style, the content is almost always based on the same basic information provided from the Met Office's pounds 80m headquarters in Exeter. Claire Nasir, GMTV's Met Office-trained weather presenter, said: "We have less time and rely far more on graphics. I have at most two minutes and the emphasis may be different.
"On a Monday morning, GMTV viewers want to know whether they will have to scrape ice off their cars or take an umbrella to work - they are not that bothered about Thursday afternoon. But the source of information is almost always the same - the Met Office."
The Met Office defended its BBC bulletins, saying they were tailored to meet the needs of the public rather than former employees. A spokesman said: "It is a very pressured job - you have a very limited time to present the product of some very sophisticated data unscripted and on live television.
"The bulletins reflect the style of our society and if they are in a slightly less scientific style it is because that is what people want. Our forecasters take their work very, very seriously. They are the providers of the weather."
Observers of the weather forecasting industry point to its diversification into areas far beyond its traditional role of notifying the public of the vagaries of the British climate.
The Met Office is a global leader on research into climate change. And providing data which allows supermarkets to predict what quantities of weather-sensitive produce to stock is rapidly becoming one of its most lucrative activities.
Critics say that along with the boom in independent forecasting agencies, some of them run by household names such as Mr Giles, the man or woman standing in front of a symbol-strewn map on TV may no longer hold as much sway as they once did.
Mr Eden said: "If you think about it, it is all a bit silly. These people think they are gods of TV. The reality is that they are really a very small part of it."
THE GALE FORCE: FORECASTING'S BEST-KNOWN FACES
Helen Young, lead presenter, BBC Television
After studying physical geography, she joined the Met Office in 1990 as a consultant providing climatology reports. Began training as a forecaster on 1992. Moved to BBC Weather Centre in 1993 and in 2000 took up the role of lead presenter in a team of 24 national weathermen and women.
Carol Kirkwood, BBC Breakfast
After graduating in commerce, she worked for BBC religious broadcasting and presented light entertainment TV. She then trained at The Weather Channel, the Met Office and, in 1998, the BBC. Beat Sian Lloyd to 2003 best TV weather presenter award. Main weather presenter on BBC's Breakfast.
Francis Wilson, head weatherman, Sky News
Wilson, who leads a team of five presenters, worked as a Met Office forecaster from 1972 to 1978, before joining Thames TV and BBC Breakfast Time. Three times winner of best television weather presenter - worldwide and a Chartered Meteorologist of the Royal Meteorological Society.
Clare Nasir, GMTV
Co-presents GMTV's breakfast weather with Andrea McLean. Graduated in maths and applied marine sciences before training at the Met Office. Presented weather for London radio stations, before moving to Anglia and Carlton. Due to marry Radio 2 DJ Chris Hawkins in March.
Peter Cockroft, BBC London
The one-man team for BBC London broadcasts lunchtime and evening television reports from a roof terrace on Marylebone Street. After studying physics he joined the Met Office in 1974, forecasting for the armed forces before moving to BBC in 1991. Fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society.
Sian Lloyd, ITV
One of five weather presenters at ITV, Lloyd began her career as a reporter in Cardiff before joining the Met Office to present ITV weather in 1990. Won presenter's prize at International Weather Forecasters Festival in 1993. Engaged to marry Liberal Democrat MP Lembit Opik.
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