Whimpers from our watchdogs who do not bark

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The Independent Online
YEARS ago, I came across a study measuring the time a journalist gave to assessing each of the pieces of paper that landed on his desk each day.

I have been trying, vainly, to remember the result: it was certainly less than 10 seconds. This rang a bell with me, and some hacks, I'm sure, can spare even less (I once came across a former colleague on another paper tossing unopened envelopes into the bin on the basis of their postmarks and logos alone).

Most organisations devote much effort to grabbing our world-weary attention during those few seconds. But some do precisely the opposite. There was an example this week, from an unsurprisingly little-known government body - the Drinking Water Inspectorate.

"Consumers Satisfied with Drinking Water Quality" proclaimed a press release on a survey they had carried out - a heading that, since news is about the unusual, was almost guaranteed not to catch the eye. It was not until the fifth paragraph that these official watchdogs revealed that a quarter of those questioned were so dissatisfied that they refused to touch the stuff.

Now don't think I'm complaining: this sort of thing adds greatly to the fun of the job. But it did make me wonder what these dogs that fail to bark think they are there for.

You'd think, wouldn't you, that a body charged with protecting the public interest - not to speak of public health - would be galvanised into action by such a finding, that they'd want to bring such a loss of confidence to the surface, not flush it away.

oWHEN Old Nick, the late Nicholas Ridley, sold off water he created a strange anomaly. The original plan had been to put the privatised companies in charge of policing themselves, but he was persuaded that this would lead to unfavourable comparisons with vampires running bloodbanks.

So he set up a special body (now part of the Environment Agency) to monitor river pollution. And when every- one's attention was focussed on that, he got away with leaving the far more important quality of drinking water in the hands of, yes, you're there...

Those public-spirited companies carry out all the sampling and testing of their own product. The Drinking Water Inspectorate is supposed to keep an eye on them but - with only 21 inspectors compared to more than 1,000 policing the rivers - can do no testing themselves.

Which, you would think, makes it rather important that the Inspectorate is alert and keeps the public aware of its existence and of the potential hazards in the water.

Yet a follow-up focus group survey found that only one of the people questioned knew that lead impairs children's intelligence - even though, by the Inspectorate's own figures, about a sixth of all drinking water samples are above the World Health Organisation's limits.

And it revealed that "there was no real awareness" of the Inspectorate's existence. "Is there any reason why it has such a low profile?", asked one member. 'Fraid so. That's how it seems to like it.

oMIND you, one usually silent watchdog did growl last week. The Nuclear Installations Inspectorate issued a stinging report on safety at the accident-prone Dounreay nuclear complex.

It reported radioactive leaks, "significant deficiencies", "unacceptable" practices, "complacent" attitudes, the "unpredictable" condition of the nuclear plant, and (here's the killer) that "the hazard of criticality" - ie of a nuclear explosion - "is not being afforded the respect it deserves".

But closer inspection reveals that this report was written last year and kept secret, at Dounreay's request.

The plant feared that, if the report were made public, it would be less likely to get new contracts: it is being published now only because, as the plant is being wound down, no new business will be sought.

And here's another thing. The Inspectorate has been in charge of policing the plant for decades.

What has it been doing all this time if what it calls "a quick look round" reveals such a mess? Swallowing hard, it admits it is "not wholly free of some of the burden of responsibility". Thank you, inspectors - and goodnight.

o TALKING of lead reminds me of a meeting between Ivy League professors and Dr Herbert Needleman, the scientist who established beyond doubt the damage that the toxic metal does to children's intelligence.

The professors questioned whether this really mattered much. "Gentlemen," retorted the scientist, "each of you would cheerfully kill for just a single point on your IQ."