Journalists have no business forecasting the future

It is all a mirage. Most of us know little of the world, and what we know will very often be wrong
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It's probably the wrong thing to say, being a serial perpetrator myself, but the avalanche of forecasts for 2003 now descending on us is really all a load of tosh.

It's probably the wrong thing to say, being a serial perpetrator myself, but the avalanche of forecasts for 2003 now descending on us is really all a load of tosh.

Predictions are all very fine for the journalists themselves, of course – useful in organising the mind around themes and for conveying an air of authority. Economics writers are the most adept at it. But then they live in a world of computer-modelled forecasts, and no one really remembers whether you're right or wrong about GDP growing by 1.3 or 1.1 per cent or – in these days – whether inflation is at 1.9 or 2.3 per cent, important though the differences might be. The important thing is that figures sound absolute. They confer authority.

But then, even in the economic field, the questions that most interest the readers are the ones you can least predict. Who knows whether house prices, now peaking, will fall 5, 10 or 20 per cent in the coming year, whether you can go on holiday certain that the pound will buy you €1, €1.5 or €2, or whether the FT index will fall or rise during the year. If one could, you can be pretty sure that the writer would no longer be in journalism.

No, on most counts you are best just tossing a coin. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, I got all excited deciding which would be the next dictator to go. The year 1990, I declared with supreme confidence, would see the removal of both President Saddam Hussein and Fidel Castro. The reasons were all right, the forecast completely wrong. Still, maybe I could make the same prediction for this year. Or perhaps not.

The year end, indeed, is the very worst point of the year to take stock of events. It may mark a natural break between harvest and sowing in the farming year, but summer is the time when the market makers, the bankers and the politicians recharge their batteries and re-establish contact with their constituents.

All the great market crises occur in the autumn: Black Wednesday in September 1992, Harold Wilson's "pound in your pocket" devaluation in November 1967, and the first rocketing of oil prices in September 1973. So do most political crises. Mrs Thatcher fell in November 1990 after Tory MPs returned from their holidays convinced that she could not win the next election for them. The "Winter of Discontent" emerged from the autumn of 1978. President Bush reversed his stance on Iraq to go through the UN after his break last summer. If newspapers really wanted to give their readers some guidance, they would publish their forecasts in September.

Nor is the year a very good framework for looking back or forward. The calendar is an artificial creation endlessly contorted in the search to match lunar and solar years. The great clock in Wells Cathedral, built in the 1390s and the second oldest working clock in the world, keeps to the lunar year. It has to be "fixed" each month. A fascinating recent edition of Melvyn Bragg's In our Time on Radio 4 revealed not only that Julius Caesar had to reform the calendar partly because his predecessors kept changing it to suit their electoral interests but that the British government arbitrarily removed 13 days from the year (in autumn, of course) in the mid-18th century to bring us into line with Europe. Hence Christmas coming too early for the snow and the end of the tax year being beached on 5 April. If we could do that when we were the power in Europe, it seems a bit feeble to resist the euro now.

Until well into the modern age, most European states, including neighbouring towns in Central Europe, kept to quite different calendars, making travel a process of adjusting not just you watch but your diary too. And everyone seemed quite happy. Modern uniformity is really just an imposition of global airlines and global traders, an act of imperialism, it might be said by those following the Chinese year or the Muslim calendar. If the anti-Europeans want us to keep our local currencies, why not our local years?

It might solve one other drawback of our annual forecasting tendency. Mediaeval monks and 18th-century almanackers wrote their annals on the basis of the minor, and occasionally major, departures from the regular rhythms of life, the cycles of births and deaths, good harvests and bad harvests, cold winters and mild ones. Those cycles still continue; it's only that modern media have superimposed a global dimension.

It's all a mirage. Most of us know little of the world, and what we know will very often be wrong. Much better to keep to the immediate for our predictions: who will head the Premier League, what the weather may be tomorrow. And anyway, it's not the business of journalists to think of themselves as knowing the future. Macmillan's famous "events" may frighten politicians, but they are meat and drink for us. When a journalist ceases to be surprised, he ceases to be a journalist.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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