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Hot news on global warming

"People think that global warming affects only climate," says Professor Rose Hedging. "Not true. It affects human behaviour as well. But it takes a skilled observer to notice it. One like me."

Professor Rose Hedging is the head of the prestigious news studies department at Milton Keynes University. Her job is to watch news developments around the world, to monitor them, to write articles and books about them, to go on television and talk about them, and finally, if she has time, to teach her students about them.

Her startling theory is that global warming is affecting the news as well, and changing its behaviour.

"Most of the stuff about the news you get on television or in the media is trivial parochial stuff - it's all about whether Rupert Murdoch has too many radio stations in Peking, or how much privacy the Princess of Wales should have, rubbish like that. What we study here at the news department is long-term cycles and recurring patterns of news formations."

And what are they when they are at home?

"Well, there are certain news stories that recur on a regular basis, and the recurrence of which you can predict almost to within a month. Boys being savaged by guard dogs on building sites is one. Babies being snatched by tug-of-love parents is another. Cheap forms of energy is another ..."

Cheap forms of energy?

"Yes. Every now and then someone comes forward with a wonderful breakthrough story about cheap energy derived from the tides or winds, or hot rocks in the Earth's core, or even from cold water - remember that one? Now, the recurrence of these stories does not depend on a new outbreak of savage dogs or snatched babies. Dogs are biting people and babies are being snatched all the time. The stories are always there if needed. The only thing that changes is people's need for them, and this goes in cycles. We have been monitoring these stories for years and years, and we know exactly when the next story will reappear.

"Except that, recently, things have started to change. The cycles have started to go haywire. Stories are recurring way out of season. The ebb and flow of headlines is being upset by something. I think it may well be global warming."

She picks up a folder marked "Executions" and rifles through it.

"We weren't due another capital punishment debate for two years at least, and yet here we are in the middle of a great fuss about this chap in America who was sent to the electric chair. Why? Why now? He's not the only one. There are plenty of others around the world we could have got worked up about. Why him and why now?"

Maybe people felt genuinely involved in his case, I suggest. Maybe they really wanted him to get a reprieve ...

She looks at me witheringly.

"That's not the way news works," she says. "News works like a soap opera. People follow the story andwant to know what happens. Taxi drivers say to you: `I see they topped that bloke, then,' but they're not involved. I mean, if the British public are going to get worked up about something, there are plenty of scandals and causes nearer home.

``I would say it is a scandal that more than 50,000 people are in British prisons under Michael Howard's misguided policies, and nobody in this country seems to give a damn. The truth is that it is not enough like a soap opera. We can't even monitor the recurrence of public worry about prison overcrowding, because it never recurs. By now, most British citizens have probably got a close relative or friend in jail, and you'd think there'd be enough of them worried about it to make a fuss ..."

She shrugs.

"Another thing. Not only are stories which we expected to return not returning, but stories we did not predict are turning up. Freak stories. Mutant stories. Things you can only put down to global warming."

Such as?

"All these football bribe stories, for instance. Totally new. In this country, anyway. And people just don't know what to make of them, so although they fill the headlines, you never hear anyone discussing them. Has a taxi driver ever said to you: `Bet that semi-final yesterday was fixed'? I think not. We can't believe that British players would ever throw a game, so we don't know how to discuss it. The most we can do is blame some crook in Malaysia."

But if what Professor Hedging says is true, and news is affected by global warming, why isn't it being reported?

"It is, it is," says Professor Hedging, with what I can only call a grin. "BBC next week. A disturbing feature called The Ozone Layer in Our Minds, in which Rose Hedging puts forward a sensational new theory. Don't miss it."