I don’t usually do media commentary, but the coverage of the aftermath of the quake and tsunami in Japan forces me to make one point: the coverage of the nuclear problems at Fukushima are out of all proportion to the scale of the problem itself or, more importantly, the very real scale of the catastrophe of the quake and tsunami.
Just as an example, the Ten O’Clock News on BBC TV last ran for nearly half the programme on the nuclear issue. True, they did say at one point that the possible repercussions even in a worst case scenario were going to be limited. True, they did also mention that the scale of the real disaster (as opposed to a possible nuclear one) was huge. But the whole tone of the reporting was that the nuclear threat was ‘THE’ story.
Interestingly the next morning a leading BBC presenter who is actually in Japan did acknowledge (on the Today programme) that the focus on the nuclear issue was not how it was being seen in Japan, when he did his review of the British newspapers.
So let’s be clear. Even in a worst case scenario the Fukushima problems would not be anywhere near as bad as the Chernobyl accident 25 years ago. Every single credible expert I have seen interviewed in the past days has said this, repeatedly. Chernobyl will eventually be the cause of the deaths of about 4,000 according to the World Health Organisation and others (see here). But as of 2005, only 50 deaths could be directly attributed to the accident.
Compare this to the impact of the tsunami in north-east Japan. Official estimates already put the death toll at around 10,000 and it is likely to go much higher. Infrastructure and housing have been destroyed on a scale that will take years, if not decades, to replace. Economic and social disruptions across the whole of Japanese society are being felt.
Yes, the nuclear problem is adding to this overall impact – not least because of the loss of power supplies because of the disruption to most nuclear reactors across Japan. And yes, the problem could be severe if there is a full core melt-down and containment breach in one or more of the Fukushima reactors. But even in that worst case, it would not be anywhere near as big a problem as Chernobyl.
So why have the BBC, and the rest of the media, fixated on the nuclear issue? Well, it is partly dramatisation. Pictures of explosions at nuclear parts have more inherent dramatic impact that pictures of piles of shattered buildings and body-bags, especially when we have seen lots of those already. Partly its logistics – getting to the sites of the real (as opposed to possible) disaster has proved difficult. And partly its purely parochial – we have nuclear power plants, and maybe soon some new ones, but we don’t have earthquakes and tsunamis. Whatever the cause, I think the coverage is now distorted to a degree that warrants serious questions being asked about the priorities – and even the morals – of the news media. Never, as they say, let the facts get in the way of a good story.
Over the weekend I emailed various Japanese friends to find out if they were OK – most are in Tokyo so they would be. They are all concerned – not so much about the nuclear issue (although you wouldn’t think that from the coverage) but about the continuing quakes. No-one can remember so many or of such intensity. And of course the level of economic and social disruption is huge. But most of all they are concerned about the tens of thousands of their fellow citizens who are actually dead or missing along the northeast coastline, and the whole communities that have been simply wiped from the map. I would suggest that is where our thoughts should be focussed too.