France’s state-owned television channels threw caution to the wind this week and changed the way they present their weather forecasts. In place of straightforward predictions of sunshine or rain, they introduced a new format that explains the weather in terms of climate change.
Climate sceptics — a small but growing minority in France — greeted the news with faces of thunder. But unlike the weather, it was easy to see the change coming: in 2015, the France 2 channel suspended weather forecaster Philippe Verdier after he published a book praising the “many happy and positive consequences of global warming”.
The days when televised weather bulletins were free of political controversy are long past, if ever they truly existed. Take Vladimir Solovyov, a Russian TV presenter and the sour face of Kremlin propaganda.
On a recent show, he denounced western civilisation as “satanic”, then turned to his weatherman and asked if conditions were suitable for launching intercontinental nuclear missiles. He responded with a chuckle: “Our weapons, our sword of vengeance is not subject to outside influence and will definitely strike its targets.” In terms of mixing militarism and weather, there’s nothing new under the sun in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. In 2015 a TV forecaster described the balmy autumn climate in Syria as “very favourable” for Russia’s bombing campaign.
Political neutrality was always a mirage. The weather itself may be eternally apolitical, but it wasn’t until 1970 that forecasters on West Germany’s ARD network stopped showing a map that depicted Germany in its enlarged, pre-second world war frontiers.
In a later era, I used to switch on West German television and watch presenters telling viewers what the weather would be like in the communist east as well as the west. The subliminal message to western viewers was, don’t forget our brothers and sisters in the east. But these forecasts were also providing an unusual kind of public service: millions of easterners were avid, secret watchers of West German television.
On East German television, meanwhile, I used to watch weather bulletins that paid so little attention to the capitalist western half of Germany that it might as well not have existed.
North Korean television used to carry forecasts as grim as an overcast day in Pyongyang, but in recent times some sunlight has arrived in the form of slick, animated graphics and maps. The idea seems to be that more accessible weather broadcasts will lend credibility to state-controlled political news.
However, TV weather maps that show state borders remain a tricky business. By law, Argentina’s TV stations must show the British-ruled Falkland islands as the Malvinas, Argentina’s territory — guaranteeing a frosty reception from viewers in Port Stanley.
And weather predictions that miss the mark can land you in hot water, as Hungary’s top two forecasters discovered to their cost last year. They predicted extreme weather on St Stephen’s Day, a public holiday that celebrates the foundation of the medieval Hungarian state. Disappointed, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government cancelled a fireworks display it had planned in Budapest. Then the weather turned out to be mild after all — the government sacked the meteorologists.
They do things differently in the UK. In October 1987, Michael Fish, a BBC weatherman for whom the term “national treasure” could have been invented, told viewers that a woman had phoned in and asked if a hurricane was on its way. “If you’re watching, don’t worry — there isn’t,” Fish reassured the nation.
Technically, he was correct — but parts of the British Isles still suffered their most violent storm since 1703. Happily for Fish, it was just a cyclone in a teacup. He kept his job and was awarded an MBE in 2004 for services to broadcasting.