Get out the suntan lotion

Rain and floods mean a crisis for editors, a crisis of waffle. People are upset, but what can you sa

Poor Michael Fish: the amiable chap in tweed who was already the author of the country's most notorious weather forecasting cock-up has been at it again.

As August ended, the Daily Mail commissioned him to write a piece putting our dreary summer in perspective, and he did it in bracing style. Stop your moaning, he wrote, because the weather had been no worse than we should expect. Perhaps it had been duller and cloudier than usual, but temperatures were "not very far off normal" and rainfall was "not that exceptional at all".

There was more in this vein, and then some special pleading about how difficult the forecaster's job is, and then, unwisely as it turns out, Fish stuck his neck out.

"I do have something to cheer you up," he announced. "The first few weeks of September are generally the most settled of the summer. That's when I take my summer holidays. I wouldn't bet my umbrella on it, but we could just have some fine weather before the month is out."

This appeared in print on 4 September. From that day forth the weather not only failed to be fine, settled and suitable for summer holidays, it brought widespread flooding and some deaths. Fish was right not to bet his brolly, because even if Britain turns tropical before October comes, no bookie would pay out now.

We should not be too hard on him, however, because his article illustrates some abiding truths about journalism and the weather.

Chief among them is this: weather is unusual in that, even when (as in recent days) it is a big story, it does not lend itself to the big-story treatment that is standard in the modern news media. The events happen and the pictures can be dramatic, but somehow the news system can't do them justice.

The human-interest follow-ups are shocking in their way - no one would want that to happen to their home - but there is no denying they are depressingly familiar. This year's Morpeth follow-up is painfully similar to another year's York, or Gloucester, or Hull, or Lewes, or Carlisle, or even Boscastle. As a result, they fall a little flat when it comes to stirring our emotions. We've seen it before.

Worse, from an editor's point of view, is that the other textbook response to anything big and shocking - naming the guilty party - is even less fruitful. Occasionally it is possible to finger someone for neglecting flood defences, building on low ground or failing to give due warning, but those cases are rare and usually complicated. Much more often, these events are simply faits divers or acts of God, which no reasonable engineer or politician could have prevented.

And if guilty men can't be identified, they can't be vilified in the columns. Indeed, Fleet Street's biggest guns fall silent in the face of nature's power. Jon Gaunt and Melanie Phillips, Jonathan Freedland and Allison Pearson, Leo McKinstry and Janet Daley: they all know better than to howl into a storm. Even Simon Jenkins, who is as close to God as a columnist could be, doesn't flatter himself that he knows how to stop the rain.

Editors are left, then, with an awful, agonising vacuum. Here is a subject the whole country is upset about, but they can't find anything original or revealing to say.

What about climate change, you might ask? Could we not have articles explaining that, although it is impossible to pin a given flood on the warming of the atmosphere, these events at least show us what we may face, and so demonstrate the need to save the planet?

How naive. A few brave souls write that stuff, and a few actually publish it, but the big-time editors know that nobody likes to read it, it's not new and the deniers come down on you in much the same way as Robert Maxwell's lawyers once did. It is far safer, on the whole, to leave those arguments to the geeks of the New Scientist and the lefties of the New Statesman.

But still the vacuum must be filled, and this is where the likes of Michael Fish come in. A few stats, a few old saws, a genial homily or two and Bob's your uncle (I know, because I have dabbled in this myself). It won't set the world alight and it certainly won't reverse the long-term decline in newspaper sales, but Lord knows it is better than nothing - providing, of course, that your writer does not offer a hostage to fortune that leaves you looking daft.

The Daily Death Wish

The morning after the liquid bombers were convicted, after three-year-old Leona Baxter survived being washed down a drain, and after scientists predicted that an anti-obesity pill would be ready in five to ten years, the Daily Express chose to lead its front page with . . . "Now they want to ban your lawn".

Surprise surprise, this turned out to be wanton speculation fluffed up from evidence so flimsy it was barely worthy of the word, and with what amounted to an official denial at the end. Does the Express have a death wish?

Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University

Brian Cathcart is Director of Hacked Off. He tweets as @BrianCathcart.

This article first appeared in the 15 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Iran