How I didn't quite have the nerve to kill the millennium bug


Now it can be told: the tale of how I missed the biggest story of the century. I was editing the Independent on Sunday in 1995 when Charles Arthur, the assiduous technology correspondent for that paper and its daily sister, revealed the threat of the millennium bug: that, because computers were programmed to recognise years only by the last two digits ('68, '92, etc), millions of them would go haywire on 1 January 2000, thinking either that it was 1900 again or that history had simply come to an end (the latter being a perfectly reasonable conclusion for any computer that had spent much time listening to American local radio stations).

When the copy arrived on my desk, I dismissed it as another of those preposterous scare stories that have given Sunday newspapers a bad reputation. One day we were being told that computers would soon be smart enough to rule the world, the next that they were too stupid to understand a simple date change. I suggested that Arthur find something more plausible, but he persisted. In the end, I ran the story, but presented it as a "just fancy that" kind of tale at the bottom of an inside news page where nobody noticed what could have been hailed as a major scoop. A few weeks later, the Daily Telegraph picked up the story and ran it across the top of its front page. The rest is . . . well, history of a sort. The story, as we say in the trade, had legs: over the next four years, we learnt that nuclear power stations would explode, aeroplanes fall from the sky, bank deposits disappear, food supplies collapse, stock markets crash, lifts leave their passengers stranded in mid-air. Journalistically, Charles Arthur was proved right and I wrong; no editor should take credit for underplaying a story that became a global talking-point for more than four years and which led governments and private companies to spend £430 billion.

Yet I never wavered in my lonely belief (I was aware only of a software professor at University College London who appeared to agree with me) that the millennium bug would prove to be the non-event of our lifetimes. The closer we got to 1 January 2000, the more convinced I became, remembering my late father's injunction never to trust experts. For them, the bug always struck me as a win-win situation: if the promised meltdown actually occurred, they could claim they hadn't been called early enough or paid enough money; if it didn't, they could claim they prevented it. In that sense, the bug story failed as science, because it failed the Popperian test of falsifiability. It also seemed to fail - like the Marxist theory of history or most modern dietary plans - on the largeness of its claims. Trouble with pension payments or bank accounts I could just about credit. But why should an aeroplane or a nuclear missile or an office lift need to know the date? As we approached the dreaded Y2K, more questions piled up. I had charge cards with expiry dates in 2000 and 2001; if computers thought these meant 1900 and 1901, why were my card purchases still accepted? Then there was 9.9.99. For some reason - computers seem expected to behave like superstitious yokels in a Thomas Hardy novel - this date too was deemed likely to cause mayhem. Nothing happened.

Though some sages persist in predicting chaos - wait for 29 February, they say desperately and implausibly - I now feel confident enough to draw some media lessons.

First, almost nobody over 30 understands computers. They can type spreadsheets, surf the net, play games and the rest but they have no grasp at all of how they actually work; indeed, they are surprised that they work at all. Since all newspaper editors (like ministers, top civil servants and captains of industry) are over 30, they will believe anything they are told about these strange machines.

Second, the science and technology correspondents, like all newspaper specialists, have a vested interest in scare stories being true. Just as the computer experts cashed in on bug fears, so the newspaper technology writers got their stories on the front page (unfamiliar territory for them) and went on to earn rich freelance pickings.

Third, newspapers and journalists don't like sticking their necks out for a negative. Over the past year, I asked five separate journalists (no names, they know who they are) to write debunking pieces on the millennium bug for the NS. Only one of them delivered but, though the writer had himself offered to do it, he seemed to have lost his nerve while writing it. The trouble is that journalists can predict death and disaster to their hearts' content (I've done it myself) and readers forget and forgive. Some will call them alarmist, to be sure, but any red-blooded, testosterone-fuelled reporter (this is still a very masculine trade) prefers being called alarmist to being called complacent. Perhaps readers expect doom from their newspapers and automatically discount what they read, while they give special credence to the exceptional doom-denied story. Heaven knows how many reckless warnings of war and civil disorder have been issued by the British popular papers; but what millions never forgot (and some never forgave) was the Daily Express's statement in 1939 that "there will be no war in Europe this year".

I therefore put forward a modest proposal. It is fashionable for papers to run daily "corrections and clarifications" columns for factual inaccuracies. They could add "predictions" columns, testing the various forecasts made, say, one month previously. As Private Eye would put it: "We may have inadvertently given our readers the impression that they would now be crouching in their homes, shivering in darkness, nibbling on stale bread, choking on nuclear radiation. We now accept that there was not a shred of truth . . ."

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide