Energy efficiency can begin at home

Editors and journalists don't understand the science involved in energy policy, says Peter Wilby. So

You will hardly ever read a national newspaper column about energy policy. On crime, education, health, teenage sex, drugs, shopping, the BBC, royalty, dustbins and many other subjects, the pundits offer a rich variety of opinions. They may venture into global warming because that subject is reducible to whether it can be right to stop people driving cars or flying in aeroplanes, or whether you want to see windmills from your back garden. They may comment on gas and electricity prices because these can be blamed on the greed of privatised companies, while petrol prices can always be blamed on the Chancellor. But on the most crucial question in energy policy - where the stuff comes from - there is mostly silence.

The government's decision to revive nuclear power, for example, has been reported, but not much discussed, in the national press. Opportunities to berate the government for leaving us dependent on energy supplies from foreigners - and Russians at that - have largely gone begging even among the more patriotic columnists.

For this, there are several reasons. First, readers do not think much about energy supply. They switch on the gas or electricity without fear that it won't be there or will be inadequate. They don't have to remember, as people once did, to ring the coalman as winter sets in or to check they have a sturdy bucket to bring supplies up from the cellar. Second, the subject is hard to simplify. The Guardian's George Monbiot, one of the few columnists to take energy policy seriously, often prefaces his remarks by apologising for how darned complicated it is. Third, and perhaps most important, most columnists don't understand how energy is produced.

Fleet Street is the preserve of arts and social science graduates (I'm one of them) and, for that matter, the leadership of political parties is similar. This creates a vacuum at the heart of most public policy discussions, including energy. Editors and columnists, like most top politicians, do not understand the science in, for example, nuclear power or climate change. Even when the evidence is presented to them they cannot judge if George W Bush is telling the truth when he says Iran's nuclear reactor is to produce bombs rather than electricity supplies. Many still appear to think the hole in the ozone layer was caused by global warming.

They do not grasp risk, a more sophisticated concept than it sounds (which explains why insurance companies make so much money), and one that is central to understanding energy policy. Risk, they think, is an exciting, manly thing, to do with mountaineering or playing rugby.

Are columnists ignorant about almost everything they write about? To some degree, yes. But nearly all started out as reporters, and have usually acquired expertise in at least one specialist subject. Richard Littlejohn was once a labour reporter, while Melanie Phillips was a social services correspondent. Nearly every paper has one regular columnist with an economics background: Will Hutton in the Observer, Anatole Kaletsky in the Times, Hamish McRae in the Independent, for example. Science and technology correspondents rarely get to be columnists, still less editors.

The best commentators don't rely on gut opinion. They read widely and they talk to the experts. But on science and technology, most columnists don't know what to read or who to talk to. That's why, when they write about tidal energy, sunspots or nuclear reactors, they're easily taken in by mavericks and crackpots.

Perhaps we should be thankful that they usually keep off such subjects.

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.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The Brown revolution begins