What's going on with the BBC and the Met Office?

Stand down the cavalry: the Shipping Forecast is safe.

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Turmoil in the ranks of the British middle classes! After 93 years, the Met Office will no longer be providing the BBC’s core weather service. What does it mean? Is the Shipping Forecast safe? What are these dark rumours of a rift over probability data?

At least one of these questions is easy to answer. After contacting the Met Office, we can confirm that the Shipping Forecast, the soothing institution beloved of Radio 4 listeners across the country, will go ahead as usual.

As anyone who has the phrase “issued by the Met Office on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency” seared into their brain from nightly conditioning can tell you, the programme actually goes through a separate body before it hits the airwaves. The Met Office provides the forecast to the MCA, who pass it on to the BBC, who pick a nice RP-voiced presenter to lull us to sleep by intoning the names of the 31 areas with all appropriate weather warnings attached.

So that tradition is safe. But what’s happening with the rest of the service?

In a press release on the BBC website, it explains that it’s been obliged to undertake an open tender process:

Our viewers get the highest standard of weather service and that won’t change. We are legally required to go through an open tender process and take forward the strongest bids to make sure we secure both the best possible service and value for money for the licence fee payer.

What’s not mentioned is that the tendering has been going on a while, and the Met Office is out of the running. The two bodies still in the game are reported to be Dutch firm MeteoGroup, whose website promises they can help their clients “create value”, and MetraWeather, the commercial branch of New Zealand’s Meteorological Service.

Steve Noyes, the Operations and Customer Service Director, has expressed his disappointment: “Nobody knows Britain’s weather better and, during our long relationship with the BBC, we’ve revolutionised weather communication to make it an integral part of British daily life”.

So what’s different now? Ben Bradshaw MP, whose Exeter constituency hosts the Met Office, has asked if the government was consulted on the move. But the contract has, actually, gone out to tender before – it’s just always been won by the Met Office. Of course, being such a specialist service, the Met Office has enjoyed something close to a monopoly on respectability for a long time, which is now finally being challenged from overseas providers.

But the Telegraph has reported something possibly more sinister: a row over probability rates. Apparently, the Met Office – which has just invested in a supercomputer to increase the accuracy of its forecasts – has been pushing to include probability in forecasts.

This already happens on American television. For example, a forecast in Miami will give the temperature and a 20 per cent chance of rain. These probabilities are on the Met Office website under “precipitation probability”, but the BBC is rumoured to want to keep its broadcasts simple. (If true, this is probably a fundamental misunderstanding of the British psyche. Who wouldn’t want to make a massive drama over whether a 30 per cent chance of rain justifies a jacket or not?).

Whatever the reasoning, it looks like it won’t be long before a 93-year-old relationship breaks up, with joint custody over severe weather warnings.

Stephanie Boland is head of digital at Prospect. She tweets at @stephanieboland.

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