In 1999, in a previous incarnation as
a magazine editor, I happened to be at
a breakfast meeting with a number of senior
executives when one of them asked me whether
I expected any serious problems from the
Millennium Bug, then a hot topic. I muttered
something about how I did not think the
effect would be all that serious, only
to be strongly over-ruled by a senior
partner from one of the major accounting
firms who also happened to be present.
Yes there would be enormous problems,
he assured the audience, and those who
were not prepared would be in trouble.
Needless to say, no-one now remembers
much about the Millennium Bug - meant
to kick in when the date ticked over to
2000 and thereby, so the theory went,
messing up the memory of computers built
before anyone thought to allow more than
two digits worth of memory for the date.
Nor can anyone remember why or how the
IT industry and consultants managed to
get themselves into a lather about the
bug. However, everyone does remember that
good fees were earned from replacing old
systems before the date itself arrived
to disprove all the scare stories.
But the Millennium Bug issue does illustrate,
if any further illustration is needed,
the danger of paying much attention to
most of prognostications aired in the
media - particularly at the moment when
every man and his dog, it seems, has something
to say about just what will happen in
Iraq, before it actually happens. Media
consumers all too easily forget that the
same people making predictions about Iraq
were completely wrong in predicting a
war of attrition in Afghanistan and have
a sort of vested interest in that they
are writing for effect - to sell papers
(or get viewers) by purveying tales of
doom and gloom - just as my consultant
acquaintance in the Millennium Bug example
above had a vested interest in garnering
more consultancy fees.
Already the course of the war has proved
much of the media specualtion about how
it will be played out as wrong. There
has been no "shock and awe"
smart missle bombardment as a preliminary
to the assault - I lost count of the number
of times I read stories about that expected
approach. Instead, mobile columns have
punched deep into Iraqi territory before
the first bombardments.
As it is a little too early to congratulate
the winners, and rather than add my own
doubtful prognostication to the many weird
and wonderful scenarios being aired in
the media, perhaps I can do my little
bit to add to the confusion by pointing
to one of the major lessons learned from
the first Gulf War - that many of the
statements being made in news broadcasts
from the scene are likely to be incorrect.
To take an example, we were told at the
time that Patriot Missile systems had
shot down a number of Scud missiles. In
fact, later and more careful analysis
showed that the Patriots did not hit anything.
Similar claims are being made this time
around, but the Patriot systems are likely
to have improved in 10 years (although
not enough to avoid hitting a British
jet). We were also told that the oil rigs
set on fire by Hussein's forces and the
gigantic oil spills would cause an environmental
disaster. The spill did occur and was
duly cleaned up (whether the clean-up
did more damage than the spill has not been
revealed) or dissipated of its own accord,
with one result being that the Gulf waters
were briefly cleaner than they had been
for some time. The war had interrupted
the region's usually heavy, polluting
tanker traffic. The pollution that did
occur was unexpected in that (my source
for this is the magazine New
Scientist) a large quantity of
oil spilled onto the ground and not mopped
up eventually polluted the area's ground
Other examples could be cited but in
raking over these points I am not complaining
about the standard of journalism of that
now dimly-remembered conflict. In fact,
I sympathise with the journalists. They
were just repeating what they had been
told by whoever happened to be in charge
(who were repeating what they had been
told by experts) and had no means of checking
the information. The real picture only
Another point to note about that old
conflict is that the media banged-on constantly
about the accuracy of the high-tech weapons
fielded at the time. In fact the weapons
rarely hit their targets. It has since
been written that for every smart missile
that hit a bunker, 20 targetted open patches
of desert - although perhaps the hit rate
was better than conventional weapons.
However, the rare hits were well publicised.
This time around it is likely to be different
in that the technology has improved and
the Americans may have learned lessons
about having soldiers on the ground (notably
the likes of the SAS) to mark the targets.
But whatever actually happens it may be
best to save all judgments until after
the analysis papers have been written.
Reporting from the front may be colorful
but it is of limited use in understanding
what is happening. Thankfully at least
no-one is predicting the fighting will
be disrupted by a Millennium Bug.
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