July 11, 2012 3:32 am

Prepare for an Olympic heatwave

Being wrong is an occupational hazard for a journalist, but the Express turned that in an art form

I would use this space to complain about the weather, which – even more than usual – has been the main topic of conversation this soggy alleged summer. But as an enthusiastic reader of the Daily Express, I have been wary of going out for some time.

Maybe no one else reading this newspaper also reads the Express, but in the 1930s, the Express was the biggest-selling paper in Britain. Even in the 1960s, until the death of its magnificently domineering proprietor Lord Beaverbrook, it was still a mighty power in the land. “A journalist who has never worked for the Express,” said the writer Brian Inglis, “is like a soldier who has never marched to the sound of gunfire.”

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Matthew Engel

In the decades since, while the circulation of rival titles has gently slalomed downhill, the Express has absolutely hurtled down the mountain-top towards oblivion. It is now read – judging by its front page headlines – only by a handful of the elderly, all of them obsessed by the Queen (marvellous), the European Union (iniquitous), arthritis, dementia, the state of their pension, immigrants, benefit scroungers ... and the weather.

The skiing analogy is appropriate because the Express is dazzled by snow. It spent the whole of last autumn predicting an unprecedented Siberian winter: BRITAIN FACES A MINI ‘ICE AGE’; -20c TO HIT US IN WEEKS; ARCTIC BLAST TO BRING SNOW; BIG FREEZE WILL KILL THOUSANDS ...

And that is an incomplete selection from last October, which preceded the mildest winter for some time. Then came IT’S A WHITE CHRISTMAS! Mild and windy, actually.

It has been hard to be that wrong this summer in a country where the sun has hardly peeked out for weeks. But the Express has managed it: BRITAIN SET FOR SIZZLE, it predicted at the start of Wimbledon fortnight which, as tennis fans will be aware, had to be played largely indoors, under a roof that felt as though it might cave in under the downpour.

Being wrong is an occupational hazard for every journalist. But even in its great days, the Express turned that in an art form. In 1909 its long-time editor Ralph Blumenfeld called Blériot’s pioneering flight across the Channel ‘a foolish waste of money’. In 1938 Beaverbrook himself told readers: “There will no major war in Europe this year or next year. The Germans will not invade Czechoslovakia.” Years later it scooped the world with the news that Prince Charles would marry Princess Marie-Astrid of Luxembourg, who is now Archduchess Marie-Astrid of Austria, having married someone else.

Nowadays hardly any of its front page stories bear any relation to the news as reported elsewhere. But the Express has stumbled on to something here, in that the British have a fascination for and distrust of all weather forecasts, whether they come from the Met Office, with their reporting stations and computer models, or a harassed chief sub-editor with a page to fill and – in the absence of Lord Beaverbrook – fewer resources than his rivals.

This is partly because the weather professionals have themselves acquired a reputation for predicting more confidently and further forward than the science yet allows.

We needn’t go too far into the question of climate change. Which year was it we were told it would be “a barbecue summer”? It was a bloody wet one, that’s for sure.

Meteorologists can now be reasonably confident in saying it will not rain tomorrow if there is a huge ridge of high pressure sitting over the Midlands; likewise saying it will rain if they can see a dirty great trough heading straight for the western approaches. But predicting the finer gradations of weather – sleet and snow; mist and fog; showers and thunderstorms – takes them into the realm of art as much as science.

They are no worse than anyone else. Early in the long hot summer of 1976 I was sent to interview an old bloke who worked with seaweed and was said to be infallible. He assured me the heatwave would end in torrential rain soon enough. It did end, but not for another four months, by which time the English countryside resembled the Serengeti Plain.

Last Saturday, The Express had its 21st splash story on the weather in 83 publishing days since April 1: IT WILL RAIN ‘TIL SEPTEMBER. Sounds like an Olympic heatwave, then.

matthew.engel@ft.com

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