A dark day for whom?
The Buncefield blaze has set the British media ablaze with conspiracy theories and doomsday fantasies, while the news is reported by amateurs.
The largest fire in peacetime Europe was also, by many accounts, the least catastrophic. The explosions and the spectacular blaze at the Buncefield depot in Hertfordshire happened at the best possible time – 6am on a Sunday morning, when few were at work at the depot or nearby, and few were travelling.
Fewer than 50 people were injured, and only two were seriously injured. The infamous big black cloud that hung over southern England is apparently not dangerous to most people’s health; the weather conditions were apparently the most favourable we could hope for, thanks to high pressure lifting the cloud high above ground. Initial police reports firmly claimed that the fire was an accident, rather than a terrorist attack of the kind that commentators have been predicting for four years. As I write, firefighters have reportedly brought half the fires under control, many evacuees from the area have been allowed home, and the M1 motorway has been re-opened.
Of course, nobody wants a major fire to break out at a key oil depot. But in industrial societies (and Britain can still just about call itself an industrial society), accidents do happen – and when they do, our society has historically taken some comfort from the understanding that ‘it could have been worse’. That was in the old days, when accidents were allowed to happen and not every disaster was treated as an environmental apocalypse. Nowadays, there’s no smoke without a conspiracy theory, and the idea that ‘it could have been worse’ is used not as reassurance, but as a warning.
The rush has begun to find lessons we can learn from the fire. Some, like Guardian columnist Jackie Ashley, see the dark cloud as a warning about global warming and our reliance on fossil fuels (although the fire had nothing to do with global warming, and officials have been quick to point out that we face no immediate fuel shortage as a result) (1). Others have used it as a moral story about the quirks of fate – it has been described as a ‘miracle’ that this happened on a Sunday morning, that the weather was good, and that we don’t get such big disasters all the time.
In fact, the major lesson of the Buncefield fire is about the quality of commentary – the sorry state of reportage, and the blurring of the distinction between fact and grim fantasy.
The headlines of Monday’s papers were full of it. ‘Inferno’, proclaimed the Daily Mirror’s front page, and inside: ‘Cloud of doom’. ‘It is like a vision of doomsday’, said the Daily Telegraph’s front page. The Sun called it ‘Black Sunday’, and various newspapers have printed ‘survivors’ stories’ about their escape from ‘hell’. A piece by leading green doom-monger Geoffrey Lean in the Daily Mail predictably warned: ‘Terrible legacy will last for years.’
Of course the fire and its cloud made a spectacular sight, both for those who saw it firsthand and as seen from a distance, on TV. But reports of ‘doomsday’ are greatly exaggerated. Nobody died (at the time of writing, at least). The official response has seemed comparatively slick, and rather sensible – closing the nearby motorway, evacuating nearby homes, noting that the fire was contained and therefore planning a firefighting strategy most likely to work.
The first explosions sparked an immediate rumour: a plane had flown into the oil depot, in a copycat 9/11. The rumour was quickly dismissed. But almost 36 hours on, there is a palpable reluctance to believe this was simply, as the police keep insisting, an industrial accident. It is a sure sign of our paranoid times that when BBC TV news on Sunday night kept claiming that the police did not think this was a terrorist attack, the only inference to draw was the suspicion that it had indeed been a terrorist attack. It doesn’t help, of course, that this kind of terrorist attack would have been met with tacit approval by growing numbers of Western liberals: being ‘all about oil’, without members of the public having to die. As the fire burns out and the news creeps further into the realms of the hypothetical, we can await with interest earnest discussions along the lines of ‘If terrorists had blown up Buncefield, would they have been justified?’
To date, officials have been careful to warn that the big cloud is unlikely to harm people’s health, unless they directly inhaled lots of the smoke or they already suffer from respiratory diseases such as asthma. But reports of ‘dirty rain’ to come (the main problem with which seems to be that it will make your car grubby) have revived that old spectre of poison dripping from the clouds, first seen in the overblown fears about ‘acid rain’ in the 1980s. Little boxes in news reports warn of everything from cows producing undrinkable milk to potential unknown unknowns in the form of cancer clusters. The firefighting operation, delayed for the best part of a day while firefighters gathered enough foam, was put on hold for a further four hours while the authorities checked out the potential for water pollution – a valid concern maybe, but one that could surely have been addressed when the foam was still waiting to arrive?
We can await with interest more little warnings of the ‘Chernobyl Lite’ variety. In the meantime, we should ask ourselves what on Earth can be gained from such pollution fantasies. It’s not like we can turn back the clock so the fire never happened; it’s not as though such a passive strategy as leaving the blaze to burn itself out can really be a serious consideration in the twenty-first century. Medical resources should be marshalled, if necessary, to help the elderly and asthmatics. The rest of us should just get on with it.
Industrial nightmares like the Buncefield blaze are a journalist’s dream. Or they used to be, when reporters dared to get close enough to see what was going on. Nowdays, our democratic media brings us grainy amateur footage from the scene of the disaster, presented by over-coated reporters trembling at a distance, and warning viewers not to try this at home. The BBC TV news on Sunday evening relied almost exclusively on footage shot by two amateur documentary-makers, while its website today encourages readers to send in their pictures and experiences. Is this what journalists have become – Davina McCall types, presenting the reality TV created by everybody else?
No sooner had the blaze started than the airwaves were awash with warnings to motorists that there was no need to panic-buy petrol. Has it ever occurred to the authorities that most motorists would not even dream of making a special trip to fill their tanks on a Sunday morning, unless exhortations not to panic-buy petrol made them worry about running out? Even at times of industrial disaster, officialdom’s suspicion of the greedy, grasping masses lurks only beneath the surface. The authorities should concentrate on putting the fire out, and leave our transport arrangements to us.
And there’s more…
The media feeding frenzy sparked by the Buncefield fire has only just begun. We do not want spiked readers to send in their photos or experiences of the blaze. But we do want your reports of rumours, false criticisms and other irrationalities to arise from this disaster, to add to our archive of twenty-first century misanthropy. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, and you won’t get your name in print.
(1)Millions of us have to accept we must live duller lives, Guardian, 12 December 2005
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