General media: Why did media behave as it did at Grangemouth?

THERE was an incident at Grangemouth Docks last week.

A shipping container landed on the ground a bit heavier than it should have and some drums of chemical were ruptured, causing a cloud of vapour to be released.

No-one was injured and no member of the public was ever at any risk. The chemical, while not being particularly pleasant stuff, wasn’t particularly dangerous either and, due to the wind, dispersed out over the River Forth.

The emergency services were quickly on the scene and a pre-prepared plan swung into operation. The media were told about the incident fairly soon after it happened, once the facts were known and verified, as part of the plans to distribute information to the public through the media.

It was established at an early stage that this was not a major emergency, the incident did not happen at the petro-chemical complex, but at the nearby docks, the vapour was heading away from land and was dispersing to atmosphere over the River Forth. Central Scotland Fire and Rescue knew what they were dealing with, and how to handle the incident.

Of course, it could have been worse. There are lots of dangerous chemicals in use every day at Grangemouth, which is one of the country’s major petro-chemical complexes. Every house in the town has information on what to do in the event of a toxic chemical leak and this includes information about the siren, which thankfully has only ever gone off during testing.

So why did the media lay siege to the town, dragging up unfounded worries and criticising the authorities for not setting-off the siren?

The problem for Central Scotland Police, as the initial lead agency, was that they are damned if they do set off the siren, no doubt causing panic and needless distress, and are damned for not doing it.

I don’t know what decisions were taken by whom in managing this incident, but I am pretty sure that the emergency bodies would have a pretty good idea of the mayhem, panic and practical difficulties of emptying Grangemouth in the late afternoon while people are making their way home from work in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Almost 24 hours later, BBC TV news was reporting that a ‘plume of white smoke had been high above the town’ (categorically not true) and there was ‘fury and anger’ from locals who only heard about it from the TV news. That ‘fury and anger’ had been generated by journalists, who appear to have lost all sense of proportion and responsibility.

Why was this – is it because resources are now so tight that once they have been deployed – satellite trucks, normally desk-bound and telephone-tied reporters – that they simply had to milk a non-story for all they could? I can’t help but feel that, in days gone by, we would have gone back to the office, reported the facts and commented on how lucky we had been. Instead, people are being wheeled out and allowed to make spurious political points. I don’t mind Friends of the Earth commenting on the chemical and what is, or not, known about the long-term effects of divinyl benzene on people (even although no-one was at risk) but it is not for them to comment on how people are informed.

No-one disputes that the incident took place. No-one disputes that it was a lucky coincidence the chemical was not as dangerous as many handled there every day. No-one disputes that it was luck and good fortune that the wind was blowing in the right direction. No-one disputes that it could have been much worse.

So why did we have to make a mountain out of a molehill, thereby creating needless concern?

Was it out of genuine concern that the people of Grangemouth were being kept in the dark – or frustration that they didn’t have a stick to beat over the head of the authorities for creating needless panic, by setting off an alarm when there was no need?

We are living in times where the public are being scared and are getting as paranoid as in the States. It is in the interests of politicians to have an electorate which is scared and more likely to be compliant and see them as strong leaders, thereby keeping them in power?

It is the role of journalists to be seekers of truth and justice and to act as a brake on megalomaniacs.

Sticking to the facts and keeping a sense of proportion is really quite important.

Name withheld