Saturday, February 12, 2005

Indicator theory

One of the great weaknesses of the contemporary political system, many believe, is the emergence of a professional political class.

MPs and other representatives seem to be drawn from a diminishing gene pool, populated by apparatchiks who have spent their lives within the party political systems, have never held down real jobs and have no experience of life outside the "bubble".

Having come to political research from a technical background, wholly unrelated to politics, this Blogger has some sympathy with that view. It is certainly true that experience outside the "bubble" can give a much broader perspective on political issues.

It might still seem to some, however, that water sampling theory – which occupied an early part of my career – might have limited application to politics and political issues in general. But if you think that, you would be wholly wrong.

It was precisely this theory which came to mind yesterday as I was watching a BBC television news report on the forthcoming commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the 1945 Dresden bombing raid, noting that the BBC used some archive clips of World War II bombers to illustrate their report.

But, for a raid which was notoriously carried out by the RAF, in pursuance of the "area bombing" campaign, the BBC showed not once, but several times, pictures of USAAF B-17 Flying Fortress bomber formations.

So how does this relate to water sampling theory?

Well, in carrying our routine samples, one of our main concerns was to monitor the integrity of the public distribution system, which a special emphasis on typhoid, one of those killer water-borne diseases which had special historical resonance in the area I worked.

However, it was known that the odds of finding the typhoid bacilli in water, even during an outbreak, were close to nil, so we did not even look for it. Instead, we concentrated on a group of more common gut organisms which, if present in the water, could indicated contamination of the water supply. Harmless in their own right, these gave early warning of problems and were thus used as "indicator" organisms.

There is the relevance of the B-17s. In a clip which should have shown RAF Lancaster bombers, which were by 1945 the backbone of the RAF bomber force, the BBC programmers did not have to wit to realise that showing USAAF day bombers was entirely inappropriate. It was entirely unprofessional.

In other areas, that lack of professionalism is harder to detect, but here it was obvious. And if the BBC cannot get even something so obvious and simple right, what confidence can one have in the professionalism of an institution which covers so many more complex issues?

For me, therefore, those pictures were a good "indicator" that something is serious amiss with the BBC. My youth wasn't wasted after all.

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