Jonty tried to embrace change this week and come to terms with the Met Office losing the BBC contract for weather forecasting


I don’t much like change. In fact, working as an NHS GP, I have a severe case of change fatigue. If something works, why change it? All too many Ministers of Health take up their post full of enthusiasm and ignorance but with a deep grained need to make their mark – they change the system, and cheerfully move on before the results of their meddling hits the fan. No, I have a rather tired, cynical view to change, although I do accept that peering through the retrospectoscope for too long can give one an overly rosy tint to the past.

Which brings me to the Met Office. I was both saddened and worried by the news that the Met Office was to lose the BBC contract for weather forecasting. Mention forecasting to most sailors and the ‘Shipping Forecast’ will crop up very soon in any conversation. It is one of the consistent foundations of weather prediction and conditions at sea, charmingly introduced by the dulcet tones of ‘Sailing By’ if you listen to BBC4 at 0045hrs as all true traditionalists should. Despite the availability of online and onboard technology for weather forecasting, the Shipping Forecast is still widely used as both a primary form of prediction as well as for checking data from electronic sources. It all started in 1861 when, as a result of the loss of the steam clipper Royal Charter in a strong storm off Anglesey, Vice-Admiral Robert FitzRoy (who gave his name to a weather area) started to publish the first weather charts and use the new telegraph system to transmit them to shipping at sea. The Met Office itself had been established by FitzRoy in 1854 to deal with the collection of weather data at sea, and has developed over the years to the form we know now. By 1911 the Met Office was issuing marine weather forecasts that included gale and storm warnings by radio transmission around Great Britain. Apart from the war years, it has continued to do so for 104 years. Until now.

So why change? The obvious reason is cost – with austerity changes all around us big business seems content to rebrand and change suppliers regardless of the cost of old wasted stationary and expensive ‘consultations’. The actual service that the Met Office has provided does not seem to be in question – and it is possible that the Met Office weather model data might even be used by the new provider. We might all curse the Met Office when the weather we experience does not match the forecast, but even I have to admit that in general they are pretty reliable. I do doubt that any new service would present significant improvements, but we shall see. It does remain to be seen exactly what does change – the actual contract that has been terminated is reported as centering on ‘weather presentation, data, and graphics’ while other contracts such as ‘public weather service’ and ‘severe weather warnings’ will continue. The public weather service may still cover the shipping and inshore waters forecasts, but we will see.

So should we mourn the loss of the Shipping Forecast as we have known it? I hope not. There would be a national outcry if the gentle and soothing refrain of ‘Sailing By’ were replaced by some misplaced modern ‘Gangster Rap’ boombox abomination – even a Minister of Health could not view that as a vote pulling change. Yet we rely on the accuracy and familiarity of the Shipping Forecast – why, its consistency even lets the likes of Tom Cunliffe draw his own synoptic charts from the clearly presented data.

All sailors will hope that although the Met Office may not have forecast this contract change, the experience, investment and professionalism that they have built up over more than 104 years will continue to underpin the validity of the forecasts we receive.