‘Blowtorch Britain’ captures global attention

On Monday, my sister, who lives in Sweden, messaged to ask if I was dead yet. I live in London, where the temperature was ticking up toward to forty degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit)—a marker that has not been hit here since modern records began, and may never have been hit in Britain, period. “Haha no,” I replied. “It’s not *that* bad.” The heat was certainly uncomfortable, intensely so. But I’d been in forty degrees before, and so far, this felt no worse. I’d be fine, I thought.

That morning, headlines in leading British newspapers had focused on the rise in temperatures: “BLOWTORCH BRITAIN”; “MELTDOWN MONDAY”; “HOTTER THAN THE SAHARA…AND INDIA..AND PAKISTAN..AND ALGERIA..AND ETHIOPIA..” Often, these headlines appeared next to pictures of “revelers” (the liberal Daily Mirror’s word) enjoying the hot weather, splashing joyously into cold water or eating ice cream. “IT’S NOT THE END OF THE WORLD!” the conservative Daily Express declared, next to an image of a British flag over a packed beach. “Just stay cool and carry on.” Various right-wing politicians and columnists had already, volubly taken issue with official heat advisories that they saw as nanny-statism, decrying government advisories as “sinister” and harking back to the tougher times of World War II and the hot summer of 1976, when no one moaned about the adversity (not least all the people who died). “Since I started studying the Stoics a while back,” Julie Burchill wrote for Spiked, “it takes a lot to get me riled. But it happened this week when I received an email from the British Red Cross warning me about the weather.” On Monday night, Darren Grimes, a right-wing pundit, tweeted a meme contrasting “Australia at 40°C” (an idyllic beach scene) and “British media predicting 40 degrees celsius in the UK” (a hellish inferno engulfing a city that, confusingly, appears to be New York). “So true,” Grimes added.

ICYMI: On the grim news cycle, and shutting it out

Meanwhile, in my apartment, my message to my sister was not aging well. I had started to feel hotter than I ever have in my life (outside of, like, saunas); I had been in comparably hot weather before, but always, I was swiftly realizing, in places equipped to handle it. In the early hours of Tuesday morning, feeling as if my bedsheets were cooking me alive like aluminum foil in an oven, I finally conceded that my girlfriend had been right when she’d suggested that we sleep on the living room floor, so we tried that. I took a cold shower first. It took my breath away.

The newspaper front pages that I woke up to on Tuesday almost uniformly (no pun intended) led with a photo of a police officer feeding water to one of the preposterously dressed guards who stand outside Buckingham Palace. The Mail used the image next to a headline referencing the “Sunny day snowflake Britain had a meltdown,” noting that it wasn’t too hot for the guard to wear his tall furry hat or for Prince Charles to wear a jacket and tie. The Sun splashed the headline “BRITAIN IS MELTING,” using a melty orange font for emphasis; the Mirror went with a front-page image of sunbathers on a beach and the headline “Record baker,” noting in smaller font: “Schools shut..rails buckle..runways melt.” The Guardian’s lead story accused Boris Johnson, Britain’s outgoing prime minister, of “checking out” after he skipped emergency meetings about the heat. The i led with a weather map in various hues of orange and red. Its headline: “Earth sends a warning.” 

As I started to write yesterday’s edition of this newsletter, I mainlined heavily iced water and propped a tower fan on a stool next to me, but the ice soon melted and the fan did little more than churn stale air into my face. It was so hot that my work on the newsletter took me much longer than usual, and I ended up sending it out late. (Apologies.)

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Around midday, ceremonial guards at Buckingham Palace and other historic London venues were taken off duty for their safety. At 12.50pm, a temperature reading at Heathrow Airport officially, if provisionally, surpassed the forty-degree mark. By mid-afternoon, fires had started breaking out across London, and the city had declared a major incident. News cameras relayed aerial footage of burning backyards and homes, obscured by billowing smoke.

Meanwhile, activists with Extinction Rebellion, a climate movement dedicated to non-violent civil disobedience, smashed windows at the headquarters of News UK, the Murdoch-owned publisher whose titles include The Sun. They sprayed slogans on the sidewalk outside: “40 degrees = death”; “Tell the truth.” Five people were arrested. An XR spokesperson defended the protest as a response to upbeat coverage of the heat. “Instead of warning readers of the increased risks from such heatwaves as the climate crisis intensifies,” they said, “The Sun chose to cover their front pages in images of women in bikinis, beachgoers and happy toddlers with ice-creams.” 

By this point, Britain’s heatwave had become a major international news story. Top US news organizations covered everything from a British cinema chain offering redheads free entry, so that they might avoid the sun, to the severe risk faced by unhoused people in London; the New York Times sent me a push notification when Britain’s previous heat record was provisionally surpassed, and, at some point, pinned a live blog about the heat to the top of its homepage. Britain wasn’t the only country that was burning—swaths of continental Europe were, too, with temperatures also climbing in the US—but nonetheless seemed to be centered in this coverage, perhaps for symbolic reasons: Britain is supposed to be cold and wet. Such symbolism, of course, only makes sense in the context of global climate change, and various US outlets explicitly and prominently tackled that context in their coverage yesterday: Britain has been hot before, but the climate crisis is making extreme heat more likely and more intense. “Half of humanity is in a climate danger zone,” Jake Tapper said at the top of his CNN show yesterday, broadening the story out by citing the UN. “The record temperatures many of you are feeling right now are just a symptom. Multiple heatwaves across the globe are creating a series of crises.”

As I’ve written often in this newsletter, and my colleagues at Covering Climate Now have also noted, major US news organizations have often failed to link their quick-turnaround stories about extreme weather events—heat, hurricanes, wildfires—to the broader climate context. This feels like less of a problem to me now than when I started writing this newsletter, in 2018; the climate-inflected coverage I saw yesterday would seem to speak to that. But it’s still a problem, including in very recent heat coverage: according to the liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America, US broadcast and cable networks ran more than sixty segments on global heatwaves between Saturday and Monday, but only mentioned climate change in twenty. And just mentioning climate change is a low bar. “We’ve been pushing news outlets to mention climate in extreme weather coverage for years, but even that is not enough,” the climate reporter Emily Atkin wrote yesterday. “Journalists must mention that climate change is caused primarily by fossil fuels, otherwise the viewer remains uninformed about both the problem AND solution.”

Problems of global equity also persist in climate coverage, as in climate policy. Heatwaves are a rolling phenomenon these days—a succession of them swept parts of South Asia earlier this year, to the point where David Wallace-Wells, of the Times, asked whether we can really call them “extreme” anymore—and yet those in Europe seem to more reliably generate attention in the US. (Massive heatwaves in India and Pakistan in March and April did get some coverage in US media, but according to a Stanford University tool, there were zero discussions of the word “heatwave” on US cable news in those months.) Yesterday, Somini Sengupta, the international climate reporter at the Times, appeared on the paper’s Daily podcast and did a good job of tying together Europe’s heatwave, the continent’s broken climate pledges, and how the worst impacts of climate change will, ultimately, be felt not in places like the UK but in the Global South. But such lucidity remains too rare in day-to-day coverage. Britain’s frosty place in the global weather imaginary made its plight this week shocking. But shock value isn’t always a reliable way to order news coverage.

Fires breaking out in London certainly seemed to shock much of Britain’s media. Of this morning’s front pages only one—that of The Guardian, which routinely does an excellent job with its climate coverage, local and global—explicitly referenced the climate crisis in its headline, quoting scientists calling the heat a “wake-up call.” But every front page had a big picture of the fires, a striking visual departure, at least, from the implied frivolity of the days before. The Mail called the fires a “nightmare.” Who’s a snowflake now?

This morning, as I woke up to these front pages, I felt a lot cooler. As I came to, still on a mattress in my living room, I breathed in and smelled burning. I haven’t seen any fires around where I live—the smell may have been a neighbor’s toast, for all I know, and it quickly dissipated—but my tired mind immediately jolted to yesterday’s fire footage. The worst of the heat may be over here for now. Its images will linger. So, elsewhere, will the heat.

Below, more on climate coverage and the UK:

  • The wrong images: Last summer, following an intense heatwave in the Pacific Northwest and Western Canada, Michael Shaw, of the visual-literacy site ReadingThePictures, wrote for CJR that coverage had often failed to reflect the severity of the situation in its choice of photos. “The devastating heat—more harbinger than anomaly—exposed weaknesses in the media’s representation of deadly temperatures as well as their connection to climate change,” Shaw wrote. “The images that led news stories widely minimized the event. Many photos made it look like a run-of-the-mill heat wave; some were so banal as to conjure stock photography. Photo slideshows confused the issue with a juxtaposition of the ordinary and extraordinary.”
  • XR’s PR: In November, I reported for CJR from inside the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow. For one of my dispatches, I spoke with Extinction Rebellion activists about their strategy for engaging the British press, and thoughts on its coverage of climate. While right-wing British publications continued to demonize XR’s tactics, an XR spokesperson told me that the movement was being taken increasingly seriously by mainstream media—a shift she believed may be attributable to public opinion, recent flooding in London, and a dire United Nations climate report published this summer.
  • The next PM: The race to replace Johnson as Britain’s next prime minister has been winnowed down to three candidates: Rishi Sunak, the former finance minister; Liz Truss, the foreign minister; and Penny Mordaunt, a trade minister. Later today, the field will be cut to two, with members of the governing Conservative Party set to pick a winner in the coming months. Climate was largely absent from the opening exchanges of the race—a recent poll found climate action to be at the bottom of party members’ list of concerns—but the subject did come up during a recent leadership debate on ITV. While all this has been going on, Johnson, who at one point tried to position himself as a climate leader, has been “living his best life,” throwing a big party and riding in a fighter jet.

Other notable stories:

  • With the final (for now) televised hearing in the January 6 investigation, focused on what Trump did/didn’t do that day, coming up tomorrow, the Secret Service determined that it cannot fully comply with a recent subpoena for agents’ text messages from around the time of the insurrection because they have been permanently deleted; officials blamed a routine tech upgrade, but, according to the Post, the National Archives are now probing whether the texts were improperly purged. In related news, Insider obtained Pentagon records showing that top brass followed journalists’ tweets to stay up to date on the early phases of the insurrection. And the national-security blogger Marcy Wheeler criticized Rachel Maddow for “sensationalism” after the latter characterized a Justice Department memo as doubling down on a Trump-era policy regulating probes of political candidates.
  • Yesterday, the House Judiciary Committee released internal documents that shine a light on anticompetitive practices at Amazon, Google, and Facebook, alongside a report pushing for antitrust legislation. (No Republicans signed onto the report.) In other tech news, Facebook confirmed that it is putting its News tab, via which it paid publishers for their content, and Bulletin, its nascent newsletter platform, on the backburner, as the company reallocates resources to the “Creator economy”; the Wall Street Journal’s Jessica Toonkel and Keach Hagey have more. And a judge set an October trial date in Twitter’s bid to force Elon Musk to complete his acquisition of the company, siding, more or less, with the company’s request to expedite proceedings, citing harm to its business.
  • As I noted in yesterday’s newsletter, right-wing politicians and media figures recently heaped doubt on an Indianapolis Star story about a ten-year-old rape victim who was forced to travel from Ohio to Indiana to get an abortion due to the former state’s restrictive laws—a story that was later confirmed. Now Caitlin Bernard, the Indiana doctor who provided the abortion and was the Star’s source for its story, is seeking damages from Todd Rokita, Indiana’s attorney general, who went on Fox News and suggested without evidence that Bernard may have broken the law by failing to disclose the abortion to state authorities. Bernard did disclose the abortion; the Star has more.
  • Nikole Hannah-Jones, of the Times, shared more details of her recent settlement with the University of North Carolina, which botched appointing Hannah-Jones to its journalism-school faculty amid a conservative backlash against her work on the 1619 Project. In addition to a payout, Hannah-Jones and her lawyers at the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund fought to include demands from student and faculty groups in the terms of the settlement, with UNC committing to diversify its hiring procedures and set aside funds for events sponsored by the Carolina Black Caucus, among other concessions.
  • In a Twitter thread yesterday, Erin Overbey, The New Yorker’s archive editor, alleged that bosses put her under a “performance review” after she raised concerns about workplace inequality at the magazine. Among other things, Overbey said that she was reprimanded for factual inaccuracies in her writing, two of which, she claimed, were inserted into her copy by David Remnick, the magazine’s editor in chief. The New Yorker described the latter claim as “absurd and just plain wrong”; the Daily Beast’s Corbin Bolies has more.
  • The Atlantic named Alice McKown as its new publisher. In other media(-adjacent)-jobs news, Dana Canedy, the former Pulitzer Prizes administrator, stepped down as publisher of Simon & Schuster’s flagship imprint to write a book. The Showtime late-night vehicle Desus & Mero is done after its eponymous hosts split to pursue separate projects. And, per NBC, Anita Dunn is overseeing plans to shake up President Biden’s press operation.
  • After expanding into the UK earlier this year, Bloomberg is exploring further investments in localized coverage across parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa, Sara Fischer reports for Axios. In some markets, the company is planning to hire talent and compete directly with local media, as it has done in the UK; in others, it plans to partner with existing outlets.
  • Poynter rounded up reaction to Gannett’s decision to cut back on editorials across its titles, which has proven controversial. An editor at one Gannett paper described bosses’ public insistence that the cuts were a recommendation, not an edict, as “bulls***.”
  • And The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner interviewed Alan Dershowitz, who has been on a media tour to decry his “cancellation” on Martha’s Vineyard. Make 2022 2018 again.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: 19/07/2022. London, UK. Members of the public attend to a woman who fainted in the intense heat, outside Buckingham Palace in Westminster. Record high temperatures are predicted today for parts of the UK, as the Met Office issues its first Red Extreme heat warning. Photo credit: Ben Cawthra/Sipa USA **NO UK SALES**(Sipa via AP Images)