Surprisingly balanced article in the Daily Mail

An interesting article about metrication appeared in the Daily Mail Online recently, describing the current situation reasonably well – but arguing that the current British mixture of metric and imperial measurements is actually a good thing since it enables people to use the units “most apposite for the job in hand”.  As this argument is seductive but utterly misconceived, it deserves to be taken seriously and rebutted.

MetricViews is not normally an admirer of the Daily Mail, a middle-market, tabloid national newspaper, which is well known for its populist, Eurosceptic, right wing stance on most political issues. Its audited circulation is 2.1 million, making it the UK’s second most read daily paper. In the past it has regularly used the metrication issue in its campaigns against the European Union.  It was therefore pleasing recently to read a comparatively balanced article on metrication in its online edition – albeit that its author came to a wrong-headed conclusion.  MetricViews welcomes any constructive contribution to the debate and we therefore provide this link to the article.  We answer it below.

The article argues that British people “mix and match, using what suits us best and what seems most natural,” and the main points made (explicitly or implicitly) can be summarised as follows:

1.     Most people aged 35 – 55 are “bilingual” when it comes to metric and imperial

2.     Some imperial units (such as the pint and the mile) are inherently more convenient than metric alternatives

3.     People should be free to use the units they prefer

4.     Prosecuting people for “selling a pound of bananas” is madness

5.     Inconsistency in newspapers doesn’t matter

None of these statements is valid, so let us examine them in turn.

1.     It is probably true that some people aged 35 – 55  are “bilingual” (in the sense that they can easily visualise and manipulate both metric and imperial units) – but they are exceptional.  What is far more common is that people in this age group do not have a secure grasp of either set of units. As metric units did not become mandatory in the school curriculum until 1974, most people aged over 50 will not in fact have been formally taught the metric system.  They will of course have become accustomed to buying petrol and cooking oil in litres, but may well not know that there are 1000 litres in a cubic metre – let alone 100 hectares in a square kilometre.  Similarly, anybody aged under 45 will almost certainly not have been formally taught the intricacies of imperial measures, and most will not have a clue how many feet there are in a mile or pounds in a hundredweight.

2.     There is no evidence that the pint and the mile are more convenient than the litre or the kilometre. It is absurd to argue that half a litre of beer is too little and that a pint (presumably imperial – not US) is “perfect” (pace George Orwell) – the difference (68 mL) is only 12% and would scarcely be noticed in a brim-measure glass with a full head.  Countries that use kilometres do not find them inconvenient – why would they?  Obviously, it is simply a matter of what you are used to.

3.     Traders should certainly not be free to use the units they prefer.  It is fundamental to consumer protection that there should be a standard set of weights and measures that can be checked and enforced and which everybody is obliged to use.  Otherwise, it is not possible to compare value for money of goods priced in different units.  This leads to market breakdown – to the detriment of both customers and honest traders.

4.     Leaving aside the fact that nobody has in fact been prosecuted for selling a pound of bananas (the trader was actually done for using illegal scales), if laws are not enforced, they will be ignored.  While obviously enforcement should be done in a sensitive and proportionate manner, the sanction of prosecution must remain to be used as a last resort against traders who deliberately flout the law.  The consequences of non-enforcement can be seen in many street markets where it is impossible for the customer to find out the unit price (i.e. per legal unit) of fruit, vegetables, meat and fish on sale.

5.     People are influenced by and even copy the media.  It is therefore incumbent on responsible journalists to set a good example – otherwise bad practice will be perpetuated.  The random mixing of incompatible units destroys any sense that units form a logical and coherent system (which incidentally reflects the physical world). This last point may be lost on the less science-aware journalists, but they should also reflect that, if they want their readers to make sense of their reports, it is important to use measurement units that are compatible with each other. For example, in this sentence, “the aircraft was flying at 10 000 feet when it crashed into the 3500 m mountain”, the reader would struggle to know whether the pilot nearly cleared the mountain.  Or if the banner headline tells us that petrol now costs £6 per gallon, and the ensuing report tells us that this resulted from the the VAT increase of 3p per litre, how can the reader work out the percentage increase? And as for barrels of oil…..

As the Mail journalist admits, many of his colleagues cheerfully ignore the recommendations of their papers’ respective style guides and just continue to use the units with which they personally are familiar.  This is actually thoughtless, lazy and sloppy journalism and is a disservice to their readers and listeners.  The article is an ingenious attempt to justify and rationalise this unprofessional behaviour.  It doesn’t wash.

(See also our earlier article

25 thoughts on “Surprisingly balanced article in the Daily Mail”

  1. Does the Daily Mail allow for a guest editorial rebuttal? If so, it would be lovely to see the excellent points made in this post printed in that paper.

    As an American I also find the argument put forth about the “advantages” of using two sets of units and mingling them willy-nilly in written or spoken communication pure hogwash. No one in their right mind who advances such a proposition could truly believe that such a muddle would be allowed to continue one single day beyond the date that the USA (eventually, one can still hope!) sets for the start of full conversion to metric in that country.

    So much for the vaunted advantages of “biligualism”!


  2. Since the Middle Ages and probably long before that, units of measurement used for trade have been precisely specified (within the standards prevailing at the time), and enforced. There never has been any ‘freedom’ for traders, law-makers, officials and anyone else dealing with the public to use whatever units they prefer. It’s only since metric units have become the trading standard that the hold-outs are calling for freedom to use whatever units they prefer (conveniently forgetting that they only like such freedom in one direction – I don’t hear many of them calling for pubs to serve draft beers in litres as well as pints).
    Regarding the use of scales reading in pounds and subsequent prosecutions for selling with unregulated scales, a trader was selling organic vegetables at our local garden centre. As we like organic potatoes, I asked for a kilo. “Only got pounds, mate,” was his reply. “Then your scales are not certifed?” I asked. “Don’t need to – my customers all trust me.” I then suggested that Trading Standards would not be so trusting. “Oh, we’re always having a run-in with them.” By this time my other half was getting agitated at the scene I was causing, and we then left without knowing what the outcome of their run-ins with TS was. It shows though that such traders still feel free to ignore the quite reasonable and long established law of the land – that there shall be only one legal set of measures used for trading.


  3. It is important to get across that metric measurements are coherent e.g. 100hectares to one square kilometre, one litre of water weighs one kilogram at 20 degrees celsius. (correct me if i’m wrong) Imperial measurement is disconnected and arbituary and having two sets of measurements holds this country back internationally. We should go forward bravely with metric measurements and join our continent and the wider world. We are not the 51st state of America we should decide our own destiny.


  4. Unfortunately, the quoted article would appear to be the exception that proves the rule.

    Here’s a more typical recent Daily Mail article

    Note the absolutely ridiculous attempt to extend the remit of the Traffic Signs Regulations & General Directions 2002 to a car odometer and to a service contract.

    It is also worth noting the typical Daily Mail claim that it is daft to even consider that “we should think of distances in the same way that foreigners do” and the plea at the end to “dump centigrade and have Fahrenheit back too”

    Maybe I’m just an old cynic, but it will take more than one “surprisingly balanced” article to convince me that the Daily Mail has changed its blinkered & biased viewpoint.


  5. The article pointed to by Ken above highlights yet another example of the confusion caused by the UK refusing to metricate road signs.


  6. So, the Daily Mail claims that it is daft to even consider that “we should think of distances in the same way that foreigners do”? Just how foreign do they consider Australians and Canadians to be???

    And as I’ve mentioned before, all of this hogwash goes flying out the window the moment the USA even announces that it will establish a plan to convert to metric. One can only imagine the business leaders and industrialists who will almost certainly descend on the government telling them there is no way the UK can compete with the metric muddle in place if the United States becomes a metric country.

    Why not let the UK get in front of that eventual development and finish metrication now?


  7. Ha! There was an article on the BBC News website earlier this year – it has been corrected now – which actually converted 1 g of paracetamol into “20 grains”. Yes, grains! After I had looked up grains, and found out what they were, I discovered that the article writer had not even calculated this conversion properly (apparently 1 grain = 64.8 mg and so 1 g = 15.4 grains – both to 3 sig. fig.). Goodness knows where they got the crazy idea of doing that: grains haven’t been used in medicine since – well, probably since the early part of the twentieth century. To their credit, when I e-mailed them, pointing out how ironic it was to be causing confusion as to quantities of medicines in a news article about, erm, incorrect prescribing, reminded them that paracetamol is the commonest cause of overdose-related harm in the UK, and suggested that the use of confusing units was therefore a bit irresponsible, the “grains” bit was removed. Shame they aren’t normally so responsive…


  8. Erithacus: the metric case isn’t helped by disingenuous arguments. You say:

    “Leaving aside the fact that nobody has in fact been prosecuted for selling a pound of bananas (the trader was actually done for using illegal scales)”

    The scales were illegal because they weighed in pounds – not because they were dodgy, inaccurate or dishonest. Bananas were the items that were weighed in them when the offence was committed. Ergo – in the speech of normal human beings – the trader was prosecuted for selling a pound of bananas. To claim otherwise may be technically accurate, in a legalistic sense, but it is also misleading: it leads the casual observer to assume that the trader was dishonest in some way, and used the ‘pound of bananas’ story as a convenient cover. The prosecution was always about weights and measures. If you think it right that traders should be so prosecuted for selling bananas by the pound, then have the courage of your convictions and say so, rather than using weasel words to pretend otherwise and cast aspersions.


  9. @ Warwick

    I am afraid it is you who have misunderstood.

    The media reporting of the case suggested (and probably was intended to suggest) that it is illegal to ask for and to sell a “pound of bananas”. In fact all the law requires is that the trader uses metric scales and displays prices per metric unit (with the option of a supplementary indication in non-metric units). Subject to that, traders and customers can converse in whatever obsolete units they like. I made no suggestion that the scales were “dodgy, inaccurate or dishonest” or that customers should not be allowed to ask for a pound of bananas. So your “rant” is not justified.


  10. The heart of it is this, though: that in England the law now requires a trader to price and weigh his goods in metric units rather than English [sic] ones, and says that he will be prosecuted if he doesn’t.

    By the way, something seems to have happened to part of my last post, where I mentioned ASDA’s decision to sell soft fruit in imperial sizes again. [This was deleted as it is not related to the original article (see our House Rules). However, we may cover the story in the future if it can be authenticated – Editor].


  11. I am intrigued by the claim from supporters of the so called “metric martyrs” that the Thoburn case was about being prosecuted for “selling a pound of bananas”.

    When someone tries to correct that misleading impression they are accused of being disingenuous.

    So what was Mr Thoburn really prosecuted for and why?

    Mr Thoburn was using a set of scales that were no longer legal for trade because they did not comply with the latest regulations and were not longer of an approved type. The change in law was made because it was important that equipment used for trade be capable of weighing in metric and that it’s calibration could be checked accordingly. Without this change traders could not be relied upon to weigh and sell accurately in metric which had become the primary units for trade purposes.

    Now the problem in Mr Thoburn’s case was not that he possessed imperial scales but that he was using them for trade purposes. To prove this the TSO had to catch him doing so. The transaction that proved it happened to be the sale of a bunch of bananas. That was the only significance of the so called “pound of bananas” which did not in itself constitute an offence. There were no prescribed quantities for the sale of bananas so selling 450 grams was perfectly legal. Whether he or his customer called it a pound was equally irrelevant so long as the customer is in no way misled by the trader.

    So, in conclusion, it is perfectly accurate to say that Mr Thoburn was prosecuted for using scales that were illegal for trade purposes, but decidedly inaccurate to say he was prosecuted for “selling a pound of bananas”. It is also true to say that no one will be prosecuted for selling a “pound” of bananas under current law.

    So why does it matter and does it make any real difference how the Thoburn case is described?

    Well the headline “pound of bananas” is clearly designed to be sensational. It does so because it seems to be a trivial and unprecedented reason to take someone to court. It also preys on the fact that people are not generally aware that units of measurement in trade have always been subject to legal control with criminal sanctions for non-compliance.

    This misleading headline therefore tends to distract from the real issue which is whether or not we should, in principle, cease imperial units in favour of metric only. Writers of the articles on this site are very focussed on that central issue and it is open to anyone to challenge any perceived attempt to mislead or misrepresent it.


  12. Warwick said “The scales were illegal because they weighed in pounds”

    This is incorrect. The scales were illegal because they had had the Inspector’s stamp removed. At the time that the stamp was removed, the Inspector would have told Mr Thoburn that the effect of removing the stamp was that it would no longer be legal to use the scales for trade purposes.

    Mr Thoburn continued to use the scales, even though he had been given this information by an Inspector who had been legally appointed to enforce the law. Why, therefore, should the casual observer not be entitled to consider Mr Thoburn to be dishonest? Should an honest man not attempt to observe the law of the land?

    In addition, Mr Thoburn was not the only defendant at the Metric Martyrs appeal case. Colin Hunt was one of the other accused. He was convicted of 1) Failing to display a unit price per kilogram (displaying imperial prices only) and 2) delivering a lesser quantity than that which corresponded with the price charged (overcharging for the amount delivered)

    I also believe that Mr Hunt was also prosecuted at a later date, again for short weight/overcharging.

    Would Warwick care to comment upon whether he considers Mr Hunt to be “dishonest in some way”, or do he and the BWMA condone overcharging and short-measuring the UK public?


  13. And the inspector’s stamp was removed from Mr Thoburn’s scales for what reason? I think you’ll find that they were perfectly accurate, functioning scales and the sole reason for the removal of the stamp was that they weighed in pounds and not in kilograms.
    It was a political trial, designed to compel Mr Thoburn to change from the system he and his customers were perfectly happy with, and which had been perfectly legal for centuries, to a newly-imposed system
    As for Mr Hunt – well, if he delivered short measure, he delivered short measure and that’s a crime whatever system you do it in. I can’t say that I’m an expert on his case but if that’s true I think we agree.


  14. Or let’s look at it another way. If the Thoburn case were simply a straightforward trading standards matter of a missing stamp on a set of scales – as you seem to imply – it should, by rights, have never made it past the local magistrates court. And it would be strange indeed to have gone all the way to the High Court. And stranger still that in his summing-up, Lord Justice Laws touched on matters of major constitutional significance – including creating a new way of looking at Acts of Parliament to justify the European Communities’ Act’s continued supremacy over later weights and measures legislation which would, in the normal way of things, superseded it. So, a landmark case concerning principles of massive significance, or a jumped-up trading standards affair in which some local traders used the wrong sort of scales? your choice.


  15. If a law says that the scales must be passed as fit for trade by official inspectors and a trader is defies this law, he is liable to prosecution. Perhaps the trader’s motive was to make a stand against metric measures, but using unstamped scales is still against the law. It is therefore not surprising that the trader was prosecuted.

    There is a separate question about whether the law is fair. I believe that it is both fair and necessary for the government to set and enforce standards for the weighing of goods for sale.


  16. Warwick said “And the inspector’s stamp was removed from Mr Thoburn’s scales for what reason?”

    Because UK law states that transactions of this type must be carried out on prescribed equipment. Imperial-only scales are no longer prescribed for this purpose. Mr Thoburn did, of course, have the option of using dual equipment and displaying a supplementary imperial indication to the primary metric. As such, the point about removing stamps solely because a scale displays pounds is totally incorrect.

    I would also take issue with the (twice repeated) contention that Mr Thoburn’s scales were perfectly accurate. When were the scales last tested? What proof does Warwick have that they were within tolerance?

    Warwick also said “It was a political trial, designed to compel Mr Thoburn to change from the system …… which had been perfectly legal for centuries, to a newly-imposed system”

    In the UK, Imperial has been in use since 1824, Metric has been legal since 1896. I make that a difference of 72 years, hardly the “centuries” that Warwick implies.

    Warwick said “As for Mr Hunt – well, if he delivered short measure, he delivered short measure and that’s a crime whatever system you do it in. I can’t say that I’m an expert on his case but if that’s true I think we agree.”

    Why is Warwick suggesting that he isn’t totally aware of Mr Hunt’s case? It’s hardly the cover of Abbey Road, but I seem to recall a picture of Warwick & all the Metric Martyrs (including Hunt) on a zebra crossing on their way to the appeal court.
    Did Warwick just happen to miss the bit in court where Hunt’s offences were described?

    Finally, Warwick said “If the Thoburn case were simply a straightforward trading standards matter of a missing stamp on a set of scales – as you seem to imply – it should, by rights, have never made it past the local magistrates court.”

    Here’s something we can finally agree on! It should never have got past the magistrates court.

    However, Warwick & BWMA continued with their doomed battle to try to take the case to any court that would hear them. Unfortunately, their case was so flawed that the House of Lords told them that they did not consider that the appeal would “give rise to points capable of reasonable argument” and the ECHR just threw it out without comment.

    I wouldn’t really call that a landmark case. I would even go as far as to describe it as a pigheaded refusal to accept perfectly valid law.


  17. A trader’s weighing scales can be as accurate as you like, but if they don’t use the measurement units laid down in UK law (i.e. metric), then they are by definition illegal. Having written a book on measurement units, it is surprising that Warwick does not seem to understand this.

    If every trader was free to pick and choose whatever units they liked it would make a nonsense of consumer protection law. I fail to see why someone else’s nostalgia for obsolete measurement units should force me to remember more than one unit price in order to compare prices at different shops. I have better things to do than waste my time doing mental arithmetic every time I look at the price of fruit and veg.


  18. My take on items 1 to 5.
    1) When I was 35 to 55 duplicity came easy, I was an international worker using various world standards as part of my paid job. However, in my 68th year I find Imperial and other odd-ball measurements increasingly difficult to handle, in particular the ‘1 in x’ syndrome rather than a simple straightforward ‘percent’ figure. Mixing units is perticularly confusing, then its the ‘OFF’ button.
    2) Unfortunately I tend to agree with the first part of this. I still prefer .001 inches to mm, but that is only because I still have the old micrometer and gauges for them and never had to make ant transition. Pints and miles are however bottom of the list. There is absolutely no differance, no excuse. I would much rather order a ‘demi’ of beer or a Stien of milk. Much more cool man.
    3) Maybe, but it would be more useful if we all used to same units. Duplicity is the killer.
    4) The world is mad, UK is top of the list, go for it.
    5) Total nonsense. Consistancy is everything as you get older. Already answered in 1).


  19. Recently Yahoo UK ran a non-story that Asda had returned to Imperial weight measurement for its strawberries. In the event it seems Asda (Wal-Mart) was using both Imperial and metric concurrently, but this story attracted around 1,000 responses. Some 90% of Internet correspondents favoured a full or partial return to Imperial measurement. Asda customers are hardly the most intellectual segment of the population, but in a democracy regrettably their views carry equal weight.
    So this is the cleft stick Britain has got itself into: It’s far too late to return to full Imperial, and too politically unpopular to complete the change to metric. When you review the history of the change, it’s obvious that any problems blue-collar artisans experienced with metric measurement were a matter of complete indifference to those in authority. But when “the suits” were inconvenienced everything was quietly put on hold.
    Decades later you still have is a typical British muddle. School children are being taught in the metric system, and presumably the assumption is that in the fullness of time the country with become close to full metric. In the meantime Britain’s a joke: Petrol sold in litres while fuel economy is indicated in miles per gallon. Not quite chaos, for to have chaos you must first have order.


  20. Don’t let’s get too excited about one interesting article in the Daily Mail.

    A report in the Guardian on 7 June 2011 included the following:

    “The Commons Speaker John Bercow has risked his political neutrality by describing the Daily Mail as a “sexist, racist, bigoted, comic cartoon strip”. He also apologised for breaking the trade descriptions act by describing the Mail as a “newspaper”.”

    John Bercow is MP for Buckingham. At the last General Election, UKIP Leader Nigel Farage stood against him and was defeated.


  21. The reason people find the pint and mile so convenient are, beside the habitual reason, purely from linguistic concerns. The word kilometre will never be as easy and cachy to say as a mile.
    The litre sounds maybe not as cumbersome as the kilometre, but it competes agains the pint which is very deeply rooted in culture. Also, due to its spelling, it has a foreign linguistic touch which will always be an obstacle when winning peoples hearts.
    The solution is simple – redefine the pint to exactly half a litre.
    Then both camps can be satisfied. The pint survives, and the beer cans follow international standard.
    As for the kilometre vs mile it is not as easy. No good suggestion there.. a 1600m metric mile would not be of much use. However, there is a whole bunch of other units that are suitable for redefinition:
    inch – 2,5cm and foot 30cm
    hand – 10cm
    mile – 1600m
    rood – 1000 sqm
    acre – 4000 sqm
    pint – 50cL
    peck – 10L


  22. @Gus,

    It is very difficult to get people to stop using old measuring unit names, like pound and mile. In fact both of these units are still in use to varying degrees in metric Europe.

    The pound, in various language variations across Europe is used from time to time in the market place. However, it is not a legal unit of trade and no scale is calibrated in it. The pound is just a slang term to mean 500 g. When you ask for a pound, a scale in grams is used to weigh out 500 g. There is no per pound pricing, all prices are either per kilogram or per 100 g. If you need to know the pound price you have to mentally calculate by either multiplying the 100 g price by 5 or divide the kilogram price in half.

    The Swedes still talk distances in miles (mil), but one mil is 10 km. There are no signs in mils, only kilometres and car dashboard displays are also in kilometres. People just divide the kilometre distances to get mils. A 300 km drive is 30 mil.

    In these instances the old words are preserved and only used in common speech. But, because they removed the old units from legal status and allowed them to assume values similar to what you posted, the metric system was not resisted. An outsider would never know that non-metric terms still exist as all they would see is a complete metric economy.

    The UK can end the muddle too in a similar manner.

    1.) Remove all non-SI units from legal protection.
    2.) Allow the unit names to assume new values based on rounded metric amounts.
    3.) Remove all references to non-metric pricing.
    4.) Remove all non-metric measuring devices as items that can be sold to consumers.

    As long as the economy visibly operates 100 % in SI and a pro-metric person who doesn’t care for the old terms can go about his/her business without entanglements. Those who wish to continue using old words, can do so as a sub-set of metric.

    I’m sure no one will feel slighted if they thought of a mile mentally as 2 km and mentally converted road signs to miles by dividing the kilometres in half.

    Sometimes we have to compromise to make progress, but the compromise should never dilute or destroy the coherency of SI.


  23. I see that the Mail has come back to it’s usual position of “No-one in the UK ever used metric before they were forced to do so by the EU/the French/evil lefties/faceless bureaucrats” (delete as appropriate)

    Today, they run a story with a huge headline stating “Did they really have conical bras, centimetres, modern jets and babygros with press studs in 1957?”, then effectively go on to prove that they did!

    With regard to centimetres, the Mail states:


    THE ACCUSATION: In episode three, a nurse is shown measuring a mum-to-be’s stomach with a tape measure and reading out the measurements in centimetres, not inches.

    One viewer said both the units and the technique were wrong: ‘Midwife friends say that no one did that, let alone use centimetres.’

    EXPERT WITNESS: Mary Cronk, who was a midwife in the Fifties, did not think tape measures were used in this way until the Seventies. She said: ‘Midwives used their hands and eyes and they certainly would not have used centimetres.’

    THE DEFENCE: The show’s medical adviser Terri Coates said: ‘I based the scene on the procedures detailed by Jenny [Worth, whose memoirs the series is based on] herself. But I think practices did vary depending on what part of the country people worked in.’

    The BBC said: ‘Both centimetres and inches were used at the time and Jennifer Worth used centimetres. A 1956 textbook illustrates the use of a tape measure in inches with centimetres in brackets.’”

    So, even though the person who the series is based upon specifically states she used centimetres, and a textbook gives the measurements in both imperial and metric, the Mail would prefer to have us believe that “WE USED INCHES – AS A RULE”, based upon a random viewer and an aging midwife’s recollection.

    Surprisingly balanced? Not in my opinion.


  24. Hi Ken

    While the comments of the Daily Mail may not be balanced in the favour of metric, the readers comments are quite clear: they really don’t care about the anomalies. It is interesting to see that only one comment referred to the centimetres issue at all. While it was heavily critical of the BBCs use of metric generally. However, other readers are possibly not in agreement with the comment as it had been given the ‘thumbs down’ by them.


  25. Trawling thru the Daily Mail readers comments in response to the ‘Midwifes’ article Ken has posted I came across this very interesting reply: ‘

    As far as the use of metrication goes – my Mum and Dad were involved with barrage balloons during the war and they were made using metric measurements right down to the size of the wire hawsers used to fly them. A standard balloon could be folded in such a way as to fit in a 1 metre square case. So a midwife, if she had had RAF training during the war, could possibly have used metric out of preference.

    Read more:

    This is a fascinating fact that shows metric usage 70 years ago, in one of the UKs armed forces no less.


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