New Internationalist, a metric role model for the British media

Back after our summer break, Metric Views is happy to publicize a periodical that might have escaped our readers’ attention in recent years. Ronnie Cohen explains.

The New Internationalist is an independent, non-profit British magazine that certainly lives up to its name. In the edition that I read some time ago, it used metric units exclusively in all its articles. Yes, that’s right. With no imperial conversions.


The articles that appeared in the April 2016 edition of New Internationalist use kilometres for races and distances between places, metric tons (yes, they wrote “metric tons” rather than “tonnes” though they write “tonnes” elsewhere in the magazine) for greenhouse gas emissions, square kilometres and hectares for forests and other land areas, square kilometres for population density, hectares for tree cover and commercial agriculture, cubic metres for timber and litres for water vapour. The only place where an imperial unit appeared was in the Country Profile section. The map in this section had a scale with both miles and kilometres. Apart from that, the magazine is entirely metric.

I presume that this magazine uses metric exclusively because it is aimed at an international audience. Compare the metric usage in this British magazine with most of the non-specialist media, especially the national newspapers. When other British publications use metric units, these units are often given with an imperial conversion in the misplaced belief that their readers do not understand metric units.

The use of common measurement units that readers all over the world can understand (i.e. metric units) is essential to comprehending the statistics used in this edition. The use of unfamiliar alien measurement units would impede readers’ understanding of the serious issues raised in the articles. The April 2016 edition of New Internationalist featured major articles about deforestation (their cover story), land degradation, links between nature and spirituality in Japan, two pages of forest facts, a country profile of Brazil, consumer culture, the right-wing political victory in Poland, a profile of Hillary Rodham Clinton and PISA educational tests. There were many more articles, including some small articles.

It is not my intention to provide an exhaustive list of all the articles that have appeared in a single edition of a magazine but to highlight how much poorer our comprehension would be if the measurement units used in the magazine were unfamiliar and alien. Thanks to the global use of the metric system, now used in every single country in the world, the publishers of this magazine do not need to worry about this possibility, something now taken for granted by us all. How different this situation was before the universal adoption of a single, simple and logical measurement system.

Further reading:

17 thoughts on “New Internationalist, a metric role model for the British media”

  1. It is so gratifying to see a British publication embrace an international perspective when it comes to measurement units. So different from the mish-mash and muddle I see on (for example) the BBC web site or on the otherwise extraordinary BBC nature documentaries. How telling (for example) to hear Sir David Attenborough describe an African river’s depth in “meters” and its length in “miles”!

    This last bit is yet another reminder of the unfortunate drag on metrication in the UK that continues to flow from Imperial road signs. One can only hope that Theresa May’s push for a “global Britain” (to be continued one hopes by her successor) will include embracing metric fully (to include metrication of road signs and cajoling the BBC to drop Imperial completely and everywhere) to truly fashion a global outlook for the UK.

    As Alexander Pope wrote so eloquently:

    Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
    Man never is, but always to be blessed:
    The soul, uneasy and confined from home,
    Rests and expatiates in a life to come.

    In this case I would change “life to come” to “government to come” (i.e. one that is ready to chuck the metric muddle into the dustbin!)


  2. It’s only a role model because it caters to a metric majority readership who would obviously complained or who possibly already did complain at some point in the past to any inclusion of imperial or USC.

    The English media is in the muddle it is in because the editors either choose against the greater good or demand and choose to use imperial. They may justify their decision by using as examples, a sample of complaints from Luddites who insist on the use of imperial.

    The English media can only be changed when the leadership is changed to a pro-metric leaning leadership. The same with the DfT.


  3. Just checked the Irish Independent and the Irish Times to see how they are reporting hurricane Irma. Nearly all of the units used in both papers are metric even though all of the US media reports everything only in Imperial units.

    What this tells me is that the Irish media converted (nearly) everything to metric from the information in Imperial that they were getting from the USA media. And they did this without including Imperial in parentheses after the metric units.

    To my mind this is yet another data point confirming the powerful and salutary effect of metric road signs in Ireland. Since everyone sees metric distances and metric speeds every single day they are out and about, it becomes totally natural to think in metric when talking about wind speeds or how wide the swath taken by the hurricane is. The Irish media I checked also reported rainfall exclusively in metric.

    For this reason I am still hoping the switch to metric road signs in the UK happens sooner rather than later. Perhaps Brexit will have the unintended consequence of speeding up that conversion (whether because of border issues between Ireland and NI or the possible independence of Scotland or a heightened awareness of the need to present to the world a truly “international” UK post-Brexit … who knows?)


  4. OK, this turned out to be so blatant and sad that I could not keep myself from passing this along. Witness this bit of weather news about Storm Aileen as it approaches the UK on the BBC News website:

    All the wind speeds are given exclusively in miles per hour …. not a hint of km/h anywhere during the broadcast or in the text of the article. I am quite sure this has to be because of the existing road sign calamity.

    Ironically, the presenter tucked in a quick bit at the end about the temperatures in the UK … all exclusively in Celsius!

    A quick check of the Irish Times weather page shows all relevant meteorological data in metric only, including the wind speeds in km/h (of course). Too bad we can’t get a Df that can see to reason and convert the signs!


  5. @Ezra Steinberg says: 2017-09-11 at 05:35
    The UK media have had a field day with their rain in inches and even feet! We still get all wind speeds in MPH, not a hint of metric yet on that one (I still prefer m/s).
    The good news is that those F things are all but dead now.


  6. BBC really does have a problem when it comes to consistency of measurement terms. I suspect that when a story arrives in USCS, the liberal arts muppets at Auntie are unable to convert to metric.


  7. BBC really does have a problem when it comes to consistency of measurement terms. I suspect that when a story arrives in USCS, the liberal arts muppets at Auntie are unable to convert to metric.
    Not their only problem though:
    “We’ve just heard that Building 7 has collapsed.”
    So what’s that building in the picture behind you, luv?”
    Ms. Jane Standley, can we just have a word?


  8. So, now I feel like I’ve gone through the looking glass.

    I am watching the BBC documentary “The Day the Dinosaurs Died”, which appears to have been broadcast on BBC2 in the spring. Amazing story that I always find most fascinating done in superb fashion as the BBC always does. Nonetheless, who would have imagined that the BBC reporters would be using Imperial exclusively in the documentary while the American scientists all used metric!

    How topsy turvy is that?

    Oh, one small concession by the BBC reporters to metric was when they mentioned temperature … but why are they still saying “Centigrade”? How daft is that?

    Finally, the piece de resistance: an article published last week on the BBC news web site mentions someone being rescued after falling “40 feet” down Arthur’s Seat. What? No metric? Nothing at all?

    Forgive me, but I am totally baffled. Is someone now running the BBC who is strenuously trying to turn back the clock? I honestly just don’t get it, folks.


  9. To jackthesmilingblack:

    As a liberal arts muppet myself, I would have you know some of us are quite metric-friendly and able!


  10. @Ezra wrote “Forgive me, but I am totally baffled. Is someone now running the BBC who is strenuously trying to turn back the clock? I honestly just don’t get it, folks.”

    My understanding is that individual BBC editors rather than the BBC Board itself have responsibility for the units of measure that are used.


  11. I looked at this weekends weather forecast (Met Office), the usual muddle – temperatures in metric, everything else in Imperial (mph, inches for rainfall).

    Maybe it is a faulty memory on my part, but I could swear that the BBC had long since started using mm as the measure of precipitation.

    I know that SkyNews weather uses mm and centigrade, but still uses MPH. CNN weather appears to be all metric (at least on the few that I’ve seen)


  12. I recently watched the David Attenborough documentary “Conquest of the Skies” which was shown on Sky… and found myself smiling as the scientific guests worked entirely in metric and cringed as Mr Attenborough switched almost seamlessly between metres, feet and miles (I don’t recall him saying kilometres at all). On at least one occasion a scientist had quoted a 5000 km distance and the naration, within about 20 seconds, replaced this with 3000 miles.

    Some days it feels like we’re moving forward, other days the complete opposite.


  13. Ezra Steinberg says: 2017-09-20 at 20:14
    “… Nonetheless, who would have imagined that the BBC reporters would be using Imperial exclusively in the documentary while the American scientists all used metric! …”

    I have mentioned this elsewhere in these pages. I am pleased someone else has noticed.
    Not only the BBC reporters, but the UK scientists also are the only ones to use Imperial when in an international group. The American scientists are well (painfully?) aware the rest of the world use SI. The UK scientists, anyone’s guess, I am not sure if they don’t realise the world is metric or so arrogant they think the world should move with them.


  14. Credit where credit is due, BBC TV, SE news have finally dropped ‘stones’ and picked up ‘kilos’ for animal weight.
    In a recent article on a baby Panther, ‘ … they weigh up to 125 kilos and are 6 foot long …’


  15. What a pity the ‘National Geographic’ does not follow this example instead of being opposite.
    Very recent news reveals the existence of a new comet A 2017 U1. Reading an article in a UK newspaper this was introduced variously as being ‘400m across’ and ‘23.4m miles from the sun’.
    Now the research has to begin to find out what they really mean, is that 400 metres or 400 miles across? National Geographic to the rescue, they say ‘several hundred feet across’ so 400 metres it is.
    Further into National Geographic it says the asteroid is ‘Traveling at 27 miles per second (44 kilometers per second)’ later we get ‘more than 98,000 miles an hour’, then later again ’26 kilometers per second (58,000 miles an hour)’.
    So there we have the definitive information from science correpondents. Can we trust any of it?
    If they confuse themselves with pointless conversions (26 km/s or 27 mi/s ?) then surely this indicates that they should all use just one system of measure that they themselves may get to understand.

    An article that should have consumed about 2 minutes of my time has taken almost an hour, and I am little the wiser!


  16. So, here is a bit of good news ….

    BBC reports on excessive water usage during the current heat wave.
    Amazingly enough, the volumes of water cited are only in litres and the temperatures only in degress Celsius.

    Just a fluke? One can always hope not! 🙂


  17. Ezra,

    Keep in mind that the BBC is a huge organisation comprised of multiple departments with multiple managers and teams. I’m sure the BBC does not have a single policy on measurement use and allows the individual reporter, editor, manager, team leader, etc to use whatever units they want. Thus if a particular team is working on a project and they want metric, it will be metric, if not, it will be something else.

    I’m sure that those who support the BWMA and work for the BBC will go out of their way to use imperial. Those who support metric will go out of their way to use metric. Thus the muddle.

    I’m sure the BBC gets complaints from both sides and just ignores them. There can only be hope when the government mandates the completion of metrication and the population completely goes to the metric side as was done in Australia.


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