On Call Kaye – March 11th 2013
Someone – was it Ron in Fife – stated that had there been a dozen deaths in any other sport or pastime in Scotland there would have been the highest levels of scrutiny and analysis. He’s correct – but you’d imagine BBC News thinks the mountaineering fraternity has buried its head in the sand and ignored all that has been happening. An old boss once told me there’s no point poking someone in the ribs and getting no reaction. Give credit where credit due – the mountaineering fraternity has been solidly poked in the ribs by (among others) the BBC. And the mountaineering fraternity has responded – but little of that response, by its nature, will hit the front page of the newspapers or the main 6pm or 10pm news.
In that very understandable context I am beginning to wonder whether Kaye Adams has something of a grudge against mountaineering. Or perhaps it is whoever is producing at BBC Radio Scotland for these programmes. Does the Call Kaye team liaise at all, for instance, with the BBC Out of Doors team? You do sometimes wonder.
The last time Call Kaye covered mountaineering she featured Dorothy Grace Elder making some ill thought through suggestions about mountain safety. This was closely followed by Newsnight Scotland picking up on the same theme and doing the same post mortem, albeit with Gordon Brewer being a good deal more sensitive and far better informed.
I was sufficiently concerned about these matters to have written an editorial piece for BBC Out of Doors - tinged with déjà vu given I had been involved in similar episodes during the early 1990s, whilst President of the Mountaineering Council. It might still be available on the BBC Out of Doors Website. You can also read what I said at an earlier blog [both recently and in 1994]. I phoned the programme several times yesterday to make similar arguments, but the producers would not put me through preferring (it would seem) the more misinformed comment available.
No one can deny that further deaths in the mountains are tragic and are cause for concern. I have concerns at the way this has been handled. For starters, the Call Kaye programme doesn’t seem able to make up its mind whether it is serious news or cheery magazine – yesterday covering antibiotics, mountain safety, last night's TV (Shetland) and wishful thinking about last days of freedom (linked to the Huhne/Pryce case). And I must emphasise my main concerns here are about the nature of this journalism - purporting to be ‘serious’ and ‘informed’. Since the first broadcast virtually all of the published commentary has been to criticise the Call Kaye programme and Dorothy Grace Elder and not to vilify mountaineering. Meanwhile the mountaineering fraternity has redoubled its efforts to get the messages and information out.
Let me explain why I am concerned. So-called facts have been repeatedly put forward as the case for the prosecution (so-to-speak) on these two episodes, based on hearsay, or personal experience, which are utterly wrong. A good producer would have been sufficiently briefed to have not allowed such nonsense to be pedalled as fact, even in debate. Let me illustrate.
On Insurance - Kaye repeatedly allowed callers to suggest that 'insurance was required in the alps'. That is simply not the case. It is not against the law to go climbing or skiing in the Alps without insurance. Folk often do just that - making a calculation that in the unlikely event of a rescue they will pay for it, rather than pay insurance premiums year by year. It is a matter of choice. Clearly the difference to be remarked upon is that Alpine Rescue is mostly funded by those who have been rescued rather than by the cohort who actually go mountaineering, as in UK. I was at a Mountaineering Club Dinner in Liverpool at the weekend which raised considerable funds for the Ogwen Mountain Rescue Team – a not unfamiliar event. Another difference Call Kaye blithely ignored was the simple fact that there is no National Health Service in many Alpine Countries such as Switzerland, although form E111 does cover medical costs within EU states. I fell and broke a rib last year ski touring in France - but the medical help I received was provided free and covered by my E111. So regarding insurance - Call Kaye has repeatedly pedalled a fallacy - which just pushes this very serious debate in the wrong direction.
David Gibson speaking yesterday on behalf of the MCofS did brilliantly, but as a responsible, publicly funded organisation chief, he can't just turn around and say to Call Kaye - "That's nonsense" and quote the BBC Charter about impartiality and balance. Not sure this programme even warrants ‘informative, educational and entertaining’. Moreover, the BBC can’t excuse itself and say that counter comment on Out of Doors provides the balance, given the differing listener audience and scheduled time of broadcast.
But it didn't finish there. Call Kaye continually linked this insurance misdirection to a rescue misdirection.
On Mountain Rescue - we simply have the best in the world. Can’t remember if Call Kaye actually said that? My deep respect goes out to the rescuers all the time. On the few occasions I have become involved helping or supporting, they never cease to amaze. It is magnificent to succeed in these difficult, lifesaving missions [there is a terrific understated tale of rescue heroism on Ben Nevis in this year's SMC Journal]. Heavy Whalley and Heather Morning both spoke authoritatively about these issues. But they were faced with misinformed journalistic grilling or having to debate with anonymous members of the public, who were on air because they held extreme views. Of course our hearts go out to these rescuers when they retrieve the victims - it can be a grim task known only to a few of the sport’s actual participants. However, the fact that this is a volunteer based service supported by emergency services and RAF Mountain Rescue is a fundamental part of what makes it so great. Rescuers themselves will virtually all tell you exactly this. Dorothy Grace Elder found the exception rather than the rule on this matter.
Fortunately Liz Smith answered all of this very well indeed.
We also know we have the best Air Sea Rescue service in the world. Their rescue (and military) prowess is in no small order down to their involvement in real life rescue. The day that RAF Air Sea rescue has to throw crash test dummies into the sea to practice rescue – and be unable to respond to real life public in distress or needing rescued down the road - would be a complete and utter travesty. It is not what the rescue services want or what the public deserve.
You will see from what I have written elsewhere that I vigorously believe that there can be no justification for death in the mountains and we must do all that is humanly possible to help prevent it. Participation statistics and such other comparisons I will leave to others. However one comparison I have made in the past relates to the RNLI and sea rescue. That is also voluntary and largely subscription funded. However they are not subjected to anything like the scrutiny exacted by the likes of Call Kaye, BBC Scotland News, or any other media for that matter. Why is this? Is it the mountains that make this different? The sea is just as dangerous. Whatever lies at the heart of this…I would not wish such ill-informed coverage upon them.
On Access to the Mountains – I listened yesterday morning while travelling through Scotland under a blue sky, with snowy white mountains on both sides. It was simply spectacular. I tried to imagine how any restrictions could be managed, let alone enforced. It is very difficult to reasonably work this through. Yet for the second time on air Call Kaye mentioned Alpine ski resorts closing lifts or pistes as a blunt counter argument to what many have stated about access restrictions. It is simply not a valid comparison. Of course ski lift operators have to shut in certain conditions because they have a duty of care invoked through the sale of a ski pass ticket. But that doesn't stop the mountaineer, or ski mountaineer, or ski randonneur from heading into these same mountains. That remains a matter of judgement for those involved. Exactly the same applies to pistes and piste marking where territory is apparently closed. That is done to maintain a duty of care, and not to prohibit folk heading off piste. Read the notices carefully and it is clear that this is “at your own risk” territory and experienced skiers / snow boarders frequently head into these, admittedly, riskier areas. They’ll carry transceivers, shovels, avalanche probes and increasingly airbag/avalung devices. They’ll understand the risk, manage the risk, and they’ll accept the risk.
Call Kaye repeatedly helps others to foster these misconceptions. Does she do this in the name of entertainment? Is it false logic posed to get at some deeper truth? Or has she simply not been briefed well? In which case does a similar degree of superficiality apply to all the Call Kaye back catalogue? I dread to think. We heard Call Kaye ask repeatedly about 'machismo tendencies' in mountaineering today – which is a trait hardly ever found amongst real mountaineers. You’ll encounter an understated humility in the face of the dangers in mountaineering, combined with a realistic degree of fatalism. The only machismo I could hear was that of the journalists bullish in their desire to perhaps put the matter straight – at least as they saw it.