Why water companies are stuck with their stagnant image

Last Saturday, the Independent chose to lead its front page with an old story about the world running short of water. The UN is again warning of a global crisis, with the threat of river wars between countries. Yet, earlier this month, I found little evidence of media interest in a statement by the major English and Welsh water and sewage companies committing themselves, in times of drought, to make hosepipe bans, rota cuts and standpipes ’a thing of the past’ while promoting the efficient use of water and water-saving devices.

Last Saturday, the Independent chose to lead its front page with an

old story about the world running short of water. The UN is again

warning of a global crisis, with the threat of river wars between

countries. Yet, earlier this month, I found little evidence of media

interest in a statement by the major English and Welsh water and sewage

companies committing themselves, in times of drought, to make hosepipe

bans, rota cuts and standpipes ’a thing of the past’ while promoting the

efficient use of water and water-saving devices.



I was fascinated to discover that, partly with this in mind, pounds 17

billion has been invested since privatisation in 1989. Another pounds 17

billion is planned for the next ten years, making it ’the biggest

modernisation programme since Victorian times and the biggest private

environmental programme anywhere in Europe’.



Last year, this making up for past public sector neglect stopped up

enough leaks to supply a city the size of Nottingham. Our water passes

99.5 per cent of its stringent quality tests. Ninety per cent of our

rivers are now of good or fair quality, according to the Environment

Agency, and a similar proportion of our beaches now meet European

standards.



The British have probably more to teach a world threatened by water wars

about safe water and sewage supplies than any other nation. Indeed, our

expertise is a nice little foreign earner. Yet hardly anybody has a good

word to say about our water industry. I am, of course, well aware that

the media’s definition of good news is bad news, of water being

allegedly infested with fat cats and that Yorkshire Water managed to

convert a triumph in never turning off a tap during 1995’s record

drought into a PR disaster.



But is this why the water industry is the butt, to coin a phrase, of the

media? To find out I spent a day looking at the Severn Trent company’s

highly impressive computer-backed personal customer care and leak

control systems. I am, of course, used to people moaning about the

press. I have been known to do it myself. But it seems that Severn Trent

does not expect anything good to be said about it by some editors

because, I’m told, they frankly admit they object to water, though

apparently not food production, being in private hands.



Everybody is entitled to their prejudices. And every editor is entitled

to express them in his editorials. But when those prejudices get in the

way of fair and objective reporting, it is clear that the well of public

information is being systematically poisoned. The last place you used to

expect to find this kind of news tainting was in the local media. Not

any more, apparently. If so, shouldn’t the PR industry compile a media

pollution index?



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