OPINION: PR would differentiate risk from reality

The prize for the weekend's hilarious headline goes to the Sunday Telegraph. It quoted Ken Livingstone: 'Blair and I are closer than most Cabinet members'.

The prize for the weekend's hilarious headline goes to the Sunday Telegraph. It quoted Ken Livingstone: 'Blair and I are closer than most Cabinet members'.

We could well believe it if Mr Livingstone were not such an incorrigible tease. The daftest headline was in the Independent on Sunday on the Hatfield rail crash: 'How on earth are we going to stop a disaster like this happening again?'

I do not, of course, object to making transport safer for us all. But the hysteria that greets every rail disaster - while car accidents kill 3,000 people each year - is entirely irrational. It is futile to suppose you can eliminate accidents on rails by fallible men on fallible rails. It is, however, entirely reasonable to try to reduce the chances of their happening.

Perhaps that is what the IoS meant. If so, it should have said so. But somehow I don't think it was. Press and public have come to believe they are entitled to expect all risks to be eliminated and to sue when they aren't, apparently finding satisfactory solace for the loss of loved ones in a fat compensation cheque secured by ambulance-chasing lawyers.

The Hatfield rail crash and this week's wise-with-hindsight report on BSE, not to mention promised compensation for families of those who have died from CJD (even though there is no proof BSE has crossed the species), underline the need for a public education programme on risk and reality. Frankly, I find it amazing that the bosses' unions - CBI, IoD, ABCC, etc - did not collectively invite the PR industry decades ago to tender for such a contract. The time is long overdue for a campaign to inform the public that almost any activity you can mention carries with it risk and the extent to which industry goes to reduce it.

Let's just take Railtrack as an example.

Under its cost-benefit analysis of life-saving, according to the Sunday Telegraph, it uses the figure of pounds 3.2 million.

In other words, it won't install something if the cost of saving a life is more than that. But that is well over three times more than the value the public, in university surveys, put on a life (pounds 1 million). But local councils have a much lower threshold - pounds 100,000 - for road schemes. So Railtrack is prepared to spend 32 times more than your local council on life-saving measures. And look what thanks it gets. I once found in a nuclear document figures showing BNFL at Sellafield were being required to spend pounds 250 million on reducing discharges to save, according to independent analysts, one notional life in the next 10,000 years.

It's all very well saying you find this putting a price on people's lives nauseating. But that is inevitably at the root of insurance industry practice. All this explains why I feel impelled for the first time in this column to tout for business for the PR industry.

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