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Groundhog Day at the BA

Always different, always spookily the same; the British Association Meeting, held this year in South Kensington, London under the banner Creating Sparks, induced its usual sense of déjà vu in the BA Media Suite.

Could it have been Media Monitor's fifteenth BA? The blood runs cold; yet the BA is perhaps the most useful event of the year to anyone involved in the promotion of science with the media; a feeding frenzy for that select band of brothers and sisters who write science for the popular prints.

The BA freely admits that the media are now its main audience. Dedicated to promoting public interest in and understanding of science and technology, the real action at this massive event (and it was more massive this year than ever before) takes place not in the sessions but in the media centre.

Here a procession of bewildered scientists is paraded before the assembled media in a series of press conferences organised by the ever helpful, amazingly tireless and chirpy BA press staff. Every day the stories are different; but something unites those five or six that make it onto the pages of the nation's press. Because each day a kind of natural selection produces a convergent crop of science stories, each of which approximates to the same paradigm - that of the typical BA story.

Defining the "typical BA story" is not easy; but if you were to ask anyone in the room where Media Monitor wrote this sketch, most would rub their stubbly chins, shrug their shoulders and say that they would know it when they saw it.

The process of deciding the day's stories is fascinating to watch. Journalists gather blearily from about eight o'clock to prepare for the first of the day's media briefings. Clogged with cooked breakfast and poisoned by the petrochemical by-product that universities tend to pass off as red wine, this dogged, crumpled crew quickly selects a number of likely front-runners. Sometimes, stories that looked good in the release turn out to be old, rubbish or otherwise unsatisfactory, and fall away. Other stories keep getting stronger, and eventually - as each is subjected to scrutiny and draft treatments - a consensus emerges as to which ones stand up, and which do not.

The next stage consists of various (often painful) discussions over the phone with news editors. The case for each story is made, the potential for photographs and the need for graphics discussed. There are bitter arguments, hopeless pleading, shameful blackmailing and endless recriminations (after hanging up). But by the end of this bruising encounter, our hack has his mission. Five pars on GM strawberries. Three NIBs. Eight-par picture story with graphic on....

And so the day wears on; press conferences come and go and interviews are given, the day's stories are filed (often with more recriminations over the quality of the paper's software and the stupidity of its managers and computer staff). Towards the end of the afternoon, news desks start calling with bad news about large adverts (not large enough, though, to warrant putting on extra pages) or the breaking political story that's knocking stuff off the page. There are more recriminations about wasted effort.

In the midst of negotiating the daily hurdles of getting a story into a paper, science is the least of anyone's worries. At the end of this whole exhausting and wasteful process the only thing left to decide is whose reception to go to and drown your sorrows. And this is what anyone who wishes to promote science in the media must grasp. Journalists have plenty to contend with, without you throwing your own obstacles in the way. To get coverage you cannot do too much to make their lives a little easier. And you cannot expect them to put themselves out much for the sake of a soft story.
On day one, as often happens, the favourite streaked home. Professor John Burland, of Imperial College, told the compelling tale of how he saved the Leaning Tower of Pisa from collapse by sucking out mud from underneath, while (with his other hand, and by the reverse process of injecting grout) stopping Big Ben from falling into the Jubilee Line excavations.

It had most of the qualities for the "typical BA story". It was simple to understand in principle; it was about things that everyone has heard of; it had a link to the UK, which can only be an advantage, and - let's face it - it had a vague kind of phallic humour.

In describing the slight lean of Big Ben, which at one stage became even greater during the excavation of an underground car park in the 1970s, Burland remarked: "At the time we revealed the story, some wag said "MPs had always had the time - now they have the inclination as well"". He also described the process of rotating the tower of Pisa by remote control from South Kensington as "a bit like riding a bike by fax". Or taking a bath with your socks on, perhaps. A quotable scientist with a sense of humour has a fantastic advantage.

Although news desks protested that the story had already been around the block a few times, Professor Burland was able to present fresh figures showing how many millimetres closer to the vertical the Pisa Tower had moved the night before. In fact, either through training or because he is a naturally obliging man, Burland did everything right. He put himself to considerable trouble to supply journalists with graphics and models, and submitted gamely to having his picture taken several hundred times. And next day, all the papers devoted half-pages to geotechnical engineering.

And that's not something you see every day.