BBC accused of hyping fuel shortages into a crisis by Tory councillor

Motorists panic-buying petrol across the country are the result of “hyped” stories about shortages in the media, a Tory council leader has said.

Petrol forecourts across the country have been packed since Friday, with drivers filling up their tanks as reports emerged that a shortage of tanker drivers was threatening supplies. 

As a result of a massive increase in demand, stations saw their supplies run dry over the weekend, although Boris Johnson on Tuesday said the situation was stabilising. 

Martin Tett, the leader of Buckinghamshire council, says media coverage at the start the crisis helped spark the panic buying in the first place.

Speaking on BBC News on Wednesday, Tett said: “Frankly, I hadn’t heard Labour or the Lib Dems flagging this as a petrol crisis until Saturday morning.

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - 2021/09/28: Cars queue at a reopened Shell petrol station in Islington as the fuel shortage continues. 
Many stations have run out of petrol due to a shortage of truck drivers linked to Brexit, along with panic buying. (Photo by Vuk Valcic/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Cars queue at a reopened Shell petrol station in Islington on Tuesday as the fuel shortage continues. (Getty)

“I actually think this was difficult to foresee and to a large extent I think the media have a lot to take account for on this.

“I saw the news on Thursday night with the BBC running this incessantly as their top story and I said to my wife, ‘This is going to cause a panic, the way this is being hyped is going to cause a panic.'”

The leading story on the BBC News at Ten on 23 September was the energy crisis and expected increases in bills, with its second top story introducing the issue around petrol availability in the following way: "BP and Esso close some of their petrol stations because of a shortage of lorry drivers. Downing Street said people should buy fuel as normal."

The coverage was accompanied by a report from Sherborne in Dorset, in which BBC reporter John Kay described locals going "pump to pump... hunting for fuel in Sherborne. The town's only petrol station was expecting a delivery... but nothing turned up."

The report went on to outline that other pumps nearby did have fuel and that BP and other major firms said the shortages were restricted to isolated parts of the UK.

The next day, transport secretary Grant Shapps told BBC's Today programme he would move “heaven and Earth” so that petrol and other goods can continue moving around the country easily.

How the BBC reported the petrol issue on 23 September
How the BBC reported the petrol issue on 23 September

He said: “I’ll do anything which actually helps. The big query actually is where is the blockage? What we do know is that there are a lot of people who have their HGV licences but many of which will have lapsed to come out of the market, often because there has been cheaper European labour.?

Tett added: “We have plenty of fuel in this country. What's actually happening is people are panicking.

“People have a habit of panicking when they hear this word ‘shortage’.”

Behavioural expert Stephen Reicher also suggested media reporting on the issue was a factor in people rushing to the pumps to fill up their tanks.

He tweeted: This is not a crisis of panic buying. Listen to people. They are not panicking. It is a crisis of believing that others are panic buying…

“And that belief is not only a function of talking about panic buying. It is also fuelled by media values which value a crisis over mundane reality, prefer a picture of empty pumps to working pumps and thereby inflate the impression that you must fill up before it is too late.”

Reicher added that reports on the issue “focus on anger and conflict” and the media should “focus on the dull normality”.

In his first public comments on the issue, the prime minister said on Tuesday the situation was “stabilising” and urged motorists to fill up their tanks as normal.

He said the government was putting in place preparations to ensure “all parts of our supply chain” – not just petrol – were able to “get through to Christmas and beyond”.

But industry sources have suggested the shortages will last for another month, while Steve McNamara, general secretary of the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association in London, said there was little sign of the situation improving on the ground.

However, the head of of one fuel supplier said it appeared “the worst is behind us” and there could even be a fall in demand in the coming days.

James Spencer, managing director at Portland Fuel, told the BBC: “Lots of people have filled up their tanks now, so you might actually see a dip in demand and the replenishment of fuel at petrol stations is a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week job, so as we speak the petrol stations are being replenished.”