December 31 1999. Millennium Eve. Most of the adults in the western world are out in search of alcohol and hectic self-indulgence, and almost certainly most of the journalists are out there with them, but a few have stayed back in their newsrooms. Along with the police and the doctors and the fire brigade, the journalists have a job which is too important to drop just because everybody else is out at a party. And this holds some consolation, because millennium eve looks like being a good night to be a journalist on a late shift. This is the night when a very big story is going to break, all around the world.
All it needs is for the sun to move across the planet, hauling the darkness behind it, for midnight to strike, and, hour by hour, country by country, computers will die. And with them may die the world's electricity grids, its telecommunications, its water supplies, its defence networks: the entire corpus of veins which carries the lifeblood of an electronic society faces sudden death from the technological equivalent of a cardiac arrest. The journalists know it is going to happen, because they themselves have written the stories which have predicted it. The millennium bug is finally coming.
This is a story with the finest of journalistic pedigrees. It has been running for years at great length, not only in the tabloids but also in the most prestigious newspapers and magazines which are published in the world's most sophisticated communications systems. In Britain, they have explained: "Life-saving hospital equipment and 999 services in London face total breakdown on January 1 2000." (London Evening Standard)... "National Health Service patients could die because insufficient time and thought have been devoted to the millennium bug." (Daily Telegraph).... "Banks could collapse if they fail to eradicate the millennium bug from their computer systems." (Guardian)...... "Riots, terrorism and a health crisis could follow a millennium bug meltdown" (Sunday Mirror)... "All trace of pension contributions could be wiped out in businesses failing to cope with the millennium bug." (Independent). The threat is not merely that systems will fail and cause chaos in the organisations which rely on them, but that some of those systems will carry on working and choose their own terrifying new course. "The millennium bug could cause prison security doors and cell doors operated by computer to open," according to the Independent on Sunday, while the Times has told its readers of a "Nato alert over Russian missile millennium bug" and reported "alliance fears of an attack from the East by rogue nuclear weapons systems".
In the United States, in the same way, the best newspapers in the land have joined the coverage: "The millennium bug looms." (New York Times)... "Year 2000 - a ticket to disaster." (San Francisco Chronicle)... "The computer time bomb." (Seattle Times)... "A date with disaster." (Washington Post)... "Countdown to 'Y2K meltdown'." (Chicago Daily Herald)... "The day the world crashes." (Newsweek). Stories have gone beyond merely describing the threat. Some American journalists have pointed accusatory fingers at the rest of the world, with a sequence of stories such as one in the Chicago Tribune in March 1999, headlined "Many nations are unwilling or unable to fix possible computer woes, leaving the US in peril." The LA Times, in August 1999, revealed that the solution to the threat was itself under threat: "Some fear sabotage by Y2K consultants; foreign contractors in particular may be infecting programs as they fix 2000 bugs, US security experts warn."
As it turned out, we know very little of what really happened on that long-awaited night. That is, in part, of course, because very little did happen.
In Britain, a tide gauge in Portsmouth harbour failed. A desk-top computer in a weather station in Aberdeen froze. The government minister responsible for dealing with the bug volunteered that these incidents were 'too trivial to mention'. There was also a businessman in Swansea who reported that his computer had more or less blown up on millennium eve, but then discovered that he was suffering from a mouse with loose bowels which had made a mess of his circuit board.
Later that night, in the United States, where the finest newspapers had joined the lowliest television networks and supermarket magazines in relaying the scale of the Y2K threat, John Koskinen, the chairman of President Clinton's Council on Year 2000 Conversion, declared: "At this point we are not aware of anything that is broken as a result of Y2K." Bruce McConnell, director of the International Year 2000 Co-operation Center, agreed: "From an infrastructure standpoint, we expect a continuation of the non-event."
Across the world, it was the same non-story. No planes fell out of the sky. No power stations melted down. And the great non-event struck not only those countries which had spent years defending themselves against the bug, but also those which had done little or nothing to prepare for it. There was no story in China and India where, the world's press had warned, governments had been so lax that the bug would disable their power grids and their communication systems with the possibility of riots as the social infrastructure collapsed. There was nothing, too, from Russia and Belarus and Moldova and Ukraine, countries where the threat had been so recklessly ignored that, as millennium eve approached, the US State Department had issued formal travel advisories to alert American citizens to the risk to their health and safety if they were to go there.
There is a second reason why we know so little about what really happened that night: most of those journalists who worked late in search of the promised catastrophe, wrote nothing at all about the great non-story. No Millennium Bug? No global crash? No crash even in those countries which had failed to protect themselves? No truth at all in hundreds of thousands of news reports and background features and confident comment which had run through just about every newspaper and broadcasting outlet in every country on the planet, stories which had been running for years and which were still running only 24 hours before the great night finally arrived? No truth in the mass media? Well, there's no story there. So it never got written.
Encouraged by these stories, some governments had spent fortunes in public money (and secured no better result than those who spent next to nothing). Journalists reported that the British government had spent £396 million on Y2K protection. They also reported that it had spent £430 million. And that it had spent £788 million. The American government had spent far more, they said - $100 billion, or $200 billion, or $320 billion, or $600 billion, or $858 billion, depending on which journalist you were reading. Anyway, it was a lot. Beyond that, the private sector had spawned a mini-industry of companies selling millennium bug kits, while publishers turned out bug books and bug videos, and estate agents sold bug-resistant homes, and a few families sold their houses and fled to remote cabins in order to give themselves a chance to survive the coming bug-related chaos. But this was not a story.
The sun rose on January 1 2000 like the lights coming on at an orgy. Everybody who had been so busy - the journalists, the governments, the bug-related businesses and the computer experts - all picked themselves up, hoped nobody was looking and quietly tip-toed away.
You could argue that every profession has its defining value. For carpenters, it might be accuracy: a carpenter who isn't accurate shouldn't be a carpenter. For diplomats, it might be loyalty: they can lie and spy and cheat and pull all sorts of dirty tricks, and as long as they are loyal to their government, they are doing their job. For journalists, the defining value is honesty - the attempt to tell the truth. That is our primary purpose. All that we do - and all that is said about us - must flow from the single source of truth-telling.
So, millennium eve turned out to be a terrifying night for journalists. It was in itself a stunning example of a failure in truth-telling by the global media. Whatever the truth was about the possible threat to computers that night, the world's journalists clearly had gone a long way beyond it. It was symbolic too: the new millennium arriving in darkness; the truth lost; and the truth about the losing of that truth then lost as well. The millennium bug is only one example of a systemic weakness which quietly has overwhelmed the communications media, leaving governments all over the planet and their billions of citizens embarking on a new era in which they continue to pour time and energy and money into frantic activity which frequently proves to be built out of untruth.
This is Flat Earth news. A story appears to be true. It is widely accepted as true. It becomes a heresy to suggest that it is not true - even if it is riddled with falsehood, distortion and propaganda.