The media is truly excellent at manipulation. Take the UK’s recent petrol and diesel shortages as an example. A “leak” from a private meeting between government officials and industry leaders suggested that the chronic shortage of lorry drivers – which extends far beyond Britain’s borders, afflicting much of western Europe and even the United States – could make it harder to ensure fuel deliveries to petrol stations. The inevitable and quite predictable result of the press reporting this as if it were imminent was panic-buying; a run on fuel.
It wasn’t until the media-reported “leak” that the panic-buying began, which led to the very fuel shortages that headlines screamed were coming. In short, the UK’s current fuel predicament is entirely a media-created problem, but I doubt very much that the responsible parties will ever be held accountable.
The same is true of other instances of panic-buying over the last couple of years. The infamous toilet paper shortage at the beginning of the pandemic was, once again, a media-created firestorm. And many media outlets, particularly tabloids, haven’t stopped trying to create more “shortages” to report on ever since. They prioritise sales, clickbait, and the revenue that panic-inducing headlines provide over any semblance of journalistic integrity, taking photos of supposedly “empty” shelves in supermarkets and showing them to the world under exaggerated headlines promising imminent doom.
My first ever job when I was still at school was working in a convenience shop in a small town. On any day of the week it was possible to find an empty shelf – most shops and supermarkets don’t have large stockrooms any more, with the just-in-time delivery system bringing everything on a daily basis. By the time evening rolled around, some shelves could look pretty bare. It’s at these times of day that many tabloid “journalists” and their photographer allies sneak into supermarkets to snap pictures of empty shelves in a desperate quest to keep the public buying newspapers (a dying format) or clicking on headlines proclaiming that we’re all about to starve to death.
Even if there are individual industry-specific shortages or supply chain problems, these aren’t going to be permanent. The fuel panic has already blown over in much of the country, with only the London area still fully in the grip of the crisis. And promises of additional drivers and tankers backed up by the army should see that settle within a matter of days. Likewise in food, where certain products have been out of stock. These things don’t last forever, because it’s in everyone’s interest, from the government to the shops to their suppliers, to figure out solutions as quickly as possible. The only ones who benefit in any way from these shortages – or reported “shortages” – are the media.
So why, then, am I finding it hard to resist the temptation to join in and start panic-buying?
Partly this is an anxiety thing, and folks who suffer from anxiety to a worse degree than I do must surely be feeling awful right now. Headlines are screaming of shortages in fuel, meat, fruits and vegetables, and even proclaiming that Christmas is about to be “cancelled” due to a lack of festive food and toys. For people with mental health conditions, these kinds of headlines are just awful.
The rational part of my brain is fighting the irrational side – as it always has to. Are there enough lorries to transport everything I need? Will I have enough food? Will I be able to get enough food for the cats? What about my medication? What about cat litter? What about bin liners? What about this, that, and the other things?
It’s so very tempting to say “I’ll just pick up a couple of extras.” That doesn’t feel like panic-buying, and I can even rationalise it to myself by saying that I’m not panicking, I’m just being sensible and taking precautions in case other people start panic-buying. Besides, the supermarket won’t miss a couple of extra tins of potatoes and packets of cat food, right? They’ve got loads of stuff on the shelves (despite the false pictures printed in the newspapers!)
The problem with that mindset is that, when everyone does the same thing, shops run out of everything more quickly. When people who have their tanks half-full stop by the petrol station for a top-up “just in case,” fuel runs out. And that’s exactly what we’ve been seeing over the past week. People who didn’t need to buy fuel, and wouldn’t have under normal circumstances, have started queueing up to top up their vehicles in case there’s a shortage caused by panic-buying… not realising or acknowledging that they themselves are part of the problem.
It’s an easy trap to fall into. And it’s easy to talk oneself into it, too. After all, if there’s even the possibility of things running out, it makes sense to jump in ahead of the panic and stock up, right? The mindset of “other people panic-buy; I’m just being sensible” is a way for all of us to rationalise what is really not rational behaviour. The fear of missing out, of sitting at home without food or toilet paper or petrol wishing we’d taken action sooner is pushing people on, spurring them to take irrational action and do the wrong thing at the wrong moment.
In the west, most people have never had to experience a genuine shortage of anything. In the UK, there haven’t really been any major problems or shortages since the 1970s, meaning anyone under the age of 50 can’t remember the three-day week or rolling blackouts. There hasn’t been a petrol shortage since fuel protests in the year 2000, and that was swiftly resolved. While there were supply issues for a few select products – like toilet paper – early last year that are certainly playing into people’s fears, it’s been a generation since the country last endured any major shortages.
With no experience of hard times to fall back on, people are more inclined to panic. Some genuinely fear starvation – though their girth suggests that such a fate would take a very long time indeed. But most people simply fear the unknown: what will a world without easy access to abundant supplies of food look like? Not knowing leaves folks much more inclined to panic.
The media as a whole is being phenomenally irresponsible, though certain publications are worse than others. The incompetent government isn’t helping, of course, and things like a cut to benefits (welfare), a lower-than-expected rise in pensions, tax rises, and major price rises for electricity and gas bills all pile on top of the supposed shortages, adding to a sense of unease and worry among the population. On a personal level, I’m seeing my income shrink right at the moment my bills rise. With people already worried about paying for the basics like food and heating, the threat of food supplies drying up or no fuel at the pumps was the last straw for a lot of people.
It’s understandable, then, why people feel compelled to join the queues at petrol stations or push their way into packed supermarkets to chase down the last roll of Andrex. And I can take some degree of comfort in knowing that I’m not the only one who feels that way. Fighting the urge to panic-buy isn’t easy… but it’s worth doing. In fact, it’s the only way to prevent more panic-buying in the long term. That and not buying any newspaper with a red top or clicking on a clickbait headline on a poorly-coded website.
I’m going to try hard to avoid succumbing and contributing to the panic. Hopefully the reward will be a government that pays attention and actually takes action to fix the systemic issues that got us to this point – but I won’t hold my breath for that. Until then, I think I’m going to take a break from the news and focus on happier things. Like re-watching yesterday’s episode of Star Trek: Lower Decks. Damn, that was a fine episode.