Iceland: which is worse, Croydon or Coventry?
You would have thought Iceland's woes were already bad enough. With the krona plunging more than 30 per cent in value in one day, its main banks teetering on the brink of disaster and residents of the once-lauded â€˜Arctic Tiger' experiencing one of the worst â€˜morning after the night befores' imaginable, they are now faced with a terrible attack of identity crisis.
Â As our nation's newspapers and websites have tried to describe for readers this bleak piece of volcanic rock stuck out in the north Atlantic, the journalist's useful tool of comparison has brought very different results.
Â While the Sunday Telegraph described the 320,000-strong population of Iceland as â€˜the size of Croydon,' the Observer opted for comparing the island with Cuba for size, with a population similar to Coventry's.
Â The BBC took another tack, with: â€˜fewer residents than the English city of Leeds', whereas earlier in the year, the same website compared it to Doncaster. The Independent, meanwhile in another recent report, chose to compare the land of ice and rock with Newcastle.
These comparisons paint a picture in the reader's mind - they are, to journalists what simile is to writers of literature. Unfamiliar as most of us are, with the ins and outs of this most northerly European island - yes, we've all heard of Bjork but that's as far as it goes - we feel an immediate familiarity with it, described as having a population the same size as Coventry or Doncaster. We immediately feel sorry for those panic-stricken Icelanders as they tackle their massive mountain of debt. Interestingly, Hull has the same population size, but no one has used this comparison yet.
Comparison is a useful tool in the journalist's armour - although it can be over-used and over-relied upon by lazy hacks. Each time a new area of the Amazon rainforest is discovered to have been burned, it is usually either described as being â€˜the size of Belgium' or â€˜the size of Wales'. Indeed, those mischievous hacks at the Beeb once had an unofficial competition running to see how often anything could be described in terms of Wales - Vietnam is 14 times the size of Wales, the Falklands half the size etc. The principality almost became an official unit of measurement and even has its own humorous website: http://www.sizeofwales.co.uk/. After Europe-driven conversion to metric units, Belgium is now a more often used comparison (about one and a half times the size of Wales).
If I were an Icelander, madly stocking up on tins of food, as banks accounts start to freeze and the long cold Icelandic winter draws in, I would prefer to be compared to a resident of Coventry rather than Croydon. Coventry has a magnificent cathedral rising from the ruins of its bombed-out predecessor and a fine heritage in manufacturing. Croydon, erm, well it has a famous tramline. There is also something hopeful about Coventry - the city adopted a Phoenix on its coat of arms after the Second World War firestorm it suffered. If compared to Coventry rather than Croydon, Icelanders may feel that once their financial storm has passed, they too may rise and rebuild their shattered economy.