Timid, bland, uncritical - British news media have failed in holding the government to account over the coronavirus crisis, explains Des Freedman
If you want to award a prize for worst headline of the Covid-19 crisis, there is an embarrassment of riches. Could it be the Telegraph’s opinion piece stating that ‘This pandemic has restored Britain’s faith in our political leaders’ or perhaps the Sun’s front page: ‘BORIS IS OUT (Now that really is a Good Friday!)’ on the day that nearly 800 people died in hospitals as a result of coronavirus? Or perhaps BBC Online deserves the award for leading with ‘Boris Johnson hails NHS staff amid Easter lockdown’ on the day that the figure for deaths in hospitals reached above 10,000? Or even the Times’ headline of ‘100,000 virus tests a day’ simply parroting the health secretary’s pledge to increase testing without focusing on the government’s utter failure, up to that point, to test even a significant number of frontline health workers?
These stories are symptomatic of the British media’s underlying obsession with power and a reluctance, in normal circumstances, to veer beyond a narrow range of views on what they consider to be the most pressing issues of the day. This means that politics is centred around the ‘Westminster bubble’, that government spokespeople are ‘reliable’ sources who have an intrinsically legitimate claim on the public’s attention and that securing (and representing) the ‘national interest’ is paramount. So when the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, insisted in his budget speech that ‘We will get through this [crisis] together’, he was greeted by the right-wing press as a saviour: ‘Dr Feelgood To The Rescue’ (Mail); ‘Nerves of Steel…Rishi’s £30bn war on Virus’ (Express); ‘Sunak’s Road to Riches’ (Times); when the Scottish first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, stated (in relation to coronavirus) that ‘We’re all in this together’, the BBC chose merely to amplify this perspective, presumably following on from the director general’s own promise that the BBC would help the nation ‘to pull together to get through this’.
Indeed, predictions of the inexorable decline of the BBC, under pressure from commercial giants like Netflix together with changing patterns of media consumption, are somewhat premature. More than 15 million people viewed Boris Johnson’s announcement of the lockdown on March 23rd on BBC1 alone while 14 million turned to BBC1 to watch the Queen’s ‘broadcast to the nation’ on April 5th. Ofcom figures show that 82% of the online UK population have turned to the BBC for news and information about Covid-19 with 36% of them identifying BBC TV as their main source of information. The BBC plays a hugely important role in how this crisis is narrated and in what ways government inaction can be identified and challenged.
Yet, according to the former Today presenter John Humphreys writing in his Daily Mail column, ‘BBC bosses are warning interviewers not to put ministers under pressure’ and that ministers are not being sufficiently pressed to give direct answers. The BBC of course denies this but nevertheless offers a worrying response. ‘It is the job of our journalists to challenge and question ministers on behalf of the public, while bearing in mind that we are in the middle of a public health emergency’. Surely, it is precisely because we’re in the middle of a public health emergency, that lies, evasion and spin need to be called out and named for what they are: an unacceptable risk to the public’s health.
We have seen regular evidence of this timidity in the daily Downing Street briefings in which a litany of government personnel, flanked by scientists to make them look more authoritative, talk up their achievements and attempt to paint the latest mortality figures in a positive light. Johnson or Hancock or Raab then sidestep the very occasional tricky question from lobby journalists (usually led by the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg and ITV’s Robert Peston) who appear more desperate to be first to a story than forensically to examine the government’s record and hold it to account. This inability to put the government on the spot has infuriated even the most seasoned and cynical spin doctor, Tony Blair’s former communications director Alastair Campbell, who has argued that ‘journalists need to sharpen up’. ‘Your role is to elicit information and challenge government on behalf of the public. It is not to get yourself into your own packages, let alone promote your own campaigns’.
All of this means that whole sections of the media have been largely supine in presenting an effective and systematic challenge to the government’s response to coronavirus and, in particular, in scrutinising its claims about testing, tracing and counting, about the availability of PPE and about whether ‘it was only following the science’ in first pursuing a strategy of ‘herd immunity’. These failures matter because without a tigerish press that was prepared to stand up to Boris Johnson’s laissez-faire attitude in the early days of the pandemic (remember his pronouncements that all you had to do to ward off the virus was to wash your hands regularly?), the government was allowed to embark on a course which has led to thousands of unnecessary deaths.
Of course there have been some important exceptions to the behaviour described above – not least the Reuters story linked to above which comprehensively illustrates the failure of the government to react appropriately to the threat posed by coronavirus. While the Mirror has been consistently strong on the government’s failure to provide sufficient levels of PPE, even the Mail has recently highlighted the scale of the crisis in care homes and, every so often, there is collective condemnation of government inaction over, for example, mass testing.
But why should be so grateful for the very occasional interruption of real combative journalism into our lives?
We are so used to anodyne and ‘insider’ debate on the BBC’s Newsnight that it felt genuinely refreshing to hear presenter Emily Maitlis open the programme on 9 April with the following words: ‘They tell us the coronavirus is the great leveller. It’s not. It’s much much harder if you’re poor. How do we stop it making social inequality even greater?’ Piers Morgan’s attacks on ‘political correctness’ are so much part of our breakfast routine that it was an unexpected treat to watch him tear into health secretary Matt Hancock over the government’s response to the pandemic. It was equally satisfying to read a Financial Times’ leader calling for radical policy reforms, redistribution and a far more positive approach to public services given the historic underfunding of health and social care, a story in Bloomberg News claiming that ‘This Pandemic Will Lead to Social Revolutions’ and, not least, a story in the business magazine Forbes with the headline: ‘Coronavirus And The Underserved: We Are Not All In This Together’.
That any of these stories could be broadcast or published in the mainstream media is testament not to a sudden outbreak of radical politics amongst the media elite but to the depth of the social and economic crisis facing capitalism today. It means that we’re not about to see a dramatic transformation in the behaviour of our most powerful news organisations but simply that the scale of the crisis, together with the huge surge of public support for the NHS and the caring professions more generally, suggests that elite domination of our news landscape is more fractured than usual. Hegemony is a more difficult job to pull off when the system itself is failing and when elites themselves are divided about the way forward.
Audiences appear to be recognising this and are far from happy with the overall performance of the media. A poll for Edelman carried out towards the beginning of March this year found that journalists were amongst the least credible source of information about coronavirus with 43% of the UK public trusting them as opposed to 83% for scientists; a poll by Kekst CNC in April found that there has been a significant decline in public confidence in the UK media in the last two weeks, supporting the findings of a more self-selecting poll of Press Gazette readers that revealed that just under half of its respondents claimed that their trust in journalism has decreased during the pandemic. This is a problem borne not of indifference to the mainstream media but precisely the opposite: the increased appetite for accurate information and robust criticism that can make sense of the Covid-19 pandemic.
We need a fiercely independent and critical media system that genuinely (to use the old journalistic cliché) ‘comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable’ – neither the risk-averse stenography of the BBC nor the clickbait of the major online news media. Indeed, the latter are facing a huge crisis of their own as coronavirus has simultaneously increased their audiences but eviscerated the advertising model on which they depend. This has led to widespread closures of print titles and the furloughing of journalists, further undermining their ability to perform the basic journalistic task of holding power to account.
We don’t know how life will change after coronavirus but, just as the pandemic has demonstrated the need for a radical new approach to funding the NHS and social care and for putting lives before profit, we can’t afford for our news media simply to return to ‘normal service’. We need a different kind of media – free of state loyalties and commercial instincts – to help build a different kind of society.
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Des Freedman is Professor of Media and Communications in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of 'The Contradictions of Media Power' (Bloomsbury 2014), co-editor of 'The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance' (Pluto 2011), Vice-President of Goldsmiths UCU and former Chair of the Media Reform Coalition.
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