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Matt Hancock in Westminster, April 2020. Photo: Flickr/Pippa Fowles

Matt Hancock in Westminster, April 2020. Photo: Flickr/Pippa Fowles

Number Ten’s Covid-19 media strategy appears to be unravelling, notes Alex Snowdon

A few days ago there was a striking absence of media criticism of the government over its handling of the coronavirus crisis. Similarly, there was little opposition coming from Labour. Unsurprisingly, in this context of elite consensus, polls suggested high levels of approval for Boris Johnson and the government.

We have become accustomed in the last few weeks to events moving very swiftly. The shift in the political debate this week has illustrated how quickly things can change. Thursday’s newspaper front pages were dominated by attacks on the government over the issues of testing and ventilators. The last couple of days have been little better.

There is now an unmistakeable sense that testing is at the fore of the whole debate and the Tories are struggling to maintain credibility. These two points are linked: the government has failed dismally on testing, which has consistently been a massive weakness in the UK’s response to the pandemic. It is the cutting edge issue that is rapidly undermining public trust in the government’s management of the growing public health crisis.

Adopted

Mainstream journalists have apparently begun to notice what some of us have pointed out previously: some countries, like South Korea and Germany, have adopted a far more serious approach to testing and consequently seen much lower death rates, avoiding an exponential spread of the virus on a comparable scale to the UK. There was also disbelief from some of the media at two barely believable figures announced in recent days. One was the revelation that only 2000 NHS workers had been tested (this is now growing, but incredibly slowly); the other was the news that a whopping total of 30 ventilators were on their way.

This is a reminder that the smoothest media operation can always be undone by reality. The harsh facts on the ground – the rising death toll, the pitiful lack of ventilators, the shortage of personal protective equipment, the low levels of testing and contact tracing – are colliding with the government’s projected image. Popular discontent is growing.

The government’s daily media briefings had, until the last couple of days, been a very effective ideological weapon. They do more than just provide useful information. They allow senior government figures to frame the entire political debate. The elite journalists asking questions have proved largely complicit in allowing government representatives to do precisely that.

These briefings are an opportunity for presenting the government as embodying national unity at a time of national emergency. They were of course intended to be prime ministerial briefings, projecting Boris Johnson as a stout, capable and determined Churchillian leader at a time of crisis. Since he tested positive for Covid-19 he has been unable to deliver the briefings personally, undermining them as a chance to boost his leadership image.

The frequency (daily) strengthens the impression of the government being highly engaged and interventionist. In recent days, though, there has been the growing sense that ministers actually have nothing new to announce, falling back on banal platitudes and the repetition of airy promises. The involvement of ostensibly impartial senior experts gives added authority, implying the information being presented is neutral and unchallengeable. In fact this represents a very contentious politicisation of the role of senior medical and scientific figures, with politicians cynically using them to give the dubious impression of scientific objectivity.

Framing

There has been a strong emphasis for a little while now on people taking personal responsibility. It can feel in these briefings like the government is holding the people to account, not the other way around. Responsibility is shifted from government to people. This constant emphasis on the public’s good behaviour deflects from the urgent political issues that need to be addressed.

The messaging has undeniably become smoother. There have been no more tactless mis-steps like referring to ‘herd immunity’ or telling us our loved ones will die, as Johnson notoriously did on 12 March. The media have assisted the government in all of this, generally accepting the dominant framing. Until the last few days there were not enough questions about key issues like testing, contact tracing and ventilators. But this is now fracturing under the pressure of events, accentuated by scientists, health workers and trade unions speaking out on issues like PPE and testing. 

At the start of this week the government was evidently sustaining a high level of public approval. I’m not convinced that remains the case.

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​

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