The British press’ coronavirus coverage has let this country down

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Image description: Rupert Murdoch, executive chairman of News Corp, speaking at an event

Exiting the Rad Cam for the last time, I found myself lost for words as I passed the librarian behind the counter. After a moment’s hesitation, I uttered a sombre “good luck.”

What else could I say? It is not remotely usual for the University to close its libraries and send its students home because of a pandemic. It is not usual for the entire nation – and the world – to be under what is effectively house arrest. It is not usual for 27,000 Britons to die in a few short weeks because of a pathogen barely heard of four months ago.

And yet, a few things in this sceptred isle remain the same. Gotcha-journalism, sniping at the sidelines of our body politic in cynical attempts to score political points. Anonymous briefings by ministers, trying to shift public blame for their failures this way and that with the aid of a sycophantic, obliquely racist press which displays a deference to the politicians in charge along partisan lines.

Presented with such a mediocre response to the crisis by our leaders, a significant chunk of the press chooses to give the government a free pass.

All of which have contributed to a scenario wherein the global studies-busting, leader-felling, Olympic-postponing pandemic appears almost blameless, compared to the antics of the politicians and press barons who run this country.

The press, which you would hope would at least try to hold the government to account and speak for Britain during this crisis, have made a succession of questionable decisions from the very beginning of this disaster – all while imploring the public to “#buyapaper” in light of falling sales.

The most egregious misstep is worthy of something attributable to Pravda or other historical authoritarian mouthpieces: the printed media’s obfuscation of the scale of the disaster upon us, at a time where over 20,000 – 20,000! – Britons have died because of the coronavirus, with nearly a thousand dying per day over the worst of the peak, we saw headlines containing anything but this grim tally.

In front-page splash after splash, this figure was and is absent, or confined to a small easy-to-miss subtitle. The lion’s share of coverage goes to the personalities and priorities of government ministers. Most visible is the excessive attention paid to the personal welfare of the prime minister, around whom they appear to be building a personality cult.

Talking as a student who lurches from one essay crisis to the next, it’s clear that the Oxbridge graduates in government have not really changed since their university days. It would be funny if millions of lives were not at stake.

The health of the prime minister is of course very important. Like many others, I was deeply disturbed by the news of his admission to intensive care and relieved when he resumed work after his recovery just this week.

But these newspapers do not appear to have a sense of scale. The prime minister made a full recovery; ICU was only ever a “precautionary measure.” He never had to be attached to a ventilator. And it has to be said that he is, whatever his position, just one man.

Looking at the assiduous, near-obsessive coverage afforded to him in the headlines, though, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the very health, wealth, and greatness of Britain was invested in his person. With today’s announcement, one can only expect saccharine headlines to now turn their attention to the real issue of the land: the prime minister’s new child.

Meanwhile, in Chislehurst, Kent, mass graves have been dug because there is a fear that deaths will overwhelm the existing system. Mass graves, in the United Kingdom. When did this last happen? And we wonder, with such reports being ignored or downplayed in favour of adulation of our dear leader, why some people in this country do not take the crisis as seriously as they should.

Another air-brushing attempt by the printed press has to do with the experiences of ethnic minority communities in the struggle against coronavirus. The Mail and the Sun have repeatedly splashed across their front pages the faces of the nurses who are at the NHS’ front line. On successive occasions, all the faces have been white.

The first time it happened, could, of course, be chance. Though BAME individuals form a disproportionately large proportion of medical professionals in the NHS (14 percent of the population, 44 percent of healthcare staff), it is not impossible that photographs were selected from some ward that happened not have any BAME staff. Some accident or fluke, perhaps.

But the second time? It reeks of an editorial decision. Bear in mind that BAME individuals are not only overrepresented within the NHS but also in the menial (now “essential”) jobs bracket. Added to this is the fact that most fatalities among healthcare staff have been of BAME background.

Looking at the assiduous, near-obsessive coverage afforded to Boris in the headlines, though, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the very health, wealth, and greatness of Britain was invested in his person.

The British education system inculcates one with a certain view of Britain and what Britain should be like. A country of freedom, progress, fairness – “mightier and mightier yet!”. One of fortitude in crisis. One with heroic leaders – Churchill, Lloyd George, Wellington – who lead us through periods of great difficulty.

You’re probably aware that this government has presided over a litany of mistakes in handling the present crisis. From the “herd-immunity” farce, the lack of PPE equipment, the lack of ventilators, the inability to carry out mass testing, to the ever-present anonymous briefings that spark blame games between No. 10, Whitehall and even the EU. The government ignored the findings of Operation Cygnus in 2016, which was a simulated pandemic that showed the woeful state of their preparations, and the now the country is reaping the whirlwind.

Presented with such a mediocre response to the crisis by our leaders, however, a significant chunk of the press chooses to give the government a free pass.

And this is perhaps more worrisome.

In the same way as wandering lost across a pitted field is far more worrying in the dark, the absence of an honest reckoning with the gravity of the situation does two things.

First, the omissions and distractions make one doubt the fairness of the press – can even a national emergency not allow them to relax their partisanship? Second, the glaring omission almost speaks for itself – we all know that many are infected and dying. We know that the lockdown is absolutely necessary, but these papers’ readers will not notice the numbers that justify it. From the perspective of the Daily Mail and The Sun, the stats are like the dark family secret that is not talked about at gatherings. A ghastly elephant in the room. No wonder trust in the press has fallen during the crisis.

So what is the rub of all of this? Talking as a student who lurches from one essay crisis to the next, it’s clear that the Oxbridge graduates in government have not really changed since their university days. It would be funny if millions of lives were not at stake.

In a such a scenario where our government mishandles its response to something that was eminently foreseeable, the right-wing press keeps calm and carries on displaying its prejudices and partisanship with reckless abandon, and thousands of Britons die needlessly, maybe the proper thing to say to one another is, indeed, “good luck.”

Image credit: Hudson Institute @ Wikimedia Commons