Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
There is no way to gloss over what is currently happening all over the world, no way to play it down or over state just how awful the situation is. Yet the UK media is somehow managing to do all these things in quite an atrocious manner. They are somehow simultaneously fear-mongering and inducing panic behaviour, whilst also completely failing to hold the government to account for its mishandling of the situation. In a time where there is little else to do other than tune into the 24 hour news cycle or scroll through the headlines on your phone, the media has never commanded such an audience, and its irresponsible handling of this crisis from all sides of the spectrum has real effects.
The nature of COVID-19 is largely unknown; the world is yet to see a successful case of sustainably controlling the virus. This therefore means a lot of what is being said by experts, politicians and reporters is speculation. This is not to downplay genuine expertise, however the need to fill a 24-hour news cycle means we now have a lot of experts saying a lot of different things which leads to confusion on issues such as masks or immunity.
It is also leading to repetition of stories which do not need round the clock coverage. Of course, the health of our Prime Minister is important, however multiple ministerial aides an hour telling us that Johnson will run rings around you on a tennis court is unneccsary. Or more seriously, multiple legal advisors presenting a confused picture about the line of succession if the PM did take a turn. Dominic Raab having more power is undoubtedly a crisis within itself, however in the middle of a national emergency, the media should not have been fixated with the PM’s health or the possibility of in fighting within the cabinet. Raab is the First Secretary of State and will now leads the cabinet’s response, something the public did not show signs of misunderstanding.
The visible effects of the worry being felt, was seen in panic buying which left many unable to buy basic necessities, it was at this point the press should have stopped broadcasting these images as it was only encouraging more people to panic buy. The effects of the bombardment of ‘corona news’ takes a less visible but more worrying form in how it effects people’s mental health. Of course, a person can switch of the TV or put down their phone but in a situation so fast moving this seems hard to do. Therefore, the press has to be responsible in the news they are putting out. There is no excuse for spreading of hoaxes, misinformation on vaccines or an end date to all of this. CNN should be commended for not broadcasting Trump’s press conferences live as they are a barrage of confusion, lies and completely unintelligible advice. They will now inevitably spend the time talking about how unstable the President is which won’t ease people’s worries, but at least confusing messages are being filtered.
Which brings us to the issues with the UK daily press briefings. In short, they are a waste of time. Ministers are able to paint the situation in a way to sound like they have it under control without much bite back from reporters. Maybe its due to the nature of video conferencing but the questions being put to the briefings by journalists are almost all weak. They are convoluted, frequently repetitive and in search of headlines. Watching Professor Chris Whitty repeatedly explaining why he did not know the exact nature of the PM’s condition, that being because he is not his doctor, was incredibly frustrating to watch. The press are not asking anything which challenges the government’s approach, any well-trained minster can easily skirt around the comparatively tricky questions without having to worry that the journalist will push for further clarity. Without Parliament being in session there has to be some way to hold their action to account, these journalists certainly aren’t it. The government has failed and is continuing to fail the nation, the inability to probe on this shows how ineffective these briefings have become.
We are in a global pandemic; this creates panic in itself. Yet, the press is exacerbating this when it is most needed to reassure us. Emily Maitlis began Newsnight on Wednesday with powerful speech on social security, saying the virus is not the leveller politicians claimed it to be. She was widely praised for saying what should be completely obvious. The extent of how poor the performance of journalists in this crisis has been was simply highlighted in how well received Maitlis’ words were. A reporter being frank, honest and considerate is seemingly noteworthy. A sad story within itself.