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December 23, 2020updated 30 Sep 2022 9:54am

Comment: Is it time for news media to stop feeding the hamster wheel of fear around Covid-19?

By Mike Gilson

Former newspaper editor Michael Gilson has watched the pandemic story unfold from the other side of the fence (as a PR consultant working in the health sector). He hasn’t always liked what he has seen (book extract). 

I’ve had a recurring nightmare this year. I’m in a room full of people bemoaning the general standards of journalism on the pandemic. Everyone is agreeing with me, nodding furiously. 

I look again and I see a man in purple who looks like David Icke, there’s another wearing an anti-vax T-shirt, another mumbling about the left-wing bias of the BBC, one claiming the virus is a myth and, towards the back, I think I see the orange comb-over thatch of the 45th President of the United States. How did I end up in this gang? 

 I awaken with a start. Relief floods in but so does something more unsettling. Is it possible that I do belong to these outliers? That by lamenting, what I see as, the supine nature of much of the output of my former trade I do so through the prism of some newly-found combination of libertarian and conspiracy theorist sensibility. 

 I have to shake myself. This isn’t about the pandemic. It’s about journalism. In which case, I conclude, I remain deeply anxious about what I see from the outside. And that, fundamentally, is a real scarcity of consistent questioning and analysis, a dearth of robust criticism and a partiality which is not serving audiences who are having to navigate their way through this dark story.  

 The result is that my nightmare room friends are able to move into the space and find traction in the recesses of some minds for theories that are largely lunatic.  

 I know slightly more about the pandemic, but only slightly, than the average man and woman in the street, if we can still use that analogy in these stay-at-homes times. I’ve recently been working on the ‘dark side’ and have had some insight into the public health and governmental effort to tackle Covid-19. Without saying much more than that, it has been chaotic and stressful as you would expect. 

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 In the early days, by way of preparation, I found myself at Zoom meetings asking the ‘journalist’ questions, such as whether the death figures being reported concerned people who had passed away ‘of Covid or with’. Answer came there none. Be careful, I warned the frozen faces on the screen, you are about to face a forensic onslaught from the media that you must be ready for. 

The truth is it never came. Neither did the obvious question about how hospital deaths were being calculated.  It was left to academics (later condemned as right-wing stooges by some) to point out that someone who had been run over by a bus 28 days after leaving hospital having been treated for the virus was still being classified as a Covid death. Not one question about why the Nightingale Hospitals had virtually no patients. Indeed I can’t recall an explanation appearing anywhere in, what the conspiracists in my nightmare room would call, MSM. 

 There are too many other examples to dwell on here but as time went by and the tough inquiries never came into my office it was easy for a recent outcast from the trade to wonder whether, as with Brexit, the media was too impoverished or, in the case of the BBC, too cowed to fulfill what, I had always taken for granted, was one of the requirements of all good journalists, namely to be fearless in the search for some kind of truth. Maybe I’m simply too old fashioned. 

Unlike Brexit, this time a rising bodycount appeared to be adding to the chill factor. 

I tried not to be conspiratorial but when two journalists in respected media outlets told me their newsdesks had told them their organisations were not to be poking around but, instead, ‘telling it straight’ (ie. passing on government narrative) to a clearly worried public it was hard not to fear the media had voluntarily placed themselves in a self-censoring wartime situation. And I’m talking First World War here. 

Surveying those early days it was clear the, by-now, default mode of reporting online reaction was an easy and safer fallback position.

It wasn’t Derbyshire Police using a drone to stalk that poor couple walking their dog in the Peak District that sticks in my mind. It’s the widespread coverage of the NHS nurse (she was anonymous so we don’t know who she was or where she worked) filming and berating a group of identified lads sitting with their bikes in a park on a scorching hot day during lockdown that I can’t shake. Nor the instant lynch mob commentators who added their wisdom to the bottom of the stories. Hopefully, we will look back at our reaction to ‘stories’ like this and shake our heads at the collective abandonment of our senses. 

 Raw emotions, instant reaction and the passing on of opinion substituted for analysis and rigour in most places almost from the off. On that we should, perhaps, not be surprised. In fact it is debatable that the role of Social Media in the pandemic is worth that much of a mention. We know it was amplifying falsehoods, echoing prejudice, confirming positions, feeding itself, because that is what it does.  

But it was a golden opportunity for journalism to remind people what it is for, especially at a time many more people came looking. Whether it took that chance is worthy of study. I really wish I could say that I think it did. 

My own experience of local press reporting on Covid is depressing and I do not for an instance blame the foot soldiers on the ground. There are far too few of them to have the time to keep digging, probing.  

It was entirely predictable that the regional industry bodies and chief executives would use the pandemic to argue to government that their work proved ‘independent and trusted’ local journalism should receive financial aid to keep it alive. Predictable and laughable.  

I have argued before that local rigorous journalism does indeed need a new form of public funding but it sure as hell should not be going to companies who have contributed to the neglectful state that left residents in huge swathes of the country unable to count on their local newspaper to tell them what was going on.   

Elsewhere, of course, it was often a case of ‘you pay your money, you take your choice’. If you felt teachers and lecturers should stay at home keeping schools and universities closed you’d search out The Guardian, which on some days felt, and still does feel, positively panic-stricken, even shrill, about events. If you thought Wetherspoons should stay open come what may, similar views in the Telegraph could be found.

The pandemic is as much about politics (and thus life philosophy) as it is public health as I’m sure any quantitative analysis of the above two titles would illustrate. Incidentally, it was remarkable how few dissenting voices were given house room in the former title. Was this a real retrenchment into the heartlands? It felt like it. 

 As for my nightmare room BBC hater, was he right? For the most part the corporation went with the flow, the ‘national mood’ if you like, platforming the government line, finding little space for opposition voices. For BBC News finding diversity of opinion is tough when it is hard-wired to think of balance through the prism of Government and Opposition. For an ‘institution’ that thinks largely in terms of other ‘institutions’, finding voices to oppose when those two sides are on the same page gives it problems. 

 As in all cases there were notable exceptions (take a bow Health Correspondent Nick Triggle with your cool analysis of the facts and figures) and some excellent reportage (Fergus Walsh’s Inside An ICU Unit fighting Covid-19 comes to mind).

But overall the BBC has failed to question hard enough and rarely took a holistic approach to reporting the effects of lockdown, including the economic outlook (as much about life and death as anything else) mental health and cancer treatment. Instead these were virtually treated as separate news items leaving us to join the dots if we cared. To be fair this was a fault of the media throughout. 

 A small example, if I may,  of what concerns me about some aspects of the coverage of Covid-19. Why is it that Professor Neil Ferguson, epidemiologist of Imperial College, London has a season ticket to the BBC Radio 4 Today hot seat but Professor Sunatra Gupta, epidemiologist of University of Oxford does not? The former is in favour of hard lockdowns to break virus spread and the latter supports the unfortunately named ‘herd immunity’ principle, believing the young and well should get on with their lives while the vulnerable are protected.  

 When Ferguson appeared he was in general given a pretty easy time (given that some of his predictions on earlier virus spreads can rightly be questioned) yet when Gupta did make it on she was generally roughed up as if the presenter was representing the collective affront of the nation. 

I am desperately unqualified to judge their positions but if I were back in my room would not the conspiracy theorists be having a field day? 

 There is a serious point here. There is more than one view about how we beat, or learn to live with, this dreadful virus. But only one narrative held sway. One of journalism’s jobs is surely to help us understand them all.

We are now on a hamster wheel of fear. Is the media, with its daily tally of deaths and infections, creating this or simply reflecting both the reality and the feelings and thoughts of its audience? Hundreds of thousands of words have been written on this theoretical subject before but, in the future, this will surely be where the research on Covid and the media will be concentrated. 

 While parts of our media landscape have always been agenda-driven and politically motivated, in general the primacy of objective, revelatory journalism has held sway. Unless we are to somehow rediscover this journalistic mojo, lost amid technological, societal and economic upheaval and exposed by the fractures caused by Brexit and Covid, we risk the rise here of US-style media outlets peddling ‘world view’ news agendas to the converted.  

 That will be bad for society cohesion and certainly bad for what we currently understand as journalism in this country. But the prospect will have my night time friends nodding furiously.   

Michael Gilson is a former newspaper editor of, among others, Belfast Telegraph, The Scotsman and The News, Portsmouth. He now works in communications. He is an associate fellow of the School of Media, Film and Music, University of Sussex and has recently graduated with a Masters (Distinction) in Garden and Landscape History at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London. 

This column is an extract from Pandemic; Where are we still going wrong? (Bite Sized November 2020). Available to buy on Amazon.


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