Journalists and social distancing: Time to tackle hypocrisy of media scrums

Journalists and social distancing: Time to tackle hypocrisy of media scrums


Not adhering to social distancing guidelines is one of the stories that has recurred throughout this pandemic.

When Neil Ferguson advised a nation to stay at home to keep the transmission rate of coronavirus down his position became untenable when it emerged he was a secretly meeting his married lover in breach of his own guidance.

And news that the PM’s advisor Dominic Cummings drove the length of the country during lockdown has prompted outrage from a population who thought we were all supposed to stay at home no matter what.

So pictures of journalists flouting the two-metre rule as they jostled for position to photograph and video Cummings in the last seven days are worrisome on a number of levels.

These are possibly the same photographers who have pictured members of the public failing to observe social distancing on beaches and in parks for front-page news stories.

And these cameramen are likely from the same broadcasters which roasted Cummings for an hour in the garden of Number Ten on Sunday. One word sums this behaviour up: hypocrisy.

This strikes at the heart of the question posed by Brian Leveson when he launched his 2011 inquiry into press standards: who watches the watchmen?

During the coronavirus crisis journalists were rightly designated as key workers because of our profession’s vital role in transmitting public health messages.

While parliament was suspended, and before the election of Keir Starmer to the Labour leadership, the press played the part of the official Opposition during daily Covid-19 briefings.

Our industry is, in my view, the most important one in the world – because it is the business which all others rely on for information and to shine a light on corruption.

If journalism stands for anything it must stand for holding ourselves up to the same standards we expect of others.

And if any other section of society flouted social distancing rules in the way that journalists apparently did around the Cummings story they would be rightly pilloried.

The Leveson Inquiry came about because the Press Complaints Commission said that phone-hacking was a criminal matter and not within its remit.

So for successor body IPSO to respond to the “numerous enquiries” it has received about journalists flouting social distancing by saying this is a matter for the police does not cut it.

The first sentence of the Editors’ Code, the set of rules which underpins everything IPSO does, states that its job is to “uphold the highest professional standards”.

Breaching social distancing rules which have been put in place to save lives while covering a story about someone breaching social distancing rules is not living up to the highest professional standards.

Individual photographers can’t be expected to choose between their livelihood or being the one person to take a principled stand in order to avoid crowding and thus miss their shot.

IPSO should take a lead and work with member editors,  as well as broadcasters and news agencies outside its membership, to ensure journalists can operate safely and that hypocritical media scrums are avoided until social distancing rules are relaxed.

Picture: Victoria Jones/PA Wire



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Author: Dominic Ponsford

Dominic Ponsford is the editor of Press Gazette


6 thoughts on “Journalists and social distancing: Time to tackle hypocrisy of media scrums”

  1. Interesting take . The problem is not that the press are failing to combat fake news it’s that they are generating it – just read a set of headlines and then read the articles . It is not journalism it’s twitterism. I hope that’s not the future of journalism but it’s hard to see how to reverse it.
    “The press played the part of the official Opposition during daily Covid-19 briefings. ”
    Why ? I didn’t vote for the press to do that – that really is not their job at all but they seem to use this as an excuse to hound people. run campaigns of their own and provide biased coverage and don’t do any real research anymore. You have to have accountability, responsibility and be elected to be the opposition. The press have none of these. If they want to be politicians then stand for election. The EU annual survey (media) has shown that the UK press is the least trustworthy of any EU country. Our press is right at the bottom. The next one up the list is Greece with double the trust level so we are a very long way down. That’s pretty appalling and any professional news presenter or real journalist should be reflecting on how it has come to this.

  2. ‘EU annual survey’ puts UK press at bottom shocker . . . might I suggest the contributor is also biased?

    If he believes social media should be ignored by the print media, he is also living in a dark age of when people bought newspapers in huge quantities.

    If he can’t see that the role of the Press is to hold authority to account and campaign on behalf of the public, he should do some ‘real research’ and avoid commenting on subjects he has no experience of working in?

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