We're all going to die! That's the verdict the British press has reached. The news some 150 people in Mexico have died of swine flu - a relative of the H5N1 bird flu that exercised the media a year or so ago - and its spread to North America and Europe has sent newsrooms around the country into a tizzy. And not a few people too. According to the Daily Mail, there has been a surge in sales of Tamiflu as people panic buy up available stocks. Unfortunately swine flu is the new kid on the viral block and it will take some time before custom-made treatments are available, by which time either the pandemic has swept through and/or the media are whipping the public up into a frenzy about something else.
The situation with swine flu is potentially serious. Some commentary doing the rounds on the blogs and forums draw attention to the 2,000 or so a day who succumb to Malaria, which hardly ever draws media notice outside of special features. But to use this fact to dismiss swine flu as just a media driven panic is mistaken. Malaria is hemmed in by climate: swine flu is not. Given its virulence and despite the relatively slight number of fatalities it is only right and proper the authorities are taking the relevant precautions. In this case it is much better to be safe than sorry, especially as the current spread has caused the World Health Organisation to raise its alert level to four, the level of sustained human-to-human transmission.
Nevertheless there is a stirring of a panic and the British media are doing their damnedest to encourage it, purely for reasons of market share and profit. In newsrooms cut to the bone by capricious and unaccountable media bosses swine flu is mana from heaven. Journalists only need sign up to the relevant government and medical agency feeds and spin what's coming out of them. The result is dramatic and sexy headlines and a very short term rise in circulation at little or no extra cost to the papers themselves.
This comes at the price of a sober analysis of the facts. But far worse is the abdication of social responsibility, of which the British press has a long and inglorious history. The most infamous probably remains News of the World's campaign of naming and shaming convicted paedophiles. This saw several innocent people attacked by vigilantes because their names happened to be the same or similar to those published by Murdoch's odious rag. In one case even a paediatrician's premises were vandalised by a mob whipped up by NOTW.
Its reporting of swine flu certainly falls into this category. Sensationalist reporting is likely to see tamiflu wiped off Britain's shelves and encourage an influx of needlessly worried people into doctors' surgeries - wasting time and resources already rationed thanks to the marketisation imposed on the NHS by the government. But whatever happens the media barons will wash their hands of the consequences.
Unfortunately this kind of irresponsible reportage is hardwired into all media organisations to one degree or another. As private enterprises they have no choice but to compete for advertising revenue and readership/audiences - otherwise they will go under. In theory this competition should drive up standards (how many times have we heard that mantra?). But in reality it generates structural pressures to dumb down and sensationalise. To get away from this the media's big institutions need completely restructuring, and the starting point should be taking them out of private ownership.