Saturday 11 April 2020

Our Compliant Media

When you thought Britain's media couldn't get any worse, oops they did it again. Casting our minds back to the last election, you will recall a flouting of impartiality rules, and the gentle back rub the Tories got versus Labour's time on the rack. Time and again as the campaign unfolded broadcast and broadsheet, telly and tabloid practically united to protect the government. And if they were allergic to such crudity, some supposedly of a progressive persuasion found their reasons to delegitimise and condemn Labour's challenge. It worked, it contributed to the noisy antipathy fed back to us time and again on the doors, but it wasn't an episodic thing. Different sections of the media, whether extensions of the Conservative Party or the supposedly liberal worked in concert to make sure Jeremy Corbyn was held to account, while in their turn Theresa May and Boris Johnson were afforded every courtesy.

That was then, but what does my bitter bellyaching have to do with now? Understanding why our media are miserably failing in the face of Coronavirus. Consider the case yesterday. 980 hospital deaths were reported (again, remembering the peculiar way figures are compiled these are not the deaths to have taken place in the previous 24 hours), making the UK host of the highest hospital-based fatalities in Europe. And yet, for a full day these figures were hidden away by the news sites most people use and trust. Heading to BBC News meant digging into the live feed - nowhere was it mentioned as a story in its own right. Which was in marked contrast to when Italy's toll peaked a week or so back. Given the choice between this grim toll and Boris Johnson's recovery, they splashed with his discharge from ICU. BBC Breakfast yesterday was similarly cringing, with Stanley Johnson treated as an authority on the government and "Carrie" (not Carrie Symonds) tweeting her support for the Clap for Carers hashtag deemed a newsworthy item. Meanwhile Tom Newton-Dunn, confirming how The Sun's political editorship has, in his hands, become pure grift wittered on about Johnson watching Withnail and I from the comfort of his hospital bed. Almost a thousand people dead and our fearless hacks were busying themselves with trifles.

After repeated call outs on Twitter, and the constant drip-drip of PPE shortages our professional chatterers spent pretty much all of Saturday finding their consciences, possibly because someone they respect has made helpful suggestions to spare their considerable blushes. And what do you know, at the very moment of writing today's sad tally of 917 deaths is featured as the BBC's main item. From the start our compliant media have proven indecently reluctant to ask tough questions - with pretty much the sole exception of Channel 4 News and sundry crowd-funded alternative media. Instead, collective hackdom have gone out their way to rubbish critical comments, run stories that legitimise patriotic citizens who've taken to curtain-twitching with alacrity, and amplifying Tory lines such as medical staff not using protective equipment properly, and reckless yoof going about our urban spaces diseasing people with yoga and barbecues. You can understand why some resort to conspiracy theory to explain this embarrassing shit show of coverage.

No conspiracy is needed. Hacks like to think and say no one tells them what to write, and to a degree it's true. They don't need to be told. Their employment is thanks to being part of the same networks, having broadly similar backgrounds, shared assumptions about the way the world works and, in the main, a consensus of what is important and okay to say about politics as those who oversee the media's output. And when alternative voices not beholden to the cosy spectrum of polite opinion gain a toehold, out come the knives. The hostility to critical comment within their midst is matched by their herd-like behaviour. A few key players determine the tone and they stick to their paradigm of the permissible, backed up and enforced in the final instance by the editorial office. Their failure is material, cultural, and shows no prospect of changing soon.

Which brings us to the Coronavirus coverage. Whether individual decisions or determined from above, the doxa of our media powers on the outbreak is spelled out by Allison Pearson: "The health of Boris Johnson is the health of the body politic and, by extension, the health of the nation itself." Crudely put, but true enough. With a national effort underway their responsibility is to be, well, responsible. By refusing to rock the boat, by happily assisting the push for scapegoats, by not being critical, by privileging puff stories, the Fourth Estate see themselves less an independent voice and more an adjunct of the state, the willing means by which the bio- and necropolitical priorities of Covid-19 management are discharged. Therefore as a voluntary arm of the state and at the disposal of the government, is it that shocking their coverage has proved, well, shocking?

The polls, such as they are, favour Johnson for the moment and are likely to for as long as this crisis persists. But there is frustration and anger building in the country at the visible blunders the Tories have made, its initial complacency, the lack of resources for NHS staff, tardiness over testing, and on top of it the farcical policing of the quarantine. Apologies through gritted teeth from Priti Patel won't cut it indefinitely. Discontent can't be held back forever, and when it builds up to critical levels, the media won't so much as articulate it but work to manage it. As they always have done.

Media power, however, is not unassailable. Despite the pathetic pleas of The Sun's Dan Wootton to buy a paper to keep journalism going for future generations, Coronavirus quarantine is accelerating the decline of the press and imperilling its institutional strength. Likewise, Corbynism might be over but the movement remains, above all its networks and nascent alternative media. The longer the crisis persists, the steeper the decline in circulation, and the looser its grip on opinion formation, and the more opportunities there are for left messages to cut through. If there are any silver linings to this awful crisis, a speedy collapse of the press's power to frame and disseminate their commonsense is one of them.


dermot said...

Priti Patel didn't apologise. It was a classic non-apology apology in which she apologised for peoples' FEELINGS.

She's a Sociopath.

Blissex said...

My usual thesis is that the press in particular has little influence on public opinion because their main strategy is to pander to their readership, that is to pander to their prejudices, and since relatively few younger people read papers, that means largely pandering to the prejudices of Colonel Blimps and hang-n-flog old aunts. Sure they solidify the vote, and there is nothing remotely comparable to pander to the prejudices of the minority of press readers that lean left, but their impact on public opinion is pretty small.

This does not apply to the BBC and other TV groups: they are still fairly widely watched, except by the youngest cohorts, and the BBC in particular is still taken fairly seriously. The BBC can probably still help swing marginal seats, and that's why New Labour stuffed it with identity politics whigs, and various conservative governments have been stuffing it with tories (they consider the identity politics whigs as too lefty, even if they are usually thatcherites too).

But the constant Conservative pressure on the BBC to "reflect the point of view of the voters" seems to me to have had the effect to make many at the BBC, which has been subjected to several round of managerialism/birtism and the casualisation and elimination of many jobs, take notice never to say negative things.

Saying negative things about the government is mostly the job of the opposition and the media sympathetic to the opposition...

Unknown said...

The Best read I have had lately honest and forthright

ActonMan said...

Most example of 'community cohesion' and 'personal sacrifice' now being celebrated by the media are actually to compensate for failings of the present government. It's not surprising we're encouraged not to 'politicise this crisis'.

noggin said...

No, Priti didn't apologise; she implied that it was wrong for people to feel they'd been let down. Her manner is didactic, and patronising. Humility would endear her a great deal more to the British public; sadly she is incapable of it.

Dipper said...

Most countries are experiencing similar problems with testing and PPE for the same reasons - this is a crisis, and In a crisis you are always scrambling in the dark to try and get through to some kind of business-as-usual.

There isn't a Haynes Manual for this virus. You can't just go and order up some of those tests detailed in chapter 5. It isn't clear, for instance, how the virus kills people. Although advertised as a respiratory illness, there are a worryingly significant number of cases of youngish people of apparently normal health who go down hill and die in hours, and often they seem to have very low oxygen levels. Some doctors have reported patients sat up in bed being fully conscious when according to their blood oxygen levels they should be in a coma. There are suggestions the virus attacks red blood cells destroying their ability to carry oxygen, so it is similar to Altitude sickness. With this degree of uncertainty, making decisions that in retrospect were the best ones is impossible.

The media and commentariat approach to problems in the NHS has been quite astonishing. In most organisations, disgruntled staff would complain to management and management would have to respond. But with the NHS, disgruntled staff put a video on twitter then reporters play it to the PM and ask what he is going to do about it. The NHS is a large bureaucracy. There are people whose job it is to specify and source equipment and drugs. Should they all be fired? It should be obvious that if there is a problem it is in the centralised state-run construction of the health service, not that in December we elected the wrong person to be purchasing manager for the NHS.

And if your criticism of the media centres round Allison Pearson, then you are shooting at the wrong target. She is a columnist with a particular viewpoint, largely based round emotion and feelings. She writes novels that get made into Hollywood films rather than rigorous analysis. But on this occasion she is correct. We had three years of fussy politicians unable to accept a democratic referendum and trying to overturn the result, politicians who openly thought the British people were the problem and rule by foreign powers was the answer. Boris gave us the opportunity to get rid of all that. If he goes, all the spirit-crushing soul-destroying anti-democrats will be back to rule over us.

David said...

Excellent post, Channel 4 news is the only thing worth watching.
It's worth reading Alistair Campbell about the press conferences, I too found Priti Patel's comments nauseating. They certainly did not constitute an apology of any sort.

Anonymous said...

Dipper, has it occurred to you that the way this cabinet led by your Brexit saviour has handled Covid is a perfect example of how they will handle your beloved Brexit?

There are no excuses - they had a six week lead on Italy, and now the UK faces a worse death toll, let alone Germany or France or Denmark. The numbers speak for themselves. It is a cabinet of killers, although in the Haig rather than Hitlerian sense. These WW2 analogies seem senseless given our leaders WW1 level of hopelessness.

Their complacency, naivety and basic incompetence has cost thousands of lives, just as these same qualities will ruin millions over Brexit (which is not to say that the cause they supported hasn't already).

It is a relief that Johnson has not died. As a person of the left, I wish no one (literally) ill, and let's face it, had he died he would have become a martyr and a saint (not least idiotised by the likes of you). This way he can and should be held to account.

Karl Greenall said...


Anonymous said...

Best wee read since lockdown.

Dipper said...

@ anonymous

The UK had a few weeks lead which it used to build up NHS capability. Italy and to some extent Spain ran out of capacity meaning many people died without getting to hospital. At the time of writing the NHS has had sufficient beds and capacity to cope with the demand, so the government plan is working.

The statement that the 'UK faces a worse death toll ... ' is one that has no sensible factual base. The figures for Italy and Spain are for deaths in hospital. An article in the Economist which looked at actual recorded deaths and compared to the number stated as being from Covid estimated only half the numbers are in the Italy figures and same for Spain. France has gone someway to concluding these numbers and saw a rise to over a thousand a day. We will not know the actual numbers until after the event, not because there are conspiracies or manipulation, but because determining what an old person with multiple health issues actually died from is not an exact science, and because in the middle of a crisis keeping track is hard. Making statements now about likely future outcomes reveals your unstated personal wishes rather than any superior intellectual capability.

The hysterical tone of many left-oriented commentators, as though there is some easy solution with zero deaths that the government has deliberately avoided, doesn't convince anyone other than the small group loudly voicing it. To repeat, this is a new disease. We are still in the dark about many aspects of it. Do you have any evidence that the government has not acted on the collective advice of the UK public health and other academic experts? Are you saying that a Corbyn government would have ignored that advice and somehow, in the fog of uncertainty that characterised the beginning of this crisis, chosen a better path?

Seriously, running around shouting that you knew better convinces absolutely no-one and is just highly irritating. You just make yourself look as if you have no judgement at all.

TowerBridge said...

Adding to the general comments, I thought this was a good post too.

Dipper's sophistry is interesting but grasping at straws. Was there a Haynes manual? Yes, the WHO had given guidance, our neighbours and immediate comparator countries are doing this better (e.g. Germany) and as a consequence people will die. We are projected to be the worst affected or one of the worst affected countries in Europe.

What about historical comparisons? The government of 2008 was far better prepared for SARS and had built up reserves of PPE. It was destroyed and seen as unnecessary when the Tories took power.

That brings me to specific examples where failure of this government and it's predecessors have been most acute and where the BBC in particular has failed in its duty to hold the government to account. These are:

1) The lack of planning, spare capacity and equipment provision in the NHS due to cuts
2) the lack of social care provision due to austerity
3) the lack of clear communication due to the decision to cut the Central Office of Information in 2011 (thanks to Lord Francis Maude) and
4) the lack of action to assist those in vulnerable housing situations, such as generation rent (coincidentally 25% of current ministers are landlords as opposed to 4% of adults in the UK and coincidentally a 3 month mortgage holiday helps the rentiers enormously).

It is important in a democracy to have the capacity to change your vote. What would it take for Dipper and people like him to change theirs?

Surely Michael Moore can't be right and that it takes some kind of personal stake in this?

Dipper said...

... just to go on about this, if you were to choose one politician to publicly call out, surely it would be Sadiq Khan? The tubes have been packed when we know that close contact will spread the virus. Transport workers have died.

I'm not going to publicly blame him because none of his know the advice he had been given at any particular moment in time, the choices, the balances of outcomes in making a judgement, and because in a crisis everyone is making decisions in the dark. But if you are going to decide to call out politicians at this moment, then surely he is on your list?

Anonymous said...


"The figures for Italy and Spain are for deaths in hospital."

As are the UK figures. On Friday the UK daily hospital death toll surpassed anything in Italy or Spain.

The point is that these were avoidable - Greece, for example, saw what happened in Italy and adopted Italy-style policies immediately, limiting infections and deaths. Greece.

"The UK had a few weeks lead which it used to build up NHS capability." What a nauseating lie. PPE.

The UK, meanwhile, prevaricated over approaches, it's politicians pursuing a policy of herd immunity before u-turning, too late. They were still explicitly permitting mass gatherings like Cheltenham, while Johnson was attending rugby matches and boasting of shaking hands, while hundreds were dying in Europe. They are massively behind in testing (not so much a u-turn as 360 degrees). They blamed not participating in an EU drive to purchase respirators on a fucking missed email FFS. 'A National scandal' the editor of the Lancet called it weeks ago. It certainly is.

"The hysterical tone of many left-oriented commentators" Too fucking right I am hysterical. 10,000 have died, possibly many more, families have lost multiple members, and many of these thousands have and will have died unnecessarily as a result of government incompetence. Even fucking Johnson almost did, how much obvious can it get?

You can wheel out your apologetics for these murderers as much as you like but the facts are not on your side and no matter how many excuses you and they make death will be your judge. I repeat the UK death rate exceeds Italy, 6 weeks after Italy, as if Italy never happened, they had learned nothing. It is not inevitable and you can't wriggle out of this because there are clear examples of other countries whose governments acted with competence.

Of course this will make no actual difference to your walnut-brained reasoning and the real elite, because, like Brexit, you have enough interests on your side to finesse it, as you did/ will with Brexit.

The WW1 analogy could not be more spot-on - while they were still sending the troops over the top they still had broad public support. It took the dust to settle for the full horror to sink in. In time as grieving families accumulate and the truth comes out, just as in the years to come over Brexit, don't doubt there will be a reckoning.

Dipper said...

@ Anonymous

This is just nuts. The comparisons of the ration of hospital deaths to other deaths across different countries are freely available if you care to look, but looking wouldn't serve your purpose so you haven't bothered. You refer to testing - what test? how accurate is it? Germany is now saying they have wasted testing on too many healthy people and should have followed the UK approach.

As for PPE, exactly the same concerns are occurring over the whole of the world because the industrial capability to suddenly manufacture equipment in enormous quantities does not exist. Furthermore, the specification keeps changing whilst investigations of the way in which the virus is transmitted have taken place. And to repeat, the NHS has a large bureaucracy of purchasing and procurement managers. Is it your view that they should all be fired? Or do you think the prime ministers job is to personally check and sign every chit that comes across? Kier Starmer went on TV and complained Kingston Trust was running out of PEE at the point when they had announced they had obtained supply.

Non-scientists are making complete fools of themselves at this point. They behave like there are off-the shelf solutions, obvious answers, easy steps. There aren't. It's a new virus. We don't have answers. People demanding answers as though they are easy are just making themselves look like idiots.

The decisions on public events were taken on scientific advice. There is no empirical evidence about the degree to which the disease has been spread by large events rathe than through other cases. Any spread from these events has not resulted in the NHS running out of capacity, unlike Italy and Spain which did.

We are still in early days. Those countries that have gone into lock-down still do not have viable long-term solutions, and meanwhile their economies are cratering which will result in reduced ability to provide essential health services. There isn't a vaccine and isn't going to be one for years. Was is your plan?

There is a time for holding governments to account. The middle of a pandemic isn't it. Calling people murderers is just offensive nonsensical rubbish. You are just making yourself like like a fool. Are we to believe that off you were in charge we would magically have avoided all these deaths? What rubbish. Having a teenage tantrum is not politics.

Anonymous said...


'The comparisons of the ration of hospital deaths to other deaths across different countries are freely available if you care to look, but looking wouldn't serve your purpose so you haven't bothered.'

I repeat: on Friday the UK daily hospital death toll surpassed anything in Italy or Spain. You want other stats?


Difference -262

Italy was genuinely unprepared, the UK had weeks to prepare. The result - the same. Furthermore, Italy has an older demographic, higher population density and more social contact. This suggests that the virus is even more widespread in the UK as in the circumstances you have to try pretty hard to kill all those sick and vulnerable people, but hold on, here's an idea - while other countries enforce social distancing let's bring 250,000 people together over four days. That should do the job!

'Any spread from these events has not resulted in the NHS running out of capacity, unlike Italy and Spain which did.'

Where's your evidence of that, btw? Clearly Italian and Spanish hospitals were stretched but managed to cope almost as well as the NHS, given that they were hit 6 weeks ago. The point is infections. You do get that's don't you? I'm sure you do.

I note you do not address any of the other issues, either. As the Guardian today reports,' Britain did not take part in €1.5bn order for kit to protect against Covid-19 despite shortages in NHS'. This was a political decision, not a procurement decision. But hold on, maybe the dog ate that email too.

One of the few news outlets to continue to attempt to hold the government to account. The middle of a pandemic is precisely the time (just as in the middle of WW2 the press reported fully, for example, the Norway disaster) but in any case, you're toeing the line, dismissing justified criticism as hysterical or teenage. Ignorance is bliss, eh? Facts just bounce off your carapace.

George Carty said...

Blissex: My usual thesis is that the press in particular has little influence on public opinion because their main strategy is to pander to their readership, that is to pander to their prejudices, and since relatively few younger people read papers, that means largely pandering to the prejudices of Colonel Blimps and hang-n-flog old aunts.

Are younger people less likely to read newspapers because they prefer online media, or are they less likely to read them precisely because they pander to the prejudices and desires of the boomers?

The more likely reason why newspapers pander to the boomers is that they get most of their revenue from advertisers rather than the cover price, and boomers have by far the most purchasing power thanks to home equity release.

Dipper said...

@ anonymous

you assume all other data is correct. You will be telling me soon that China managed to sort all this out with very few deaths.

There are lots of reports of Hospitals with capacity and enough PPE. There are reports of PPE shortages in many EU countries such as Netherlands and Belgium, sp your point about the UK missing some EU/ PPE initiative is a complete miss.

It's a pandemic. It gets spread by people who don't know they've got it. You can make all the decisions you want but crises by their nature are hard to prepare for. But no, you would have managed to stock up with all the PPE without even knowing anything about when the next pandemic would be, what disease it would be and how it was spread.

If you think that grandstanding your views, saying if only people had listened to you how no-one would have died and somehow a pandemic proves you were right all along you are completely and utterly mistaken.

Dipper said...

... and whilst our are all blathering on about how Johnson is rubbish at running the NHS, have you stopped to consider that maybe it is the centralised bureaucratic structure of the NHS that is the problem? If it is true, as people on the left seem to be saying, that continental European countries have done better than the UK, then wouldn't the obvious conclusion be that we should move to a continental style national insurance scheme with private provision? Surely concluding that we have the wrong Prime Minister too personally administer every aspect of the NHS is a clearly illogical conclusion?

Phil said...

The centralised NHS of your imagination ceased to be in 2012. You might want to look up your government's track record in this area.

David Parry said...


Here's a better idea: instead of substituting one type of centralised bureaucracy for another (which is all privatisation does), why don't we have health services democratically managed by the real experts (i.e. those who provide the services), subject to input from the communities which they serve?

Anonymous said...

poor dipper, I can see you are getting rattled.

I provide you with statistics, you ask me for statistics, I provide you with statistics, you claim they are inaccurate. Of course! Bloody foreigners can't be trusted to tell the truth! You know what Italians are like!

Meanwhile in the UK, where they do things properly - 'Coronavirus deaths have been 50 per cent higher than the Government has announced, prompting the deadliest week since UK records began, new data shows.'

You swerve all other points then throw some diversions - I think you will find that the Italian health service is free at the point of delivery just like the NHS, incidentally - I'm beginning to think you must be Michael Gove.

You clearly come here to 'explain' a few things to us 'lefties' but you have nothing but half-baked opinions derived from whatever right-wing rag it is you consume, as vague and misleading as any Boris Johnson column. Facts are the arbiter of opinion, and your facts don't stack up.

As it is with Covid, so it will be with Brexit, but one thing we know you'll still be that bore propping up the saloon bar sounding off about how you were right all along. I would pity you, if it wasn't for the fact that people like you are precisely the same as the ones whose incompetence has killed thousands and whose delusions will blight the lives of millions. Drink up!

Dipper said...

@ Anonymous.

the virus has got me rattled. Your nonsense hasn't. The data that shows the government data is 'wrong' is .... government data! The left clearly believes that people fighting to deliver life-saving healthcare should down tools to compile data so you can have a rant.

Cherry picking data in the middle of a crisis is pointless stuff at best. But don't let me stop you.

The good news is the British Public consistently and repeatedly show in number that they have no time for modern lefties antics, for using every crisis as an opportunity to say 'see we were right'. You weren't, and you aren't.