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The media in a time of crisis

11 Mar 2020  |  Raymond Snoddy 
The media in a time of crisis

From scoops to damaged businesses, Ray Snoddy looks at how coronavirus is impacting the media and advertising sectors

In the midst of the coronavirus epidemic it seems a touch invidious to single out individual stories for praise.

The media has simply got to continue and get on with the job while journalists try to avoid infecting themselves.

But The Times splash has everything a journalist could wish for.

The Health Minister Nadine Dorries, one of those responsible for drawing up plans to contain Covid-19, tested positive for the virus.

She actually started to feel ill on Friday just as she signed a statutory instrument declaring coronavirus to be a “notifiable disease” enabling companies to get insurance cover.

What a story, and rather like one of those practice, examination interviews for trainee journalists when layer after layer is exposed if you ask the right questions, it got even better.

Dorries met hundreds of people last week including loads of MPs. Rather more questionably the MP then held a local surgery and met 50 people on Saturday.

As a story the icing on the cake came with the news that the Health Minister had, the day before she started to feel ill, attended a reception in Number 10 Downing Street to mark International Women’s Day in the presence of the Prime Minister.

Happily the Minister is now recovering, but it is still the story that had everything.

Setting journalistic sensibilities aside for a moment, it is also a paradigm of the risk we all now face.

A person at the centre of things doesn’t know she is ill, and there is no indication how she became ill, but could have inadvertently spread the virus in an exponential way.

Newspapers have obviously done the comparison between Italy and the UK and it is not reassuring.

Two weeks ago Italy had 153 cases of coronavirus. Now it has 10,000 and the country is in lockdown.

The UK has 319 confirmed cases, though nobody knows the true figure because of the patchy nature of testing.

In two weeks time will the UK be Italy?

Despite the limitations of extrapolation, perfectly respectable academics such as Mark Handley, professor of networked systems at London’s University College, believe everywhere else will be Italy in nine to 14 days.

Praise too for the Victoria Derbyshire programme on the BBC News channel – the programme the BBC plans to axe to cut costs.

The programme highlighted the response of other countries to the virus – rather to the detriment of the UK.

In Israel all arrivals have to convince the authorities that they have an acceptable place to self-isolate for 14 days, otherwise they are turned away.

In South Korea anyone can get tested whether deemed at risk or not, and those found positive have an app installed on their phone, which sends an alert if they leave their homes.

In the UK, until recently skiers returning from Italy talked of not even being given a leaflet of warning - never mind mandatory testing.

It’s the same everywhere with endless examples of the media doing its job.

The splash in the Belfast Telegraph carries the warning from a local virologist Dr Lindsay Broadbent that Northern Ireland could be two weeks away from a national lock-down unless effective measures are taken to prevent spread.

And yet in the parallel universe the real world goes on, apparently unaffected by what is happening in plain sight.

Thousands are attending the Cheltenham Festival as if nothing were happening, although the reality will very much be intruding in “the corona budget” with, at the very least, help for virus-distressed businesses.

The OECD notes that world economic growth is now at its lowest since 2009 with more decline to come, and with the slowing down of economic activity commercial media organisations will inevitably suffer in the downturn.

ITV’s results for 2019 show a creditable performance with viewing share flat compared with 2018, but that in turn had been the best since 2005. External revenues were up 3 per cent at £3.3 billion and although advertising was down 1.5 per cent, it had been down 5 per cent in the first half.

That was 2019 when the Covid-19 virus was safely tucked up in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

ITV, with understandable understatement, notes that there have been signs of “deferment” of advertising decisions by travel companies.

Deferment could only be beginning and manufacturers of toilet paper, anti-septic hand gels and pasta are unlikely to need much advertising of their products for the foreseeable future.

The broadcaster believes advertising revenue is likely to be down by 15 per cent in April in what will rapidly become the corona year.

However, the Advertising Association notes that the experiences of the 2009 crisis suggests that advertising is merely delayed and returns the following year.

Deadline arrives for BBC director-general applications

On such a big news day you could be forgiven for missing the fact that the deadline for applying to be the next director-general of the BBC in succession to Lord Tony Hall has arrived.

Given the political difficulties the organisation faces, it would be strange if there was a queue of senior executives from other broadcasting organisations willing to give up their jobs in exchange for the poisoned chalice.

That argues for an internal promotion, and while the sentimental betting would be on a talented young filly, this particular race looks as if it is coming too early for that to happen.

The favourite should romp home at odds of 2-1 on.

Tim Davie is not a BBC lifer, has extensive commercial experience in a previous life and has run major BBC departments.

He has also been a caretaker DG at a time of previous crisis and knows what the whine of grapeshot is like.

While it is important to have a competent and experienced director-general – nothing less will do - to draw up plans for what will be a difficult future, the crucial dynamic lies elsewhere.

The BBC has always been a near impossible organisation to run, where the boss pulls the levers and the staff continue on their merry way.

It is totally impossible to run when the DG and whoever chairs the organisation are at loggerheads and the chair is in the gift of the Government.

Lord Hall and the current chairman Sir David Clementi have jogged along together in a civilised way. This is unlikely to be repeated in future.

The likelihood is that the Government of Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings will put into the chair a place-person to carry out their warped vision of the future of the BBC.

Huge rows will then ensue.

One obvious candidate to carry any plans for the destruction of the BBC in its current form will be the yo-yo, former, former, Culture Secretary Lady Morgan – she who believes the BBC has lessons to learn from the collapse of Blockbuster.

There again, as The Times reports, events are in train and Boris Johnson may have larger things to worry about - much larger things - than pushing ahead with petty vendettas against the BBC.

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07 Apr 2020 

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