An infuriating pantomime
The real surprise about the government's daily COVID-19 briefings is the seeming inability of journalists to hold those in charge to account, writes Ray Snoddy
The daily 5pm ministerial news conference and briefing on the latest state of the Covid-19 virus seems like the perfect exercise in democratic accountability.
A succession of senior ministers, flanked by scientific and medical experts, not only brief on the latest information but take questions, and more recently as they have become more confident, even encourage follow-ups.
Live television from responsible ministers behind the lecterns, direct from 10 Downing Street. How much better than the behind-closed-doors Lobby briefings of yore by “a senior Government spokesman".
No place to hide.
For the home workers and the serious isolaters the event adds a little structure to the day – a time to serve the cocktails or a crisp Sauvignon Blanc while keeping an ear out for the worst.
Alas the daily briefing has rapidly turned into an infuriating pantomime and the journalists are largely to blame.
You expect ministers to turn their sunny side to the cameras and dissemble and waffle and be economical with the truth.
Slightly more surprising is the fact that the scientific and health professionals also behave like “the politicians” of their professions and duck, dive and deflect almost as skilfully as the real politicians.
The real surprise however is the seeming inability of the journalists to hold those in charge to account.
Dear God, more than 12,000 people in the UK have died and that terrible toll excludes countless others who have died at home or in care homes.
In place of outrage at the biggest threat to society for more than a century, outside of world wars, there is a matey exchange of views with politicians often on first name terms with their supposed interrogators.
With very few exceptions, in place of tough, pointed, questions exploring why so many more people are dying in this country compared with other nations which made different policy choices, we get self-indulgent journalistic waffle.
Few journalists can resist asking multiple, unrelated questions, which allows the platform to divide and conquer and others occasionally displaying enormous triviality.
The format is difficult but it should not be beyond the wit of professional journalists to use the occasion to get to the heart of the matter and follow up each others' questions towards a conclusion.
Is there a single viewer who is not reduced to screaming impotently at the screen the questions journalists should be asking, as day after day the virus equivalent of Get Brexit Done – The Right Thing At the Right Time – is trotted out by Ministers.
As Alastair Campbell has pointed out, the toughest questions are the short ones with a factual answer where it is reasonable to expect the person being asked to know it.
He gives two obvious examples.
For First Secretary Dominic Rabb – “Do you still think it was a good idea to have allowed 250,000 to amass at the Cheltenham Festival after the WHO had officially declared coronavirus a pandemic?”
Then a follow-up could have gone: "And how many people have now been infected or died as a result?"
A second might have inquired whether the fact that 3 million people were still using the London Underground when other countries were in lockdown partly explains why the capital has been so badly hit.
You get the idea, but there are so many other pertinent questions which have either not been put, or properly pursued.
Why is the Covid death rate in the UK rapidly heading towards being the worst in Europe?
Why was the advice of one group of scientists accepted, apparently without question, when a greater number of equally qualified experts were arguing the opposite?
Why do you continue to say that enough protective clothing was either already there or on the way when it clearly wasn’t?
Why have deaths in the community or in care homes either been ignored or downplayed until very recently, and why have hospitals discharged patients into social care without testing - thereby endangering the lives of other care home residents and those who look after them and their families?
Perhaps as the daily performance continues journalists will sharpen their pencils and up their game, at least out of self-respect.
Some media outlets are rising to the occasion, not least the Daily Mail - which can do outrage like few others. The danger is when the outrage is directed at the wrong jingoistic target.
Not this time.
The Mail has got its teeth into the care home scandal and shows no signs of letting go.
On Tuesday the paper led with the “Care Homes Catastrophe”, with 92 new outbreaks in 24 hours and a former pensions minister, Baroness Altman, saying the elderly were being abandoned like lambs to the slaughter.
The Mail’s next splash warned that 4,000 are feared dead in care homes, although no-one knows for sure because of the lack of testing.
The Daily Mail has also launched “Hancock’s 100,000-a day Virus Test countdown – 15 Days To Go" – when on Monday only 15,000 tests were conducted.
By Tuesday the care home scandal was building to such an extent as a story that it might have dominated the daily briefing.
By coincidence or design it was taken by the Chancellor Rishi Sunak to deal with the forecasts from the Office of Budget Responsibility that UK GDP could fall by 35 per cent.
An important story, but it meant that the dead and dying were mainly pushed off the front pages in favour of the plunging economy, which was hardly much of a surprise.
The odd 700 or so people dying in hospital of Covid-19 has almost become the new normal.
Curiously, ITV has produced a hero and a villain in back-to-back slots in the schedule.
The villain – Eamonn Holmes of This Morning - appeared to give credence to the mad conspiracy theory that the virus is somehow linked to 5G masts, a matter under urgent Ofcom investigation.
In an earlier slot, Good Morning Britain's Piers Morgan became an unlikely hero when he called out Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey when she declined to apologise for anything and stuck to the line that the Government had been fully prepared for just about any eventuality.
Despite everything, a Reuters Institute study of six countries including the UK found a majority of respondents in all the countries say that the news media have helped them understand the crisis and explain what they can do.
Using news organisations as a source of information is associated with a statistically significant increase in coronavirus knowledge in four of the countries – Germany, South Korea, the UK and the US.
Good - but few would argue that there is not room for improvement, not least at 5pm every afternoon in Downing Street.