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Raymond Snoddy 

About turn

About turn

Raymond Snoddy judges the award for top U-turn newspaper of the year.

The UK government has been criticised, rightly, for changing its mind and embarking on dramatic U-turns in its the response to the Covid-19 virus on an almost weekly basis.

To give just one obvious example, not so long ago it was vital for the sake of the economy and civilisation as we know it to get everyone back to work and into the office, in order to save our sandwich bars and city-centre dry-cleaners. Now it’s back to working at home.

That’s nothing. Many newspapers have so perfected the art of the flip-flop over many years that they can perform the perfect U-turn within 24 hours and keep it up as long as required.

There are many candidates for top ‘U-turn Publisher of the Year’, but certainly The Sun has unsurprisingly taken an early lead.

The front page of Tuesday’s Sun – ‘Bad News At Ten’- reported the body-blow to readers that pubs and restaurants would have to close at 10pm.

But it was the big double-page spread across pages six and seven that suggested how The Sun really felt.

Under the headline ‘Doom & Doomer’, the serious faces with speech bubbles of Sir Patrick Vallance “ –the vast majority of people remain susceptible to the virus” – and Professor Chris Whitty “ –in a very bad sense, the country has turned a corner”, dominated the spread.

The “doom-laden TV address” was the one which warned that, unless the UK urgently changed course, the number of cases could rise to 50,000 by 13 October, with 200 deaths a day.

The language of the layout was clear. These scientists were doom-mongers and indeed they clearly wanted to go much further than the Prime Minister.

“But nothing in the speculative, doom-laden charts Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance offered up yesterday remotely justifies a repeat of the freedom-crushing restrictions imposed in March,” argued The Sun editorial.

One day later, it's “We’re ALL in this…TOGETHER” - and the Sun is back in line, supporting Boris Johnson with his TV address that was,“perfectly judged for these dark times” and one that would win back some of the doubters.

There was, however, a barb. The Sun is troubled that Boris is clutching at two straws, a vaccine and near-instant mass testing - neither of which yet exist.

Maybe, the paper muses, we may have to settle for protecting our most vulnerable and find a way to live with Covid-19.

On Tuesday, the Daily Mail piled into the ‘Words of Doom’ from Vallance and Whitty, and by implication Boris Johnson for going along with them to a considerable extent.

“Gulp! From our stark, severe odd couple optimism ran freely as blood from a stone” was how the Henry Deedes sketch put it, alongside warnings that the new lockdown would cause even more harm. To Littlejohn they were “the two Ronnies of doom.”

The paper also accused Prime Minister Johnson of failing to treat voters like grown-ups and instead trying to terrify them into “meekly swallowing another layer of draconian controls on our personal liberty”, when, for the overwhelming majority, the risk was “microscopic.”

Pardon? Microscopic? Nearly 42,000 people have already died, and that is after the numbers have been massaged to include only those who have died within 28 days of diagnosis. Excess deaths, which many believe is a better judge of the overall toll, is around 60,000 to 70,000 and Johns Hopkins University in the U.S believes that worldwide, one million people have already died with no ending in sight.

And it's not just microscopic. The Daily Mail adds, for good measure, that for the multitude the risks of becoming seriously ill, let alone dying, “are vanishing minute.”

It is difficult to balance the economy and personal freedom against individual and personal safety, a challenge intensified by being able to choose the science or the scientist that best fits your preconceptions – or prejudices.

Yet Vallance and Whitty are hardly extreme outliers.

The Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, revealed in her daily press conference that at least one member of the SAGE advisory committee had insisted that the present curbs – 'Boris Gives UK Both Barrels' (Daily Mail) – go not nearly far enough, and that a second lockdown is not just necessary but close to inevitable if half-hearted measures continue.

It could have been SAGE member Professor John Edmunds of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who told the Today programme that closing bars and restaurants at 10pm was trivial and would have no impact on the progress of the virus whatsoever.

But the biggest divide in the media, which coincidently mirrors the Leave-Remain divide, are the national newspapers, which have put the economy and its protection before dealing with the pandemic. Here at least the Daily Mail has been consistent and has systematically skewed its coverage in favour of protecting jobs.

The precise motivation is unclear. Are the Sun, Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and Daily Express principally driven by right-wing individualism that sees everything from wearing face masks to enforced lockdown as an unacceptable infringement of individual liberty?

Vallance/Whitty have an answer for that. In a pandemic, those who chose to break the rules and take on their own definition of risk potentially harm not just themselves, but many others, including those they may never have met.

These newspapers are also very taken with comparisons with more conventional diseases, including emotional stories of those dying, perhaps barely treated, from diseases such as cancer.

Once again this argument flies in the face of the main characteristic of a pandemic – exponential growth.

Perhaps every newsroom, particularly those consumed by threats to individual liberty, should pin definitions of exponential growth to the wall.

Wanting the economy to survive and even prosper is a perfectly respectable stance. But is there also a selfish element involved as well? Media organisations are also large businesses - so are they choosing the economy over the safety of their customers to protect their own profits and indeed existence?

Whatever the motives of the right-wing press, the present approach, if Professor Edmunds is anywhere near right, could cost the lives of many of their readers.

Then there is the joy of Brexit to come. The latest issue of the Sun once again tried to prepare readers for another blow currently largely submerged by Covid-19.

The paper reported that the EU is now working on the assumption that there will be no deal. The paper has reported that Ireland’s Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney, believes there is a growing sense that the UK does not want a deal and is merely now involved in playing the “blame game” as negotiations fail.

If the UK is forced by Covid-19 into a second lockdown a month or two before the UK ends the transition period without a deal, a lot of newspaper editors will have a lot of explaining to do to their readers.

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