An inquiry on two fronts
On the anniversary of the UK's first Covid lockdown, Ray Snoddy assesses the press reaction and starts the calls for an inquiry into newspaper conduct
The anniversary of the UK’s first pandemic lockdown was celebrated by the British press with their usual wondrous variety.
More than 126,000 dead and The Sun, which always likes a Royal story, splashed with the new job description for Prince Harry as chief impact officer for BetterUp, a new mental health app.
Bells and candles for the dead, and the Daily Express decided its main priority was: “Boris Blasts Out of Touch BBC.”
Prime Minister Johnson comes as close as he ever has to admitting that many mistakes were made in handling the pandemic, and that a new surge of the infection is likely in the autumn, and the Daily Star leads on a smuggler hiding gold and cash inside his wig.
The Daily Mirror struck a surer note with the message that it was “Time To Learn From the Mistakes.”
The Daily Mail went for the sympathy vote that “a visibly shattered PM” would be haunted by the terrible events “for as long as I live.”
It was the Guardian that got to the heart of the story with its lead: “Johnson Admits Covid Regrets But Rejects Clamour For Public Inquiry.”
In fact there has been not nearly enough “clamour” in the press and media generally for an urgent inquiry into the handling of the pandemic.
The single most important question is why the UK, one of the world’s richest countries with an established, sophisticated public health system and a “world-beating” scientific community should also have had the some of the highest death rates in the world.
Did the lockdown come too late causing thousands of unnecessary deaths followed by the lifting of restrictions too early, leading to yet more deaths and the need for further lockdowns?
Other questions to investigate include whether airport checks should have been introduced much sooner, personal protective equipment provided earlier and whether a £37 billion test and trace system was either effective or even remotely value for money.
The media have allowed the Prime Minister to bat aside calls for an inquiry with the catch all reply that the time is not right, without ever suggesting when the time will ever be right.
The point of a rough and ready initial inquiry would not be to ascribe blame – though some would very much like that – but to try to prevent the same mistakes being endlessly repeated.
There should also be an inquiry into how the media, and the national press in particular, have acquitted themselves in a crisis unparalleled since 1918.
There will never be such an inquiry, which is probably just as well, because the performance has been patchy at best.
Such a notional inquiry would have to ask why the media, until late in the day, was happy to show bodies piling up in Bergamo and mass graves in Brazil but in effect sanitised the horrific human impact of the sheer number of deaths in the UK by not getting close to covering the reality?
Like holding the Government to account on the need for an inquiry, the verdict has to be – the media could have done better.
There have been valiant efforts to get behind the official curtain of PR, obfuscations and downright lies and get to the bottom of the scientific advice and the extent to which the Government of Boris Johnson really did “follow the science.”
The Sunday Times' Insight team have had a really good go and on the whole, The Times has had a good pandemic and not just by providing daily statistics on deaths, new cases and vaccination rates – complete with international comparisons.
The revelations in Saturday’s Times were a good example, and also a warning, of the danger of allowing the Prime Minister to continue to repeat his mistakes.
The Times reported how on 14 September last year, Boris Johnson met with his top scientific advisors Whitty and Vallance, Cabinet Secretary Simon Case and the now former chief adviser Dominic Cummings.
All wanted Johnson to impose an immediate “circuit breaker” lasting at least two weeks but he refused, apparently because the Classics graduate didn’t believe in lockdowns and thought the economic damage outweighed the public health benefits.
As a result, the second lockdown didn’t come until the end of October when the number of cases had quadrupled, resulting in thousands of deaths.
Thanks to The Times we know that Cummings has said he doesn’t understand why the House of Commons has been so slow to try to understand what and why “things went so catastrophically wrong.”
You could add to that surprise that the press hasn’t done better too.
The most serious charge against some of the right-wing tabloids is that they became uncritical supporters of the anti-lockdown brigades, supporting the economy, jobs and re-opening schools, at the expense of trying to limit the spread of the virus.
Day after day they tried to stiffen Boris’s resolve to stand-up to the dreadful doom-mongering scientists, and tragically they may have succeeded.
It has to be said that the Daily Mail and The Sun do what popular tabloids do well and launched great public campaigns to help with the effects of the pandemic.
For the Mail it was raising millions for better PPE equipment for NHS staff and to provide laptops for children marooned at home, while The Sun mobilised thousands of vaccination volunteers.
When it came to the need for lockdowns and the equal necessity to exercise caution about easing restrictions however, it seemed almost as if they didn’t understand the pernicious nature of exponential growth or the inevitability of new variants arising. It’s what viruses do.
Such papers were driven by the libertarian impulses that also may have underpinned their support for Brexit.
A detailed look at a single issue of the Daily Mail shows how confused the editorial line sometimes was, transmitting different messages on different pages.
On 23 February this year the Daily Mail reacted to the Johnson “roadmap to freedom” by 21 June – with the headline WHAT ARE (underlined) WE WAITING FOR?”
The paper spoke of Boris Johnson facing a clamour to lift the lockdown faster before commenting that the country needs "freedom not a long limp out of lockdown”.
There was page after page of it from Boris on the run from doom-monger Sages and a death sentence for pubs from new delay, to Easter staycation hopes dashed.
Then, on page 14 comes the stark warning from the Sage naysayers, which the paper has been denouncing, that an early lifting of the restriction by April – which the Daily Mail apparently wanted – could lead to an extra 90,000 deaths.
If there is a pressing need for an inquiry into the action of the Government, some newspapers also need to think long and hard about what they have been doing.
Could they too have caused unnecessary deaths by misleading their readers on the true scale of the Covid-19 threat, mocking scientists and spurring on Boris Johnson to new levels of irresponsibility?