According to a Press Gazette reader poll, 70% believe journalists are not doing a good job of holding the Government to account during daily Covid-19 briefings.
With Parliament shutting down for a month to curb the spread of the virus, it was left to journalists to be the only real opposition to Government – but were they asking the tough questions?
The crisis within this crisis has been the shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for frontline health workers. Repeatedly ministers have answered questions about sufficiency with statistics on how much has been spent and what has been ordered/delivered. If ministers are able to dodge questions – is there any point asking them?
We need robust, uncompromised questioning – is the current spending on PPE relative to the demand for it? Health professionals are telling us the current availability of PPE is insufficient – why?
Ministers must be pressed to answer the questions posed, rather than answering questions they know they can answer.
Several journalists themselves have criticised the usefulness of the daily briefings, including BBC political interviewer Andrew Neil who argued they are “not working” and feature “too many ridiculous questions”.
In a twist of irony earlier this week, Sun on Sunday executive Dan Wootton was given the opportunity to air his concerns about the spreading of false information at the daily Covid-19 briefing. The same Dan Wootton who is alleged to have effectively used “blackmail model” journalism on Philip Schofield, relentlessly victimised both Caroline Flack and Meghan Markle in the press and was accused at the High Court last year of being involved in unlawful information gathering at his time at the now-defunct News of the World.
It comes as no surprise that several UK tabloid newspapers have come under fire repeatedly for insensitive reporting and a clear failure to scrutinise the Government during the biggest economic and health crisis of a lifetime.
On Monday April 20th, the Sun was heavily criticised on social media for their front page, which featured a large splash headline “PUBS SHUT TILL XMAS,” with a small note in a virus graphic reading “596 DEAD – SEE PAGE 4.”
The daily death count – of loved ones, family members, friends and neighbours – was cruelly reported as some kind of incidental news detail.
Many felt the insensitive layout, which sees a huge pint of beer cover most of the page, prioritised the closure of pubs over the human lives lost to this deadly virus.
On the 10th April, Good Friday, Britain’s death toll soared to some 8,000, with nearly 900 fatalities in the previous 24 hours. This was the Sun’s front page:
The next day, after the UK had suffered one of the worst 24 hour hospital virus death tolls in Europe, the Daily Mail provided “full details” on the Prime Minister’s recovery – from doing sudoku, to what films he watched in his hospital bed.
Whilst there has been some lazy journalism from the usual culprits, there has been some excellent analysis of Government strategy and questioning of official figures in the last week.
A Financial Times analysis of the latest data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that the coronavirus pandemic has already caused as many as 41,000 deaths in the UK – double the Government’s official count and indicating a much wider spread of the highly contagious virus than initially reported. It includes direct deaths from the virus and indirect deaths and was calculated based on ONS data on deaths inside and outside hospitals.
On 19th April, a devastating report by the Sunday Times exposed how Boris Johnson’s Government failed to take significant action on coronavirus until it was too late. The report, entitled “Coronavirus: 38 days when Britain sleepwalked into disaster” details how the Prime Minister missed five Cobra meetings on the virus, how repeated calls to order more PPE were “ignored” and scientists’ warnings “fell on deaf ears”. The Sunday Times argue these Government failings in February “may have cost thousands of lives.”
The highly critical exposés prompted key government advisers to spend much of the weekend writing lengthy, line-by-line rebuttals, in what the Guardian argues marks a shift in Covid-19 media strategy.
In another recent Press Gazette reader poll, almost half of those who responded believe public trust in journalists has fallen since the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak began.
The need for a robust, independent press has never been greater. We have repeatedly warned that reporting which gives rise to misinformation, results in a collapse in public trust.