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Covid-19 Media Scrutiny and Government Accountability

 

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.

 

15 Comments

Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

tony wilsonreply
April 23, 2020 at 7:27 pm

Daily for the past few weeks I have – much to my disgust – bought and delivered the Sun to my next door neighbour. If I thought he’d be around for very long, I would let him go without such garbage, in the hope he might change his mind. Nothing will change his beliefs and attitudes til such foul hate filled publishers are brought to account and effectively regulated, fined, and restricted.
Please don’t ask me to donate, as that would not be not practical for me.

Nigel Bakerreply
April 23, 2020 at 7:46 pm

Totally agree with the article. I stopped watching the daily Coronavirus updates which in my humble opinion are a waste of my time, skirt around the truth and are more concerned in making the Gobermemt look good by selective use of statistics rather than provide accurate information. Journalists should be holding them to account and point out the inaccuracies and spin/evasion.

Paul Hobbsreply
April 23, 2020 at 8:17 pm

We should be asking probing questions to politicians now more than ever. Too many were bland and not answered fully. Why were we so slow in reacting and with the usual vague promises. Thank God for the fantastic NHS.

Gordon Stevensreply
April 23, 2020 at 8:48 pm

The tabloids are nothing less than hate papers and the spreading of lies. They are a sickness in our society

A Christiereply
April 23, 2020 at 9:03 pm

The media in the UK are appalling. Is there no honesty or integrity among journalists The lack of investigation or even scrutiny by the media is shocking. Do they just trawl through social media for stories or deliberately report misinformation? There needs to be a completely independent body with teeth to be set up. The Leveson Inquiry for one shows they CANNOT police themselves. An absolutely disgrace of a cabal.

Kevin Gethinreply
April 23, 2020 at 9:05 pm

One would expect the Tabloids to kiss the governments backside but we deserve better from the BBC. The Sunday Times did publish a devastating report on the 19th of April Downing St spent most of Sunday drafting a rebuttal. They need not have bothered on the World at One on Monday the 20th the BBC correspondent Laura Kussenberg or KIssborisbumenburg, as she is also known, did the rebuttals for the government. when asked about the ST report she skipped over it and said: “well we should deal with the success of the government” and then came out with a load more pro Tory tripe. Robert Preston is in the same mould which is surprising. Because Johnson molested Preston’s current partner at a lunch some years ago. Johnson put his hand under the table and then up the woman’s skirt at the same time telling her that she was much more attractive than his “current wife” Johnson was at The Spectator at the time. Incidentally, I understand that Johnson’s children by Marina Wheeler refuse to have anything to do with him. Imagine if such a rumour existed about a non Tory politician

Robert Walkerreply
April 23, 2020 at 9:18 pm

When I worked for a large supermarket chain in the 1990’s we gathered weekly information on primitive PCs each week for sales, number of customers etc from each store and the results sent in on Monday were at the board meeting by 11.00am. That included a clerical chase-up by phone of any that failed to transmit. If we could get such numbers in so quickly in 1990, why can’t we do the same from care home returns and giving the public the total deaths for the previous week in the same timescale. The current estimates are based on percent-above-normal figures (to arrive at suspected Coronavirus deaths) but we only got the 10-15 April death estimate on 21 or 22 April. Such delays make it look like the news is being ‘managed’ to mitigate any impact and if I can see that, so can many many more who follow the news. So where are the challenges from the media for that situation?

Michael Chanlerreply
April 23, 2020 at 10:30 pm

The high profile news broadcasters from mainstream news and within programmes like BBC Today, WATO and PM have not covered the most critical news stories for the government like the Reuters Special Report, Richard Horton’s articles and the Sunday Times revelations. Sir Simon McDonald’s letter of retraction was not followed up. In fact the most damaging news stories for the government detailing their failures and dishonesty are often simply ignored. It is often necessary to go to twitter to find out what is happening in the UK. The government run down of NHS and welfare state resources over the period since 2010 has been set aside . Instead of covering inconvenient stories the BBC has constructed a pro-government narrative that incorporates respect and appreciation of the NHS as constituting support for the government and all being in this together alongside a nostalgic second world war ethos. The BBC has acted as the government’s PR agency.

Barry Whitereply
April 24, 2020 at 5:56 pm
– In reply to: Michael Chanler

Echoing your point, the BBC recently ran a headline that the UK mortality rate hit the highest weekly level in 20 years.. an alarming story that helps reinforce the already extreme levels of fear. What it didn’t mention is that the mortality rate was dropping steadily from 2000 to around 2010, then has been rising ever since the conservatives took power. Whilst not very reassuring, this recent peak is part of a greater trend that has fallen under the stewardship of the current political party and could easily be attributed to a lack of support for the NHS. No mention of this was made in the article by the BBC or other media outlet.
A more telling headline might have been “UK mortality rate at levels not seen since 1990’s Tory Government”

Chris Dommettreply
April 24, 2020 at 8:20 am

First time I read your blog. Excellent-so sorry I didn’t before.

Shirley Moorereply
April 24, 2020 at 8:32 am

The Guardian newspaper reported at the beginning of the week regarding the Movianto debacle. Why hasn’t this issue been raised since? Why isn’t the Government being held to account for the fact that the PPE equipment so direly needed by NHS and other frontline staff, equipment that could have prevented many deaths, has been sold off to an American company just two weeks ago? Why hasn’t the Government taken measures to requisition the stock for our country? Where are the opposing politicians and where are the journalists who SHOULD be asking these questions and so many more? It is what they are both elected and paid for.

Ronald Hartleyreply
April 24, 2020 at 10:09 am

The Daily Briefing on TV should be recorded for future use for training politicians on how not to answer questions, and to show how weak press questioning can be exploited to make the politician, together with the policy being promoted, look excellent. Matt Hancock, for example, is revealed as truly ignorant, and more importantly, unable to hide this politically important fact. Chancellor Rishi Sunak, on the other hand, comes across as informed, knowledgeable, and a likely candidate to be Boris Johnson’s successor as Prime Minister.

david s mitchellreply
April 24, 2020 at 10:13 am

Keep up the good work and the pressure on the governments.

David Morganreply
April 24, 2020 at 11:36 am

Thank goodness I’m not the only one who thinks the journalists at the daily press conference are , by and large, hopeless!
The are so obviously headline hunting rather than trying to elicit real important information and clarification. They ask too many questions at a time, thus allowing answers to be diffused, they often ask a question that has already been answered and they they persist in their futile and infantile attempts to get ministers and advisers to admit mistakes and or apologise. What they should be doing is asking one specific question each on a different topic and avoiding vague generalities. Grrrr

Bobby Geereply
April 24, 2020 at 12:33 pm

At the outset of the whole Hacked Off campaign it was somewhat of a revelation that the press was not quite as honest and accountable as we had been led to believe, but a decade on and with a wealth of information and evidence to support it, the fact is plain that the mainstream media is not fit for purpose.
It is not fit for the purpose of providing truth, clarity and holding power to account, however it is certainly fit for the purpose for which it exists, which is to obfuscate the truth, spread disinformation and propaganda and protect the power structure which has dominated politics for as long as can be remembered.
I have long since switched off from listening to most of the mainstream media sources and only digest the information to get a picture of what the current narrative might be.
It is arguable that the entire mainstream UK press is exposed to a corrupt conflict of interest, putting commercial and political pressure above the true purpose of their existence, as such it is beyond a point of reform unless their existence is meaningfully threatened.
I would suggest that the hacked off campaign could beneficially direct some of their astounding energy towards supporting the growing number of grass roots journalists that provide a refreshing mix of truth and analysis without the usual conflict of interest that the mainstream journalists are tethered by.
One day, instead of relying on an algorithm from a multinational corporation to select the news that we are allowed to see, it would be refreshing to view stories that report the important issues that are happening and helping society as a whole in a positive manner.
By supporting these newly emerging journalists and sources, it is potentially possible to create an alternative to the dire tripe that is churned out across the existing mainstream sources and remind people of the true role of the media.
There are dozens of websites, blogs and channels that provide this material, but it is currently spread in a disparate way with no simple means of viewing the collated information. With sufficient resources it would be feasible to create a news aggregation service (webpage), bringing together all the sources of news that are operating in a morally upstanding and creditworthy fashion; ultimately even holding the press to account, which have for so long evaded scrutiny.
The media giants have orchestrated such a widespread takeover and domination of the press that it is near impossible to switch on the TV, radio or pick up a newspaper that hasn’t been infected by the narrow mainstream narrative.
Fortunately there are voices out there fighting back (of which Hacked Off is one great example), but the need for them to co-operate, communicate and collaborate is pressing…
Let us rise up and choose the alternative, so we are no longer subjected to a relenting stream of stories from a narrow group of vested interests!

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