I’m always wary of criticising the mainstream press. Attempts to delegitimise independent journalism are the bread and butter of autocrats and despots. Authoritarians the world over have tried to dispel criticism by eroding trust in journalists and the institutions that support them.
But friction between the mainstream press and the government has taken on a whole new dimension during the pandemic. Now media outlets must try to walk the tightrope of supporting government public health advice without lapsing into outright government propaganda.
I don’t envy the editors at the BBC. Their task isn’t easy. Covering COVID-19 responsibly and accurately requires an understanding of virology, epidemiology and healthcare systems thorough enough to explain these complex concepts simply. The average person, and even journalist, likely doesn’t know (or care) about the functioning of the human immune system, or why patients with high levels of interleukin 6 during COVID-19 infection are at increased risk of severe illness. Most would not have heard the term “cytokine storm” before 2020.
Cytokines aren’t a new concept to me – I knew of their existence from childhood – and even with my background I can see how explaining these tough concepts isn’t easy. In my pharmacologist father’s office a periodic table of cytokines and chemokines was pinned proudly alongside a portrait drawn of me two decades ago, when I was eight, during a holiday visit to Montmartre. As I played video games as a child on his computer, I’d glance at the chemokines poster and wonder what it meant. Now I do know what it means, I still view immunology as one of those topics that evades complete understanding by virtue of its complexity. I was lucky enough to be raised by two scientists who specialise in human biochemistry, and I studied a great deal of mathematics at university. Even for me the topic of COVID-19 is a struggle. So how is an average journalist supposed to explain this topic to the masses?
Adding to the strain of the task is the uncomfortable fact that many journalists do not have qualifications in science or mathematics beyond high school. The press is dominated with humanities graduates, and it’s easy to see why – humanities degrees are useful in understanding soft power and the kind of conflicts seen in politics. What’s more, they train a person to write well (or they should do).
But the result is a press that is playing catch-up. Reporters who previously would cover only Parliamentary mishaps and party politics have been thrust into the immunological deep-end armed only with their PPE and similar degrees to help them. Not entirely surprisingly, it transpires their (otherwise very valuable) skillsets aren’t up to the task. Only a few weeks ago Robert Peston attempted to contradict a qualified health professional on live television, with an incorrect statement about antibody testing. To his apparent surprise, bellowing an ill-informed comment with an air of great authority didn’t befuddle the deputy Chief Medical Officer into backing down. Just a few nights ago, BBC Panorama attempted to run a story implying it was a scandal that surgical gloves were counted individually and not in pairs when the government ordered personal protective equipment. Clearly their editors did not know that surgical gloves are not usually sold in pairs.
As overly-confident humanities graduates attempt in vain to understand testing for the COVID-19 virus (PCR), other journalists appear reluctant to hold the government to account for its pandemic response. These journalists can often be sighted on social media, demanding that government pandemic policy should not be questioned as “the science” should be respected.
While there shouldn’t be a conflict between reporting fair criticism of the government and encouraging compliance with public health guidelines, I can see why some journalists may feel reluctant to report opposition to government plans. Supporting the government’s actions during this difficult period may seem sensible when so much is at stake, particularly when this approach provides journalists the additional bonus of avoiding the level of criticism that the likes of Robert Peston has received. It would be easy for someone unacquainted with the subject to interpret criticism of the timing of UK lockdown measures, or any other government decisions, as an endorsement to break them. Just a month ago an elderly caller to BBC Radio Solent seemingly boasted of her flouting of the government’s social distancing guidelines. Her justification for these actions was that “the government are stupid and Boris Johnson is an idiot.” It wouldn’t be entirely surprising if negative headlines regarding the government response to COVID-19 may encourage some to ignore public health advice. That can only be a bad thing.
But this argument breaks down when we consider the impact withholding criticism has on our democracy. The government does not need journalists to do its public relations – and those whose job it is, should not refer to themselves as “journalists”. The purpose of journalism is not to tell the general public what it wants to hear. And calls to respect “the science” reflect a misunderstanding of what science is. Scientific consensus and understanding is not some immutable, unchanging, thing and it’s disingenuous to suggest it is. If science is governed by some ideological authority that cannot be questioned, as many journalists seem to imply, it ceases to be science. The government’s apparent u-turn on lockdown measures in March, after the publishing of a damning report by scientists at Imperial College London, could be viewed as “scientific” for this reason: the government reconsidered its stance as the evidence changed. It is possible to listen to the advice of experts and maintain a healthily sceptical stance about policy decisions made by the government. All government policy decisions will have strengths and weaknesses, no matter how guided they are by public health experts.
But I worry. In the cacophony of half-baked theories and homeopathic attempts at investigative journalism, genuine and well-informed attempts to hold the government to account are drowned out by the flood of click-bait headlines. The number of gloves becomes the “story”, rather than legitimate questions over who exactly sits on the government scientific advisory group. Reasonable scepticism concerning government policy and conflicts of interest now finds itself wedged between conspiracist takes and ludicrous stories about twitter bots controlling the COVID-19 narrative. This context gives government propagandists and other bad faith actors more than enough leverage to delegitimise investigations that ought to make national headlines. The tin foil hat brigade does no favours for investigative journalism.
Amongst the noise, one thing is clear: there should be more science graduates in journalism. Scientists know the right questions to ask, and at the right time, because scientific training teaches a person the necessity of distinguishing signals from noise. Calls to “diversify your workforce” should mean more than simply expanding recruitment to those from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds: it should also mean recruiting those from diverse academic backgrounds, too. Because while the press is playing catch-up and attempting to learn exactly how exponential functions work, the government is given carte blanche to shape the COVID-19 narrative in its favour. In this difficult period, time is of the essence. The press may begin to pull up its socks as the pandemic unfolds. But it may be too little too late.