Covid-19, Institutional Failure and the British Media

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By Professor John Bryson
Department of Strategy and International Business, University of Birmingham

The British media should acknowledge that they play a key role in shaping the UK’s response to Covid-19 and this shaping often produces perverse outcomes, but with no accountability.

The Covid-19 pandemic is still very much with us. I have written many blogs on Covid-19, a book chapter, and journal papers, which have been published or are currently under review. All of my blogs and papers have one thing in common. They do not engage in a blame game. The approach that has been adopted is one based on constructive commentary and analysis intended to educate and elucidate.

Across the UK there is an on-going discussion to apportion blame. This is partly a political project in which Covid-19 is politicised through processes of storytelling, narrative construction and distortion. Part of this blame apportionment has been led by the media. What is interesting about this blame game – and it is a game – is that the one institution that is never ‘blamed’ is the British media – television, radio, newspapers, magazines and websites.

The British media should acknowledge that they play a key role in shaping the UK’s response to Covid-19 and this shaping often produces perverse outcomes, but with no accountability. The very process of focussing on the latest fashionable, and often media-hyped, ‘failures’ distracts from the primary challenge of saving lives.

This blog was promoted by reading a diary written by “a pandemic doctor” which contains the following statement:The airwaves and print media are bursting with opinion, analysis and occasional outrage as the crisis unfolds and consumes the institutionalised elderly. The great and the good understand and discuss, sounding wise and all-knowing. But week after week we are alone. Where is the calvary? Where are the boots on the ground? Who is going to help?”

There are two points to make about this statement. The first is that this is a blog written by a doctor working in a care home in Ireland rather than the UK. Anyone following Covid-19 needs to keep track of the emerging situation in other countries. The care home issue was identified in Ireland long before the UK media debate commenced. Thus, why did the British media not learn from the Irish media that care homes were going to be Covid-19 hot spots? Second, the media hype does nothing for pandemic doctors apart from raising anxiety levels.

In 2016, I stopped actively listening to Radio 4 and shifted away from following the British media. I began to follow journalists based in other countries. The reason for this shift was an appreciation of some of the problems with the British press. These problems include under-investment, confirmation bias and the role the UK media considers that it plays in shaping debates and outcomes. There urgently needs to be a critical discussion of the role journalists play in UK society. Does this include education, or should the focus just be on holding others to account combined with human-interest stories?

Covid-19 is an interesting example of institutional failure across the UK media. Let us take one example.  RTE News, the Irish equivalent of BBC News, released a podcast and related text on 24 March 2020 that explained the science behind social distancing and the end of lockdown. The focus was on explaining ‘R-nought’, or the reproduction rate. It is impossible to understand the Covid-19 pandemic without understanding ‘R-nought’.

For the BBC and the Express, for example, coverage of ‘R-nought’ commenced on 30 April. For ITV News coverage can be traced to 28 April, the Sun on the 30 April, the Daily Mail on the 1 May and the Daily Telegraph on 23 April (in the business pages) and 6 May. On the 3 April, the Irish Times provided a piece on understanding Covid-19 jargon including ‘the curve’ and R0. For the Irish Times, the key feature can be traced back to Thursday 22 February when they provided a feature entitled “stemming the spread of epidemics” that explained the maths with a focus on “the basic reproduction number, R0 or R-nought” or the “key parameter determining the rate of spread of an epidemic”.

Why was there such a delay across the British media  in explaining this critical calculation?  On 30 April, Boris Johnson stated that he will set out a “comprehensive plan” next week on how to restart the economy. The BBC News coverage included an account of R-nought and also noted that BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg asked at what level the reproduction rate should be before the government would be “comfortable easing restrictions”. At this point, one has to stop listening or reading. There can be only one possible answer to this question. Thus, anyone asking this question has no idea of ‘R-nought’ and its role in shaping policy interventions during times of epidemics or pandemics.

Currently, there is a debate about the UK’s comparative failure in addressing Covid-19. Journalists and other commentators highlight that the failure is either attributable to government or to Boris Johnson. Any comparison between the UK media and, for example, the Covid-19 coverage provided by RTE would suggest that part of the failure can be attributed to institutional failure across the British media.

We urgently need a discussion that addresses the question: what type of media for what type of society?

5 thoughts on “Covid-19, Institutional Failure and the British Media”

  1. This articulates exactly why i turn the television off after we have had the daily update from the government and before the negative and depressing media have their usually worthless questions. I actually sent a question to my MP (I didn’t know who else to send it to) saying that inevitably there will be a post mortem (Media speak for blame game) but will there be one on how the Media have acted in this period. I got a very PC response so the answer will be no I expect

  2. I completely agree, and I no longer listen to the briefs, as it winds me up. At the onset, it was explained in great detail, that it was all about managing the volume of cases, so that the NHS was not overwhelmed, and had a fighting chance to treat patients. Remove individuals who would be at most risk, ensuring that there was appropriate support. And lastly, educate the population on how to avoid catching or spreading the virus.
    There now seems to be a league table for how many deaths are reported by each country. What does it matter, the only thing that is important, is saving lives. How can you measure outcomes, when there are so many variables, country to country, and even region to region. Moreover, it’s not the right time to find fault, it’s the time to overcome issues. I have always believed it’s not about who doesn’t make a mistake, it’s about how you resolve it. Because the person that never makes a mistake, had never made a decision.
    The press, TV morning shows, and the News bulletins are only interested in entertaining, not education and providing basic facts, theirs are opinions, and opinions from people, who most of the time, haven’t a clue what they are talking about. And the one’s that do, don’t make good copy, and find it hard to be read, or heard.

  3. I will respond to these comments.

    I initially wrote this blog for myself. Writing is an analytical process that structures thought. I find listening to the British media extremely frustrating. One narrative is that we have the best media in the world. Another narrative is about defending the freedom of the press. Journalists should have expectations and responsibilities. These expectations should balance coverage of the latest distraction of the immediate – the current story – with interventions that are intended to inform. Perhaps this is a call for a more responsible press.
    I assumed that there was perhaps no point in publishing this blog. Which journalist or media outlet would cover this type of analysis?
    I would recommend a very short essay by Georges Perec. In this he distinguishes between the emphasis placed in the media on crisis and scandal and the neglect of everyday activity. Thus, Perec argues that the media’s focus is on “everything except the daily” (Perec 1973) or what he terms the ‘infra-ordinary’. Perec’s piece can be found here:

  4. Is the reason for RTE talking about R in March because the Irish government or CMO/CSA spoke about it at that time? Wasn’t the reason that the British media began speaking about it in April because it was introduced by the CMO/CSA at a daily press briefing at that time?

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