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?