This is no time for 'gotcha!' journalism

2 April 2020

6:50 PM

2 April 2020

6:50 PM

The lockdown has ensured that many millions now gather round the TV and watch the daily press conference from No.10. We hang on every word from politicians and medical/scientific experts, trying to read the runes of our fate for the next hours, days, months. These people are leading the country’s response to Covid-19.

A third group in the room (be that virtually), whose leadership should be indispensable, are the press, charged with asking penetrating, crucial questions on our behalf. This should be when the nation feels the latest strategy is being held to account and scrutinised, when more light is shone on controversial decisions that affect our livelihoods and liberty, even life and death. The media are so key in a national emergency, especially when opposition parties in the UK are – let us say – largely in disarray, even leaderless. That’s even more true with parliament in recess.

And yet many of us watching end up groaning or swearing in disbelief that the journalists seem more intent on playing ‘gotcha!’ than digging deeper.

The present dissatisfaction in the media was brought home to me in reaction to its response to the news that Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock and Chris Whitty are all self-isolating after either testing positive, or showing symptoms, for Covid-19. One broadcast journalist asked if the PM had been negligent in catching the virus. I tweeted in exasperation, asking if journos had noticed that this was a highly contagious virus. I wondered if politicians hiding away from the country and refusing to leave their home would have been more negligent. The tweet went viral and almost all the replies were cries of despair at journalistic standards, not political ineptitude.

Reading the replies to this tweet, and comments across social media, it has become obvious that many people are exasperated that the media are squandering their privileged position as inquisitors on behalf of the public. MSM, as it has become disparagingly referred to, is in danger of losing the public’s trust as impartial truth-seekers. Instead, too many of the hacks’ questions come over as narky, petulant or hostile. Many sound more like adversarial advocates of any strategy that is at odds with the one being put before them.

Take the specific criticism that those leading the fight against Covid-19 should have shielded themselves from any possibility of being infected. One press conference ‘hot take’ quickly becomes the news.

The Guardian’s headline was ‘Nonchalant’: Boris Johnson accused of Covid-19 complacency – Government ‘too slow to act’ and ministers have failed to lead by example, health experts say.

The Daily Mail read: ‘Why didn’t they practise what they preached? Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock and Chris Whitty face accusations they failed to follow their own advice’.

Isn’t this a partial and confused picture of what might constitute leadership? After all, early in the crisis, Boris was castigated for not leading from the front when he didn’t chair the first Cobra meeting on the pandemic. Had he deserted the scene and refused to speak at press conferences, we might have rightly worried that the Prime Minister, his government colleagues and advisers, were refusing to risk themselves in directing the country’s response.

Imagine if care workers, nurses, food producers, sewage workers, cleaners, et al – who are working to ensure the lockdown is feasible and safe for the majority – decided on reading the headlines that turning up for work was ‘nonchalant’ and ‘negligent’? What of the three quarters of a million people who have put themselves forward to join the ‘volunteer army’ to expand NHS capacity or the local community groups self-organising to help the most vulnerable? On the same measure applied to Johnson, would their selfless acts of public service be seen as neglectfully not following advice? Indeed, journalists themselves, playing a key role as the public’s eyes and ears, wander about the country reporting. Are they too being irresponsible by continuing to step up to do a crucial job in a crisis?

The same journalists have been rather more reticent in criticising parliament’s decision to dissolve itself for at least a month. As one commentary astutely noted: ‘This is supposedly to ‘lead by example’ by respecting the government decree that all ‘non-essential’ workplaces should close. The ‘Mother of all Parliaments’ has effectively deemed its own work inessential.’

But perhaps this journalistic restraint is explained by the media’s own arrogant assumption that they know what should be done. A disconcertingly unanimous media clamour for ever more measures to achieve a total lockdown of public life is rarely challenged within their own ranks. The specific focus can seem arbitrary, plucked from the ether. Often evidence for action is less scientific than based on stories that journalists themselves have trawled for, searching for proof that not enough is being done. Those claims are then amplified on TV screens and front pages.

There are interviews with scared teachers and pupils asking when the government will close the schools. Drinkers are spotted in pubs, so the Prime Minister is interrogated on when he will call time at the bar. Photos of strollers in London’s meagre green areas lead journos to ask when politicians will tackle this scandal, close the parks and penalise the walkers? On and on it goes. More useful questions, around issues like protecting liberties, remain unasked.

Some variation and dissent from a one-tone approach would help. Whatever the merits of herd immunity (something few lobby journos seemed to be familiar with before they all became experts in critiquing it, with an impressive sense of assurance), there is something disconcerting about the herd-like behaviour amongst our leading hacks. Every 24 hours or so they latch onto some theme and repeatedly, over and over, push their one thought for the day. Until the next day, when it becomes another issue they alight on as crucial.

Take the way that almost every journalist started querying whether construction workers were really essential workers. Why did everyone focus on construction workers? Because they were the only ones visible on those empty streets apart from roving reporters? A worrying groupthink may be in danger of stultifying journalistic inquisitiveness beyond the bleedin’ obvious.

I am not calling for a compliant media that nods along at the latest announcement. If anything, we need harder probing and more considered good-faith analysis, based on the research, of the complexities of tackling a new virus. Rather than what can feel like bad-faith haranguing, we require some long-term thinking about the consequences of this reorganisation of how we live. My colleague suggests that someone at the press conference today could ask the government if they have modelled the health, social and economic effects of a six-month lockdown. If not, why not?

I am aware that turning on the MSM can itself be a lazy ‘gotcha’ tactic. Last week, I argued with a friend in broadcasting, who is frustrated that so many of the more thoughtful TV and radio packages are being side-lined, while egregious questions at press conferences and hot-take headlines are the basis for complaints. Fair enough. Science and medical correspondents have more consistently asked nuanced questions, often because they recognise that it is too early for a forensic post-mortem of the science, that the whole world is feeling its way. They have gone beyond the increasingly shrill demand for testing, testing, testing by their political colleagues, by looking at the challenges of different types of testing and at least querying if this would be the panacea some seem to assume.

I have also watched some fantastic examples of more interrogatory investigations, such as into the plight of children in care under lockdown. There have been insightful articles and TV items on the unseen and unsung heroic front-line work of everyone from rubbish collectors to bread-makers, who are too often forgotten as we laud NHS staff and forget less glamorous employees who are keeping society fed, safe and clean.

But there is no room for back-slapping complacency. When Roy Greenslade argues that ‘This media criticism should not be viewed as cynical or carping’, he is illustrating far too self-satisfied an attitude to his own tribe, very much at odds with readers and viewers’ sense that journalism is indulging in a daily toxic bombardment of point-scoring. Perhaps he lets the cat out of the bag when he concludes: ‘By refusing to accept the official narrative, they have disrupted the government’s agenda and, on the positive side, have played a key role in changing the direction of public policy.’

But is making up policy via press conference real journalistic leadership? Can they or we be sure the media’s public policy outcomes are more effective than the collective decisions of the democratically elected?

So while some journalists happily critique our political leaders for not being good enough, this is just a plea that leadership in the fourth estate should go beyond the low-hanging fruit. Please can you take your audiences seriously enough to realise that we can cope with the complexity of acknowledging that there is no single correct strategy worldwide (if only). Asking questions with an air of certainty based on what feels like an assumption that the government and its advisers are invariably malign or incompetent, inevitably creates a fatalistic and demoralising mood. We have enough dystopia to contend without our media class wallowing in worst case-scenarios as though they are inevitable, without feeling as though our leaders are under psychological attack from know-it-all scribblers. More humility and smarter thinking from all of us, please. Yes, me included.

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