‘We failed’. An editorial in Ekstra Bladet, Denmark’s leading tabloid, berates the Fourth Estate – including itself – for failing to hold ministers to account during the pandemic. Worn down by repeated warnings of ‘the dormant corona monster under our beds’, Ekstra Bladet claims Danish journalists mostly took the government line.
‘We have not been vigilant enough at the garden gate when the authorities were required to answer what it actually meant that people are hospitalised with coronavirus and not because of coronavirus,’ the paper told its readers.
Ekstra Bladet’s accusation is that the Danish media did not properly question hospital admissions data, which appears to show that many of the country’s Covid hospitalisations might have been incidental (patients ‘with Covid’ but admitted to hospital for something else). The same self-criticism could, of course, equally be applied in the UK, where hospitalisation data has been similarly opaque. Two weeks ago, Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, clarified that ‘incidental’ Covid cases made up approximately 25 to 30 per cent of admissions, similar to the Danish experience.
So if the Danish media was not sufficiently sceptical of the government’s approach, is there a simple explanation for this apparent failure? Perhaps our own experience in the UK may offer an answer. Back in March 2020, at the outset of the pandemic, Sir Robbie Gibb, the former Downing Street director of communications, called for normal media hostilities to be suspended. Gibb denounced the ‘petty sniping’ of government communications which served ‘only to undermine the central message: stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives’.
‘In the weeks leading up to the Prime Minister’s address to the nation,’ Gibb wrote, ‘Government communications has been an easy whipping boy for those in need of some ‘business as usual’ criticism to fill their columns and weave into Twitter threads.’
To give Gibb his due, it was a message that he was far from alone in making. March 2020 was, of course, a month during which many people were afraid of the emergence of a novel virus, about which all too little was known. Scenes of hospitals in Italy overflowing were splashed across the newspapers. People were scared. Back then, it was perhaps legitimate to give the government some breathing space. But it was also a moment at which the British government announced unprecedented measures to restrict the movement of people. Outside of war time, such restrictions had never before been introduced on Brits. So was this not exactly the moment for the government to come under intense scrutiny? And even if this softly-softly approach in responding to ministers was justified back then, was it an attitude the media held on to for too long as the pandemic continued?
In Denmark, at least, there are certainly questions as to whether this did happen. In Copenhagen, the relationship between the government and the media is more complex than in the UK. Newspapers are state-subsidised: the country’s 2014 Media Support Act props up media outlets ‘with the aim of strengthening democratic debate’ (Ekstra Bladet, for example, will receive DKK 17.5m (£2m) this year.)) Did this source of income result in a blurring of the lines when it came to reporting on the pandemic? One wonders whether well-intentioned state support may, paradoxically, have stifled debate while the country was on a ‘wartime’ footing.
Fortunately, there are signs Danish media is beginning to find its teeth. Ekstra Bladet asks why Danish children have been vaccinated, an approach which has not been replicated in some other European countries, such as Britain.
The massive cost of Covid testing is also being questioned. Denmark has by far the most rigorous testing regime in Scandinavia: around 1,484 tests per thousand people were performed in the country, as of last month, compared with fewer than 650 tests per thousand people in Iceland. While private firms have reaped the benefits from this, it is questionable whether this relentless testing regime has been that beneficial. Denmark, for instance, hasn’t experienced lower death rates than its neighbours. The country’s death toll of 3,408 deaths, compares unfavourably with Finland, at 1,663, and Norway, with 1,350 deaths.
Perverse incentives are beginning to be questioned in Denmark, too: recent debate has centred on unvaccinated Danish prison officers, who are required to be tested during working hours twice a week, resulting in overtime payments which could amount to DKK 5000 (£560) per month. It appears to be a powerful reason not to get vaccinated – and another element of the government’s Covid strategy that has, until now, not been properly scrutinised.
If this media introspection is welcome, is it not somewhat overdue? After all, Denmark’s ‘wartime’ treatment of government messaging when it comes to Covid may soon no longer be needed.
Last week, Tyra Grove Kause, chief epidemiologist at Denmark’s State Serum Institute, claimed that Omicron could bring about the end of the pandemic and ‘we will have our normal lives back in two months’.
Denmark’s greatest author, Hans Christian Andersen, once noted ‘just living is not enough…one must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower.’ Let’s hope Kause is correct – and that Denmark’s media, at least, has learned some lessons from this wretched pandemic.
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