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20 January 2021

First Thoughts: The folly of the lockdown sceptics, and the Wilbys get vaccinated

Ipso is right to censure columnists who throw around half-truths and wilful exaggerations about Covid-19; the disease is too deadly.  

By Peter Wilby

You don’t need to scour social media or the dark web to find people who will tell you that lockdowns, social distancing and face masks are unnecessary and oppressive. You can find them in the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail and their Sunday sisters. They don’t, it is true, claim that 5G masts cause Covid-19 or that hospital patients shown gasping for breath on TV are paid actors. But they do claim that hospitals are no fuller than normal for this time of year and that “every country that has locked down has failed to control the disease” (Peter Hitchens, Mail on Sunday).

Newspapers are perfectly entitled to publish views critical of often hastily drafted laws. Indeed, if there is credible evidence that the laws are flawed, they have a duty to do so and even to incite readers to break them.

When lives are at stake, however, they should take special care not to publish inaccurate or misleading information.

Ipso, the body set up by newspapers to regulate themselves, has just ruled that the Telegraph did exactly that when it ran an article in July by Toby Young, who calls himself a “lockdown sceptic”. He argued that if you’d “fought off” the common cold you’d be immune to Covid-19, that London’s population was “probably approaching herd immunity” and that, since a second wave was unlikely, we could “dispense with pointless social distancing”. The Telegraph was ordered to print a correction.

Ipso is usually reluctant to censure columnists who breezily throw around half-truths and wilful exaggerations, not least because it’s often hard to tell when they’re serious. Some write, as the ex-Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has put it, “with a winking titter” as though journalism were “a kind of extended in-joke”. But Covid-19 is deadly serious and Ipso is right to hold commentators to account for what they say about it.

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[See also: Jimmy Wales: “Wikipedia is from a different era”]

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The know-nothing crew

Also holding Young to account, along with other commentators such as Ross Clark (Mail), Allison Pearson (Telegraph) and James Delingpole (Spectator), is Neil O’Brien, a Conservative MP and ministerial aide. “They make stuff up and double down on disproved claims,” he writes in the Observer.

Will Tory ministers now understand that, grappling with the real challenges of government as opposed to the fantasies of Brexit, they need media organisations that report verifiable facts?

Such as the BBC, for example, which probably does more than any other news source to alert the public to the dangers of coronavirus infection. Or as Delingpole puts it, promulgates “the most relentless, unquestioning, government-driven propaganda”.

[See also: The rise of the fact-checker in an age of disinformation]

Lies, damned lies

More and more people are realising that the Prime Minister lied to them about Brexit. A letter from the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations to Downing Street, reported in the Times, complains that, on control of our waters, Boris Johnson agreed a “neo-colonial relationship” with the EU. “It is not that… you were forced to concede in the face of an intransigent and powerful opponent that caused such consternation across our industry, it is that you tried to present the agreement as a major success when… patently… it is not.”

The same Times edition reports on leaked Foreign Office internal emails about the Dunn family, who are campaigning for the extradition from the US of the diplomat’s wife whose car killed their 19-year-old son. “It never crosses their mind,” grumbles one email, “that anything we are telling them might be true.” I wonder why that is.

[See also: Why the Foxification of the British media must be resisted]

The Pfizer prize

A few days ago my wife and I, though still a few years short of 80, were unexpectedly summoned to a nearby health clinic to receive the Pfizer vaccine. We feel as if we have won a lottery prize. This is the only part of the government’s anti-virus battle that has gone well. Why? Perhaps because the vaccine programme depends on NHS managers, medical professionals and 30,000 unpaid volunteers, with – in contrast to Test and Trace – not a penny going to Deloitte or any other management consultant. 

This article appears in the 20 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Biden's Burden