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23 March 2020updated 24 Mar 2020 11:28am

Boris Johnson’s sharper Covid-19 response leaves journalists with questions of their own to answer

The Prime Minister must offer greater clarity to the self-employed, but the press should examine their own response. 

By Stephen Bush

Boris Johnson has unveiled tighter restrictions on people’s movement, telling them to remain indoors and restrict their movements to essential trips to work, to buy food, and to do one bout of exercise, in the company of others in their household or alone. The police will be empowered to enforce breaches and to break up large gatherings.

The statement was a huge improvement on Johnson’s previous ones: it was disciplined, clear and easy to follow. It needs to be accompanied by greater public information about how best to manage demand on green spaces in cities, and other measures to facilitate – I discuss some possible levers here – but this was a set of sensible proposals. This is what most people are already doing. If Downing Street can offer more guidance, action against the minority of businesses making it impossible for their employees to follow the instructions and income protection for the self-employed, they won’t be far off from where they need to be.

But has the media done the same? On Twitter, I couldn’t move for tweets from MPs and broadcasters urging me to watch the Prime Minister’s big announcement at 8:30pm. But across the music stations of the BBC, Baeur (which owns Magic FM, Jazz FM and the various Absolute radio stations), and Global (the company which owns Capital, Capital Xtra, Heart, Classic FM, Smooth FM and is the closest thing the BBC has to a rival on radio) I heard nothing. Viewers on BBC Two were not told to switch over to BBC One at 8:30pm and, at 9.00pm, they still received no indication that anything of interest had happened.

Had I been using any of these stations as my main news source I would have had little indication that these new measures were about to come into place. But taken together, these are where the majority of people get their news and information.

It’s right to criticise the Prime Minister’s waffly approach – I’ve done a fair bit of that myself. But surely it’s also right for us to reflect on the fact that across the BBC’s political programming and on LBC, the talk radio station owned by Globa, a furious debate is raging about how Boris Johnson isn’t doing enough and whether the people of Britain are either selfish, lazy or stupid for not following the government’s advice, while not even informing viewers on their music and light entertainment channels that the Prime Minister had an important message for them.

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It’s far from clear whether the majority of people in the United Kingdom could tell you how far to stand from strangers, let alone reel off all of the government’s advice and instructions. While that is a damning verdict on Boris Johnson it is also, partially, a verdict on us

Everyone in the United Kingdom has heard of coronavirus, but I think there’s a question as to whether much of the media, particularly our broadcasters, are confusing communicating with the engaged 8 million – the number of people who have the BBC’s app on their phones – with communicating with the remaining 58 million. These are the people whom both the government and the press must reach if Covid-19 is to be contained.

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