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The BBC and the journalism of fear

How the emotionalising of politics and the media is affecting our response to coronavirus. 

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The BBC News at Ten has a formula. It opens with a statistic about death. There follows a victim’s family, sobbing and wiping away tears. Then we see a politician with a chart and a slogan. His message is simple, do what I say or more people will die. After that, reason is lost in mush. 

The emotionalising of news long pre-dates coronavirus. It is the same when the country is at war or hit by terrorism. But coronavirus is its field day. Calculated to engage, frighten and discipline, the government’s orchestration of television coverage has been slick and effective. From the start of lockdown at the end of March, 90 per cent of people in an Ipsos Mori poll supported it, with 80 per cent wanting to give more power for the police. Fed with fear, people search instinctively for protection. They accept curbs on their lives and their livelihoods they would otherwise find intolerable. 

How should the media react? In the first place it is compromised. It is the prime conduit of fear. Normally it propagates news as delivered by government, and scrutinises it. But when a government has taken emergency powers, the word emergency itself has a censoring impact. Worst case scenarios are invariably headlined. In March, sceptics of the government’s chosen Imperial College-based coronavirus model were vilified. The evening news became a Catholic Mass, with “the science” as the true faith, driving the nation towards the mortification of the flesh. Only the message mattered. Challenge was heresy.

In his recent study of the new emotional politics, Nervous States, the sociologist William Davies charts the decline in rationalism and “the verbal public sphere”. In its place has arrived “the image-based sphere where photos, videos and attendant social media predominate”. Power lies not with the story but with the storyteller. He does not ask “do my words match up to reality?” but “do my words mobilise you?”

Thus when Boris Johnson returned from sickness on 27 April, he offered no explanation for his policy volte face from herd immunity to suppression and lockdown before he disappeared, no admission of past shortcomings or hint at different ways of going forward. That would convey weakness. He cheerily boasted the nonsense that Britain was “on track to prevail” in the first phase of fighting coronavirus and there would be no end to lockdown. It was a class act of rationalism in retreat.

Scrutiny of government performance supposedly comes from MPs. Like many, I was astonished when in March Britain’s parliament voted ministers discretionary powers unprecedented in peacetime, with extreme curbs on personal liberty, and departed on holiday. The public was left with a wooden daily press conference, with a few wooden questions and excuses, as the nearest it got to accountable government.  

Anyone who has been monitoring Covid-19 policies in, for instance Germany, New Zealand, Sweden or South Africa, is bombarded with statistics and policy controversy, as catalogued by the historian Niall Ferguson in his enormous Pandemic Primer. The comparison with Downing Street’s sloganising is cringe-making, on a par with Whitehall’s infantile chant of “See it, say it, sorted”. We are bidden to “support the NHS and save lives”, and shut up. To ensure obedience to a one-size-fits-all lockdown, Covid-19 must be presented falsely as an imminent and equal threat to all, hence the prevalence of younger people and frontline staff in photomontages of victims.

For a critique of this state of affairs, the public can turn only to the news media. Initially, it tended to play the government’s game. Fear sells papers and wins viewers. If it bleeds it leads. If they won’t cry, let the story die. But gradually over the past month, journalists have been thrust forward to fill the gap in frontline accountability. They have had to revert to their traditional role of scepticism towards power.  

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Journalists are the impresarios of politics. Government information is their script but they put it on stage. As the philosopher Marshall McLuhan pointed out long ago, different media do it in different ways, some are “hot” and some “cold”. Broadcasting is hot, direct and transient. It conveys argument and debate, but the medium demands emotion and bias. Even the BBC Radio 4, which has had a good pandemic, cannot rid itself of the corporation’s core belief, that whatever the issue, government is “not doing enough”. I have never heard a BBC reporter ask why a minister is not doing less. 

The tabloid press – and its alter ego television news – is also hot. It likes fear. It certainly has a role to play in airing the public’s feelings, insecurities and sentiments, views that may be dangerous if suppressed. But it rarely delves deep, and its targets are random. The other side of the same coin is social media – free of editorial control or regulation and the disseminator of panic, such as fake news about 5G causing Covid-19. The “bias against understanding” is the occupational disease of emotional journalism.

By default, there remains the so-called serious press. Its daily task now fills acres of coverage as it attempts to subject government actions to some objective inquest. Within each 24-hour cycle it must collate inputs from academics, think tanks and websites, and apply to them some sense of proportion and context – in “real time”. It was the newspapers that exposed the gulf between the government’s measure of hospital deaths and the actual number. It was they who brought to light the scandal of the care home sector, custodian of those most vulnerable to Covid-19 yet ignored by ministers because it is a space not “owned” by them. For a full month, private sector deaths were not “real”. British MPs attacked China for concealing its death rate, while leaving their own unchallenged. Likewise, it was the press that exposed inadequacies in testing and in personal protection equipment, assisted by that gift to tabloids, the nurse “left defenceless” by the state. 

The relationship between journalism, fear and power remains a little-studied area of politics. I am suspicious of according the media constitutional status, let alone as a surrogate parliament. It is the first step to control. Yet its pluralism and diversity depend on the whims of a capitalist free market. And there are times when that whim is all that stands between democracy and unbridled power. One such time has been April 2020.

In his study of American political psychology, The Righteous Mind, the American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt sought to explain why people no longer “vote their pocket book”. In other words, why do the poor now vote Republican? His answer was a drift in loyalty from economic self-interest towards various forms of security largely related to family and group identity – the underpinning of the new populism. That identity is fertile soil for the politics of emotion, particularly the emotion of fear.

Infectious disease is a gift to the politics of fear. To Johnson, Covid-19 was at first something he happily, indeed boisterously, left to herd immunity. The metaphor suited the moment. Now the virus is a mugger, a character lurking on every street. It is one so menacing as to license a burst of global authoritarianism like nothing else in recent times. Geneva’s Centre for Civil and Political Rights has registered 84 countries that have declared states of emergency, and civil rights curbed everywhere from Hungary and Serbia to Cambodia, India and Thailand. And everywhere minorities are treated as the first source of insecurity.  

According to the organisation Reporters without Borders, 38 countries have introduced measures to shackle the press. It believes journalism faces an unprecedented threat as, according to the watchdog’s director-general Christophe Deloire, governments leave people “stunned and protests ruled out of the question, in order to impose measures that would be impossible in normal times”. The global charity Internews is seeking a $1m fund to answer pleas for funding assistance from news outlets and journalists in 56 countries. Even in Europe, with visits to newspaper websites up by an average of 50 per cent, countless newspapers face commercial collapse. Authoritarian populism rubs its hands with glee.

In the coming weeks there will be an almighty argument, a confrontation of political and economic forces over how to retreat from coronavirus and repair the damage of lockdown. The pace of retreat will be presented as a contest between high-profile deaths today and the results of prolonged recession, of unemployment, shattered dreams, broken homes, poverty and pollution, as well as other diseases left untreated. 

Popular ethics presents the “trolley problem” as a choice between killing one person standing next to you, versus saving them but killing five people down the road as a result. The usual answer is that you would not sacrifice the one life, even if reason says you should. It is to avoid these “agency dilemmas” that we have governments. Their job is to rationalise emotional responses, to see welfare decisions in terms of the general good. Democracy is rationalism institutionalised. 

In the case of a pandemic, we expect government soberly to measure the human risk of more virus deaths today against the certainty of enormous costs – and collateral deaths – enforced on the entire nation by prolonged lockdown. This week (29 April) cancer experts predicted 18,000 extra deaths in the UK from untreated cancers alone. This is not a novel issue. Every day of the week government uses the measure of quality adjusted life years to decide where to spend money on life-saving medicines, hospital equipment, and accident and pollution prevention. 

The welfare of the public realm, and of each citizen within it, is a giant algorithm, a seamless web. In totting up the cost of lockdown, the Chancellor Rishi Sunak is not, as his critics say, “measuring human lives against cash”. He is measuring lives today against lives tomorrow. That is his job, and the serious media’s job is to make sure he does it.

In the short term, in “real time”, I see no alternative vehicle for such rationalism but an independent daily press. Wise politicians rely on it. Responsible scepticism survives on it. Democracy demands it. I do not agree with Thomas Jefferson, that he would choose newspapers without government if the alternative was government without newspapers. But today’s politics of fear drives me ever closer to it.

Simon Jenkins is an author, columnist and former editor of the Times and the London Evening Standard 

This article appears in the 08 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Remaking Britain