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20 May 2020

First Thoughts: Government propaganda on the BBC, antibody tests and news industry carnage

On the daily briefings, ministers recite dubious figures and answer questions that are too random to put them under scrutiny.

By Peter Wilby

The government’s daily press conferences, televised live on BBC One, have become little more than propaganda. Ministers recite dubious figures of tests completed, personal protection equipment secured and billions of pounds handed out to show they are busy, competent and caring. Questions, from journalists and the public, are too random to put them under scrutiny. Ministers thus build up political capital while opposition party leaders lack any comparable exposure.

I cannot think why Labour MPs aren’t making more fuss about this. The proper forum for ministerial statements is the House of Commons. Cross-examination should come from honourable members. There is no reason why such sessions shouldn’t be on the BBC. Government scientists could still hold press conferences, presenting data, but those fronted by ministers should end now.

Promises made

Alok Sharma, the Business Secretary, drones on in a monotone voice suitable for presenting the mid-year results of a firm of chartered accountants. So when I heard him say 30 million vaccine doses against Covid-19 could be ready by September, I assumed I had nodded off and dreamt it. Then I saw the next day’s papers. There were ifs and coulds in what Sharma said, but there weren’t many of those in the headlines. Perhaps I shall be proved wrong – in which case, I shall eat my mask outside Loughton station – but I think this promise will be like the ones made about tests. Expect to learn in September that 30 million vaccines are in the post.

Known unknowns

Ministers describe antibody tests, which supposedly reveal whether or not individuals have had Covid-19, as “game-changing”. Yet scientists tell us that the presence of antibodies may not guarantee immunity from reinfection. And even if it did, nobody can know whether the immunity lasts for weeks, months or years. These “known unknowns” must have been evident in early March. So why did anybody think that aiming for “herd immunity” was a sensible strategy? 

Vice squad

“Platforms are not just taking a larger slice of the pie, but almost the whole pie,” said Vice Media’s chief executive, Nancy Dubuc, as she informed staff of 150 job cuts. The “platforms” are Google and Facebook, which take content from news websites but monopolise advertising revenue.

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Dubuc’s complaint is echoed across the media industry. BuzzFeed News, which seemed to have cracked the challenge of attracting under-35s to serious news, has closed its UK and Australian operations. The Financial Times, despite gaining 50,000 digital subscribers this year, has cut senior staff salaries by at least 10 per cent. The Economist Group has cut 90 jobs. The business news website Quartz has reduced its workforce by 40 per cent and closed its London, San Francisco, Hong Kong and Washington, DC offices.

The epidemic is the immediate cause of this pain, but the malaise is deeper. Upmarket or middle-market, paywall or open-access, aimed at middle-aged high-earners or ambitious young hipsters, digital providers of serious news, thanks to Google and Facebook, don’t have sustainable businesses.

Smoke screen

The Daily Mail published an article by the artist David Hockney on the merits of smoking. Evidence from France and China, Hockney points out, suggests smokers are underrepresented among those infected with coronavirus. Researchers are looking into whether nicotine offers protection against Covid-19. The Guardian was offered the article first and turned it down. The Mail accuses it of censorship.

Let’s be clear about two things. First, the research, which the Guardian has reported, is into the efficacy of nicotine patches, not the cigarettes that Hockney still smokes in his eighties; doctors say that when smokers do get infected, they are more likely to suffer complications. Second, “censorship” is something done by governments, preventing certain facts and opinions appearing anywhere. Newspapers use editorial judgement, which the Mail would do if I sent it an article praising trade unions. 

This article appears in the 20 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Moving Left Show