28 January 2021
Any Other News?
Apart from Covid.
By Lynda Goetz
Last week, my colleague J.R. Thomas wrote about the decline of traditional newspapers. Online news, he argues, has to a large extent rendered these obsolete. Reflect however on some of these headlines: Man sets himself on fire outside government HQ in Belarus; Police told to treat online hate crime ‘as a priority’; Vegan advert reported for shaming middle-aged men; Woman killed disabled son in lockdown; Global ice loss accelerates to level of ‘worst case’ scenarios; Tension as Dutch anti-curfew protests grow; Echoes of Belarus in Russia’s Navalny protests; Companies on trial over Agent Orange sale; High-ranking diplomat flees North Korea; Smuggler hid protected chameleons in his socks. Would you have heard anything about any of these items from any of our national broadcast news?
Watching either the BBC or the ITV evening news over the last week (and longer), you could be forgiven for believing that the entire world had been reduced not only to a series of mainly dire UK Covid statistics but to a succession of miserable personal stories more suited to those ‘real life story’ magazines which churned out tales of woe, misery and tragedy, interspersed with real-life fairy-tale romance. Unfortunately the fairy-tale romance element is completely lacking in the current news feeds and the reports seem to focus almost entirely on the numbers of Covid cases, Covid deaths and the personal misery and despair of families bereaved or possibly about to be bereaved by coronavirus, or else on weary, stressed, overworked nurses and doctors on Covid wards. Is this really necessary? Will the figures (combined with the personal stories and warnings from the healthcare workers and from the sick and dying about what a horrible disease coronavirus is and how important it is to wear our masks, wash our hands and comply with social distancing rules) reach those who are not taking this illness seriously – or will it simply add to the distress, fear and anxiety of the majority who are, it would appear, already anxious, fearful and distressed?
The BBC has often been accused of being anti-government. Currently it is hard to see it as being anything other than a puppet of the government and possibly even of the NHS; briefed to present the government’s and government scientists’ line on all things Covid. The ITV is little different. Whatever happened to unbiased worldwide news? In 30 minute news programmes we are subjected to 25 minutes of UK (not even worldwide) Coronavirus-related news, whilst in ‘the day’s other news’ we are offered views of huge new vaccine centres (small ray of hope?); items related to the increase in unemployment (caused by lockdown) or possibly views of care-home residents being ferried to safety (socially-distanced of course) from their flooded care home. During the American elections some time was, to be fair, given to issues of American politics, but other international news? So very little as would leave those who only get their news from television seriously ill-informed.
The more one thinks about this, the odder it seems. It is not long since we finally left the EU, supposedly to strike out as a global-trading nation once again; and yet here we are with our leaders seriously considering shutting us all up in fortress Britain with enforced quarantine for those entering the country and our only news appears to be parochial in the extreme. To find out what is happening out there in the big wide world you need to find other sources. The Today programme on Radio 4 used to be a fairly reliable source of information. This morning the last 4 minutes or so (which felt interminable) of the programme was devoted to actor Rory Kinnear ‘who lost his sister to the virus’ reading out a list of names of ‘your loved ones’. I am really sorry for those who have lost loved ones to the virus. I am equally sorry for anyone who has lost loved ones to cancer over the last year, or to strokes, heart attacks or suicide, but reading their names out to me on the radio is meaningless; literally, utterly meaningless. You might as well read out the telephone directory. Unless you are a friend or relative, those names cannot possibly mean anything.
If the statistics can be relied upon and over 100,000 people have died of Covid 19 (and not just within 28 days of a positive test, having died of something else), this still represents only 0.149% of the population. If you believe the statistics have under-reported Covid-19 deaths and believe that maybe closer to 120,000 have died, we are still talking about 0.179%. Mortality rates in historic pandemics have been much higher: 30-45% (!) died in this country during the Black Death; some 15-20% of the population of London died in the 1665 Plague and some 3% of the UK population died in the Spanish Flu pandemic after the First World War. Listening to the UK television news it would be easy to believe that the country had never suffered anything comparable to the coronavirus pandemic. This reporting is unhelpful, even damaging. It lacks any sort of perspective or any sense of proportion.
Those who are being cavalier about the useful and necessary prevention mechanisms we are all being asked (nay ordered) to take, will not be, as Janet Daley said in her article for The Telegraph a few days ago, watching or taking any notice of the BBC news. Those who are watching will be those who have already had all their perceptions skewed by the government warnings and fearmongering; those who are already scared. Clive Myrie repeating ‘We are all scared’ over pictures of ITU wards, morgues and graves is alarmist propaganda. It is not news. If we are going to do nothing but focus on ‘the virus’ (which I would not advocate) we need balancing statistics like how many people were discharged from hospital having recovered or how many came out of ITU having received effective treatment. Snippets on the number given ‘the jab’ are not actually that encouraging when at the same time we are subjected to our Health Secretary staring earnestly into the camera telling us we are a ‘long, long, long’ way from the end of lockdown or whatever other dire message he was delivering in his weird ‘hamsterish’ way.
It is easy to be critical of the way the pandemic has been handled. It is easy, if we are not in charge, to say, with the benefit of hindsight, that this or that should have been done. My own views on the damage done by lockdown, rather than the coronavirus itself, are a matter of record, but it is clear that the immediately international nature of the modern world, the interconnectivity and the power of social media have all played a part in the way countries around the world have dealt in very similar autocratic ways with this latest ‘plague’. What our broadcast media should not be doing at this stage is retreating into dubious statistics and sob stories to increase the fear when what is required is a little rationality and sense of proportion. To counteract the inward-looking and closed-down nature of the world we are all inhabiting, the broadcast media should be looking outward and increasing our engagement with the rest of the world at a time when, for most of us at least, real contact with that world has been removed.