Listen, it’s not so much that I want to jump on a bandwagon, but there’s still a media studies teacher buried deep inside me, and I have this blog, see, and it’s for writing things.
I’ve been on a news diet in 2020, in recovery after the three year slow motion car crash of Brexit, so I’ve been taking a break, but the virus has brought me back. It seems like something one would like to stay informed upon. I’m never more than a few weeks away from using the channel tunnel.
I wanted to pull together a number of threads.
First of all, people are terrible. Let’s make no mistake. Brexit may have fatally divided us – because no other issue has made it so starkly obvious that people can be convinced to vote against their own interests – but people have always been terrible. The panic buying of soaps and hand cleansers, which deprives other people of soaps and hand cleansers, making the spread of viruses more likely, is one example of how terrible people are. Terrible both in the sense of being horrible and selfish, but also terrible in the sense that they are acting against their own interests in that sociopathic way that so endears the sharp-elbowed middle classes to me.
Secondly, we cannot ignore the media’s complicity, as ever, in the panic buying. Because clicks and page views are the priority, responsibile reporting – as it always does – goes out of the window. So while there are a few tappety-tap-tap commentators on the sidelines pointing out how flat earthy the news tends to be, the headlines are still click baity, utilising Big Numbers and Alarming Words in order to spread anxiety. Maps, colour coded. Diagrams, graphics. How To Stay Safe.
A glance at the BBC homepage brings forth the word “quarantines” and “16 million”, and words like “escalates” and phrases like “worst case scenario”. Over on the Guardian, we’ve got “quarter of country’s population” and “quarantine hotel collapse”. And the news keeps coming because the clicks keep happening, and we’re all kind of responsible for feeding the beast.
On a related note, as someone on Twitter pointed out, for this virus to be subject to political reporting is a huge mistake. It’s either a public health risk, or it’s not, right? If it’s not, don’t go overboard in reporting it. If it is, then don’t turn it into a political game with winners and losers. Don’t make it about Johnson and Trump and scoring points or looking statesmanlike. Pass it to your science/health team and save the political blame game until everyone is dead, or not.
I’ve seen the number of Potential Dead in a UK outbreak shrink from 500,000 to 100,000 in about four days. We can take all these numbers with a pinch, but you can see the extent of the problem.
Which brings me to thread three, the one about how all this irresponsible reporting plays into the hands of dirty politicians like Johnson and Trump, who can use it to make themselves look like the voice of reason.
Because the media does have previous when it comes to blowing things out of proportion, as many people have pointed out. Boy Who Cried Wolf Syndrome is in full flow. Sars. Bird Flu. Swine Flu. Flat. Earth. News. So if Trump stands there and blathers about how everything is going to be fine, and it’s not that bad, and people are getting better, and we’ve got it contained, and it’ll all be over by April… and he’s right?
Well you can see how it might look to his red capped supporters.
And these are, let’s not forget, the very people we most want to cull.
I’ve said it before, but the greatest trick Trump ever pulled was the fake news thing. I sometimes think to myself, if you were Corbyn, or if you were Gordon Brown, or Neil Kinnock, and you’d started the fake news meme, well, what then? Trump is the biggest liar in the world and quite obviously incoherent and stupid in so many ways, but he has never really been wrong about fake news has he? He may be pointing at the actual truth and calling it fake, but the reality has always been that enough of the news is wrong, exaggerated, irresponsible and politically motivated that he’s on fairly solid ground.
And he could well get away with calling all this virus reporting fake news. I mean, it’s a gamble, but that’s what he is. And if he wins on this, he potentially wins another election in November.