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Covid Inquiry: how news publishers gloss over scandal

Covid Inquiry: how news publishers gloss over scandal

The Covid Inquiry has been lost in the news cycle as news media, and especially Conservative-friendly outlets, are ignoring the scandal.

There have been so many policy failures in recent years in this country, and so many failures by sections of the media to adequately expose them, that it’s easy to shrug and accept, however reluctantly, that this is the new normal.

Then there have been the overarching, global scale stories, from the Russian invasion of Ukraine to the atrocities in Israel and Gaza, which understandably have pushed slower moving scandals roughly aside.

One of the most notable stories to have lost out in relative prominence has been the long-awaited Covid-19 inquiry, which for a variety of reasons has not received anything like the attention it should have done. Exceptions include papers like The Guardian, which have carried comprehensive daily diaries.

‘There’s no reason for that many people to have died’

Some of the evidence coming out of Baroness Hallett’s inquiry, particularly last week, has been providing truly spectacular insights into how around 230,000 people met their deaths.

Just in case you missed the words of British epidemiologist Professor John Edmunds in the papers, they should be endlessly repeated until the most rabid tabloids get it. On Boris Johnson and lockdowns Edmunds had the following to say.

“As I explained to Prime Minister Boris Johnson we either lockdown now and control the epidemic, or it will force you into a lockdown later, when you have to lock down harder and longer. Twenty, twenty five thousand people died. Some would have, but there’s no reason for that many people to have died at all. There was no strategy, no long-term thinking.”

It is difficult to think of anything like that being said about any British Prime Minister outside of wartime or Irish famines in the 19th century.

Surely Led By Donkeys should be projecting those words in prominent positions.

A British Prime Minister being directly accused of being responsible for the unnecessary deaths of thousands of his citizens either from procrastination, a reluctance to take unpopular decisions, or more probably placing an unhealthy emphasis on the economy undermines any last vestige of credulity.

If Edmunds’ devastating verdict was the splash in any of the Johnson-supporting tabloids it is difficult to recall.

‘A spectacularly stupid idea’

Prof Edmunds then turned his fire from Downing Street to the Treasury and Chancellor Rishi Sunak.

Sunak’s £850m Eat Out To Help Out campaign to boost restaurants was described by Edmunds as “a spectacularly stupid idea and an obscene way to spend public money.”

The professor estimated that Sunak’s policy had led to a 17% rise in Covid infections in the second wave.

The inquiry was told by other witnesses that the Treasury had not sought scientific advice on the wisdom of encouraging people to congregate in cafes and restaurants during the worst pandemic to hit this country in a century.

Once again a senior Cabinet minister, in this case the Chancellor, was directly responsible for thousands of deaths, in this case because of an obvious desire to protect the hospitality sector.

Restaurants could, and should, have been supported financially without Covid-19 coming along with the menu.

The Government’s new chief scientific advisor Prof Dame Angela McLean even went so far as describing Sunak in a private WhatsApp exchange in 2020 as “Dr Death, the Chancellor.”

It would be easy to miss the outrage about the fatal scheme in any of the tabloids who supported Sunak as religiously as they once supported Johnson.

A matter for the courts

The scandals never end of course. There has also been too little media attention to the fact that, despite a legally binding Inquiry order neither Johnson nor Sunak have surrendered the phones they used at the time, claiming they cannot locate the required WhatsApp messages after changing phones.

Specialists have argued that WhatsApp messages can be accessed even when phones are moved.

Sunak’s position has also just been undermined by a story in The Sun that the PM’s original phone number when he was Chancellor is still alive and working and pranksters have published the number online.

This is clearly a matter that will probably now end up in the courts.

Perhaps the ring-wing press will express outrage that both the former and current Prime Minister appear to be in breach of legal obligations to provide information without due cause.

It is not clear at this stage whether Baroness Hallett will widen her inquiry into the behaviour of the media during the Covid years. If the main aim is, as stated, to identify mistakes to help prevent such tragedies in future, then the role of some sections of the media deserve scrutiny.

It seemed obvious at the time that the Conservative-supporting press were hostile to lockdowns, largely against people working from home, and in general placed the greatest emphasis on the plight of the economy rather the population.

We now know from the evidence seeping out at the inquiry that the original suspicions were correct and the motivation predictably selfish.

Risking readers’ lives to protect circulation

The Mail wanted people back to work to revive flagging newspaper sales and, according to Johnson advisor James Slack (now deputy editor of The Sun) wanted the population to get masks so that they could get back to work.

This was at a time when there weren’t even enough adequate masks for all doctors and nurses.

Even setting morality aside, it seems that some newspapers were prepared to take the short-term policy of risking readers’ lives to protect circulation.

Next month inquiry hearings are going to get even more dramatic when both Johnson and Sunak are due to be questioned for up to a day by an Inquiry KC.

Johnson in particular is likely to have a rough time. He has been given no less than 150 written questions to answer before he appears.

One asks why Johnson failed to turn up to any Cobra emergency Covid meetings before March 2nd despite the seriousness of the situation. Another asks Johnson whether it is true that he said he would rather let the bodies pile high rather than order a lockdown.

Rishi Sunak is likely to have an equally tough time explaining away the excess deaths that followed his Eat Out To Help Out stunt.

Surely even the Conservative tabloids will find it difficult to ignore these Inquiry sessions although the headline can be easily predicted: “Johnson Defends Himself Against Covid Allegations.”

The outcome for Rishi Sunak could be more problematical.

By the time he appears, the Conservative Party may be planning to knife him as a likely “loser” and the tabloids could then jump on the next passing bandwagon in the disappearing hopes of finding someone who might defeat Labour.

Raymond Snoddy is a media consultant, national newspaper columnist and former presenter of NewsWatch on BBC News. He writes for The Media Leader on Wednesdays — read his column here.

Nick Drew, CEO, Fuse Insights, on 25 Oct 2023
“A great analysis, and of course worth drawing attention to. I'll flag that although The Guardian may have in-depth coverage of the Inquiry, it's rarely if ever on the front page, so that a routine morning browse through the major stories from the UK and around the world won't typically alight on any reporting of it. I guess it was always the case that the news publishers were able to dictate to the voting public what is and is not "news" and worthy of their attention. And of course the trend away from in-depth analysis by publishers to simple statements of what a particular journalist has seen, with no interpretation of what it means, is a long-established one. But the current situation in which publishers specifically choose what they want to be news, and deliberately pretend there's nothing further to be gleaned from those choices or events, feels unprecedented in the UK.”

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