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Spain has Similar COVID-19 Death Rates as the UK but their Papers Provide Scrutiny Instead of Sycophancy

Alex White reports on how, unlike the British popular press, the most widely-read Spanish newspapers hold their Government to account.

Health care staff of the Barcelona Hospital applaud and wave to people on their balconies
Spain has Similar COVID-19 Death Rates as the UK
But their Papers Provide
Scrutiny Instead of Sycophancy

Alex White reports on how, unlike the British popular press, the most widely-read Spanish newspapers hold their Government to account.

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As the Coronavirus sweeps the globe, the UK is on track to becoming the worst-hit country in Europe, with deaths reaching nearly a thousand a day. You wouldn’t know this if you relied on some of the most widely read British media. Until now, the majority of the British media has fawned over Boris Johnson’s illness and recovery and discussed secondary issues.

Spain and the UK are part of a group of only six countries with over 10,000 total deaths

Meanwhile, foreign media, and several British publications with lower circulation rates, have not shied away from reporting on the government’s failed “herd immunity” strategy, their conflicting advice and late decision to ramp up testing.

Now, anger is mounting at the failure of the British press to hold the Government to account. As Nesrine Malik wrote in the Guardian on Sunday, “It is a jarring experience to wake up to a British death toll that is almost a thousand a day, and not see that number on every front page, being put to every politician in every single interview, with a demand for an explanation.”

On 8 April, the UK recorded over 900 deaths for the first time, following a week where the toll grew rapidly. The mornings’ front pages had focused on Boris Johnson’s illness. The Metro, the most widely read newspaper in the UK, declared “we’re with you Boris”. The Sun led with “He stayed at work for you … now pray at home for him” and the Daily Mail told the public that “Boris is a fighter – he’ll pull through”, simultaneously asking “how did Ant blow £20m?”.

The next day the Daily Mail acknowledged the figure, but set it in the context of the length of the lockdown, the Sun also mentioned it, but focused on portraying NHS staff as angels. The Metro front page displayed the figure, without querying the government strategy.

The Prime Minister’s sojourn in St Thomas’ Hospital was a unique scenario, but it seems odd that these papers would not openly question the rapidly growing death rate, which put the UK on a trajectory to becoming one of the worst affected countries in the world. This level of journalism as PR is not normal. With these three papers accounting for nearly 60% of papers read each day in the UK, this matters. 

A useful comparison is the situation in Spain. Spain and the UK have had similar death rates and both arguably had time to better prepare, although the UK had two weeks more. Both Governments have made missteps, for example, both the British and Spanish governments bought testing kits that only work 30% of the time. In Spain, however, the most widely read newspapers have asked questions of the Government’s strategy, and questioned its competence throughout.   

Spain first recorded over 900 deaths on 30 March and the next day its most popular papers were far from supportive. The front page of El Mundo reported how Catalan hospitals were no longer admitting patients without a high chance of surviving and La Vanguardia declared the indecision of the government responsible for the stalled economy. Both of these newspapers are right-wing, and might not be expected to support the left-wing coalition that currently governs in Spain. But the critical reporting isn’t limited to right-wing papers, with centre-left El País, Spain’s most popular paper, reporting that regional health authorities were not working together to alleviate pressure on ICUs and that a “government decree that paralysed the economy causes confusion and unease”. 

Spain and the UK are part of a group of only six countries with over 10,000 total deaths. The day after Spain passed this tragic milestone on 2 April, El País plainly stated this, reporting on the front page that “Spain passes 10,000 deaths, 20% of the global total”. The day after the UK reached 10,000 on 12 April, The Sun opted to focus on “Bojo’s Angels”, profiling two ICU nurses that cared for Johnson.

Spain’s purchase of faulty test kits from China, which it returned after discovering that they work 30% of the time, has been ammunition for the leader of the main opposition party, Pablo Casado. The government’s error was headline news in Spain, making it on to the front pages of various newspapers, including El País.   

Around the same time, the British Government bought tests that were equally useless from China, and some of which were allegedly infected with COVID-19. This picked up a lot of traction in various corners of the media – but was ignored on the front page of the Sun and blamed on Chinese red tape in the Daily Mail. 

There has been critical coverage across the British media, but the main newspapers shape the agenda for nearly two-thirds of newspaper readers. Many seem to sense a mismatch between the gravity of the situation and the glib coverage in much of the press — an opinion poll published on Tuesday found that the media is experiencing a collapse in public confidence.

This whole comparison might be a truism. The New York Times recently reported their groundbreaking finding that Republicans think that Trump is handling the crisis well, and that Democrats do not. The top British papers are conservative, and are supportive of their man in Downing Street. Similarly, in Spain, even El País is not particularly supportive of Podemos, the far-left junior coalition party. All the major newspapers are happy to criticise the government, which is the most left-wing Spain has had since the restoration of its democracy after Franco.

However, what this means is that most newspaper readers in Spain are waking up every day to a critical conversation about the government’s management of the crisis. In the UK, most readers wake to hagiography and inane distractions.

When the dust settles and questions are asked of how the various branches of government dealt with the greatest challenge of our lifetime, certain elements of the supposed “fourth estate” will not be exempt. 

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