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Tue 11 August 2020
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Editor of Scram News, Sam Bright, explains why the notion that critical journalists are the problem in this crisis has to be swiftly rejected.

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On Friday evening, I was WhatsApped the news: a new leaked list shows that the Prime Minister’s chief advisor Dominic Cummings has attended meetings of SAGE – the supposedly independent group of scientists that has been advising the Government on the Coronavirus. 

The Guardian published the story, and it was one worth its column inches. Cummings marauds around Downing Street like a stroppy prince and he has all the credentials of one. We didn’t vote for Cummings. He doesn’t face up to the media. He’s a shadowy figure tearing up the norms of politics without even a cursory nod to democracy.

But Downing Street’s official rebuke to The Guardian demonstrated the power balance between journalists and the state in 2020. “Public confidence in the media has collapsed during this emergency partly because of ludicrous stories such as this,” it said. 

The media is indeed suffering a public backlash. A Sky News poll last week found that journalists are among the least trusted public figures on the Coronavirus – with an approval rating of minus 50. 

And it looks like the most critical among us are bearing the brunt of this hostility. Government insiders claim that their internal polling shows that ministers experience a popularity boost whenever they are mauled by Piers Morgan on breakfast TV. Aside from the fact that people (still) seem to hate Morgan, it appears that voters want journalists to be less critical of the Government. 

I bumped into this attitude a couple of days ago on my daily stroll. A socially distanced neighbour, who doesn’t know my profession, had just finished watching the daily Downing Street briefing and gave me his analysis: “I feel sorry for the politicians. They’re doing the best they can. It’s the reporters that are the problem. They are trying to turn people against each other.”

Either through the force of Government wartime propaganda, and/or a latent British deference towards authority, we are now in a position where journalists are castrated for shedding light on one of the worst public health disasters in 100 years. And let’s be clear: this is a disaster. 

Despite Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s bullish claim in January that we were “well prepared and well equipped” for the Coronavirus, we are heading for one of the worst deaths tolls in Europe. Our testing regime has lagged way behind other countries, health workers still don’t have sufficient protective equipment, and we wasted weeks entertaining a pseudo-scientific “herd immunity” strategy that would have killed 250,000 people. 

So should the media keep hammering the Government for its self-evident failures, even when the general public wants to see a less confrontational approach? Of course.

It is the job of journalists to uncover the truth and scrutinise those in power and this becomes even more crucial when thousands of people are dying. What’s more, while journalists are unpopular now, this crisis is highly fluid. People are embracing a Blitz spirit while in lockdown but, when the onslaught subsides and each country gets its final rating, people will surely question why our mighty country is near the bottom of the leader-board.

If, like me, you also believe that journalists can be change-makers, rather than just lobby parrots, this crisis has been validating. 

Hancock set a 100,000-a-day testing goal for the end of this month because he was being peppered by the media on a daily basis about this very subject. Whether he meets it is another matter. Thousands of renters are no longer facing eviction after Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick U-turned in the face of lobbying from journalists and activists, while pressure from media outlets forced the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, to partially close a loophole in his furlough scheme which left thousands facing financial ruin. 

I am not defending all journalists. Far too many reporters act like glorified Downing Street press officers, mindlessly aping the Government line. Others, such as the Sun and Daily Mail, have been running shamelessly two-faced campaigns to applaud the same low-paid, public sector, migrant workers they have spent years demonising. 

But, amid this, a troupe of journalists keep leaping above the parapet to shout the truth. We should be giving them all the support we can.

Sam Bright is the Editor of Scram News. He is writing in a personal capacity.


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