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Neil Ferguson: The Difference between Public Interest Journalism and a Politically Motivated Smear

With a public inquiry into their handling of the COVID-19 crisis looming, Brian Cathcart sees signs that the Government’s cheerleaders are helping to make scientists the scapegoats

Neil Ferguson
The Difference between Public Interest Journalism and a
Politically Motivated Smear

With a public inquiry into their handling of the COVID-19 crisis looming, Brian Cathcart sees signs that the Government’s cheerleaders are helping to make scientists the scapegoats.

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Let’s start with this. When a prominent scientific adviser to the government on Covid-19 breaks the lockdown rules, that is a genuine public interest news story. Any responsible journalist would publish it, and it even deserves some prominence. 

So it is not surprising that the Telegraph reported what Professor Neil Ferguson had done, nor is it surprising that other newspapers repeated the fact, or indeed that Ferguson resigned from the SAGE committee. This is normal journalism at work. 

But anyone who believes that what we have been witnessing here is nothing more than normal journalism is simply deluded. 

For one, the story was dressed up as a sex scandal when there was no justification for doing so. In the 21st century who scientists sleep with is not our business and the very idea that the Telegraph, number one cheerleader for the philandering Boris Johnson, is in a position to judge or denigrate anyone for having a ‘married lover’ has rightly been mocked as the height of hypocrisy.

Importantly, that sex angle is more than mere titillation, more than simply a device to attract additional readers. Across the corporate press (the Mail and the Sun also splashed it) Ferguson has not just been brought to earth; he has been made an object of sniggering mockery.

In other words, this is a smear: his reputation is being attacked not only for a genuine misjudgement (which he has acknowledged) but also on grounds which should have remained private and are unfair.

Next, the prominence given to this story across not only national titles but also in broadcast news is nothing short of grotesque. We are in the middle of a pandemic and among the items of news from yesterday that needed to be reported was that the UK death toll was now the highest in any country in Europe. 

Let’s dwell on that a little. British human beings are dying in very large numbers from an extremely unpleasant disease, and very often without the comfort of contact with their loved ones – to a degree not seen in any other country in Europe. And this is happening even though the UK indisputably had extra time to prepare itself and even though ministers had promised us the NHS was very well prepared

What kind of news editor, anywhere – indeed what kind of human being – thinks that is less newsworthy than a scientist breaking the lockdown rules?

What’s more, a scientist whose name most people in the country, even now, would struggle to recognise. How could they have thought they were of remotely similar standing? 

This is not serious news judgement. It is rank idiocy, or it is something worse. 

Which brings us to a third problem with this story, which is that its origins remain opaque and suspicious: good journalists reporting anything even vaguely contentious or surprising give you at least an idea of where their information comes from, but the Telegraph has done no more than drop hints. 

Who told them and how did they verify it? When did this happen? We should be told because, to be very clear, we have a right to be suspicious. 

Given the paper’s extraordinary and unembarrassed closeness to a government led by its former columnist it is absolutely natural for us to suspect some kind of ministerial subterfuge, and if that is not the case then the onus is on the Telegraph to make it clear. They have not done that. 

(Indeed the Telegraph has followed up its splash with a drive to challenge Ferguson’s scientific judgement on the lockdown, as if somehow his professional standing was now in question.) 

So what are we left with? A news story that shows every sign of being a political manoeuvre, and worse, a political manoeuvre which journalists and editors – who are supposed to act in the public interest – have been falling over themselves to facilitate. 

Look at it this way. In their mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis government ministers have chosen to lay off responsibility on the scientists at every possible opportunity. Every questionable decision is pinned on scientific advice, and by and large the scientists have neither the opportunity nor the cunning to tackle this in a timely fashion. 

So in something like nine months from now Neil Ferguson, as one of the scientists who was at the very centre of it all, will have his opportunity to put the record straight before the public inquiry into the handling of the crisis. He is one of those best placed to speak for the scientists. 

But when he does, of course, we will be reminded again and again that he is ‘the disgraced Professor Ferguson’, the boffin who could not keep away from his ‘married lover’ even as a government acting on his advice was struggling to maintain the lockdown. 

In the Sun, the Telegraph, the Mail, the Times and all the other cheerleading titles, his testimony will be belittled and undermined. And yes, he will have brought some of this upon himself, but it will also be the case that journalists at all those titles, and others in the sheeplike broadcast news media, will have conspired in the smear.   

It is little wonder that the annual European ‘Trust in Media’ polling data published last week showed that, for the ninth time in ten years, the UK comes last out of 33 countries in the table of ‘trust in written press’. 

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