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Tue 20 October 2020
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A poor diet of news, like a poor diet of food, puts people at greater risk of suffering from COVID-19, argues Sam Bright

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The easing of Coronavirus lockdown measures in the UK has presented an opportunity for many people, myself included, to briefly escape the news cycle.

Holed up in a secluded Lake District cabin, safely distanced hundreds of miles away from Westminster and the bully-boy bluster of Boris Johnson, it felt like living in a different, saner country.

However, my self-imposed apathy wasn’t entirely successful. On a ramble through tarns and pikes – a veritable news black hole – I came across a lonely bus stop, within which an elderly woman was sat, avidly absorbing the Daily Mail.

This shouldn’t have been surprising. After all, the daily circulation of the right-wing rag is still comfortably over a million, similar to that of Liverpool’s most hated publication, the Sun. But their presence on coffee tables and news stands is particularly unsettling during a pandemic.

These papers have displayed a very casual relationship with the truth in recent years – fuelling a medieval witch-hunt against immigrants and benefits fraudsters – and this fact-adjacent journalism hasn’t been tempered during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Carrying on its anti-lockdown crusade – during which its city editor accused the Prime Minister of “shuttering” the economy – the tabloid is now engaged in a mission to bully people back to the office. Yesterday, the paper made an “urgent cry to Britain… We’ve had our lunch, now let’s get back to work!”

This was followed today by an opinion piece from Mail columnist Ross Clark, who accuses civil servants of “wrecking” our economic recovery by choosing to work from home instead of donning a mask and dragging themselves back onto crammed commuter trains.

Despite being labelled as ‘newspapers’ – distributors of fair, accurate information – they more closely resemble Maoist propaganda leaflets or your monthly company newsletter, dressed up with a bit of celebrity gossip. Tabloids consciously skew the news to serve the interests of their company – which relies on people picking up a paper on their way to the office – and their rich owners. They’re no more interested in depicting real life in modern Britain than the Argos catalogue.


This, then, begs the question: why is vastly more attention given to the consumption of food than the consumption of news and information?

Health data shows that obesity puts people at greater risk of dying from the Coronavirus. As a result, alongside his own experience of the virus, Johnson has embarked on a public health drive, proposing that calorie labels are slapped on alcoholic drinks, restaurant meals and takeaway food, as a way of encouraging people to eat more healthily.

Yet it surely likewise follows that a poor diet of information and news is detrimental to the health of the nation. If people rush back to the office or the pub – persuaded by the incessant lobbying of the Daily Mail – they run a greater risk of contracting the virus and spreading it to other people.

An individual’s susceptibility to the Coronavirus depends, not only on what they put in their mouths, but what they put in their brains.

Consuming conspiracy theories about how masks induce the disease or how the Government is spreading the pandemic through 5G masts, increases the likelihood that people will disregard public health advice and leave themselves exposed to the Coronavirus. And, since we are all potential hosts, there is a good chance that this could create a health crisis far more serious than the consequences of obesity.

That’s why Facebook is showing notifications to people who have engaged with “harmful” Coronavirus misinformation on the platform – directing them to a ‘myth busters’ page hosted by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

While the news spread by Britain’s right-wing propaganda press isn’t as glaring or arguably as dangerous as these blatant conspiracy theories, it is more subtle and far-reaching. Flicking through the shouty headlines, the patriotic Brit is portrayed as someone who flirts with danger by proudly marching back to the office, drinking £50 notes at his local pub and being forever wary of the intrusions of the dreaded nanny state.

So here’s my proposal: newspapers or individual articles should be forced to carry a health warning if they propound information, without necessary balance, that could damage someone’s health. This would be regulated by an independent authority, to protect from Government intrusion into the workings of the media, while the warnings themselves would be prominent but not intrusive – in a very similar way to food packaging.

In the words of Johnson, the Coronavirus cannot be “defeated” if influential elements of the media are sowing chaos to boost their cash flow. We all have the right to credible information during this health crisis, and it seems that sensible regulation is the only way to curb the crazed anti-lockdown fervour of some titles.


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