The Herd Immunity CatastropheHow British Public Broadcasters Failed the Impartiality Test on COVID-19
A new study suggests BBC and ITV reports failed to scrutinise the Government contributing to a poor response to the pandemic
Subscribe to our newsletter for exclusive editorial emails from the Byline Times Team.
The UK Government’s initial response to the COVID-19 virus has already been described as ‘one of the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced” in an official Government report. Many of these criticisms focus on the slow reaction to the onset of the crisis and the decision to employ a ‘herd immunity’ strategy in the first few weeks and the failures to implement a quick lockdown. 178,000 deaths had been attributed to COVID-19 in the UK by May 2022. Epidemiologists have estimated that acting a week earlier may have halved the death toll in the first wave.
The official public inquiry soon underway will inevitably examine these failures, but so far little attention has been paid to how the public’s main information source – public broadcasting – covered the crucial early stages of the pandemic.
While a Guardian report on leaked messages indicates there was pressure on the BBC to avoid the word ‘lockdown’ and criticise the Labour Party in March 2020, a new study by Mike Berry and Greg Philo raises troubling questions about how Britain’s key public broadcasters failed to question the questionable claims by the Conservative Government in the first two weeks of the crisis.
‘“We Need to Start Building up What’s Called Herd Immunity”’: Scientific Dissensus and Public Broadcasting in the COVID-19 Pandemic’ focuses on the pivotal weeks in March 2020 leading up to the UK going into lockdown. Its findings are relevant to later and current decisions regarding the management of Covid, and future viruses with pandemic potential.
The BBC and ITV evening news bulletins from 9-20 March were identified as the news sources consumed by the most people. At the time the Government’s ‘herd immunity’ approach – seeking ‘natural’ immunity against COVID-19 through mass infection – made the UK an international outlier, going directly against the World Health Organisation’s recommendations
However, the study found the representation of scientific opinion was heavily weighted towards the Government’s position. Direct criticism of government policy appeared in just 11.8% of news items on BBC1 and 15.5% of articles on ITV while indirect criticism such as highlighting the fact Britain was taking a different approach to other countries appeared in 12.6% of news items on BBC news and 15.5% of items on ITV. The bulk of media criticism was focused on PPE shortages for frontline workers.
Across more than 6000 lines of news text analysed by the study, there was only a single two-line reported statement suggested the Government’s herd immunity strategy was flawed. Broadcasts contained repeated references to the need for immunity to be built up through infection without scrutinising the implication. Government policy was described as clear and based on the “best scientific advice”. The public was advised to continue going to pubs, and mass gatherings, and to even book holiday flights.
The study suggests the reassuring tone of some media coverage and the lack of perceived urgency on the part of the government may have had the effect of reducing the public perception of risk. On 5 March 2020, the Daily Mail reported a YouGov survey of 10 countries which put Britain last, both in public fear and the likelihood of taking steps to limit risk.
One of the other key failures identified by the report was the public broadcasters’ lack of international comparisons that could be replicated to improve the UK’s Coronavirus response. The majority of comparisons were made with European countries, and depicted the oncoming wave of infections and death with a sense of inevitability
There was a lack of questioning why Europe had become the epicentre of the pandemic. Singapore’s test and trace system was used as an example of how a lockdown might be avoided in the UK, but there was no examination of how Singapore’s effective system differed from the UK’s testing regime.
On 11 March, the BBC1 main evening news bulletin included a favourable report on testing and tracing from South Korea. The correspondent made the important point that “scientists believe early testing and early treatment could be why fewer people are dying here”. The scale of the operation was also emphasised: “Makeshift clinics such as this one are set up to combat mass infections. Nearly a hundred staff at this building in Seoul contracted COVID-19. Now everyone who works here will be tested”.
In the evening news bulletin, the BBC also reported that there would be “a significant increase in testing capacity”. Though the UK approach to testing and contact tracing was inferior to that in South Korea, there is no comparison made here between the two. The sharp contrast between the approaches of the UK and that of South Korea became even more apparent the following day when the Government made the decision to limit testing to those with breathing problems in hospital. This decision was not reported on the BBC or ITV main evening bulletins that day.
Another Failure of the Lobby System
As well as editorial decisions by the broadcasters as to which scientists were interviewed on air, the study found that journalists played an important role in framing how the views of scientists should be interpreted. The marginalisation of critical voices was amplified by the introduction of daily press conferences featuring the Prime Minister and Government scientists with selected questions.
The close link between the parliamentary ‘lobby’ of journalists – “particularly the political editors at both channels” – and the Government’s “communications machine” framed the public debate among public broadcasters in ways which were ultimately unhelpful to the public.
“A journalism orientated to protecting the public interest ought to have least investigated the successful approaches that been well demonstrated elsewhere. However, public media was unable to alert the public on the need for these in the UK,” the report concludes.
As the film-maker Amando Iannucci said of the controversy around the suspension of sports commenter Gary Lineker from BBC’s Match of the Day after pressure from Conservative ministers and MPs, the BBC needs to be properly insulated from Government pressure to fulfil its remit of informing the public.
While the study only focuses on a specific time period, it suggests a trend that’s been repeated in the years since. The Government has often made decisions that have made the UK an international outlier – for example, the recent decision to end the roll-out of primary school at the same time as the CDC added COVID-19 to the list of standard child immunisations in the US – with many of these decisions receiving little scrutiny.