‘Calling us heroes just makes it ok when we die’: Constructing Coronavirus News

Joe Sim, Professor of Criminology, Liverpool John Moores University

If I die, I don’t want to be remembered as a hero. I want my death to make you angry too. I want you to politicize my death. I want you to use it as fuel to demand change in this industry, to demand protection, living wages, and safe working conditions for nurses and ALL workers. Use my death to mobilize others. Use my name at the bargaining table. Use my name to shame those who have profited or failed to act, leaving us to clean up the mess. Don’t say “heaven has gained an angel.” Tell them negligence and greed has murdered a person for choosing a career dedicated to compassion and service.

These poignant words were written by Emily Pierskalla, an American nurse, and were cited in an article published in mid-April which focused on the daily Downing Street press briefings about the coronavirus. The article debunked a number of myths which had been fostered through these briefings: glorifying science despite the fact that knowledge about the virus was in its infancy; the launch of a badge for carers in the middle of a pandemic (when these same workers could not access PPE equipment to protect their lives); blaming China for the government’s initial inaction; focusing on the health of the Prime Minister; and the distractions generated by the ‘clap for carers’ campaign. The cloistered sterility of the briefings – ‘wooden and evasive’ – according to one commentator – meant that the government was ‘manufacturing news’:

The government is tightly controlling the news agenda. Its daily press briefings are not keeping it accountable; they’re allowing it to recycle soundbites. While lobby journalists don’t always do the best job, they have – at times – tried to ask some decent questions. It’s just the questions aren’t answered; and because it’s a press conference, there isn’t the scrutiny of an actual interview.

On April 14th, the lack of face-to-face interviews was highlighted on Channel 4 News. The broadcaster had asked government ministers for an interview on 8 consecutive days. None was forthcoming.

The staged, stilted nature of the briefings was legitimated by the presence of scientists to whom the politicians deferred as a matter of course. However, even here, the idea that there was a coronavirus reality that could be objectively measured through a scientific consensus was also problematic. As Professor Brian Cox noted:

There’s no such thing as ‘the science’, which is a key lesson. If you hear a politician say ‘we’re following the science’, then what that means is they don’t really understand what science is. There isn’t such a thing as ‘the science’. Science is a mindset.

The restricted format generated a specific narrative, a drive towards a consensus which constructed insiders – those who supported a response based on national unity – and outsiders – those who did not. Inevitably, this drive marginalized other narratives and distracted attention from the devastatingly bad decisions the Prime Minister, and his government, had made. For Nesrine Malik:

Here’s what we already know. The government delayed implementing a lockdown for no clear reason – perhaps it was the prime minister’s outsized regard for the “freedom-loving instincts of the British people”, or a misguided bid to pursue “herd immunity” – and then reversed its position. Weeks were wasted, and thousands of lives were lost. The government abruptly stopped its contact-tracing programme in mid-March; it claimed mass testing wasn’t necessary, and then U-turned while repeatedly shifting the goalposts on the number of tests to be done. It did not provide adequate levels of PPE for NHS and care home staff, and hundreds of workers are dying. This government’s Conservative predecessors underfunded the NHS and undermined the UK’s preparedness for a major crisis such as a pandemic.

Professor John Ashton too expressed his doubts about the briefings:

It was the failure to convene [the emergency committee] Cobra at the beginning of February that meant everything else flowed from it, the failure to order equipment etc. Now we are into the cover-up. Any journalist worth their salt should boycott this propaganda [the daily briefing]. They don’t answer any questions. The chief nurse deflected the question about the number of nurses and doctors who died because of confidentiality. She wasn’t being asked about individuals, she was being asked about numbers.

Ashton also pointed to an issue that was to come to dominate the debate – care home deaths. For him, people were dying at home, and in care homes, without being tested while others were being ‘sent home to die before they had been tested. There are probably large numbers of people who are not being counted’.

At the end of April, Alistair Campbell pointed to the journalists’ lack of preparation for the briefings, the ‘platitudes and homilies’ on which the government’s answers were based and the off-the-record briefings conducted away from public scrutiny. Pippa Crerar, the Political Editor of the Daily Mirror, noted that the list of broadcasters who could ask questions was drawn up by 10 Downing Street. Furthermore, when the briefings first began journalists asked one question after which their microphone was turned off by Downing Street so there was no follow-up. For her:

…often the biggest problem we contend with is the lack of answers that are forthcoming from the government, it can be really frustrating when you ask a question and then all you get back is the government’s pre-planned line and that happens quite a lot…when you ask a specific question about …testing capacity or different elements of PPE getting to the front line and you get a sort of stock response that tells you nothing then it does feel very frustrating.

On April 27th, BBC 1’s Panorama highlighted the deadly impact of the shortage of PPE and other equipment. Directly reflecting the words of Emily Pierskalla which began this blog, the Thursday night ritual of clapping for carers was criticized by some staff on the ground who felt that it was glossing over the shortages on some of the wards. One nurse, working in intensive care, told the programme, ‘calling us heroes just makes it ok when we die.’ Despite Panorama’s intervention, the press headlines the following morning were overwhelmingly concerned about the ending of the lockdown. All that is except one. Reflecting the contradictions in the media’s coverage, the Daily Mail, not noted for its criticism of the government, carried as its main headline – Doctors’ PPE Desperation; 1 in 4 forced to reuse protective clothing; Failure to stockpile gowns & visors dates back 11 YEARS. In coming back to PPE, the newspaper returned to an issue which had dominated the debate for weeks yet had virtually disappeared from the press briefings and the other print outlets over the previous two days. 

Another medic pointed to the iniquity of the government’s position, in praising staff on the ground as ’heroes even while watching us die without proper personal protective equipment. How dare they? Testimony from staff forced to wear bin bags, Marigolds and even sanitary towels as facial protection should shame every member of the cabinet’.

At the end of April, Nesrine Malik, while recognizing that the media did not speak with one voice, was critical of the overall message that was being presented:

For all that the facts look damning for the government, the overall picture presented to the public has not been notable for its scrutiny and scepticism. This is not a swipe at an amorphous “media” failing to hold the government to account. Many journalists are probing and investigating – and getting flak for doing so. But much of the press has either stenographically taken the government’s word for things, or relegated the awkward matter of our appalling death toll to a mere footnote amid other concerns about life under lockdown. Last week, The Sun had a front-page splash that read “Lockdown blow. Pubs shut until Xmas”. On a small image of a Covid-19 virus splodge on the same page, it said “596 dead. See page 4”. Other papers, such as the Daily Telegraph, have effectively become mouthpieces for the government.

On Saturday May 2nd, the circle of distraction was complete. At the daily press briefing it was announced that the number of deaths had increased to 28,131, up by 621 from the previous day. No questions were asked from the press or public (who had been coopted into the briefings on April 27th) about these figures. The final question came from a reporter from the Sun on Sunday (the newspaper to which Johnson gave his only post-hospital interview) who was positioned in front of one of The Sun’s most notorious front pages, published during the Falklands War. When an Argentinian ship, the General Belgrano, was torpedoed with the loss of over 300 lives, many of them teenage conscripts, the newspaper’s headline – Gotcha – epitomized the merciless nature of its coverage which unequivocally supported British forces in the Falklands. The paper’s undiluted militarism, as ever, was reinforced by a sense of ‘fun’:

Page Three girls were given a military theme – ‘all shipshape and Bristols [geddit] fashion’. ‘THE SUN SAYS KNICKERS TO ARGENTINA!’ was one editorial brainwave featuring pictures of semi-naked girls ‘sporting specially made underwear embroidered across the front with the proud name of the ship on which a husband or boyfriend is serving’.

To see Gotcha in a question and answer session about a pandemic where so many had endured such traumatic desolation and devastation was another nadir in what passed for journalism in many, though not all, of the daily press briefings.

Tabloid ‘Humour’ and Human Interest Stories

It was not only the daily press conferences which were problematic. As ever, the tabloid coverage was based on generating a sense of sexualized ‘fun’. On Saturday March 28th, the Daily Star ran the following headline:

Daily star image 1

This headline followed the largest day-on-day increase in deaths at the time. On Friday March 27th, the number of deaths rose by 34% to 1019, up by 260 from the previous day. On April 1st, the newspaper produced another cover which (presumably) reflected a ‘fun’ date in the British calendar:

Daily star image 2 

On March 31st, the day before the Star’s ‘fun’ headline, 381 people died in the UK, a record number at the time, taking the death toll to 1789.

And then there were the human interest stories designed to shore up morale: Boris Johnson’s health took up all but 9 minutes of BBC 2’s flagship Newsnight programme on April 6th while on April 10th, Good Friday, the Sun’s headline ‘BORIS IS OUT (Now that really is a Good Friday!), was published on the day that the UK recorded the highest number of deaths in Europe; the Queen’s speech to the nation; Johnson’s new child; and 99-year old Captain Tom Moore’s efforts to raise money for the NHS. These stories distracted attention from other issues. In the case of Captain Moore, there were no questions asked about why a centenarian was privately raising funds – £31 million – for the NHS. In raising this sum, Captain Moore raised £10 million more than the £21 million spent by Jeremy Hunt on consultants to legitimate the brutal cuts imposed on the NHS.

Coronavirus Masculinity

The focus on the Prime Minister’s health, and the birth of his son, also distracted attention from his attitude in the early days of the virus when he had, without sustained challenge from the media, talked about shaking hands at a hospital where there were patients stricken by the virus. In doing so, he was plugging into the politics of coronavirus masculinity, and the patriarchal sense of masculine entitlement, displayed by ‘strong men’ politicians internationally: Trump in America, Erdogan in Turkey, Orban in Hungary, Modi in India, Putin in Russia and Bolsonaro in Brazil who encapsulated his brutal response to the crisis by declaring that ‘[w]e’re going to tackle the virus but tackle it like fucking men – not like kids.’ On May 13th, it was reported that the country saw a record rise in the number of daily deaths to nearly 900 taking the number of deaths to more than 12,000.

In the UK, the analogy with war – a persistent, masculine theme in political and popular consciousness, and one which had been a central discourse in the tortured debates around Brexit – was used by the government, and Johnson, in particular, in media briefings, to mobilize the country against an external enemy. However, this was ‘a problematic analogy as what is mainly needed to tackle COVID-19 is care, social solidarity and community support – not fighting and violence’:

These patriarchal discourses can have serious implications for government policy, such as encouraging overly militaristic, authoritarian approaches, and prioritising male-dominated sectors of the economy and society. For instance, women are more likely to be in temporary, informal or precarious work which falls outside the protection packages being established.

From the perspective of those on the ground, such ‘war talk’ was ‘an altogether different matter’. It was a:

….clever and calculated distraction. The worth of nurses is so self-evident to this government, for instance, that they are routinely compelled to use foodbanks. And Hancock may have offered Britain’s 1.5 million carers a badge recently, yet two-thirds of them are paid the minimum wage, with many on punitive zero-hours contracts. How convenient that now, with the spotlight on their vital work, their poverty wages are being augmented by lavish ministerial clapping.

The writer also pointed out that those Conservative MPs who were applauding NHS workers, ‘voted down a proper pay rise for nurses’ in 2017. This included Rishi Sunak, Dominic Raab, Matt Hancock and Boris Johnson. The decision was cheered in the House of Commons.

Contradictions and Contingencies

Inevitably, there were (and are) contradictions and contingencies within the media. For one thing, the public were not enamored with the coverage. The first study of the public’s attitude towards the role of broadcasters in the pandemic found that they wanted media personnel to be more critical of the government:

Far from the public losing faith in journalists or asking them to rally round the flag, our research shows most people trust broadcast media, but want more critical scrutiny of the government. This suggests broadcasters should not be cowed by politicians or commentators, but emboldened by the public who want them to challenge the government about how well they are handling the pandemic.

Furthermore, the devastating, human impact of the virus was not ignored. The point is that it did not merit the same attention. On April 7th, Channel 4 News reported that Thomas Harvey had died from the virus. At that point, Thomas was the 15th NHS worker to die. He had been an NHS worker for more than two decades. According to his desolate family, they had tried, on four occasions, to have him admitted to hospital and had been refused each time. The brief discussion about Thomas’s death was preceded by a 20 minute piece on the Prime Minister’s hospitalisation. The arcane nuances in the British constitution – what was the role of the Deputy Prime Minister, who was in charge, who would make decisions? – obsessed journalists as they attempted to outdo each other to be first with the latest, breaking news about Johnson’s health and divulge what they had learned, or rather what they had been briefed about, to what they thought was an expectant nation.

Clearly, other issues were covered – the lack of PPE; deaths in care homes; the desperate rise in domestic violence; the disproportionate number of BAME deaths inside and outside of the NHS; the potential number of deaths globally in countries where social distancing was virtually impossible because of the structural violence of institutionalized poverty; the health of prisoners; the positive, social contribution of foreign workers living in the UK despite the Brexit-fueled vilification towards them; the fearless role of poorly paid, overwhelmingly female, care workers; the disproportionate impact of the virus on the poor; and the high death rate in the UK compared with other countries (something which the government argued they could not discuss due to differences in data collection methods, a comparison Ministers might have been happy to make if the UK had the lowest rate in Europe). However, these issues were not linked together into a coherent, critical, alternative narrative.

Additionally, broadcasters were confronted by an ideological brick wall built on constructing an inclusive consensus based on the mantra that ‘we were all in it together’. Given the evidence of the disproportionate number of deaths in relation to social class and ‘race’, as well as the dangers women faced as a result of the lockdown, the idea that the country was all in it together was clearly fallacious. Nonetheless, it did not prevent it becoming another taken-for-granted mantra, implicitly and explicitly conjuring up the wartime, blitz spirit and the Dunkirk feeling of national unity in the ‘fear-haunted world’ that the country had become.

On 8th May, Victory in Europe day – a day that saw 626 deaths – the blitz spirit appeared to be in the ascendant for a few hours as the government’s failures were lost in a cascade of bunting. However, even here there were serious questions to be asked about the links between the past, present and the future:

Britain, in the best possible way, still needs to get over the war. Were it not for the pandemic, Boris Johnson would have commandeered this holiday to elide the Britain of 1945 with that of Brexit. He would have offered a vision of renewed global greatness, with himself as the new Churchill. He may yet try. But events have made such claims immoral as well as preposterous. This is not a time for rejoicing or false pride. There is no British victory to celebrate today. Instead, there is a Britain whose state institutions were unprepared and insufficiently resilient to minimise the Covid-19 crisis. As in May 1945, the real questions facing Britain are not about the past. They are about the future.

Conclusion

The Nobel Laureate Samuel Beckett once said that we should not ‘look for meaning in the words. Listen to the silences’. In terms of this virus, and its relationship to words, written or verbalized, Beckett’s point is important. Despite the endless hours of broadcasting, and acres of print coverage, it is in the silences where the politics of this virus is being played out. Recognizing the silences, refusing to accept them and acting on them so that media coverage is taken in another, more critical direction, should be the political and moral prerogative for broadcasters and journalists. However, given what has happened at the press briefings so far, this is probably too much to hope for.

Thanks to Kym Atkinson for her intellectual and technical support with this blog.

 

 

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