An Illusion of Protection: The Pandemic, the “Criminal” Government and Public Distrust of the Media

Any notion that the UK government actually considers that its primary responsibility is to protect the health and security of the country’s population ought to have been demolished in 2020. The appalling death toll that continues to mount during the coronavirus pandemic is largely rooted, not merely in government ‘incompetence’, but in criminal dereliction of its core duties in a supposedly democratic society.

The UK has the highest death toll in Europe, and the second highest in the world (the US has the highest). On May 12, the death toll from official UK figures exceeded 40,000 for the first time, including almost 10,000 care home residents. A study by academics at the London School of Economics estimates that the actual death toll in care homes is, in fact, double the official figure: more than 22,000.

Government ministers have been scrambling to protect themselves from such damaging facts by spouting empty rhetoric. Health Secretary Matt Hancock actually declared on May 15:

‘Right from the start we’ve tried to throw a protective ring around our care homes. We set out our first advice in February… we’ve made sure care homes have the resources they need.’

Palliative care doctor Rachel Clarke, author of the bestselling book Your Life In My Hands,  rejected his deceptive claim:

‘This is categorically untrue. Care homes were left without testing. Without contract tracing. Without PPE [personal protective equipment]. Without support. You can deny it all you like, Matt Hancock, but we were witnesses – we ARE witnesses – and believe me you will be held to account.’

It is important to note that the coronavirus death toll is even higher than official figures because people are dying from heart disease, cancer, strokes and other illnesses that would otherwise have been treated had there been no ongoing pandemic. Chris Giles, the Financial Times economics editor, has been tracking the number of total excess deaths, issuing regular updates via Twitter. He noted that ‘a cautious estimate’ of excess deaths linked to coronavirus up to May 15 was an appalling 61,200. The FT has published an extensive analysis here with regular updates.

University of Edinburgh researchers have estimated that at least 2,000 lives would have been saved in Scotland – a staggering 80 per cent of the total – if the government had introduced the lockdown two weeks earlier. Rowland Kao, professor of epidemiology and lead author of the study, said there had ‘definitely’ been enough information about the coming pandemic in mid-February. If the lockdown had been imposed across the whole of the UK on March 9, rather than March 23:

‘you would expect a similar effect to the one seen in our research on Scotland.’

In other words, there would have been an 80 per cent reduction in the death toll across the whole of the UK: around 26,000 lives saved (assuming the official undercount by May 3 of 32,490 fatalities). This is a truly shocking statistic and a damning indictment of the Tory government.

Countries outside the UK have looked on aghast while the pandemic death toll here rose quickly, given the advance warnings of what was happening abroad, notably in Italy and Spain. Continental newspapers have been highly critical of the UK government’s response to the pandemic. The German newspaper Die Zeit noted that:

‘the infection has spread unchecked longer than it should have. The wave of infections also spread from the hospitals to the old people’s homes, which could also have been avoided. The government is now trying to pretend to the public that it has the situation under control.’

The Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant told its readers:

‘the British were insufficiently prepared for the pandemic, despite the presence of expertise in this area. The country has been catching up in recent weeks. Much of the harm has already been done.’

In France, Le Monde said:

‘Despite Europe’s worst mortality, probably too late entry into confinement and a blatant lack of preparation, the British have so far supported Johnson.’

Here in the UK, honest and responsible journalism would have made it clear, regularly and prominently, that many deaths were avoidable and a consequence of damaging government policies including:

* the imposition of ‘austerity’ in past years

* the deliberate corporate-driven break-up of the National Health Service

* the government’s lack of preparedness for a pandemic

* the belated move to lockdown and the present rush to ‘open up the economy’ and send children back to school

If we had an actual functioning ‘mainstream’ media, it would be holding this disgraceful government to account, properly and comprehensively. BBC News, as the country’s well-funded ‘public service’ broadcaster, would be to the fore of critical and forensic journalism. In a piece published on the progressive ZNet website, Felix Collins  dissected the government-friendly propaganda campaign in the UK media, including the BBC:

‘On April 10, as UK daily deaths became higher than any recorded in Italy or Spain, media coverage led with Boris’ recovery [after being in intensive care], while BBC News’ main headline was about the “herculean effort” of the Government to provide NHS with PPE. Subsequent headlines featured nurses describing treating Johnson as “surreal”, something they’d “never forget” and that he was “like everybody else”; orchestrated artificial grassroots support to boost public opinion about Boris and his government seem likely. The notions of supporting the country and supporting its leader are being conflated.’

In a small concession to the damning truth, BBC News aired Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, a statistician from the University of Cambridge, who was granted a moment on the Andrew Marr Sunday programme to call the government’s daily press briefings ‘completely embarrassing’. They are ‘not trustworthy communication of statistics’ and no more than ‘number theatre’. But this was a deviation from the broadcasting norm which has regularly seen BBC correspondents, notably political editor Laura Kuenssberg, serving up meek accounts of the crisis on prime-time BBC News at Six and Ten. An article in The Economist was actually titled, ‘The BBC is having a good pandemic’, even as it quoted one unnamed senior BBC journalist who let slip that:

‘the [BBC] bosses are keen that we come out of this with the sense that we looked after the interest of the nation, not just our journalistic values.’

In effect, there should not even be the pretence of ‘impartiality’, but a shoring-up of state propaganda by the BBC on behalf of the government. In fact, this has long been the reality of BBC performance ever since BBC founder John Reith wrote in his diary during the 1926 General Strike that ‘they [the government] know that they can trust us not to be really impartial.’

One welcome exception was the Panorama programme investigating the appalling lack of preparation for the pandemic; not least the inadequate provision of PPE for NHS staff and workers in care homes. But, in yet another sign that any dissent will not be tolerated, Tory Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden then attacked the BBC for straying momentarily from the state-approved script.

‘You Dropped The Ball Prime Minister. That Was Criminal’

Piers Morgan has been a strong and sustained voice challenging government ministers about their policies in his role as a lead presenter on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, and on his Twitter account which is followed by over seven million people. In a devastating indictment of the government, Morgan wrote:

‘the virus isn’t like Brexit.

‘It’s not a political ideology that can be open to debate, or an argument that can be won with buffoonery, bluster and Churchillian soundbites.’

Morgan has been so robust in his challenges to the government that ministers, including Boris Johnson, now appear to be afraid of being interviewed by him, refusing to appear on ‘Good Morning Britain’. As journalist Peter Oborne observed:

‘It is disgraceful that the Johnson government boycotts a major national TV news show during a national emergency.’

Morgan went further:

‘Once we allow the Govt to boycott news outlets like @GMB for asking ministers tough questions, it’s a slippery slope to a totalitarian state. Other news organisations should share our disgust at this, because they could be next. Or they will soften criticism to avoid a ban…’

The latter, no doubt, as anyone who has heard of the propaganda model or read Manufacturing Consent will be well aware.

In anticipation of Boris Johnson’s much-trailed speech to the nation on Sunday, May 10, ludicrous celebratory press headlines appeared a few days in advance: ‘Hurrah! Lockdown Freedom Beckons’ (Mail), ‘Happy Monday’ (Sun) and ‘Magic Monday’ (Daily Star). This highlighted widescale press subservience to the government’s foolish and dangerous agenda of getting the country ‘back to work’ as soon as possible, putting working-class employees, those most dependent on public transport, at particular risk.

Indeed, when Johnson actually delivered his speech that Sunday evening, having been carried aloft by heaps of hype from billionaire-owned newspapers, he declared:

‘We now need to stress that anyone who can’t work from home, for instance those in construction or manufacturing, should be actively encouraged to go to work.’

But, as Tom London warned via Twitter:

‘People will be bullied, threatened, starved back to work when it is not safe and they are risking their lives and the lives of those they are close to. Neoliberalism has reached its pinnacle of selfish individualism sacrificing the lives of others to feed its greed’.

The muddled and deluded address to the nation was greeted with confusion, scepticism and even derision in many quarters, with the Mirror saying on its front page: ‘Lockdown Britain: It’s chaos’. The prime minister’s speech was, however, acclaimed by the usual suspects of the extremist press, including the Mail, Express and Sun, as well as by the more ‘respectable’ billionaire Murdoch-owned Times and billionaire Barclay brothers-owned Telegraph.

The Mail waxed lyrical about the prime minister setting out ‘the first steps to free Britain’, while cautioning, ‘Boris keeps handbrake on’. The Express, as though copying and pasting from the same government press release, headlined:  ‘Boris: our route to freedom… in baby steps.’  The Telegraph, also reading from the government ‘freedom’ script, went with: ‘the long road to freedom’.

Rational commentary had to be found elsewhere. Richard Horton, Lancet editor, tweeted after Johnson’s speech:

‘My interpretation of Boris Johnson this evening: the pandemic of COVID-19 in the UK is much more serious than we have been led to believe. Johnson was unusually serious, fists clenched, no jokes about squashing sombreros.’

Horton made additional critical comments in a series of tweets, then concluded:

‘Finally, you saw our Prime Minister preparing his defence for the public inquiry: “We didn’t fully understand its effects.” I’m afraid that argument won’t succeed. A PHEIC [Public Health Emergency of International Concern] was called [by the World Health Organisation] on January 30. And then you dropped the ball Prime Minister. That was criminal. And you know it.’

Recall the now infamous ‘Superman’ speech that Johnson gave in Greenwich on February 3 when he extolled the supposed virtues of competition and ‘free’ trade, even in the face of the alarming threat of the pandemic. Here is the relevant extract, available on the government’s own website:

‘we are starting to hear some bizarre autarkic rhetoric, when barriers are going up, and when there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage, then at that moment humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange, some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion, of the right of the populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other.’

Never mind ‘bizarre autarkic rhetoric’. What is truly bizarre is that as late as February 3, when Johnson was ignoring WHO advice and wider medical calls to ‘test, test, test’ and to move into lockdown, and during a period when he missed five emergency Cobra meetings, he was proclaiming inanities about Superman. (For an excellent detailed timeline of events, see the regularly updated resource by Ian Sinclair and Rupert Read). Instead, Johnson’s focus – if he can ever be accused of possessing ‘focus’ – was on Brexit and avoiding any measure that might impinge on ‘free trade’.

Suppressing Evidence Of Public Distrust Of UK Press

Last month, as pandemic-related deaths mounted alarmingly, a Sky News poll unsurprisingly showed deep public distrust of British television and newspaper journalists. Only 24 per cent said they trust TV journalists, while 64 per cent said they do not, giving a net score of minus 40. Meanwhile, a mere 17 per cent said they trust newspaper journalists, while 72 per cent said they do not, giving an overall net score of minus 55. The figures were tucked away at the bottom of Sky’s article.

Also last month, a Press Gazette poll showed that around half of those who responded believed public trust in journalism had fallen since the outbreak of the pandemic (around one third believed it had risen, and the rest said it had remained the same). Press Gazette also reported that a new survey by PR firm Kekst CNC showed a collapse in confidence in the media in the four countries surveyed: the UK, US, Germany and Sweden. The UK and Sweden both saw the biggest fall in confidence in the media with a net loss of 21 per cent. Moreover, a special report by Edelman Trust Barometer covering ten countries, including the UK, showed that journalists are the least trusted source (43 per cent) for information about the pandemic, below ‘most-affected countries’ (46 per cent) and government officials (48 per cent).

Of course, this lack of public trust in the media is not limited to coverage of the pandemic. Given the narrow-spectrum right-wing and establishment press dominated by rich owners, and edited by compliant editors with ideologically-aligned views, and given that BBC News so often slavishly conforms to UK press reporting, it is no surprise that overall British public trust in the media is so low. In fact, a recent extensive annual Eurobarometer survey by the European Union across 33 countries reveals that the UK public’s trust in the press is once again rock bottom, even below the former Soviet Union countries of Lithuania and Latvia. As Brian Cathcart, a professor of journalism at Kingston University in London, observes, it is the ninth year out of the past ten that the UK has been last.

The survey results were met with the usual tumbleweed non-response from the British press. Our search of the ProQuest newspaper database yielded just one passing mention in the national press by Alan Rusbridger, former Guardian editor, referring to last year’s survey. (Inevitably, Rusbridger also praised the BBC for its ‘all-round and in-depth excellence’ on coronavirus coverage.)

As Cathcart said:

‘so predictable that an industry with an appalling trust problem chooses to address it by suppressing the evidence of distrust.’

But then, press ‘freedom’ is a cruel sham; only highlighted even more sharply on the recent World Press Freedom Day. UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab had the temerity to tweet his support:

‘a strong and independent media is more important than ever for transparency.’

Peter Oborne rightly highlighted Raab’s hypocrisy, pointing out the glaring case of Julian Assange:

‘The Wikileaks founder continues to rot in Belmarsh jail as the US demands his extradition on espionage charges. If there was an ounce of sincerity in the foreign secretary’s claim that he is a supporter of media freedom, he would be resisting the US attempt to get its hands on Assange with every bone in his body.’

Oborne also lambasted the British press:

‘British newspapers will not fight for Assange. Whether left or right, broadsheet or tabloid, British papers are agreed on one thing; they’ll fall over each other to grab the latest official hand-out about British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his fiance Carrie Symonds’ baby. Or the new Downing Street dog.

‘They will, however, look the other way when it comes to standing up for press freedom and Julian Assange.’

He added:

‘How pathetic. What a betrayal of their trade. Client journalism. An inversion of what newspapers stand for. If the British foreign secretary is two-faced about a free press, so are British newspaper editors who say they care about press freedom. With even less excuse.’

Lancet editor Richard Horton, mentioned earlier, says that the British government’s response to the pandemic is ‘the biggest science policy failure in a generation’. As noted at the outset of this media alert, this has not been mere government incompetence, but a fundamental failure of its supposed commitment to protect the public. The truth, of course, is that the government is ‘elected’ to represent the elite interests of its principal backers: financial muscle and corporate power, backed by its propaganda wing misleadingly labelled the ‘mainstream’ media.

A longstanding feature of the state has been its reliance on secretive state and military institutions working hard to preserve the status quo. You may recall the threat of a military coup from a senior serving UK army general in 2015 should Jeremy Corbyn ever be elected Prime Minister. In December last year, investigative journalist Matt Kennard reported that UK military and intelligence establishment officials had been sources for at least 34 major national media stories, following Corbyn’s election as Labour leader in September 2015, that had cast him as a danger to British security.

As Noam Chomsky has long pointed out, supposedly democratic states regard their own populations as the state’s greatest threat, even in so-called ‘free’ societies:

‘Remember, any state, any state, has a primary enemy: its own population.’ 1

This is why surveillance of the public is such a priority for governments, as we have previously observed (e.g. here and here).

In a recent in-depth article as part of the exemplary Declassified UK series, Kennard and Mark Curtis note that:

‘There is money and power in identifying Russia and cyber attacks as the key security threats facing Britain — but not in addressing the more important issues of pandemics and climate change.’

Former heads of UK intelligence agencies are personally profiting from the ‘revolving door’ between government and business, report Kennard and Curtis. They cite examples:

•           Former MI6 chief Sir Richard Dearlove has earned more than £2-million from a US oil company.

•           Another former MI6 chief, Sir John Sawers, has earned £699,000 from oil giant BP since 2015.

•           Sir Iain Lobban, former head of GCHQ, has become director or adviser to 10 private cyber or data security companies since leaving office in 2014; his own cyber consultancy is worth over £1 million.

Kennard and Curtis write:

‘Since 2000, nine out of 10 former chiefs of MI6, MI5 and GCHQ have taken jobs in the cyber security industry, a sector they promoted while in office as key to defending the UK from the “Russian threat”.’

They add:

‘The British government has been told for over a decade that the “gravest risk” to the country is an influenza pandemic, which its National Security Strategy identifies as a “tier one priority risk”. Yet the security services have largely ignored health threats, despite claiming they are guided by the UK’s security strategy.’

If successive UK governments were genuinely serious about boosting the public’s security, they would be working flat out to protect the population from pandemics and climate breakdown. But then they would be protecting the interests of the majority. And that is not why they are in power.

  1. Noam Chomsky, Understanding Power, edited by Peter R. Mitchell and John Schoeffel, The New Press, 2002, p. 70. []
Media Lens is a UK-based media watchdog group headed by David Edwards and David Cromwell. The second Media Lens book, Newspeak: In the 21st Century by David Edwards and David Cromwell, was published in 2009 by Pluto Press. Read other articles by Media Lens, or visit Media Lens's website.