Two interesting news stories have caught my attention today. The first concerns a BBC finding that the opening to its flagship Newsnight programme broadcast yesterday had breached its impartiality guidelines. The second relates US President Donald Trump’s response to Twitter’s decision to flag one of his Tweets about postal vote fraud with a fact checking warning.
Both stories raise fundamental questions about the role of the news media and social media platforms in promoting robust dialogue and debate, and holding powerful interests to account. Trump is entitled to a view about the potential for fraud in the postal ballot process, but he cannot expect (and is certainly not entitled) to assume that news outlets or social media platforms will broadcast that opinion uncritically and without challenge. What that criticism and challenge comes, he must be prepared to support his opinion with facts of his own. Threatening to close down platforms that dare to hold him to account is a very small step from despotism.
Similarly, a public service news organisation must have the courage to hold powerful figures in the UK to account; and to accurately represent the mood of the country that it serves. It has become a cliche, but the old story of the job of a journalist when confronted with two people arguing that it is simultaneously raining cats and dogs, and that so sunny that the road is melting still holds true. In that situation, the reporter does not relate both sides equally ‘for balance’ – she goes outside and finds out the facts for herself.
I would go further and say that the obsession with balance – with artificially seeking to give both sides of a story when there really is only one – is destroying the credibility of previously esteemed news outlets, including the BBC. The failure to point out the absurdity of a situation or to clearly and explicitly call out lies or misinformation where it is clear that they are being told or peddled, does a grave disservice to the audience and – furthermore – is incredibly insulting to that audience’s intelligence.
When we have administrations on both sides of the Atlantic systematically manipulating the media, dealing in half-truths and misrepresentations, and failing in their fundamental duty of honesty and transparency to the people they were elected to serve, then the gloves need to come off and news organisations and social media platforms need to say it how it is – without fear or favour.
In this context, impartiality is a weakness that unscrupulous people will ruthlessly expoit.
It’s a sign of the extent to which populist politicians have eroded trust in the whole process of politics that the first thing that I do when an apparent good news story is released is to look around to see what it is deflecting attention away from.
So it was with today’s Damascene conversion of the UK Prime Minister’s approach to the imposition of NHS surcharges on overseas care and health workers. It is surely only a coincidence that the announcement occurred almost simultaneously with the release of a less than flattering decision by the Independent Office of Police Conduct that cleared Johnson of criminal conduct in the payment of grants to a woman that he was in an intimate relationship with at the time when he was London Mayor.
During Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons yesterday, Johnson was pressed on multiple occasions by Keir Starmer (Labour’s leader) and Ian Blackford (the SNP leader at Westminster) to exempt health and care workers from the surcharge (which is due to rise from £400 a year to over £600 a year from the autumn). In fairness to Johnson, he recognised the contribution of overseas workers to the fight against coronavirus in health and care settings, but stood firm in his assertion that the NHS surcharge was a fair and proportionate way of ensuring that migrants to the UK were making a proper contribution to the funding of the National Health Service. This was the position that was maintained as recently as this afternoon, with the ‘PM’s spokesperson’ rejecting calls from Tory MPs to review the situation by stating that the money raised “goes directly back into the NHS to help save lives”.
Then came the IOPC decision and the subsequent coverage of the finer detail of the rationale for it. Whilst it is true to say that Johnson’s behaviour whilst Mayor of London did not cross the threshold that would justify criminal proceedings, he hardly gets a clean bill of health from the wider adjudication. The IOPC’s Director General strikes a similar tone to that adopted by Robert Mueller in ruling on accusations of Russian interference in the US election of Donald Trump. There may not have been sufficient evidence to prove interference, but nor was it clear there had been none! “While there was no evidence that Mr Johnson influenced the payment of sponsorship monies or participation in trade missions, there was evidence to suggest that those officers making decisions about sponsorship monies and attendance on trade missions thought that there was a close relationship between Mr Johnson and Ms Arcuri, and this influenced their decision-making.”
More damaging though is the conclusion that Mr Johnson’s close relationship with Jennifer Arcuri should have led him to declare a potential conflict of interest, and it was only the fact that the Greater London Authority’s code of conduct for members was so poorly drafted, that he was not under an obligation to do so. Whilst that may well be the case, it is simply incredible that Boris Johnson is unaware of the Nolan Principles of Public Life that have been the baseline for all public appointments since 1994. The Principle of Honesty states that : “Holders of public office have a duty to declare any private interests relating to their public duties and to take steps to resolve any conflicts arising in a way that protects the public interest”.
So we are left with the situation that a serving Prime Minister of the United Kingdom has made a major policy u-turn two hours after his own spokesperson had defended that policy as being necessary to ensure funding to the NHS “to help save lives”. It’s hard not to conclude that the sudden outbreak of compassion is motivated by a desire – if not to save – then at least to make Mr Johnson’s political life a little bit easier. There’s not much credit to be obtained from doing the right thing for entirely the wrong reasons.
Marshall McLuhan first coined the phrase “the medium is the message” in his 1964 book Understanding Media : The Extensions of Man. In essence, his theory boils down to the assertion that the way a message is presented, and the media through which it is promoted, is more important than the message itself.
Sometimes it can be difficult to think what to write about in a daily blog that has no specific theme or focus, but which tries to reflect the very broad (and occasionally equally shallow!) range of interests of its author. Today is not one of those days. This evening, the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson (and there’s a start to a sentence that still seems incredible) will address the nation on the outcome of the latest review of the coronavirus restrictions. It’s billed as an update to the UK, although this insultingly misses the point that responsibility for review and update in Wales and Scotland rests with the devolved governments in those countries. The First Ministers in both countries have already announced an extension of current restrictions for a further three weeks. So tonight’s ‘UK’ announcement will really be an England-only one.
Bizarrely, given the grave political, economic and governance implications of the subject-matter, the Prime Minister will present his update not to Parliament (where he can be questioned and clarifications sought) but in a televised address direct to the public. We have also now learned that much of the content has been pre-recorded rather then being presented live. Consider this through McLuhan’s lens, and the conclusion must be that Johnson and his advisers wish to portray him as the heroic leader, connecting directly with his people, brushing aside the inconveniences of due process and parliamentary sovereignty. This was a PM elected on a wave of presidential populism.
But he is also the ultimate contradiction – the Old Etonian anti-establishment figure; the man of the people born into privilege and wealth; the serial liar entrusted with telling us the truth about the most severe crisis to face us in over 100 years; the man who boasted of shaking hands with everybody when all the advice was to practice social distancing; the leader of a government that urged us to Stay Home to protect the NHS and then travelled from hospital past the door of his official London residence to his country retreat. And it is becoming increasingly clear that Johnson can only remain in power for as long as he is able to hide away from scrutiny. His appearance at Prime Minister’s Questions this week was a car-crash for the Prime Minister. Confronted with a Leader of the Opposition trained in exposing the lies and half-truths of witnesses in a courtroom, Johnson’s personal brand of bluster and what-ho was cruelly exposed. Don’t be surprised if our Prime Minister is seen rather less frequently at the dispatch box in the weeks to come. His advisers will be busy finding pressing matters of state to keep him out of the sights for Keir Stammer to the fullest extent possible.
Coming back to the announcement tonight. What can we expect? It’s actually quite difficult to predict with any degree of certainty. From the tone of UK tabloid press towards the end of last week, it’s clear that the briefing that reporters were receiving then was about a radical loosening of restrictions and a desire to get the economy moving again. The horrified backlash against this early messaging from the government’s own scientific advisers, clinicians in the NHS, and the devolved governments in Cardiff and Edinburgh saw some Olympic-standard rowing back from the poor foot-soldiers sent over the top to try to calm things down in the daily briefings on Friday and Saturday. Protests from a succession of Cabinet Ministers that we should not expect too much in the way of change in the short term, appeared to be too little too late as people the length and breadth of the UK decided that the tabloid encouragement was all they needed to party like it was 1945 on the VE day anniversary on Friday.
What we do know is that the key messaging around the public response to the pandemic will change. The fact that we found this out through the Prime Minister’s press employer, The Sunday Telegraph, rather than through an announcement to parliament or even as part of the formal address this evening, perhaps says a lot about the concerns that exist in Number 10 about rumblings in the Tory Party questioning their man’s competence. It’s not referred to colloquially as the Torygraph for nothing, and its the nearest thing we have to a house paper for the Party.
The messaging for the first seven weeks of the lockdown restrictions has been simple and compelling.
The use of the red and yellow ‘danger’ colours and the pre-eminent focus on the NHS and what we could all do to ensure that our health services could deal with the demands that the virus was placing on it, reinforced the otherwise vacuous and banal statements that we were all in this together. Whilst we now know that we’re all in the same swimming pool, it’s also very clear that if you’re older, male, overweight, and/or from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background, then you’re definitely down at the deep end. And if you’re own or more of these and work in the health or social care setting, then you’re also wearing lead bathers. Nevertheless, the message was clear. It passed the Ronseal test – there was no ambiguity.
Compare that to the new messaging that has been unveiled today ahead of the formal announcement this evening
Notice the change in the colouring – the subliminal messaging moves from the prohibitive red (stop; pay attention; danger) to the permissive green (have a look at this if you want to, but no worries otherwise, it’s all under control). The words themselves have no meaning in the context of the crisis. In fact, so ambiguous is “Stay Alert” that the government has already had to issue an explanation. And – guess what – essentially “Stay Alert” STILL means “Stay Home”. So why has this changed? And what on earth does Control the Virus mean to the majority of the population? Are we supposed to tame it with a chair and a whip like some circus lion? Do we employ Jedi mind powers to turn it away from us?
It’s not enough to simply put this down to incompetence or ineptitude. There are too many smart people working behind the scenes here for this change in the messaging to be accidental or poorly thought through. On the contrary, what we are seeing here is an elaborate and highly strategic promotion of the same approach that formed the basis of policy prior to 19th March 2020. This is a herd immunity strategy that hopes that if enough of us contract the virus and survive, then it will die out because we will be immune to it and there will be insufficient new ‘hosts’ to sustain it. The reason for lockdown over the past seven weeks was because cases in London and the south east were increasing exponentially at a rate that threatened to overwhelm health services there. Do not be fooled by the sideshow of Nightingale Hospitals at the Excel and other locations – these are a classic distraction. The threat to the health service is only partly about physical assets – much more acute is the chronic shortage of trained specialists – doctors, nurses, allied professionals. There was never going to be sufficient capacity in the system to staff 500 high dependency beds in a converted exhibition centre (just as there won’t be to look after patients at the Millennium Stadium or any of the other pop-up critical care facilities).
Now that cases in London have declined (and now that the much larger number of cases in London and the subsequent decline can be used to skew the presentation of the data on the daily graphs so that it looks as though numbers are coming down everywhere), it is quite clear that the political calculation is that herd immunity is back on the agenda.
The briefing to news media last week (ahead of a bank holiday weekend) was deliberately designed to create the impression that going out, meeting people outside your household, relaxing social distancing were all ok again now. The shift from red to green on the new messaging reinforces that subliminal messaging. The Prime Minister’s message this evening will be presented in serious tones, will warn of the dangers of losing control of the virus in a second wave, will again stress the importance of managing things so that our NHS is not overwhelmed.
None of that will be heard.
The message is the medium. The medium is green for go. Relax, go back to what you were doing before (just wash your hands a bit more). Stay alert, obviously – but no, to be honest, we have no idea what that means either, so we’ll interpret it as we see fit. Oh! and by the way, if this all goes wrong, it’ll be your fault for not being alert and controlling enough.
Paradoxically, the shift from a clear, community-based commitment to staying home, to something which is much more like every person for themselves, has at least had a galvanising effect on me. I genuinely hope that I’m wrong, but following the precautionary principle, I’ve now decided that the inevitable second wave of the virus will be much more severe and widespread than anything we’ve seen to date. As an older, overweight male, there is only one thing that I can do to reduce my risk if I should contract the virus. I’m back out and running with the aim of dragging my BMI back towards more medically acceptable levels. If I’m going to be in the herd, I don’t want to be the fat one at the back!
Today’s blog is something of a long read, but it’s a holiday weekend, so there’s a bit more time to digest it. It comprises a number of extracts from various on-line sources that are pertinent both to the commemoration of VE Day (the end of the war in Europe in 1945), and the challenges that we face currently in seeking to contain and learn to live with the longer-term effects of covid-19. I offer the extracts with no added editorial comment (although their selection is inevitably influenced by my own prejudices and beliefs). I hope that they may give some pause for thought and some hope for a future beyond the current crisis that is more equal, more internationalist, more socially responsible than we have seen over the past decade.
An extract from an article written by Winston Churchill and published in the News of the World in May 1938 (some 16 months BEFORE the outbreak of the Second World War, and at a time when politicians dared hope that the 1914-18 conflict really had been the war to end all wars).
“From all these causes and others that together fill volumes, the conclusion may be drawn with much confidence that the movement towards European solidarity which has now begun will not stop until it has effected tremendous and possibly decisive changes in the whole life, thought and structure of Europe. It does not follow even that this progress will be gradual. It may leap forward in a huge bound of spontaneous conviction. It may even prove to be the surest means of lifting the mind of European nations out of the ruck of old feuds and ghastly revenges. It may afford a rallying ground where socialists and capitalists, where nationalists and pacifists, where idealists and businessmen may stand together. It may be the surest of all the guarantees against the renewal of great wars…
“It is evident that up to a certain point the developments now in actual progress will be wholly beneficial. In so far as the movement European unity expresses itself by the vast increase of wealth which would follow from it, by the ceaseless diminution of armies which would attend it by ever-increasing guarantees against the renewal of war, it bodes no ill to the rest of the world. On the contrary, it can only bring benefits to every nation whose interests are identical with the general interests of mankind.
Conflicts of countries are, we trust, ended. They must not be succeeded by the antagonisms of continents. But surely, after all they have gone through, men will have the wit and virtue to take the good and leave the bad; to the high road which leads to wealth and power, without being drawn down the fatal turning to shame and ruin…
We are bound to further every honest and practical step which the nations of Europe may make to reduce the barriers which divide them and to nourish their common interests and their common welfare. We rejoice at every diminution of the internal tariffs and the martial armaments of Europe. We see nothing but good and hope in a richer, freer, more contented European commonalty. But we have our own dream and our own task.”
“We may not know the answer to the troubles of mankind but at least we know some of the causes. We have learnt, or should have learn, how dangerous is the spirit of nationalism when harnessed to the fact of power. We have seen what can happen to a great nation which surrenders to its leaders the freedom of thought and speech and conscience. We have ourselves felt the terrible power of destruction which man has acquired through science uncontrolled by wisdom. We have learnt… that the brotherhood of man, the unity of nations, and the indivisibility of peace are facts which we can no longer ignore. But knowledge is not enough. Fear, hatred, nationalism and the like are not rational states but emotions which for a long time will continue to govern human behaviour and which will be fed by the chaos and misery in Europe. Hunger and unemployment are not the best schools for reason and tolerance, but they will have many pupils…
“To-day, the people of Europe want above all peace, security, and a decent living. But they also want again that sense of freedom, progress, and enjoyment of life which gave meaning to the nineteenth century… We must prove that just as liberal democracy is a match for dictatorship in war, so in peace it can provide for its people all and more than is offered by Communism and National Socialism. But it will not be easy. If the war has tried our courage and endurance, the peace will test our wisdom and our faith.”
“Did the public understand, on that day, how profoundly Britain and the wider world had been changed by the war; that there would be no going back to the old normal of the 1930s? This had been total war: the state had assumed sweeping new powers to mobilise the whole country for the war effort. Many of those powers would now survive into peacetime.
“The government took much of the economy into state ownership: the railways, the coal mines, iron and steel. A new welfare state and a National Health Service would bring state provision into every home in the country. For war had created a new public mood that would change the relationship between the state and society for a generation.
“‘To a remarkable degree, this includes people who think they’ll be worse off under this new settlement,’ says historian Dan Todman, author of Britain’s War: A New World, 1942-47. ‘Quite a large proportion of middle-class people who weren’t going to benefit necessarily from it said that they still thought it was a good idea; that it was something that ought to be done for other people. So I think that’s part of that wartime mood: the recognition that the nation-state owes something to everybody, especially the least fortunate members of society.'”
“VE Day prompted many people to drink deep, dance high, embrace strangers, because that was what the occasion appeared to demand… There was also, however, huge apprehension. Young people had known only the experience of war — not merely its violence but also rationing, the gloom of the blackout, family separations, dust, rubble and broken glass. They had lived all their adult lives in a straitjacket of enforced discipline, denial of personal choice. They were required to obey orders…
When these constraints were lifted… what would life be like? What jobs would become available to young men who had received higher education only in killing each other? How would thousands of wives explain their babies to returning, long-absent husbands? How would factories, manufacturing tools of war, learn once more to make toys of peace? Would the old social order with its lofty grandees, formal evening wear and deferential servants, once more reassert itself? These and a thousand other questions crowded the minds of everybody free to think beyond immediate survival...
Today, during a new global convulsion mercifully far less deadly and hopefully much less protracted than the war, many people look back and ask whether VE Day has a resonance. In two respects, it may. The first is the saddest: just as the young did most of the war’s dying, so they will suffer most in the ordeal that lies ahead of us, beneath the spectre of mass unemployment. We in Britain shall pay an especially heavy price for being a service economy that… can no longer make much, not even surgical gowns.
Second,… this experience may emulate the earlier era in becoming an engine for change. Winston Churchill, the patrician hero, failed in one big thing. He refused to identify war aims, beyond those of vanquishing the enemy… Talk of glory, victory, duty were not enough to motivate a citizen soldier. “Now he is asking for what sort of victory? For what sort of a post-war country? For ‘my duty’ to what goal in life?”
Churchill’s inability to grasp this was at one with his distaste for the 1942 Beveridge Report, blueprint for a welfare state, and went far to explain his 1945 election defeat. The British people were determined to have their own version of what Franklin Roosevelt, more than a decade earlier, had called the New Deal.
The present crisis seems destined again to change the face of Britain, unleashing demands for social, political and economic reform unprecedented in our memories. It is impossible to guess how the politics, especially, will play out. But it seems certain that the state and its institutions will necessarily play a far larger role in our affairs. People will not quickly forget the tragedy of the care homes, cruelly excluded from the shield of the NHS.
For more than three decades the rich, and even the relatively rich, have had a fabulous run. I find it hard to imagine, however, that a nation with soaring unemployment and a far-worse-than-empty Treasury, which has made a political choice for self-isolation, will continue to tolerate the absurdly low rates of tax today paid by the wealthiest, or the scandal of non-doms who live here untaxed, or the grotesque rewards granted to chief executives, and other excesses of global corporatism.”
A reader writes : “You picked the wrong Pankhurst; Sylvia is much more interesting that Emmeline!”
Earlier in this coronablogging series, I offered some thoughts on the ten figures from history that I would like to include in my coronavirus ‘bubble’. Amongst my selection was Emmeline Pankhurst, the founder of the UK suffragette movement that was instrumental in securing the vote for women. Barely had the digital ink dried on the digital page (these analogies don’t work so well in a blogging context do they?), than I received a message from a reader suggesting that I’d picked the wrong Pankhurst. The much more interesting choice would have been Emmeline’s second daughter, Estelle Sylvia.
Now – I’ll confess that I had never heard of Sylvia before receiving this message, but having now read up a little bit more about her, I have to admit that the feedback was correct. Sylvia’s was an even more extraordinary life than that of her mother. Born on this day in 1882 in Old Trafford, Manchester in 1882, she attended Manchester High School for Girls and then the Manchester School of Art before relocating to London to attend the Royal College of Art between 1904 and 1906. It was towards the end of her time at the RCA that she began full time work for the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) – the official organisational title of the suffragist movement. Although the WSPU campaigned on a militant agenda in pursuit of female suffrage, it was strictly non-partisan – something that led to an increasingly strained relationship with her mother and elder sister. Sylvia was an active member of the Independent Labour Party (the forerunner of the modern Labour Party in the UK), and supported a range of socialist causes alongside her calls for political reform.
In common with many members of the WSPU, Sylvia was arrested, convicted and imprisoned for her activities in support of votes of women. In just 17 months from February 1913 to July 1914, Sylvia was imprisoned on eight separate occasions, immediately going on hunger strike in prison, and being repeatedly force-fed. In November 1913, Sylvia was one of a number of speakers at a rally in the Albert Hall in support of Dublin workers who had gone on strike seeking the right to join trades unions and in protest generally at the appalling conditions that many Irish labourers were forced to endure at the time. This overtly political stance by Sylvia led to her expulsion from the WSPU. Undaunted, Sylvia was a founder of the Workers’ Socialist Federation (WSF) in East London.
Sylvia was opposed to the First World War and the WSF was active in providing safe-houses for conscientious objectors as well running various schemes to support the wives of killed or injured soldiers. She was also instrumental in the creation of advice centres to support women seeking access to decent allowances to support themselves and their families while their husbands were away on military duties.
In the immediate period after the end of the First World War, Sylvia was involved in the formation of various forms of a communist party of Great Britain. At this time, she also began living with Italian anarchist Silvio Corio.
During the 1930s, Sylvia drifted away from communism and became more interested in anti-fascist and anti-colonialist movements on the international stage – in particular seeking to highlight the cause of Ethiopia after that country’s invasion by Italy in 1935. It was at about this time that Sylvia came under surveillance by MI5 (the UK’s internal security service).
Sylvia’s interest in and support for Ethiopian independence and subsequent development continued for the remainder of her life, and she spent the final years of her life living in Addis Ababa at the invitation of the country’s Emperor Haile Selassie. Sylvia died in Ethiopia in 1960 and received a full state funeral.
Her role in the women’s suffrage movement was formally marked through inclusion on the plinth of a statue of Millicent Fawcett that was unveiled in Parliament Square in London in 2018.
As my reader quite rightly points out : “Sylvia understood that no-one is really free until all are free – hence throwing her weight behind working class struggle for both men and women.” Truly, an inspirational woman and one that I am pleased to have learned more about.
There was a subtle but distinct shift in the discourse around the coronavirus in the UK over this past weekend. Until now, the overall mood has been one of solidarity – we’re all in this together – as the country has gradually come to terms with lock-down, social distancing, and staying at home to the fullest extent possible. I suspect that for many of us, the initial three weeks of restrictions was approached with a kind of sense of adventure. There was a novelty to not taking the car out, to walking to do the weekly shop, to arranging food deliveries. The extension of the lock-down for a further three weeks has brought home the seriousness of the situation and has acted to some extent as a wake-up call. That this has coincided with moves to lift restrictions in countries like New Zealand, Germany, and Norway who were much quicker to impose restrictions at the outset of the crisis, has contributed to some forensic questioning of the way that the UK government acted in the critical period from January to March. I don’t intend to rehearse those criticisms here (although I have previously posted on the structural failings that have contributed to the shortages of personal protective equipment that are implicated in 70 deaths of medical and care home staff in the UK).
Rather, I have found it interesting to read some of the responses to the criticism. Whilst the government itself published a detailed response to all of the issues raised by the Sunday Times report, others across social media platforms were strongly of the view that now was completely the wrong time to be criticising the government. Some went so far as to suggest that such criticism was itself likely to undermine efforts to contain the virus in the UK.
It does raise an interesting question about whether suppression of valid criticism of the actions of a government can ever be justified in a democratic society. The UK Prime Minister likes to invoke the bulldog spirit of his political hero Winston Churchill when rousing the UK to put on a brave face and embrace challenges with optimism and faith in our island nation spirit. We saw it in spades in the run up to the December general election when batting away on-going concerns about the prospects of success for a UK economy outwith the European Union. And some that same rhetoric was being employed before Johnson himself was struck down with covid-19. It is sometimes forgotten that it was not Churchill who led the UK into the second world war. Neville Chamberlain was the premier who declared war on the axis powers in September 1939. He was deposed only because criticism over his leadership reached a crescendo that could no longer be ignored. At that time, it was Parliament that was holding the government to account. There were some notable parliamentary speeches outlining the grave responsibility of MPs as critics of the executive. This from Leo Amery MP particularly caught my attention : “If we lose this war, it is not this or that ephemeral government but parliament as an institution that will be condemned, for good and all … This afternoon, as a few days ago, the prime minister gave us a reasoned, argumentative case for our failure. It is always possible to do that after every failure. Making a case and winning a war are not the same thing. Wars are won, not by explanations after the event but by foresight, by clear decision and by swift action. I confess that I did not feel there was one sentence in the prime minister’s speech this afternoon which suggested that the government either foresaw what Germany meant to do, or came to a clear decision when it knew what Germany had done, or acted swiftly or consistently throughout the whole of this lamentable affair.” Substitute the war references with coronavirus, and the parallels in the argument are striking. The fact that parliament is not sitting at all at the moment might explain why there is such a paucity of scrutiny of the government response to coronavirus.
At the same time, forensic analysis of government (in)action in the press and broadcast media has been extremely difficult to come by. This is why the Sunday Times report on 19th April was so jarring. It’s difficult to know why our press and media are generally so toothless when it comes to holding our government to account. One hypothesis, though, is that the media outlets have simply become too close to (and maybe even dependent on) a supply of ‘news’ from government sources. They cannot take on too hostile a stance for fear of losing access to the stories that they now depend on to fill the clamour for 24 hour, 7 day a week rolling content. Journalism is now much less about the story and much more about simply filling the web pages or the rolling news channels. This is the case for all outlets. Have a look at the BBC’s coronavirus updates page as an example. New stories added at the rate of one every two to three minutes from before 9am this morning until the time of writing this post (about 8pm). And yet hardly any of these stories contain any genuine investigative journalism – they are by enlarge rehashed press releases or reports of statements from government spokespeople.
So what are my conclusions? I am convinced that appropriately targeted and properly researched criticism of any government is essential to the proper functioning of any government at any time. I’d go further and suggest that those who suggest that ‘now is not the right time’ do the public a grave disservice, both in terms of closing down legitimate lines of debate and in patronising the wider public who apparently need to be ‘protected’ from the idea that our government may not always get everything right. More than that, though, the mere fact that really good quality critiquing of our government is so rare is itself a shocking indictment of the current state of our parliament and our press – and that is something that we should all be worried about.
I’ve deliberately stayed away from directly confronting some of the uncomfortable truths that are becoming apparent in the way that the coronavirus crisis has been managed in the UK. In part, I have wanted to focus on other things that have been occupying me during the current lock-down. I have also deliberately not wanted to amplify the awful news that daily deaths across the UK are now close to exceeding the 1000 milestone (and don’t bother telling me that it’s gone down today – the death rate has been under-reported every weekend of the crisis so far, and that effect will be even greater over a bank holiday). However, two incidents in recent days have made me so annoyed that I simply cannot let them pass without comment.
The first came on Friday with English Health Secretary claiming during the daily Westminster briefing on the crisis, that there were sufficient supplies of personal protective equipment available to the NHS overall, but suggesting that some problems were being caused by NHS staff over-using or mis-using items, creating shortages where there would otherwise be none. This was followed during Saturday’s briefing by UK Home Secretary Priti Patel refusing to apologise to NHS staff who were being forced to treat covid-19 patients with inadequate protective equipment. Instead, she offered a qualified sorry of people felt that the supplies were not getting to the right places. You can read details of both in that bastion of anti-government coverage, the Daily Mail.
It is clearly outrageous of both Hancock and Patel to claim that there is a sufficient supply of protective equipment to health and social care settings when at the same time, universities, schools and other organisations are running 3D printers around the clock to create makeshift face shields from plastic and acetate sheets; and volunteers up and down the country are sewing scrubs for use in hospitals and primary care settings. These voluntary efforts are incredibly well-meaning and absolutely what one would expect to see in response to the crisis that is being played out in our hospital and care homes. And it is pathetic, frankly, to see senior politicians seeking to downplay the seriousness of the shortages or (worse) place the blame on clinicians for some perceived abuse of the equipment that they do have. One consultant anaesthetist from an acute trust in South Wales responded to the allegations of Hancock on Twitter :
Patel’s non-apology too, was part of a now standard approach by all politicians when faced with failings on their watch – deny that there’s a problem, seek to make the complaint about the people making it rather than the substance of the issue, and finally seek to deflect away from the substance of the complaint by referring to the unprecedented nature of the crisis that is being faced. I won’t bother spending too long dissecting the first two elements of this strategy : there is obviously a problem and it is leading directly (possibly) and indirectly (probably) to NHS and care staff deaths (nineteen to date and certain to rise) and sickness absence at a time when they are most needed; and it is beneath contempt to imply that those complaining have failed to understand the efforts that are being made to get supplies to the right places. They have been pleading for better supplies for weeks; they have seen colleagues dying; they need to see action to fix the problem, not hear platitudes about how they don’t understand the challenges.
More importantly, though, it’s important to understand why it is that government ministers may feel that denial and deflection are the best course of action just now. The emerging narrative that this is an unprecedented challenge that could not have been predicted and which we are “all in together”, creates significant air cover for the genuine questions that are now starting to be asked by opposition MPs, scientific experts outside the government’s small cabal, and international bodies.It is simply untrue to say that what we are facing could not have been predicted. Barack Obama identified both the threat and the action that needed to be put in place to counter it during a speech in December 2014 that is linked to here. And in the UK, a government-sponsored simulation exercise exploring precisely how the NHS would cope with a new-strain virus was completed in October 2016 and concluded that “Britain would be quickly overwhelmed by a severe pandemic”. Given that there was credible evidence as recently as 2014 and 2016 that a very real risk existed of a pandemic episode in the foreseeable future, it’s reasonable to ask what preparations were made for it? The answer increasingly appears to be too few, and too late.
However, what is also becoming clear as the covid-19 crisis unfolds in the UK, is that the structural underpinnings of the NHS and public health services, are simply not fit for purpose. Such is the fragmentation and complexity of the myriad of organisations now involved in the planning, commissioning, and delivery of health and social care services in the UK, it’s almost impossible for rapid and efficient deployment of resources to be achieved in a time of crisis. This fundamental truth lies at the heart of two major failings in the response to the crisis to date : the failure to secure and deploy adequate PPE equipment to staff in hospital and care settings; and the failure to significantly ramp up testing capability to anywhere near the levels that could and should have been achieved by now.
There will no doubt, be detailed reviews and evaluations of the handling of the crisis once this initial acute phase has passed (as it will) and we move to the chronic phase of occasional flare-ups of cases until there is an effective vaccine in sufficient quantities to provide protection across the population. These will quite rightly point to the astonishing self-sacrifice and courage of staff in the NHS, social care sector, and supporting voluntary organisations who put themselves in harm’s way to deliver incredible care in the face of almost impossible challenges. But we will be doing those staff (and in particular their colleagues who became very ill and died as a result of the exposure to the disease in care settings) a grave disservice if we do not also hold to account politicians who have marketized and fragmented health and social care services to such an extent that they were reliant on donations and volunteers to manage a predictable risk.
Today has been a first for me. My first active (or more accurately, inactive) participation in industrial action. It’s not something that I voted for, but as a member of a democratic union (in my case the Universities and College Union), I am bound to support the majority view in a fair and open ballot process, to the extent that my conscience allows. In my case, this has involved striking today, and making a voluntary donation to the strike fund to support those members who will have lost up to 8 days’ pay by the end of this stage of the dispute on Wednesday next week. The strike is in protest at the failure of universities nationally to move quickly enough to resolve issues around pay, conditions (especially workload), and pensions. Despite the fact that some universities (including Bristol) have made progress in the areas of workload allocation, reducing the reliance on temporary contracts for teaching staff in particular, and the gender pay gap, the sad fact is that most of the key decisions around pay and pensions are negotiated on a national basis. Pay across the HE sector has been held artificially low for over ten years now, and allowing for inflation, pay remain below pre-financial crash levels. Pension changes have seen employee contributions rise and benefits capped, with the threat of further significant rises to come despite clear evidence from the Union (verified by some of the most qualified pensions academics in the country!) that they are not necessary at the scale proposed (and possibly not at all).
Nobody takes industrial action lightly; and nobody who works in HE wants to jeopardise the education or experience of our students and potential students. But equally, industrial action, whilst always a last resort, is also sometimes necessary to demonstrate strength of feeling and to encourage employers back to the negotiating table. There are signs that the action of this past week is leading some university vice chancellors to put pressure on the national negotiating body to re-open talks, and that would be a good step forward. Personally, I hope that there is enough goodwill on both sides to be allow progress to be made and the dispute to be settled. It is distinctly uncomfortable to find yourself placed between your duty to your students, and your duty to your colleagues.
It’s also good practice, though, because I will face a similar ethical dilemma when I go to the polling station for the general election on 12th December. In my constituency, it looks almost inconceivable that anyone other than either the Labour or Conservative candidate will be elected. There is no dilemma at all for me about not wanting to return a Conservative MP to parliament in my name. My problem is that in order to stop this, I will have to vote Labour. Ethically and philosophically, I can rationalise this on utilitarian grounds : that ethical actions are those that seek to do the most good for the greatest number of people. But in voting Labour, I am aware that I am tacitly supporting a party that has alienated large numbers of centrist socialists, as well as many Jews. The behaviour of some Labour members in some constituencies has been bullying and boorish. The failure of the leadership to genuinely apologise for the many incidents of anti-Semitism that have been reported, AND to take decisive action to root out the racists who have perpetrated those incidents, is shameful.
But I cannot cast my vote in a way that increases the chances of a Conservative government after December 12th. The Conservative Party has become a far-right parody of itself, pandering to a populist agenda that is as hollow as it is morally bankrupt. The leader of the Conservative Party is a philanderer and a liar who is unable to withstand even the most gentle cross-examination and so simply refuses to turn up to any interview with anybody who is not wholly biased towards him. A bully who threatens parliament, the courts, Channel 4 – indeed, anybody who stands up to his appalling behaviour – with curbs on their independence or their right to exist at all. A fraud who insists on pressing ahead with the outcome of a fraudulent referendum on membership of the EU despite all the evidence that there was no majority at that time (or at any time since) for any specific form of leaving. A charlatan who refused to allow detailed scrutiny of his renegotiated withdrawal deal, choosing instead to plunge the country into a divisive and wholly unnecessary general election. After nine years of Tory rule, the country is an international laughing stock, is mired in debt (despite the austerity measures that have seen the richest get richer while everybody else is much worse off), and has spent three and a half years without a functioning government while the Conservative Party tries to work out what form of Brexit it actually wants.
I saw a Tweet the other day that said that the most 2019 thing ever would be to see all parties returned to Westminster on December 13th with exactly the same number of seats as they had when parliament was dissolved. It would be a delicious irony and would certainly appeal to my sense of the absurd. My ideal outcome would be a result that delivers no overall control to any individual party, and that forces a coalition of Labour, Liberal Democrat, SNP, Green and/or Plaid Cymru MPs, with a radical agenda including a second referendum to settle the Brexit debacle, and constitutional reform including abandoning first past the post in favour of proportional representation. I want to be able to vote for the party that I really want to see representing me (at the moment, Plaid), and to know that that vote counts. I don’t want my vote to be a choice between the least worst option.
In the meantime, I’ll be the bloke at the polling station with a peg on my nose voting for Labour.
I’ve tried to steer clear of blogging about politics so far this year. The general election campaign in the UK and the impeachment hearings in the US are dominating the news programmes, and both stories are incredibly depressing. Last Saturday’s Haiku verses seemed to go down well with the reader of this blog, so I’ve used the format to give some form to my thoughts on politics in the UK and US at the moment. I’ve left them as a series, although each is also capable of standing on their own. They’re a bit downbeat and defeatist, I’m afraid, but that’s kind of where my head is with all this at the moment.
Politics '19 On the altar of ego Truth is sacrificed
Liars parading Feeding prejudice and fear Stirring base motives
Immigrants are tarred Remainers labelled traitors Others all to blame
Votes can't fix this mess However you cast your vote Politicians win
Day 5 Challenge : meet somebody new and learn something about them.
This is quite a tricky one for somebody who leaves the house at 6.40am to drive to work, spends all day in the office, and then gets in at 6.30pm in the evening looking forward to something to eat and a bit of R&R time before bed. But then I remembered that this challenge is as much about the blogging as it is about the lived experience. Blogging is the ultimate virtual activity – so I have chosen to ‘meet’ somebody virtually. And no – I haven’t joined downloaded a dating app! Rather, having consulted a list of people linked to 4th November, I have gone back to the seventeenth century and have chosen to learn something more about Mary, the first British Princess Royal and the Princess of Orange, who was born on this day in 1631 in St. James’s Palace, London.
Mary was the eldest daughter of King Charles I and in line with acknowledged practice in Europe at that time, she was lined up for marriage in a way that was all about politics and diplomacy. Charles initially sought to arrange a marriage to her cousin, the first in line to the Spanish throne; and subsequently, she was connected to the Bohemian royal household. Ultimately however, at the age of 10 years old, she was married to William II of Orange, although it appears that their union was not consummated until several years’ later. William died in 1647 just days before the birth of the couple’s son Willem (later William III of Orange). Willem was brought up largely under the control of influence of his father’s mother and brother, and Mary herself struggled to be accepted in her adopted home in the Netherlands. Her loyalty to her brothers (the future King Charles II and the future James II) did not go down well with the Dutch public, and there were rumours of an affair between Mary and one Henry Jermyn, a member of James’ household. It was only with the restoration of the monarchy in England, and Charles accession to the throne, that Mary’s stock rose within the House of Orange. She returned to England in September 1660 but died just three months’ later, apparently of smallpox (the disease that had claimed her husband 13 years earlier).
I am indebted to that font of all knowledge (and saviour of secondary school pupils across the world) Wikipedia for the biographical information that features in this post.
I am also reading Simon Jenkins’ excellent historical primer, A Short History of Europe : From Pericles to Putin. It’s a fascinating chronology of the history of the political and geographical entity that we now recognise as Europe, but which was for much of its first two thousand years, wracked by internal division and warfare, and the constant threat of attack from the Ottomans in the east. I highly recommend it as an accessible and eminently readable introduction to intrigues, alliances, betrayals and deceptions that forged the nation states of modern Europe. Jenkins’ own mischievousness is revealed in the subtle references to the UK’s current wrestling with its future relationship with the EU, counterpointing the modern day turmoil to equally turbulent events throughout the continent’s history.