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.