S&C regular and Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB) member Stephen Harper reflects on some of the hypocrisy, sensationalism and inaccuracy of the UK media’s coverage of the Coronavirus pandemic.
Perhaps I’m not the best person to be writing this article. Quarantined at home for the last few weeks, my media consumption has mainly revolved around my three-year-old son’s favourite TV animations. But in between episodes of Paw Patrol and Peppa Pig, I’ve been watching the Covid-19 news narrative unfold. Every crisis brings opportunity for a few and recently the news media have benefitted big time from a locked-down public hungry for information. The audience for television news, especially on BBC, has skyrocketed. And while their print circulations have been in long-term decline, the big newspapers have also strongly influenced public debate about the pandemic, providing many of the stories we access through social media.
Much of the mainstream coverage of this emergency has been informative and I don’t agree with the view, popular in online alternative media, that journalists have simply been fuelling panic or fear about the coronavirus. There is some room for debate about how much ‘overreaction’ there might have been to Covid-19 and experts are far from unanimous on this question. But this is a genuine crisis, if only because the capitalist states it is impacting have been so badly prepared for it: placing profits before people, they have completely failed to invest in the scientific research and healthcare equipment needed to cope with this widely foreseen pandemic.
Nevertheless, there’s much to criticise in the media coverage of the emergency. After all, a media system owned and directed by the exploiting class is bound to discuss Covid-19 in ways that reflect capitalist interests and ideologies. Here are just a few of those ways.
Many media and political discussions of this crisis have been wrapped in the language of patriotism and war. Trump called Covid-19 the ‘invisible enemy’ and across the major media outlets, journalists have routinely talked of the ‘fight’ or ‘battle’ against the virus. ‘WAR ON CORONA’ went the headline of Scotland’s Sunday Mail on 15th March. Other British papers have praised the “Dunkirk spirit” of the population. Of course, war metaphors are always popular among politicians and journalists seeking dramatic effect, especially when the state perceives a threat to its authority (British newspapers were full of them during the 2011 riots) and no doubt Boris Johnson talked about ‘beating’ the enemy of Covid-19 in order to project his strength and “leadership” skills at a time when even other members of his class were questioning his abilities.
All this war talk may have distorted public perceptions of the crisis, however. In one of their online broadcasts in March, Novara media showed footage of an elderly Londoner (a woman clearly in the “high risk” category) declaring that she would not stay at home to curb the spread of infection because that would be ‘giving in to the virus’ – as though Covid-19 were a group of jihadists hell-bent on destroying ‘our way of life’! Presenting the coronavirus crisis as a ‘war’ also conditions the public to accept the tougher new policing and surveillance measures being put in place by governments across the world and which many people fear will continue after the lockdown has ended.
Finally, militarist language tends to channel workers’ dissatisfaction with capitalism into admiration for the nation state. Before the first ‘Clap for our Carers’ event which swept across Britain on 26th March (and which then became a weekly occurrence), Leo McKinstry of the right-wing Express came over all Churchillian, asking readers to ‘salute our NHS heroes in this their finest hour’. And after the event, the front page of the left-leaning Mirror newspaper was given over to photographs of smiling NHS workers being publicly applauded. ‘Your country LOVES you’, gushed the newspaper, along with ‘NATION SALUTES VIRUS HEROES’. Not to be outdone, the BBC’s Breakfast programme started a daily Hero Half Hour segment, in which viewers were invited to share praise for key workers ‘on the frontline’.
But there’s something fishy about this newfound love for often low-paid workers and as for NHS ‘heroism’, perhaps we should recall Albert Camus’ novel The Plague, whose central protagonist, a doctor called Bernard Rieux, states that his work “is not about heroism”, but about doing what’s necessary in an absurd situation. In fact, ‘Clap for our Carers’ has been a well-camouflaged propaganda campaign. It has certainly tapped into positive public feelings of solidarity with hard-pressed healthcare workers who are saving lives under difficult circumstances; however, those circumstances are due in no small measure to healthcare cuts imposed by successive governments, including the present one. The media’s militarist and nationalist framing of the event has tended to obscure such facts, deflecting any criticism of the state with the feelgood message ‘we’re all in this together’.
Britain’s tabloid newspapers have a global reputation for sensationalism and racism and they have not disappointed during this emergency. Back in January, for example, the Daily Mail and other mainstream media sources published lurid images of a Chinese woman eating a bat in what some claimed was a Wuhan restaurant, although the pictures turned out to have been taken in 2016 in a restaurant in Palau and were therefore not connected with the recent outbreak. But that did not matter. The ‘fake news’ story went viral, no doubt because it appealed to racist Western stereotypes of exotic orientals with bizarre habits.
It’s hard to prove that the media affects attitudes or behaviours in the real world, but it seems likely that the anti-Chinese messaging of the tabloids has contributed to the present climate of xenophobic hostility towards East Asian people. This has led to harassment and sometimes brutal physical assaults. On the 3rd March a Singaporean student was left needing facial reconstructive surgery after being attacked in London. And on 14th March an Asian-American family, including a two-year-old girl, were stabbed in a retail outlet in Texas by a man who apparently feared that the victims were infectious. Being the cynics that they are, politicians such as Johnson and Trump, who has referred to Covid-19 as the ‘Chinese virus’, might be hoping to benefit from this popular anti-Chinese sentiment, as they try to sidestep responsibility for their failures in handling the outbreak by shifting the blame onto China – even to the point of asking for “reparations”.
In parts of the left-leaning media, meanwhile, the China card has been played in a very different, but equally dishonest way. During an interview on the Kremlin-supporting Russia Today television news channel, Stalin enthusiasts George Galloway and Ranjeet Brar heaped praise on the efficient and organised Chinese response to the outbreak. This is reasonable up to a point. After all, a case could be made that China marshalled its immense state apparatus to deal with the coronavirus outbreak more effectively than many other countries and it seems to have kept its death toll low. Then again, we surely ought to be suspicious of health-related statistics reported by the authoritarian Chinese state. And Galloway and Brar conveniently forgot that the Chinese government had initially tried to suppress the warnings of medical professionals about the spread of the virus. None of this has stopped left-wing “anti-imperialist” publications from praising the glorious People’s Republic. The People’s Dispatch even published an article with the title ‘How Chinese Socialism is Defeating the Coronavirus Outbreak’. I can only recommend that the authors of this piece actually visit China to witness its obscene wealth gap, rural poverty and hyper-exploited workers. Some socialism.
Some very odd ideas about socialism have also been aired in more mainstream media. On 20th March, in the right-wing Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard urged that ‘Boris must embrace socialism immediately to save the liberal free market’. But this only shows the capitalist press’s confusion about the meaning of socialism. For Evans-Pritchard, socialism means the state taking over control of the economy from private industry. This has of course happened with dizzying speed in recent months, with the nationalisation of the hospitals in Ireland and the suspension of the rail franchise system in the UK, to give just two examples. Genuine socialism, however, means a world without classes, commodities, money and borders. What we have been seeing over recent weeks is not socialism, but the capitalist state putting in place measures to cover a proportion of workers’ wages, bail out businesses and keep key services running. The state is simply doing what it must in order to head off any “social unrest” that might arise during the epidemic and to ensure that the wheels of production can grind back into motion afterwards. To a limited extent, governments have been ‘putting their arms around workers’ – but only so that they can get their hands back around our necks when normal business resumes.
Another, particularly daft media myth has been that the virus is a social leveller. This idea gained some traction in the major media when, on 25th March, the British public learned that the virus had pulled off its most audacious stunt so far, shamelessly infecting the first in line to the throne, Prince Charles. In the Express, Dr Hilary Jones was quoted as saying that the virus ‘is a great leveller’ that is ‘just as virulent for politicians and celebrities and the monarchy as it will the homeless and destitute’. A few days later, Clare Foges of The Times waxed lyrical on the theme, writing: ‘Coronavirus: the great leveller. Infecting princes and prime ministers, making hermits of most, hushing the concrete council estate and the millionaires’ leafy square’.
Fortunately, not many people seem to have been fooled by this sort of twaddle. Sceptics on social media have argued that Prince Charles, who had shown only minor symptoms of C-19, had ‘jumped the queue’, having been given a coronavirus test despite NHS guidance that only hospitalised patients could receive one. The public have also given short shrift to celebrities claiming to be “just like us” when faced with the threat of the virus. Wonder Woman actress Gal Gadot’s attempt to prove that ‘we’re all in this together’ by leading a star-studded singalong to John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ was widely ridiculed on social media. And megastar Madonna, the world’s wealthiest female musician, was mocked for an Instagram video in which she called Covid-19 ‘the great equaliser’ while sitting in a petal-filled bathtub.
Far from thrusting us towards socialism or uniting the celebs with the plebs, the corona emergency has brought the savagely class divided nature of our world into sharp focus. While it is true that anybody can catch the virus (this is surely one reason why the capitalist class is taking it very seriously), this has been a tale of two pandemics. On the one side, the super-rich have headed for their disaster bunkers in private jets; on the other, workers on temporary or insecure contracts have faced destitution (by early April in Britain there had been a staggering one million new registrations for Universal Credit), while the most vulnerable groups in society, such as refugees, homeless people, those with pre-existing conditions, or the many low-paid key workers who cannot simply ‘stay at home’, are widely exposed to the virus.
Their Media and Ours
Despite all of these myths and mystifications, the mainstream media are not entirely bad. Tough questions have sometimes been asked of the government. For example, on 26th March the editor of The Lancet, Richard Horton, appeared on the BBC’s Question Time discussion panel, condemning Britain’s unreadiness for the pandemic as a ‘scandal’. And at the time of writing in mid-April, much of the British media has spent weeks castigating the government’s inability to guarantee adequate testing and protective equipment for NHS workers. But it has been primarily through the social media that working-class people have found solidarity via community information and support groups. And only socialist publications such as our own have managed to cut through the nationalist claptrap and geopolitical blame games of the mainstream media to expose the underlying problem: the global capitalist system, which exists to protect profits rather than human life.