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Covid-19 Has Exposed Britain’s Client Journalism Problem

Tory governments and the right-wing press have worked closely for decades, but the pandemic has brought public faith in the media to a new low — just as trust becomes more important than ever.

Rupert Murdoch has had regular meetings with every Prime Minister since Margaret Thatcher. The disturbing symbiosis that’s been growing between government and press for decades has crystallised during the pandemic, in which favoured news providers have seemingly been tipped with stories regarding incoming Covid-19 restrictions. This reporting has usually taken place ahead of direct government communication with the public, and can be understood both as a reward for the papers’ loyalty and, some have suggested, as a way of testing public reaction before committing to policy.

This cosiness between the most powerful publishers in the UK and the governing administration has been a major contributor to the regular confusion experienced by the British public during the worst public health crises in a hundred years – when trust in the government, achieved through clear and frank communication, is vital to producing positive outcomes.

But instead of making this a priority, the government has routinely chosen to communicate vital information by ‘leaking’. The absurdity of this practice reached a height on 19 December, when the Times’ political editor broke the creation of Tier 4 and the Christmas restrictions through a temporary Twitter account while locked out of her normal one, in an act that epitomised news reporting as a race.

‘Scoop’ mentality often comes at the risk of simply parroting government lines, and sometimes at the expense of being right. It provides the government with an extra shield against scrutiny, too, placing journalists rather than decision-makers in the firing line for the worst of the backlash; by the time the formal government announcements come around a few hours later, the public may have well made their peace.

As a consequence, a select group of information providers become the only means through which the public gets to hear important information, and are thereby situated at the centre of public life. The lines between government and mainstream media are increasingly blurred, and the media appears to many to be an instrument of the state, as opposed to a channel through which the government and the people hear each other.

In other words, the media has a responsibility to convey the public to the government, too. That it consistently fails in this task was made clear by last week’s front pages, which celebrated Johnson’s Brexit deal while Covid cases and hospitalisations in some areas reached new and frightening highs. Voices asking why the situation in hospitals was barely being reported on became too loud to ignore, but the preceding focus on the government’s ‘success’ shows that many outlets’ sense of what is and is not newsworthy is depressingly skewed along the party line.

Some independent publications provide a voice for the communities they represent, but it’s these that have often been the casualties both of a waning interest in local media and of the pandemic. Local and community issues—as well as issues of national importance, which do not align with the interests of billionaire newspaper owners—are effectively banished from the news cycle. In a time of public health crisis, that means the seriousness of the situation facing healthcare practitioners and the wider public alike often comes second, and the governmental corruption that has contributed directly to it goes unscrutinised.

Perhaps more worryingly, vital decisions on matters of public health have been influenced by the interests of editors and owners. For example, it’s been hard to avoid the virulent campaign launched by the press against closing schools, despite the health situation, and the vicious attacks on the National Education Union, including a farcical piece on Dr Mary Bousted in the Daily Mail which denounced her as a Corbyn-loving communist. These outlets are not beyond subjecting key workers to casual abuse if they don’t fall into line.

As a supposed bastion of sober objectivity, the mainstream media is often able to avoid most meaningful forms of accountability – so if anything good can come of the pandemic, it’s that these relationships have been more exposed. But it’s time that we recognise the value of information, and the importance and effect of the forms in which it is disseminated. As evidenced by the rise of conspiracy theories in the last ten months, this health crisis is also an information crisis – and that isn’t helped by a situation in which information providers share a quid-pro-quo with the powerful. Trust grows more important, and less achievable, every day.