In times of crisis and widespread concern about decision-making, the public are extremely reliant on journalists to put their questions to those in power. If there was ever a time for the media to act as the fourth estate, holding power to account in the public interest, the coronavirus pandemic is it. Now, more than ever, their role is crucial in ensuring that the public mood is communicated and acted upon.
If prime ministers have traditionally started the working day by reading the press to get a sense of the public mood, now government ministers face (virtually) daily scrutiny from journalists at briefings who are communicating it directly to them.
In the context of daily death tolls and concerns around strategy, there is one issue that is omnipresent across the press, news broadcasts and the briefings. That pressing question is: when will the lockdown end? Newspaper headlines in the run-up to the Easter weekend, which marked three weeks of lockdown in the UK, showed this pattern intensifying: “Ministers delay lockdown” (Telegraph, April 9, following this headline the previous day: “Who will make the call on lockdown?”). On April 9, the Daily Express and the Daily Mirror led with: “Lockdown: no end in sight”, while the Independent bemoaned a “lack of lockdown answers”.
At the daily briefings, there have been similar repeated calls for answers: on April 6, the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, set out the public’s demands, and on April 8 again referred to the “trade-off between protecting people’s health and protecting people’s jobs”.
In response to a fairly nuanced first question on the staggered and safe easing of restrictions, Fiona Bruce, presenter of the BBC’s Question Time, summarised: “This is the question everyone wants answering: when might we begin to get out of this?”
Following the briefing on April 8, the presenters of BBC Radio 5 Live’s Drive programme announced they had received “a stack of texts” objecting to the main line of questioning: “Asking for an exit date is like asking Winston Churchill for an exit date in 1939.” Another read: “I don’t want the government to feel they need to end the lockdown prematurely due to the media going on and on about it.” Somebody else texted: “If I have to stay at home for the next six months I’m honestly not bothered as long as people stop contracting it and dying.”
In other words, the public is overwhelmingly on the side of ensuring safety and listening to the scientists. Drive presenter Tony Livesley defended the journalists: “I think they think they are asking on behalf of the general public.” But, he admitted, there was not a single audience text demanding an exit date.
Before the advent of social media, it was often argued that radio phone-ins were among the few places where the UK had anything resembling a genuine public sphere – a democratic space for dialogue and deliberation. As 5 Live is driven by listener participation, and has a weekly audience of five million, this can be viewed as a not insignificant poll. On March 24 – the day after the lockdown was called, YouGov reported that 93% of the public supported the measures.
As a researcher who investigates public openness to policy measures on climate change, this all sounds familiar. We collected focus group data from across the UK to assess the public’s response to a proposed meat tax aimed at reducing UK consumption to drive down greenhouse gas emissions. A key finding of our qualitative research was that the majority of the public is willing to accept restrictions as long as the science is communicated clearly and rooted in questions of the public good.
Media reports often frame measures such as the meat tax as representative of a “nanny state” – which implies an overly authoritarian government approach to a particular issue. But our research found that policymakers – many of whom are influenced by this kind of reporting – tended to overestimate public resistance to restrictive policies.
The degree to which the government’s message on coronavirus has been communicated effectively and its policy informed by expert advice is open to debate. But, however chaotic Whitehall’s communications have been, the simple message of “stay at home and save lives” is one which the vast majority of the public recognises and is responding to.
If we’re left wondering why the journalists are so out of step with the public mood, the answer lies in a media which has moved ideologically and materially to a neoliberal model, rooted in the values of free markets and financial growth. Similarly, the indication here is that journalists are prioritising the health of the economy over that of the public.
This is not to claim that the public don’t care about the economic (and other) impacts of the lockdown. But the most recent polling shows that even when most people believe there will be lasting damage to the economy, less than a third of respondents want an easing of the measures. Instead, the public seems to be looking not for the economy to open up prematurely but to be protected by the state (and not punished when it’s all over).
The relentless focus on the duration of the lockdown could place extra pressure on the government to act before it is completely safe to do so. Cabinet ministers – with their prime minister still partly out of action – are reviewing the measures on April 16. I’m staying home.