Blog 26 March 2020

Of Course the Media Must Hold Government to Account, but Reporting This Pandemic Is Not a Game

This article first appeared in The Telegraph on March 25, 2020.

There is nothing about Covid-19 that is business as usual.

Yet for some, a ‘business as usual’ mindset remains the default position.

When the virus is defeated, there will be time enough for Parliamentary probes and public inquiries but in the heat of the battle, stopping for a squabble about the Government’s messaging is only impeding the fight.

There is a strand of journalism that feeds on criticism and conflict. It is what fuels some in the commentariat and most in the Twitterati.

With a Government policy based on the science and most political commentators happy to accept they don’t know as much as the scientists - perhaps with the notable exception of Piers Morgan - it is the communications effort has come under fire.

In the weeks leading up to the Prime Minister’s address to the nation, Government communications has been an easy whipping boy for those in need of some ‘business as usual’ criticism to fill their columns and weave into Twitter threads.

I can only hope Boris Johnson’s powerful address last night draws a line under the petty sniping that serves only to undermine the central message: Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives.

Pictures of long queues, panic scrambles for food at supermarkets and families piling onto packed beaches at the weekend were held up as evidence that the message was not clear enough.


I doubt a single person jostling for bread or taking in the sea air was unaware of the need to stay at home whenever possible, keep their distance from others if they have to go out or to regularly and rigorously wash their hands.

The Government’s key message is relentlessly hammered home at daily press conferences and broadcast interviews, and shared by tens of thousands on social media.

Downing Street’s daily press conferences are attracting huge viewing figures and offering detailed and informative answers to complex issues.

But for some this has just a daily opportunity to criticise. How is it helpful at a time of national crisis to constantly take chunks out of the Government? All that does is erode trust in the measures and undermine the messaging.

Ministers, aides and thousands of civil servants are working round the clock under the most unimaginable pressure to try and beat this.

They have pulled together astonishing packages of business support in a matter of days to keep the country’s businesses afloat and to prevent mass redundancies. In turn the private sector has spectacularly rallied, responding to the Government’s appeals to convert production lines to provide protective clothing for frontline health workers and building more ventilators.

Retired doctors and nurses are accepting the risks and returning to work in their thousands to join those already shoring up the frontline. Private hospitals have united with the NHS to help beat the virus, our teachers are providing much needed stability for the children of key workers, our supermarket staff are working flat out to keep food on the shelves and the delivery men and women have become the lifeline of our nation.

A communications operation to match the scale of the challenge, the ever-changing pace of the threat and to reflect the everyday heroism of our frontline is a mammoth task.

To give you some context, it took six months for civil servants and Ministers to work up and announce the £20bn Long Term Plan for the NHS package.

Pulling together, then publicising enormous business support packages and safety advice in the time frames we have seen is unparalleled. It may not always be perfect but it’s an astonishing feat when you think about the context.

It is simply infuriating that critics have focused only on the flaws of an announcement and then blame the Government for not getting its message across.

Some in the media need to accept this is not business as usual and think how they can best help share the information that we all need to stay safe and well.

This is not a game. This is not a time for single-sourced stories or lurid leaks. One confidential e-mail sent out to Ministers last week was in the hands of a political reporter within ten minutes of pushing send.

We live in frightening times. The public needs clear information not oh-so clever point scoring or endless sniping from the Twitter sidelines.

The media is getting incredible access to scientific advisers, the Prime Minister and senior Government Ministers.

I hope and expect to see the Public Information Campaign really ramp up a gear this week and I’d like to see Ministers do more radio phone ins and Facebook question and answer sessions to reassure the public.

I also think bringing some big names in business into the press conferences so we can learn more about the incredible work they are doing to stock hospitals and safeguard health staff would help build a sense of national pride and a unity of purpose.

These are, I hope, constructive ideas to build on what has been a phenomenal communications response from the Government in what is truly an unprecedented event.

The media must hold the Government to account with robust and knowledgeable questions to help inform the public but for now, please, can critics put aside the ‘business as usual’ snide.

Now is not the time.