At last Friday’s regular government Coronavirus press conference, Beth Rigby, the political editor of Sky News, asked this question after a long and unnecessary preamble: “Lots of people watching this will be asking why The Prime Minister, The Health Secretary and now The Chief Medical Officer weren’t better protected. Isn’t this at best careless, and at worst negligent?”
Rigby’s question provoked a Twitter storm of tsunami proportions. Almost all of the comments were highly critical and many, as is the way with Twitter, were extremely personal and abusive.
The gist of the criticism was that the question suggested that if anyone got the virus it was their own fault. Some argued that Boris Johnson et al were putting the health of the nation before their own health, and were therefore heroic (this was a minority view!).
This Twitter tsunami revealed a deeper concern that the political reporters who are invited to ask questions are not asking the questions the public want answered.
If true, this is a fundamental criticism of how we, as journalists, do our job. We are in the highly privileged position of being able to ask questions of those in power on behalf of the public. If we are not asking the questions our readers, viewers and listeners want answered then we are simply failing.
Of course, the journalists involved are members of the Parliamentary Lobby. I was one myself for many years. Their mindset is to doubt or at least question just about everything coming from Number 10. I used to refer to the daily Downing Street briefings for lobby journalists as “The Downing Street follies” (after the “Saigon Follies” of the Vietnam War when journalists were blatantly lied to by the American military).
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But this is a time of national crisis, and needs a different mindset, an approach that is fact-finding rather than fault-finding.
The angry Twitterati said they were sick of journalists trying to outdo each other, for example with the number of questions they could ask within their one allotted question. Yes, our business is highly competitive, but most people seeing this behaviour for the first time find it pathetic. They are, it is suggested, far too fond of the sound of their own voices.
This may or may not be fair. But it is certainly true that a short question that cuts straight to the chase is generally far more effective than a rambling series of statements of the blindingly obvious followed by two or three or even four questions along the lines of “shouldn’t the government have done X ?’, or “does the government accept responsibility for the failure of Y?”
Jeremy Corbyn, by the way, has done himself and the Labour Party no favours at all by adopting this attitude, and rather flaccidly trying to claim that he was right all along about increasing public spending.
Yes, there have been bed reductions, fewer nurse training places, and there is a shortage of doctors and nurses. But we know that. While these are legitimate concerns for journalists to raise in normal times, what people need now is practical information and not political or journalistic point-scoring, relentless negativity and playing the blame game.
How about using the opportunity to debunk some of the dangerous nonsense trending on social media? How about questioning the fact that flights are still landing at Heathrow with no checking or testing at arrivals? When will tests be ready and how will we get them, what will be the process? How can we possibly know how many cases there are if we are not being tested?
Is it right that we absolutely should not take Iburofen if we get a headache? Can your pet dog or cat infect you? Is the advice only to go to work of your job is essential to the fight against COVID-19 or you are a member of the Emergency Services, or should you go to work if you simply cannot work from home (the construction industry etc)? And so on.
Perhaps the problem is that only political Lobby journalists are, in time-honoured fashion, being invited to participate. Is it time for Downing Street to start inviting medical and science correspondents from the national newspapers and broadcasters to participate?
There will be plenty of time for these political and geo-political questions. But now is not the time. Afterwards, once we are all through this, we can ask about the speed of the government’s response. There will be enquiries, not least so that we can handle it better next time.
Why were lessons not learnt from previous epidemics and pandemics? We can also ask about Russian Bots fuelling fear, and whether or not the Chinese government’s reporting of the number of people infected in China is credible.
Of course, we are not uncritical. On the contrary, our job is to question and to hold the government to account. But, in a time of crisis, there is a balance to be struck. Which is why, of course, we’ve had draconian censorship in times of war.
This is not such a time, and any censorship would be unforgiveable not only here in Britain but in any democracy. Now is a time for self-restraint, and a time for political reporters to really think about their audience.
Maybe, once this is over and we can move about freely once again, they need to get out and talk to people more.
Glen Oglaza is a former ITN Senior Reporter and Sky News Political Correspondent