on media

Public service news is vital in times of crisis

Covid-19 shows need for good journalism, says Raymond Snoddy After all, public service news is so


he headlines have not all been perfectly judged. The Sun’s ‘House Arrest’ against the background of a

padlock, and the Daily Telegraph’s ‘End to Freedom’ to mark the appeal to UK citizens to stay at home if they possibly can spring to mind. People are not under house arrest

and the freedom that was being lost was the freedom to increase your chances of contracting the deadly Covid-19 virus or spreading it to someone else. At the height of a pandemic, the

nature of the message in the media and its tone and balance matter hugely. As far as any one pair of eyes and ears can fairly judge, journalists, from the local, regional and national press and across broadcasting, have risen to the unprecedented challenge. They have provided knowledge, facts,

context and explanation in the face of the usual torrents of unfiltered misinformation and conspiracy theories from the social media. Their role has even been recognised by this government, which more than any other has been reluctant to expose itself to the scrutiny of difficult journalists, preferring instead the slippery Facebook route to the public. Above all, journalists reporting on

the crisis have, with the help of pressure from the NUJ, been recognised as key workers although we will never be as key as those risking their lives to run intensive care units. In confirming the key worker status for broadcasters and journalists, culture secretary Oliver Dowden noted that: “Public service news across TV, radio and print has never been more important than it is right now.”

Regional newspapers have run

matching front pages to reach out to their readers – ‘When You’re On Your Own, We Are There With You’. Papers as different as the Belfast

Telegraph and the Daily Mail have produced, for the first time, thoroughly professional editions without having a single person in the office. It is time to be proud but also time to ask questions about how the pandemic coverage could be improved. Even more importantly, it is time to start thinking about what sort of media industry and journalism will emerge when the virus has run its course. Too often, there has been too great an inclination to take the sayings of prime minister Boris Johnson at face value, albeit backed as he has been by perfectly respectable scientists. Johnson’s ‘science’, with its

attachment for several weeks to theories of ‘herd immunity’, was flawed. We now know, thanks to Imperial College researchers, that the Johnson/ Cummings approach could have led to 250,000 deaths in the UK and, mercifully, there was a swift U-turn. How costly has that delay been? Journalists should also stay on the trail of where precisely all those ventilators, personal protective equipment for medical staff and testing provision so frequently promised at press conferences actually got to. The world that emerges from the

worst pandemic since 1918 will be a very different one and it will be one that inevitably involves much more remote working. It will be a challenge for the NUJ to

prevent the increasing casualisation of journalism with an accompanying erosion of rights and salaries.

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important that the BBC has postponed the loss of 450 news jobs. Another task will be to make such a postponement permanent in order to help cover the years of disruption we now likely face. With the collapse of advertising

revenue – and for free newspaper publishers in major cities, the evaporation of their audience of commuters – serious financial help will be needed from the government. It will have to go far beyond the

small but welcome sop in the Budget that removed VAT from online publications.

The biggest question of all involves

the future of the BBC. If the Johnson/Cummings administration survives the crisis, politically will it push on as if nothing has happened with its vendetta against the BBC? Or will lessons have been learned? Even this government must surely

Journalists have provided facts, context and explanation in the face of the torrents of misinformation and conspiracy from social media

now notice that a national public service broadcaster funded by a universal licence fee is not the same as subscription services such as Netflix or Disney+. An early step to show good intent

would be to postpone the public consultation on decriminalising the BBC licence fee. Decriminalisation would simply be a first step towards the ultimate marginalisation of the corporation. We must all hope that Johnson

shares his culture secretary’s view that public service news has never been more important than now. Except that this is the case not just

now – but going forward into any foreseeable future.

theJournalist | 19

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