Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 16 February 2021

COVID-19, experts and the media


On February 4th, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) published an editorial which suggested that the actions of most government’s in mishandling the COVD-19 pandemic could be described as ‘social murder’. They write:

“The “social murder” of populations is more than a relic of a bygone age. It is very real today, exposed and magnified by covid-19. It cannot be ignored or spun away. Politicians must be held to account by legal and electoral means, indeed by any national and international constitutional means necessary. State failures that led us to two million deaths are “actions” and “inactions” that should shame us all.”

The biggest state failure of them all is the UK Chancellor persuading the UK Prime Minister to ignore his expert scientific advisers last autumn.

This damning verdict should come as no surprise, as in most countries most medics have despaired at the failure of politicians to be able to lockdown hard and early. Time and time again leaders want to delay what is inevitable, which just means that more people die, and the lockdowns when they come last longer than if they had been put in place earlier. Equally academic economists with some expertise in pandemics have despaired when governments have used the economy as an excuse for not saving lives, because these economists know there is no trade-off between health and the economy beyond a few weeks.

The interesting thing about this editorial was not that it was written, but that it received virtually no coverage in the mainstream media. As far as I can see using Google, it wasn’t covered by the BBC, ITV, Sky or Channel 4, and it wasn’t covered by any newspapers. Richard Horton’s book “The COVID Catastrophe” covers similar ground, and has been discussed by the Guardian, openDemocracy, the Financial Times and Channel4 News, but not by any other newspapers or broadcasters as far as I can see. (I strongly recommend this interview with Horton on Novara Media.) Happy to correct if I'm wrong.

The problem is not that the media have had enough of experts. Some experts on the pandemic have become regular faces if you watch Channel4, and the other broadcasters have interviewed them as well. The problem I think is that they are typically treated by most broadcasters (Channel 4 is perhaps an exception) as having one particular opinion, to be put alongside the views of politicians and political pundits. This after all is the standard broadcast media format: a panel with two or more people expressing different views. When experts are interviewed one on one, they are rarely asked whether their view represents the scientific consensus.

The media do have a hierarchy of opinion holders, and at the top are politicians. My guess is that in terms of airtime you see much more politicians talking about pandemic policy than you do experts. There is a similar hierarchy in terms of journalists, with political editors at the top and subject journalists (health, economics etc) below them. The problem with these formats and hierarchies is that it marginalises knowledge. Scientific knowledge isn’t another opinion. As long as the media treats scientific knowledge as opinion, it removes itself from reality and diminishes its audience.

Let me take a topical example that has nothing to do with COVID. Before Brexit, the overwhelming majority of economists would have told you that leaving the European Single Market (SM) and Customs Union (CU) would create significant barriers to trade, even if tariffs were aligned. This is an almost universally accepted truth among academic trade economists, many of whom spend a great deal of time assessing non-tariff barriers to trade because those barriers matter. These barriers include form filling and customs checks and different standards. It’s as near as you can get to an economic fact in trade economics that these barriers deter trade.

The European SM and CU effectively eliminated those barriers for trade between the UK and other members of the EU. It therefore follows that leaving the SM and CU creates significant barriers to trade, so that some firms will no longer find it profitable (or even in rare cases possible) to trade with the EU and others will move part or all of the business to the EU to avoid these barriers. As the UK Brexit negotiators focused on sovereignty, ways around these barriers were scorned.

Before we left the CU and SM various politicians claimed that such talk was Project Fear. Other politicians went with the economic evidence about the impact it might have. According to the rules by which the media works, this division among politicians automatically turned an economic fact into a contested truth. The media needs to reflect that since we left the SM and CU Project Fear has become fact, but it always was a fact. What turned it into an opinion was the way it was treated by the media.

This problem becomes obvious when populist politicians start telling voters obvious lies. However obvious lies should be less of a problem because most journalists will recognise them as lies, and have the potential to call them such. So engrained is the notion of balance that often journalists do not even do that. But more clever politicians know that facts that are not commonly known to journalists are the better ones to lie about.

The last decade has seen three huge lies perpetrated in the UK as a result of politicians telling lies, where the media has failed to call the politicians out.

The first was austerity, where the lie was that we had to cut spending to reduce the deficit even though we were at the bottom of a recession. In this case this idea seemed obviously true to most journalists, so they treated it as a fact. The majority of academic economists knew that it was in fact false, but that view was excluded from media discussion because both the Coalition and Labour accepted debt needed to be reduced. We now know that the media and politicians were wrong, and the majority of experts were right.

The second was the economics of Brexit. Here most journalists did not have a ‘common sense’ view and politicians were split, so they treated this as a ‘two sides’ issue. This was despite the overwhelming majority of academic economists, and every academic trade economist I know, thinking that Brexit would have a significant negative impact on UK trade and the economy. We had the ludicrous situation where studies from numerous economists or economic institutions were balanced with the tiny minority of economists that supported Brexit. Once again the experts are being proved right. Experts knew that trade barriers reduce trade, and this knowledge should not have been treated as an opinion but as a fact.

The third is the COVID pandemic. Once again the media has decided that politics rather than expertise will drive its coverage. As a result, even after over 120,000 deaths, we have media coverage which sometimes balances the government’s policy against the opposition who want to follow SAGE, or worse the government’s policy against COVID nutters who happen to be Tory MPs. Worse still, the tiny minority of Barrington Declaration academics are given airtime even after they have been proved wrong time and time again. As a result, the elimination (or zero-COVID) policy that is supported by many medics and is being followed by some countries, and is today being debated among medical experts has hardly been discussed at all in most media outlets (again Channel4 News and a few newspapers are a partial exception).

This exclusion seems to be a deliberate policy in some quarters, as this thread from Deepti Gurdasani shows. Elimination is just not practical, it has been decided. Whether this goes more widely as a BBC policy remains to be seen, but it is not the BBC’s job to decide that a policy recommended by many medics and economists familiar with pandemics, and implemented in many countries, is not practical.

The BBC periodically accepts that climate change is not a subject for two-sided debate, but why is climate change special among academic disciplines? In all other areas of knowledge, if politicians get involved then knowledge goes out of the window. No wonder certain politicians lie all the time when most of the media provides no deterrent. Equally when a politician contradicts knowledge that is not known to journalists there is no deterrent provided by the media. This has nothing to do with any left/right bias. As Martin McKee wrote well before the COVID pandemic, “this is a profound challenge to the very idea of science”.

Maybe the BBC’s mandate is in reality: "to act in the public interest, serving all audiences through the provision of impartial, high-quality and distinctive output and services which inform and educate the public about what politicians are saying, and to entertain".

This problem will be with us again with Scottish Independence. We know that independence will involve a big short term economic hit for the Scottish people. Just as a Cameron Government that had established immigration targets that were never met were the worst people to argue the case against Brexit, our current government that lied their way to Brexit are the worst people to argue against Scottish Independence. If nothing changes the media will once again make this short term economic hit from independence a ‘two sides differ’ issue, and knowledge based on expertise will be treated as just another opinion.

It was science, not opinion, that gave us many vaccines against COVID. As long as we have a media where knowledge becomes opinion if politicians contradict knowledge, we will continue to make disastrous mistakes as a country.

1 comment:

  1. Your prescient insights apply equally well to events here in the US. My wife and I yell at the telly when scientific facts are called opinions and this goes unchallenged. Fortunately, the Biden administration seems to take expertise seriously.


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