MPs examine media coverage of the Covid pandemic

The Pandemic Response and Recovery All-Party Parliamentary Group have received research examining media balance during the Covid pandemic.

The Group’s Chair, Esther McVey, said in response to the briefing: “At the start of the pandemic, there were so many unknowns. There should have been humility and honesty about that from all sides. Instead we quickly regressed to gotcha-style questioning, seemingly pushing for more restrictions, rather than asking for the evidence that the restrictions would work or whether the cost-benefit analysis stacked up.

“I have also been concerned about alternative views being dismissed without any debate. I’d like to see more questioning, and a renewed enthusiasm for impartiality. We must challenge future attempts to stifle open debate.”

A BBC journalist said: “I am having to give this evidence anonymously because of the climate of fear within the newsroom of ‘going against the narrative’.

“When the daily death toll was read out - something we had never done for any other disease - my worry about the impact of the fear mongering on our audience increased. I raised my concerns with senior colleagues and the reply came back that suggested anyone who thinks differently from the editorial agenda is a ‘dissenter’ and lacks credibility regardless of their peer-reviewed and accredited experience, qualifications and education.”

Listening to the evidence, Vice-Chair Baroness Foster of Oxton said: “From the questions journalists asked at the briefings to the scientists and experts invited to speak and comment in the media, a sense of balance seemed to be lost. This APPG meeting has confirmed what I have long thought, that too much coverage was based on the conclusion that covid was deadly for all and required draconian measures of some kind, despite early data and real world evidence to the contrary. The media only seemed interested in asking questions that supported and promoted fear and the unprecedented restrictions, not wider questions about whether such measures were needed or what the unintended consequences might be.”

Dr Colin Alexander, spoke to the group about his research on propaganda during the pandemic: “The big question of journalism from the pandemic is the extent to which it was credulous/naive - too willing to believe official sources - or whether it was collusive - knowingly colluding with the distortions of the establishment. Perhaps journalists didn't know which questions to ask? If that's the case then it means that we have a crisis of quality of journalism in this country. Alternatively, journalists knowingly asked wispy questions that they knew would not pierce the veil of deception (self-censorship). That means that the idea of journalism as watchdog of the powerful - so vital for democratic society - is a falsehood. Both notions are concerning in different ways.”

Dr Piers Robinson, has been reviewing the issues surrounding misinformation or malinformation and online harm: “Early on, tech companies agreed to de-platform people who were supposedly guilty of misinformation, demonstrating an extraordinary level of control and willingness to control. Legislation which enshrines that sort of behaviour in law, will add a whole new dimension to the structural ability to control media output. Combined with a style of journalism in mainstream media that increasingly seems to be convinced by politicians or scientists to accept a basic premise and not challenge it or ask the pertinent questions, we are seeing a culture emerging where this is the default position.”

Biographies of the speakers:

Dr Colin Alexander is Senior Lecturer in Political Communications within the School of Arts and Humanities at Nottingham Trent University (NTU). He has a PhD in Communications Studies from the University of Leeds. His thesis examined the role played by public diplomacy in China and Taiwan’s competition for diplomatic allies in the Global South. This research was guided by Prof. Gary Rawnsley, Prof. Philip Taylor and Dr. Robin Brown. Before joining N TU in September 2013 Dr. Alexander had held posts at the University of Leeds, Leeds Metropolitan University (now Leeds Beckett University), and Sheffield Hallam University. During 2013 he spent eight months working in Taiwan as a Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs Research Fellow based at National Taiwan Normal University in Taipei. Prior to a career in academia, Dr. Alexander worked in corporate industry holding positions with Hewlett Packard (HP), Bell Micro Inc. and Yorkshire Building Society.

Dr Piers Robinson is a co-director of the Organisation for Propaganda Studies and was Chair/Professor in Politics, Society and Political Journalism, University of Sheffield, 2016-2019, Senior Lecturer in International Politics (University of Manchester 2010-2016) and Lecturer in Political Communication (University of Liverpool, 1999-2005). He researches and writes on propaganda, media, international politics and conflict.

View the full minutes for this meeting, held on Monday 14 November 2022.

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