Too soon then too late: The press is working overtime to dismiss calls for a Covid inquiry

Our collective memory of this crisis is being distorted even before it ends.

As we passed the anniversary of the first lockdown, newspapers couldn’t resist retrospectives and reflections. And despite the events they're recounting being fresh in all our minds, there are still distortions, self-deceptions, and downright lies scattered through the pieces. The rewriting and reshaping of history is happening in real-time.

One paragraph in Janice Turner’s piece on lockdown particularly broke my brain:

Yet as cases grew and grew, we had no idea how high the numbers could go. One thousand dead a day. At first an atrocity, but quickly mundane. Then the prime minister’s life teetered. I’m no Boris Johnson voter, but when the BBC played his favourite song, Here Comes the Sun, as he gasped in an ICU, I cried. In part it was through fear of what could happen next.

A whole thesis on the manufacturing of consent, the power of propaganda, and the effectiveness of symbols over substance is wrapped up in those five fairly short sentences.

From the hijacking of the ‘clap for carers’ to this week’s cynical use of a day of remembrance to shift the conversation away from calls for an inquiry, the government and its friends in the media have been involved in emotional manipulation from the start of this crisis.

This week’s ‘day of remembrance’ was even used by the police as a metaphorical stick to beat protestors with, even as they used literal batons. On Tuesday, a statement from Avon & Somerset Police said: “It’s disappointing we needed to take this action on a day we remember those who’ve lost their lives…”

Despite Turner’s unconvincing caveat that she is “no Boris Johnson voter”, her words echo those of another columnist on the day after news of the Prime Minister’s admission to hospital broke. Allison Pearson, reading like a translation of an official North Korean communique about the Dear Leader, said:

It’s rare for a politician to inspire such emotion, but Boris is loved – really loved – in a way that the metropolitan media class has never begun to understand. Hearing reporters and doctors on TV talking about the PM’s admission to the ICU at St Thomas’s Hospital, discussing the likely effect on his lungs and “other vital organs”, was horrible; the picture of naked vulnerability it painted so entirely at odds with our rambunctious hero barrelling into a room with a quizzical rub of that blond mop and a booming: “Hi, folks!”

Yet, make no mistake, the health of Boris Johnson is the health of the body politic and, by extension, the health of the nation itself. All 66 million of us are metaphorically pacing the hospital corridor, desperate for news.

No opportunity for crass emotionalism or to torture a metaphor was left untaken by Pearson. Later in her article she actually wrote:

Everything feels heavy with symbolism right now. How could it not? We find ourselves in the middle of a newly written Shakespearean tragedy, the ink barely dry before the next page turns. The PM has succumbed to a vicious virus which has laid siege to the country, suspending the life and liberty that no one values more than he does. Like a sleeper agent, Covid-19 infiltrated his system and, now that it’s activated, his MI5 is at risk of losing control. The only cure for it is rest – but Boris could not rest.

While you could dismiss Pearson’s ridiculous rhetoric as tabloid sensationalism in the moment, it now reads more like the first draft of an official history: The dear old Prime Minister who did his best and couldn’t possibly have known any better.

On the front page of The Daily Mail yesterday, a deliberately washed-out picture of the Prime Minister was accompanied by the words This Will Haunt Me For As Long As I Live, Boris Johnson’s own rhetoric transcribed directly into the headline. The accompanying ‘news’ story told of a “sombre press conference” even as other new stories revealed that Johnson had joked on a Zoom call with Tory backbenchers that the success of the UK's Covid vaccine programme was because of "capitalism" and "greed".

In The Mail on Sunday last weekend, Dan Hodges — British politics’ ‘favourite’ fail son — was even more blatant. Under the blaring headline, The very last thing we need is a Covid public inquiry, he wrote:

People don't need a learned judge to tell them about the Covid crisis – they lived it. Most have formed the view those mistakes that occurred were made in exceptional circumstances, and good conscience. They do not blame Boris and his Ministers. And their sole focus is on unlocking and moving forward.

Of course, there will be others who take a different view. And no inquiry is going to change their minds either. So why not save ourselves a lot of time and trouble.

This is a classic columnist tactic: Assert strongly what ‘the people’ believe, frame anyone not sharing that opinion as on the fringe, and hope no one questions you.

Cherry-picking data and examples, Desperate Dan bends over backwards to exonerated the Prime Minister who proudly boasted at a press conference of all the Covid patients he’d shaken hands with even as the pandemic was beginning to pick up speed. He wants us to ignore the rampant corruption in procurement, the cosy deals with consultants whose companies have close relationships with the Conservative Party, and the recklessness of ‘Eat Out to Help Out’.

Hodges is so committed to promoting the status quo that he should be required to wear double denim at all times and be announced into rooms by the sound of Rockin’ All Over The World blaring at extreme volume. But he’s far from alone. The bulk of the British commentariat exists to mutter “this is as good as it can get” and viciously disparage anyone who might suggest that things can be better (but isn’t a member of D:Ream on a 90s nostalgia tour).

The usual arguments that applied by British politicians and the press are being deployed like clockwork. It begins with “now is not the time” before moving into “this is a time for grief and reflection”. Next, it will be “it would be premature to make an assessment at this stage of the recovery” then “we are focused on other things” and finally, “well, that was all a long time ago and we’ve moved on.”

With the exception of The Guardian which is — unsurprisingly — calling loudly for an inquiry, the press has very little interest in the idea. Boris Johnson promised that there would be an independent inquiry as far back as July 2020, but like all of his promises, it’s turned out to be as meaningful as Mr Blobby’s vocals on the seminal hit single ‘Mr Blobby’ (from the classic album ‘Mr Blobby’).

In parliament this week, the Prime Minister dismissed calls from Labour, bereaved families, and epidemiologists to begin a Covid inquiry once restrictions are lifted in June. He burbled that the government will hold an inquiry “as soon as it’s right to do so, as soon as it wouldn’t be an irresponsible diversion of the energies of the key officials involved.” That’s convenient, isn’t it? When won’t he be able to argue that officials had more important things to do?

There’s another reason most of the press won’t get behind the calls for an inquiry too and it’s not just because their proprietors back the Tory Party every step of the way. The word ‘inquiry’ has been triggering to them ever since Leveson and they want to make very sure that the ‘Leveson 2’ — which was intended to look into unlawful conduct at media organisations and the relationship between the press and police, but was killed by Matt Hancock in 2018, when he was Culture Secretary — remains dead.

The right-wing media, particularly the Murdoch empire which is still regularly paying out in phone-hacking cases, would rather the morass at the heart of politics isn’t investigated because it’s afraid of more light being thrown on its role in the whole muddy mess. Leveson 2 is the bogeyman in every press baron’s bedtime story and that’s why they don’t want inquiries to be back on the agenda.