By Chris Sweeney, author who has written for various UK magazines and newspapers, including The Times, The Sun and The Daily Record. Follow him on Twitter @WritesSweeney
Armed with their government-issued, prized key-worker status, top-selling UK papers’ shoddy coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic has delivered very few answers but lots of cheap clickbait and sexy shots of stars.
Tough times have a way of revealing true colors, and this pandemic has done exactly that for the British press.
The government afforded them key-worker status, meaning they were free to break the lockdown and go about their business. Others in the same category include the likes of medics, teachers, food producers and public transport operators – people whose key functions undoubtedly deserve the status.
The crucial phraseology relating to the media’s exemption was “providing public service broadcasting.” We needed them more now than ever, but should journalists be allowed to masquerade as key workers to obtain tacky pictures of celebrities and write dishwasher articles?
So far, some of the top-selling British papers have been doing just that, driving a coach and horses through the government’s strict – and life-or-death – regulations. Tabloids will be tabloids – but with their own actions, the media have shown they will remain celebrity-obsessed lightweights even when their “key-worker” status demands key work amid a national crisis.
Getting a selfie with a famous name to show off on Instagram to their media mates is a bigger buzz than holding anyone to account.
It’s old news now but to recount, Britain is on course to suffer the highest death toll in Europe at around 66,000, but that is rising all the time due to unreported deaths being revealed in care homes.
For some inexplicable reason, these were not properly counted as part of the government’s figures. Up until April 3, the UK official hospital figures were 52 percent below what the reality was. There’ve been chronic issues with personal protective equipment (PPE) and a litany of mistakes of which the causes are no closer to being explained to the public.
Britain’s newspaper industry holds onto its past glory years of being a tough bunch of no-nonsense operators who would shape public opinion and happily jump into a hornet’s nest in pursuit of the truth.
Yet on Monday, with Britain knee deep in a crisis of seismic proportions, one of the country’s biggest-selling newspapers, the Sun – its daily circulation is 1.2 million – decided to devote virtually two entire pages to boxing world champion Tyson Fury’s fast-food home delivery order for his family. Not only that, they made sure to use close-up pictures of the bill and their razor sharp reporting revealed that the driver was handed a £100 ($125) tip.
Looking at the Sun’s Twitter account, you wouldn’t get the impression that Britain was in such a precarious situation.
Instead, on there is a video of an elephant eating cereal, a B-list TV presenter showing off pictures of her son meeting Tom Cruise, and one of the members of girl band Little Mix displaying “her incredible figure.”
They even had the bare-faced cheek to use a Breaking News banner for a couple who met on reality show Love Island announcing they had split up.
Their rival, the Daily Mirror – which sells almost 500,000 per day – used a whole page to break the vitally important news that Simon Cowell had some trouble opening the gates at his home in Beverley Hills, before he could drive into his property.
The newspapers made sure we all saw the images of Gordon Ramsay leaving a small supermarket with a bag of shopping and a coffee – and the same goes for the disgraced Prince Andrew packing cupcakes into gift bags.
The Daily Mail – on track to overtake the Sun if current sales trends continue – even splashed a picture of Kate Beckinsale on its hallowed front page, and devoted a full inside page to her new romance with a toy boy, a year older than her daughter.
The press used to be the beating heart of Britain’s truth providers – and now they aren’t.
There are two disappointing conclusions from all of this. Firstly, too many of our newspaper journalists and editors have shown they can’t grasp the mettle of dealing with something as serious as Covid-19.
There have hardly been any tough questions or proper quality reporting done. The majority of the key revelations that the public needed to know have been provided by brave whistleblowers or independent organizations who have checked the facts and challenged falsehoods. Not by truth-seeking professionals.
The papers are on a one-way road to chasing cheap clicks for gossip – hardly “public service.” Getting more followers on Twitter is a bigger priority than holding the state or authorities to account.
These same editors overseeing this shambles are the ones who over the years have paid off heavyweight journalists and purposely replaced them with cheaper and sub-standard operators, issuing them the task of scouring for low-hanging fruit like celebrity gossip and giving it a prominent place in their coverage.
Their TV counterparts would rather treat the government’s Covid-19 press conferences like a golf club social event and not offend anyone. None of them have really got the bull by the horns and posed the tough questions, in print or in person.
It should be added that the Guardian is one national newspaper that has at least kept its eyes on the prize and has not been dazzled by celeb-mania.
The second conclusion is that the newspapers have been duplicitous with the trust granted to them along with the key worker status.
Along with staff members, many of the paparazzi and reporters are self-employed or work for agencies, but the industry is very simple: a newspaper or outlet will give instructions regarding the type of piece it is looking for and then pay when it’s delivered – or it will instruct its own staff to do it. No one is working for free, they know there is a group of fame-infatuated editors rubbing their palms with glee.
The outrage is, why should everyone’s life be put at risk by these so-called journalists breaking the lockdown for that? Their key worker status was given to help our democratic society function – nothing else.
It is entirely possible that some lives have been lost as a direct consequence of the British newspaper industry’s cavalier approach to “public service.”
They say you can go blind if you look at the Sun for too long. It seems most of our media have done just that, by gazing at celebrities and the trappings of their glamorous lives for too long. Now they don’t see anything else.
But we do. Don’t let them drag you down to their level.