Wind back a couple of months to when lockdown began. There were mixed opinions at the time about whether a full lockdown was needed. But, nevertheless, most people accepted it as the strategy put forward by the government (who are elected to make these decisions) and just got on with it.
People also understood that it was a quickly-evolving situation, things were changing almost daily and we were learning about the virus in real time, with the government having to make quick decisions in response to what was perceived to be happening on a daily basis – ‘following the science’ as they put it.
But then the daily briefings started and the press seemed to be only asking questions to try and trip up the PM and his ministers, who were plainly doing their best to see us through the crisis that was upon us.
A great many of the public, via HYS (Have Your Say comments in response to media stories), on social media and during radio phone-ins were not happy with the media trying to undermine the government.
Laura Kuenssberg, Robert Peston et al really got a verbal kicking.
Government ministers were ‘following the science’. Why were the press trying to muddy the waters. ‘Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives’. It’s simple.
The public was, by and large, with the government (obviously, it helped that those who weren’t able to work could be put on furlough and still enjoy 80-100% of their salary - depending on the ability/generosity of their employer - during some fairly nice spring weather).
Then, something happened.
Who cares what it looks like?
One of the sneaky press rabble broke a story that chief advisor to Number 10, Dominic Cummings, might have done something that the rest of us thought we shouldn’t do: driving from London up to Durham, suspecting he and his wife might to be about to be incapacitated with Coronavirus and be unable to look after their young child. In Durham they could be near to his parents and extended family.
After recovering and being declared fit to return to work, Cummings explained that he went for a half hour drive to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight.
The press were outraged. The public were, collectively, at best, ‘disappointed’.
Was this a case of ‘one rule for the elite and one rule for everybody else’?
“Definitely not,” proclaimed Downing Street. Dominic Cummings was merely looking after his family – and there’s no crime in that. He acted within the law and within the guidelines – which allowed for exceptional circumstances. And these were ‘exceptional circumstances’.
Stay in, go out. Go to work, don’t go to work
It was around this time (in fact shortly before the story broke - coincidence?) that the government started to relax its ‘Stay Home’ mantra. You could now go to parks (with members of your own household). You could, also, now drive any distance to engage in exercise. A bit weird that one. People were confused.
You might remember it best because of Matt Lucas’ brilliant “Stay in, go out. Go to work, don’t go to work” parody.
In the light of the Cummings story breaking, did this all start to make a bit more sense?
Was this an effort to blur the lines between what we should have been doing before – staying home – and what we could do now – possibly making Dominic Cummings’ ‘crime’ seem a little less, well, ‘criminal’? After all, we could all do it now – drive to Barnard Castle for exercise (although not to test your eyesight and not drive from London to Durham and stay overnight – but that was exceptional circumstances – so was covered anyway).
The government backing of Cummings didn’t sit well with the public. But, by and large, people were focused on getting through the coronavirus crisis more than engaging with a prolonged campaign to have Cummings removed – this was what Number Ten was banking on and it proved right.
But had they lost (a bit of) the trust and confidence of the British public?
Was government policy still ‘following the science’ or was it now being influenced by what suited the government politically?
Growing support for scrutiny
Kier Starmer was elected Labour leader. He started quite gently and then started to ramp up the pressure, asking straight questions of the government about why they had made one decision instead of another: What advice they had given to care homes? Why did they abandon track and trace? He questioned Boris Johnson’s ‘grip’ of the pandemic and how it was being handled.
The press also made things more uncomfortable. When scientists were questioned at the daily briefing about their views on Cummings’ behaviour, the PM intervened. When one broke ranks, he wasn’t seen again. Then a second expert was reported to have been pulled from the daily press briefings.
The press seemed to have sensed their prey was vulnerable and had the opportunity to go for it. The press were now asking questions that the public wanted answering.
More questions were emerging that the government was forced to defend. Whether that’s questionable decisions about lifting lockdown restrictions, wearing face coverings, death rates in the UK versus other countries, deaths in care homes, PPE stuck in Turkey, schools going back when teachers’ unions didn’t think it was safe or schools weren’t ready.
The public mood is mixed. There are some who say “Enough’s enough. Let’s get back to work and school.” Youngsters are going to secret raves or simply gathering in local parks en masse. People are joining protest marches. While others are saying “it’s still too early, let’s wait a bit.”
Now, it seems, people are happy for the media to ask their questions. What is the government doing and why? What’s the science?
They are fair questions.
The scientists’ noticeable absence from media briefings is also being questioned by the media, amongst further accusations that they are being gagged.
Shops are reopening at a pace. Pubs and restaurants are soon to follow.
We still have the magic 2m rule to protect us (where it’s being adhered to). Although, we have now learned that this too is going to be reviewed and, possibly, reduced to a still safe 1.4m, 1.2m or 1.0m.
[23 June update: The government confirms 2m distancing to be replaced by 1metre plus]
So where does this leave us?
With the media asking ever more challenging questions, helped by opposition parties, who during lockdown were duty bound to support the government because of collective, supportive public opinion. Even Neil Ferguson, whose computer modelling set the whole lockdown thing into action, has come out and said the government didn’t lockdown quickly enough – we could have halved the death rate had we done it just a week earlier is his claim.
So, are the press about to have their turn and give the government the bloody nose that some suspect they may be itching to do?
Well, it all depends.
Twists and turns
It depends on how things play out. Neil Ferguson apart, the populous would probably take what we’ve currently got as an acceptable outcome. The issues that will determine how the government is perceived by the public going forwards are: Do we get a second or even a third spike? What happens to the economy and the impact that has on health and social services amongst other things? How fast and far will the number of unemployed people rise? How long will the inevitable recession last?
And you can be sure that the press will be there to ask why the government made the decisions it did that have led to whatever ends up happening.
[A number of journalists have speculated that the government is already lining up the scientists as fall guys for when recriminations start.]
Immediately after the government won the December election, they set their stall out as to how they were going to work with/round the media.
BBC Radio 4’s Today programme was effectively boycotted, with the government utilising ‘softer’ television and radio interviews, along with direct broadcasts to its public via social media channels. They also bucked convention as to which members of the media were allowed to attend specific briefings.
They held all the cards. The press were to be tamed. If they wanted a story, they had to play be the government’s rules.
Coronavirus has changed the landscape or, at least, the government’s handling of the press - possibly because of its need for the traditional media to get its ‘Stay Home’ message across to the public. This has given the media a foothold that they looked like losing earlier in the year.
With public cynicism of the government’s ‘we’re all in this together’ messages, brought about by Dominic Cummings’ trip to Durham – or, more accurately, the government’s defence of his actions – and an absence of ‘the science’ or scientists backing up the government’s every decision, it has meant the press have been able to exploit the public’s loss of complete trust in Downing Street’s pronouncements and policy decisions.
The press have regained some of its ability to question ministers, ask the tough questions and hold the government to account; even on The Today programme.
If things turn sour for the government over the next few months, they won’t have the public support they enjoyed after the election and at the start of the pandemic.
At the moment, the government is just about holding its own. The restart of the Premier League, non-essential shops opening and the tantalising prospect of pubs reopening [23 June update: pubs to reopen on 4 July] may be the final sop to keep the public sweet/divert its attention in the hope that the virus has done its worst and the country can start to get back to normal.
The press are waiting. Pens sharpened.