A blame-the-virus strategy?

May 17, 2020

Is the UK government seeking to pin the fallout from Brexit on the Covid-19 crisis?

Dear All,

As the UK comes in for increasing criticism of the way it is managing the Covid-19 crisis, many unpleasant and divisive narratives are emerging in the country. One major narrative that is being articulated increasingly is that anybody who dares question the Conservative government on its handling of the situation is a person with a particular agenda: to prevent or obstruct Britain’s departure from the European Union.

In recent weeks, we have seen how scientists, broadcasters, journalists, analysts — anybody who dares question the government’s actions – has been attacked or ‘taken down’ and thus silenced through various means. These means include bullying and trolling on social media, denunciation through various publications and organisations and smear campaigns which focus on the person and their private life or their ethnic origin — rather than on what they are saying.

So is there a pattern to these cases and are the government’s critics being muted in a systematic manner?

Well, this is the way that two high profile public health experts, John Ashton and Professor Neil Ferguson were silenced; when the crisis began their voices were heard regularly on TV news coverage but now, they have been excluded. The voice of the government’s scientific advisory body (Sage) is being diluted by political narratives in such a way that last week the editor of the medical journal, The Lancet accused science and medical advisors of “lying to the British public about the pandemic in order to prop up the government.” In the NHS, professionals have been warned against speaking to the media about the shortages of adequate PPE that they face or suffer serious consequences.

Journalists and media outlets who have raised difficult questions about government action — or inaction — in the handling of the crisis are being sidelined or discredited. Particular journalists are barred from asking questions during the daily briefings and accused on social media. In some cases, they are trolled, abused and intimidated. Piers Morgan, who is now on ITN, is a high-profile but controversial journalist who he has been extremely critical of the government’s handling of the crisis. He is co-presenter of the influential breakfast show Good Morning Britain, which he says the ministers are now boycotting. Presumably, this is to avoid the scrutiny he seems to be demanding. This is in marked contrast to the unlimited access and chumminess that he enjoyed in the past with the very people who are now key figures in this government.

Any journalist who asks difficult questions is likely to be sidelined: for quite a long period Channel 4 News was ostracised and denied interviews and now certain individuals on Sky News are being singled out as undesirable. The Guardian newspaper, which has provided comprehensive and intelligent coverage of the coronavirus crisis, is also not regarded too favourably by this government.

One of the more disturbing results of this trend of marking out certain people is that a great deal of abuse is directed at non-white journalists. Last week both Seema Kotecha of the BBC and Inzimam Rasheed of Sky News spoke (on Twitter) of this abuse. Rasheed said that much of the abuse stemmed from his reporting that Covid-19 deaths included a disproportionate number of BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) individuals. Reporting of these statistics (taken up widely in the media) resulted in calls for the government to conduct an enquiry into why it was the case that so many black, Asian and ethnic minority people were being killed by virus – especially in the NHS.

The targeting of these reporters as well as the tone of abuse directed at comedian and TV presenter Adil Ray indicates that there is an underlying racial superiority narrative i.e. “how dare you non-white, non-English foreigners question the actions of the British government.” The racism inherent in this was magnified by the right wing daily, the Telegraph in the guise of an opinion piece by David Green of the right wing ‘think tank’ Civitas in which he said that “campaigners were twisting BAME Covid data to further their victimhood agenda.” His argument that this was a non-issue (although this is belied by the statistics) and just a way for the ‘inequalities industry’ to remain relevant.

Green’s piece in the Telegraph is interesting at several levels. One, it seeks to paint the matter as a non-issue and an unreasonable demand by non-whites and what he calls the ‘inequalities industry’. Two, it reveals the particular political positioning of Civitas as its narrative is the one adopted by many trolls and abusers of the ‘questioners.’ Civitas is part of a network of climate science denial and pro-Brexit organisations and politicians, a network that reportedly includes , among others, the Adam Smith Insititute, the Taxpayers’ Alliance, the Centre for Policy Studies, the Institute of Economic Affairs, the billionaire Robert Mercer who was behind Cambridge Analytica, the company linked to various controversial data management and electoral campaigns including the Brexit one, and various Brexit supporting groups. This network includes key British government figures like Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab, Michael Gove, the US president Donald Trump and the Koch Brothers group which funds Atlas Network. These are all groups and individuals who trumpet free enterprise and have been pushing for market deregulation post-Brexit.

So, is there a direct link between this network and UK government policy about the coronavirus crisis? One point of view holds that there is indeed a link and postulates that the recent announcement of measures to ease the lockdown (despite the fact that the number of Covid-19 deaths in Britain is close to 33,000 and still rising) is linked to the Brexit question. According to this theory, the government is aware that these measures will result in a second wave of infections and deaths but that this will prove convenient because then the blame for the anticipated fallout of Brexit can be pinned on the virus. The Brexit process is due to be completed by June 30 which is just over a month away, so by juxtaposing the two situations much of the economic hardship that was expected to follow Brexit can now be linked to the virus.

Is this a wild and implausible theory? Probably not if you look first at the alignment of forces and the networks involved and then at the change in the government messaging about the Covid-19 crisis. The clear Stay Home message has been replaced with the vague Stay Alert one, the population is not being widely tested for the virus, there is no temperature or other relevant check on incoming international visitors at airports and the government now plans to open schools despite public health advice that this is not a good idea. Teachers’ Unions and groups are trying to work with the government on this but it does seem unfortunate that the Conservatives seem almost happy to sacrifice the people who work in key areas of the welfare state - health and education. Facts also seem to feed into this conspiracy theory: just last week saw the appointment of four controversial individuals as non-executive directors in the Cabinet Office. These are all friends and ideological associates of the PM’s advisor Dominic Cummings who was the strategist responsible for the Vote Leave campaign, which was accused of breaking election commission rules in various ways. One of the new appointees was the Chair of Vote Leave, another was the Digital Director of Vote Leave, another is the former commissioner of the police force which dropped the investigation into Vote Leave, and the fourth is a Tory politician and close associate of Michael Gove and one of the peers identified as ‘advising big business while serving in parliament.’

So, in some ways the UK government’s new message of Be Alert can be relevant to all of us. Be alert to the narratives and messaging being promoted. Be alert to who might be the beneficiary. And be alert to how those who are dying are the ones considered most expendable by a particular ideology – either in terms of voting patterns or economic productivity.

This vigilance is necessary for not just those of us in Britain, it applies equally to those in many other countries. Because the new propaganda comes to us in the guise of both ‘freedom of speech’ and narratives magnified and spun by the right-wing mouthpieces which pose as serious journalistic organisations.

Best wishes

Umber Khairi

A blame-the-virus strategy?