Subversion of the truth provokes attacks on journalists
I do not think there was much surprise, as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) took a grip on the world, that certain states would be accused, fairly or unfairly, of exploiting a useful opportunity to extend state supervision and control for purposes beyond those of health care. From the Far East to Eastern Europe, a collection of the usual suspects stood accused of using lockdown measures or track and trace technology to inform rather more than the local hospitals of people’s movements.
Nor was there much surprise at reports that one or two of those covering the Chinese government’s attempts to control the virus in Wuhan had disappeared for a while, at a time when Beijing was both dealing firmly with COVID-19 and fending off claims about its origin and the need for an inquiry. But recent events in countries that tend not to appear at the wrong end of the Press Freedom Index illustrate a worrying trend, which — as we begin to consider what life after the virus will look like — ought to command our attention.
Lockdown has accentuated other tensions in life, and the easing of lockdown is releasing them. However, there is, in my mind, a growing confluence of the sort of rise in political polarization we have been seeing in recent years, particularly in Western democracies that take their freedoms for granted, and a suspicion of the press and media fostered for political purposes.
In a number of countries, the easing of lockdown has inevitably sparked questions as to what extent it was needed in the first place, not least from businesses and small traders, which are desperately and rightly anxious to earn. But this genuine concern and questioning is added to by a motley collection of conspiracy theorists who are peddling the nonsense that the whole thing has been “faked” as a means to control the population and prepare people for a forcible vaccination campaign, allegedly engineered by pharma companies and individuals standing to benefit financially from sales of the vaccine.
As people emerge from their isolation, it seems that, in too many places, reporters are bearing the brunt of pent-up anger and annoyance. A recent anti-lockdown event outside the parliament building in Berlin saw a camera crew attacked, while in Ukraine reporters covering a protest were attacked by police.
The narrative that reporting, especially from established outlets that have now been pejoratively characterized as “mainstream media” (MSN), is somehow either “fake” or “against the people” seems to be behind the hashtag #mediascum, which has taken root in the UK. It is impossible to detach this from the political polarization of left and right, which has a firm grip on social media comment. Women reporters from the BBC and Sky, in particular, are subject to significant abuse and their reporting simply dismissed. It is extremely difficult to disentangle this from politicians or campaigns in the UK that used such terms, as a rising tide of aggressive comment shrinks the political space available for moderate debate. The recent furor about whether or not a UK government adviser had broken any lockdown rules, which dominated the British press for several days, was notable for the determination with which #mediascum was attached to complaints from the adviser’s supporters about how the matter was being reported.
As people emerge from their isolation, it seems that, in too many places, reporters are bearing the brunt of pent-up anger.
But it is now to the home of “fake news” and the “MSN” that attention is being focused, as reporters in the US face arrest and assault as they cover the protests resulting from the death of George Floyd. A black CNN reporter was arrested on camera while working to report a demonstration and an Australian cameraman was punched in the face by police after being hit with a riot shield, again in full view of a watching world. Many on social media quickly showed support for the attacks on what they are terming “political activists” and “puppets” — not reporters.
It is impossible to separate such physical assaults from the verbal attacks against the press by politicians globally when it suits them. This is a rising tide, as we have seen such language used with impunity in recent years. It is one thing to have an argument with the press when you believe you have been unfairly targeted as a politician, and we have all been on the receiving end of those newspapers that do not like us or our politics. But it is quite another when the purpose of relentless attacks on the media is to subvert the truth so that it becomes impossible for the public to recognize it. At this stage, your supporters have been sufficiently prepared to believe anything you tell them. And then they will do what you want, such as go on Twitter. Or vote.
- Alistair Burt is a former UK Member of Parliament who has twice held ministerial positions in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office — as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State from 2010 to 2013 and as Minister of State for the Middle East from 2017 to 2019. Twitter: @AlistairBurtUK