The UK’s Guardian newspaper has always been less radical than it likes to think. But if, in the covid pandemic, ‘the UK government’ was ‘on a mission to spread fear’, then the covid mission of the Guardian seemed to be spread fear squared amongst its ostensibly progressive readership.
Day after day, week after week, month after month, the newspaper argued that the UK could have controlled the pandemic if only the government had imposed lockdowns sooner, made them harder and broader. The government was doing the only thing possible – but because of its incompetence, it was not doing enough of it.
Challenges to this narrative were excluded from its pages, ridiculed by its journalists, and denounced by much of its readership. Perhaps this was good business. Its physical circulation decreased. But its wider subscription base grew in the English-speaking world as it aspired to be the voice of those working from home.
Yet by the start of 2022, it was becoming obvious that most of what the Guardian had argued for had failed. Its editorial line had so often been mistaken. Its international comparisons were false.
A Contemptible Government
Britain entered the covid pandemic led by Boris Johnson. Correctly seen as a charlatan and liar, he was, understandably, hated by the Guardian’s staff and its readers. On the other hand, he seemed to be supported by a team of sound scientists whose advice the government more or less followed.
The Guardian’s editor, Katherine Viner, and journalists agreed that a narrow range of non-pharmaceutical interventions were necessary. Opposition to the government was therefore about demanding more of the same. As its columnist, Owen Jones, put it in a February 2021 tweet ‘there is no disproportionate response to Covid, the problem has been the reverse’.
Yet lockdowns have not been enough to stop the huge number of deaths – not least amongst the old including those in care homes. Worse, there were few attempts to evaluate them against the alternatives. The Guardian had no problem with this. It insisted that there was one right way to approach covid.
Playing to the Comfortable
An obvious reason for this is that it was playing to its secure left-leaning, middle-class, public-sector readers. Many of these were working from home and suffered few ill effects of lockdowns. It would give voice, for example, to a section of schoolteachers but not to the school cleaners and lunchtime supervisors or to the parents of schoolchildren who themselves were not able to work from home.
Fear and Panic
The Guardian became disaster journalism for the middle class worried well. The narrative was disaster everywhere, save in those countries (from China to South Korea to Japan, Australia and New Zealand) where things were so much better because they had the right lockdown policies. The New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern became a Guardian hero for these. Little attention was paid to the brutal nature of that country’s isolation.
It seemed hard for anyone associated with the Guardian to reflect on how closing borders and insisting on quarantine might affect the many ordinary people in the world.
Elsewhere in the advanced world new waves were always threatening, numbers of deaths and cases rising, hospitals overloaded, schools breaking under the strain. ‘Scientists’, ‘Teachers’, ‘Doctors’, ‘Nurses’ were homogenous groups who could always be found in its pages ‘extolling’ something bad.
This was lazy journalism. Strikingly, the Guardian had few scoops about the pandemic. Instead, it bolstered its narrative with highly personalised accounts of death, suffering and blame. Some were human-interest stories. Others were opinion pieces like the twenty written by Rachel Clarke, a palliative care doctor. And if others made different sacrifices, they only did so because they understood this was necessary for the ‘common good’.
The Guardian Gang
The Guardian has an ‘in-house’ team writing opinion pieces. Some like Marina Hyde are employed for humour. Others have more lofty ambitions. Many on the left looked in particular to Owen Jones who flipped from an early view that the threat of covid was exaggerated, to support for draconian lockdowns.
A small coterie of writers with some seeming medical public health backgrounds re-enforced the basic line of lockdowns, closed borders and zero covid. Devi Sridhar had well over 40 columns in the paper from March 2020.
Independent Sage, a collective, outdid her. Stephen Reicher alone had some 30 columns, Anthony Costello 13. By contrast, Francois Balloux, one of the leading scientists who expressed doubts, had two.
Zero covid figures too were also always available for comment. Sometimes they were the story. ‘Sage scientist fears England could repeat ‘mistakes of last summer‘ was essentially a write up of a Reicher radio interview.
Crucial too was the paper’s wider social media presence. The Guardian’s Twitter account has 10 million followers. Reflecting the desire for ‘Opiniotainement’ Marina Hyde has over 400,000 followers. The serious commentators come in at significant but lower levels. Polly Toynbee has 180,000 followers; Aditya Chakrabortty and Gabby Hinsliff have +/- 80,000.
It is Owen Jones with a million followers who towers over them all and, given his open left leaning, it was Jones who often played a key bridge role in consolidating the view that the only meaningful left position was that of supporting hard lockdowns.
What now for the Guardian and its readers?
Now Covid is becoming endemic globally what will matter is targeted measures to deal with it—the very thing that paper has refused to seriously entertain. The Guardian will have no choice but to focus more on the negative consequences of the policies it supported. Whether it will be able to carry out an honest accounting of its past errors is another matter.
I am grateful to Dr. Michael Riordan for his comments. The blame is, of course, all mine and the Guardian’s.