North East Connected

Now is the time for forthright honesty

Neil Macfarlane is a Senior Lecturer in Online Journalism at the University of Sunderland.

Here he discusses the ongoing saga surrounding Dominic Cummings and warns how “political spin’ is in danger of risking thousands of lives

Transparency and honesty are more vital than ever during the Coronavirus pandemic, but this government is taking post-truth lessons straight from the Trump playbook – and the Dominic Cummings episode brings this into stark light.

We in the UK are suffering more than almost any other country in the world. Our frontline workers are still – three months on – risking their lives without proper protective equipment. Despite being told to “test, test, test”, we’re still nowhere near being able to investigate enough suspected cases.

The government clouds the discourse by leaping from one data measurement to another, depending on which best suits its narrative. Japan has 126 million people, but only 851 deaths. We have 66 million people, but 36,914 deaths. We still haven’t been told how or why this happened.

Robust questioning is limited by handpicking journalists and refusing one-to-one interview requests. When cornered by a direct question, the Prime Minister and his cabinet members simply waffle.

There are certain elements of the Dominic Cummings story that can be open to interpretation. If we were being asked to believe that Cummings panicked, did what he thought was best for his wife and child and fled hundreds of miles north to the safety of his wider family, many might sympathise.

But we’re now told that he drove 30 miles to a popular tourist spot on a Bank Holiday, and had a little walk by the river, because he was worried he might be too ill to drive after recently suffering from Coronavirus – a deadly virus that has led to a nationwide lockdown that he himself devised. There’s no opt-out in the guidance for that one.

Not that you would know it from reading cabinet ministers’ Twitter feeds over the weekend. In a coordinated release, they all parroted the same line that Cummings’ explanation was clear and thorough and now is the time to move on. The Prime Minister himself said the same.

Earlier in the day, many were tweeting out warnings to the public to stay away from busy beauty spots in their constituencies during the Bank Holiday. The hypocrisy is galling.

During Sunday’s press conference, Cummings repeatedly blamed the media for the public anger over the episode – despite finally admitting to the central truths of the story after weeks of denials. There is even the claim that left wing activists are perverting the truth to attack the government for political reasons.

But a long line of Conservative-backing journalists and pundits are calling for Cummings to go, including Julia Hartley-Brewer, Iain Dale and Tim Montgomerie – the former editor of the ConservativeHome fansite. The Daily Mail, hardly a newspaper known for its lefty tendencies, is furious about it.

This is a Trumpian strategy where all criticism, no matter how rooted in evidence, is derided as fake news. Cummings is the driving force behind this tactic, and he is the latest in a long line of powerful, unelected, political spin doctors who are so used to “managing the message” that fact becomes an abstract matter of opinion.

By the way, it’s worth pointing out that the Labour party have been just as guilty of this in the past. Tony Blair’s right-hand man Alastair Campbell came from similar stock. The sight of him criticising Cummings and Johnson yesterday for “damaging our standing in the world and standards in public life” would have raised a few eyebrows among those who are old enough to remember the government disinformation campaign during the Iraq war.

The arts of political spin have been employed by governments for decades, but now is the time for forthright honesty.

No law can properly ensure that millions of people observe the lockdown, they’re doing so in good faith. The public is being asked to make huge sacrifices, and if we begin to doubt the reason for doing so – and decide now is the time that we can all interpret the truth as we see fit – all of our lives are at risk.

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