My first non secretarial job was with a sex magazine. My first journalistic job was with a woman’s magazine. For the next 20 years I was told at intervals that I wasn’t “a proper journalist”. When I went to women’s magazines, they were just beginning to buy computer time to help with the compilation of quizzes. Very popular, quizzes. And I was bemused by the way the findings were packaged – sometimes in fractions, sometimes in percentages, sometimes in ratios. Usually in all three but never just one.And I learned that the object was not to tell the truth but to look as if you were. Sound familiar ?
Yesterday a friend, who is actress/teacher/poet, speaker and reader in five languages and no fool, confessed that on Friday she’d been as low as she ever wanted to go and we discussed why. Like a lot of us, she finds the sense of being played for a sucker punitive. Work beyond her desk is closed to her. But what most unsettles her is an almost permanent sense of distrust and an outrage at the amount of plastic – PPE, disposable this, throwaway that – and we are not discussing what we are going to do about it, because “news”, like government’s coverage and update, is divided into bite sized pieces, right by size if unreliable in content. See the line above .
I was never any good at science or maths, a considerable regret to my secondary school headmistress, herself almost overly qualified, who spent her time trying to encourage girls to “do” science. The other day an old acquaintance sent me two youtube segments of distinguished scientists talking about aspects of corona response and I realised that – apart from unusually poor sound quality – I simply couldn’t understand what I was being told. I watched 15 minutes of one, glanced at the second, muttered “God forgive me !” and put them aside.
But I do know about media. And the daily press briefing is a disaster. Yes, different ministers have a chance to shine but then some of them really don’t. They wouldn’t if you polished them for half an hour. And the tone is wrong. It is a weird combination of Butlins and bluster. It supposed to sound confident and make you feel reassured. But you’d have to be committed to those feelings rather than an appropriate sense of human curiosity before it would work for you.
And those figures – oh, those figures. I hear my father muttering “Lies, damn lies, and statistics.” Back to where we came in. Move the figures around. Make them sort of truthful – but don’t commit yourself.
Instead of standing up and saying “We can’t give you reliable figures. We have figures for deaths in NHS hospitals. We have an estimate for figures in care homes. We have an estimate for deaths in the community. We are not going to marry an actual figure with an estimated figure because that wouldn’t be reliable. The disease moves very fast and quite particularly. We are still learning about it but you must know we are on your side and we’ll do our darned best for you.” Not a chance.
Whoever is in charge of the press and publicity of the prevailing party has not realised how sick of cant many of us are. The endless repetition of something doesn’t make it true. And changing the slogan doesn’t make it any less robotic. There isn’t an overview of the pandemic outside the current model of medicalisation with which we approach the world and that was already giving us trouble.
The Churchillian quote that appeared at the end of Darkest Hour is oddly relevant: “Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. It’s the courage to continue that counts.” Of course that presupposes that the continuing courage is dedicated to the wellbeing of an essentially trusting public, not the balancing act of party politics. And this morning Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter who knows far more about figures than I ever did or will stated on the record that the public was “broadly supportive of the measures” and “hungry for genuine information” but was being “fed this what I call number theatre.”
*see the meaning of Spiegelhalter.