Don’t Let Them Spin the Pandemic

Photo by Moira Dillon on Unsplash

In the brilliant British TV satire Absolute Power, a leading London PR consultancy is seen week after week manipulating media coverage and distorting reality for the powerful, wealthy and famous.

The partners of the agency were played by Stephen Fry and veteran satirist John Bird. In my view the venal, calculating, manipulative, greedy and narcissistic Charles Prentiss is the best performance Fry has ever delivered. Better even than the chillingly callous General Melchett in Blackadder Goes Forth, who cheerily sent his troops to certain death rather than adapt his inept strategy.

Though Prentiss and Melchett lived in very different times and have very different battles to fight (or more accurately, have people fight for them), they have several personal characteristics in common. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest they were psychopaths.

What has all this got to do with government responses to Covid-19? Well, far too much actually. I’m sure even readers who haven’t seen Absolute Power or Blackadder will have recognised certain political figures in the brief descriptions above. They are certainly characters who have popped into my head a lot as I have been observing political responses in the USA and the UK.

Mistakes dealing with the pandemic of a novel zoonotic virus were always likely to happen. And countries have differed in how they have responded to it. That is inevitable and right. But what is wrong is spinning the pandemic so that politicians can hide from scrutiny and avoid responsibility for their actions. That is reprehensible.

For me the most memorable part of Absolute Power was when Charles Prentiss and Martin McCabe were invited to a country estate to consult for a British Lord, who was launching a new political party. When shown around the house, they found themselves viewing some dull looking paintings. They were all signed AH. Prentiss was perplexed but McCabe helped him out with the words “Adolf Hitler”. The pair were then shown more Nazi memorabilia and it became apparent they were being asked to launch the political campaign of neo-Nazis.

When left alone to discuss it, McCabe said: “We have to get out of here immediately, this is quite impossible”. The immoral Prentiss replied with: “Nothing is impossible Martin, if we set our mind to it…we are not about to ditch the client suddenly because things have got a bit eggy.” McCabe replied: “A bit eggy Charles? They’re fucking Nazis.” To which Prentiss said: “That’s the ultimate PR challenge, isn’t it? Decades of terrible press, but what did they actually achieve?” McCabe, who turned out to be Jewish, mentioned the slaughter of millions of Jews before saying: “I can’t believe I’m hearing this! You cannot spin the Final Solution…You cannot spin the Holocaust.”

This is clearly an extreme (and fictional) example of an attempt to use media manipulation to distort and minimise the greatest of atrocities. This is one of the values of satire — by taking us to the most outrageous scenario, we can see more clearly the atrociousness and ridiculousness of less extreme examples. And I would suggest that trying to spin inept political responses to the biggest global crisis since World War 2 is only slightly less outrageous than this satirical example.

I have written elsewhere about Trump’s atrocious attempts to distort facts and rewrite history throughout the Coronavirus pandemic. Trump appears to be cognitively lacking and his attempts to spin are incredibly inept. Fortunately, he lacks the silver tongue and intelligence of Charles Prentiss — though perhaps does share some characteristics. His focus through his business career, meander into politics and response to Covid-19 has always been himself. His eye over the past months, in which a huge number of Americans have died, has always been on the forthcoming election. Like some hideous fairy tale narcissist staring constantly into a mirror, Donald Trump’s main interest is always Donald Trump.

The UK doesn’t have a general election on the horizon for years, yet for some reason our government has repeatedly tried to spin realities that make it look bad. Rather than face up to mistakes and acknowledge what they should have done differently, they have spun, distorted and tried to bullshit their way through.

This is something the UK Conservative Party has always resorted to quite often. But the government we have now is dominated by former political hacks, like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, and so spinning and distorting is as natural to them as hoarding money is to Jacob Rees-Mogg.

I could list many examples of politicians attempting to spin their poor responses to Covid to try to avoid the full horror of bad decisions being widely recognised. And I’m sure readers will be able to point to more from the UK, USA and other countries. For that reason, I have created the Twitter hashtag #GovernmentCovidSpin, which I will start upon publication of this article. Please use the tag to share examples. I will retweet as many as I can from time to time.

Before starting that, I would like to mention one example which has especially revolted me recently. That is the attempt to rewrite history and spin the atrocity of Covid-19 deaths in UK care homes.

We cannot yet know the true scale of Covid-related deaths among care home residents, in part because the numbers are still rising sharply, recording irregularities and lagging indicators. However, we do know from the Office for National Statistics that 23,136 more people have died in care homes so far this year in England and Wales than by the same point last year.

Amid widespread alarm across society, the UK government had attempted to rewrite history by claiming that there was a “protective ring” around care homes from the start of the outbreak. That is simply not true, and the claim has been dismissed by those who know what they are talking about.

Jeremy Richardson, the CEO of Four Seasons Health Care, which is one of the largest providers of care in the UK, was quoted on The Andrew Marr Show today as saying: “It’s disingenuous of the government to say they were focused on care homes right from the start of the crisis. That clearly wasn’t the case.”

On the same programme, Professor Martin Green, Chief Executive of Care England, was quoted as saying: “If there was a protective ring initiated by the government it didn’t feel like that to the people who were living and working in care homes.”

The reality is UK government guidance to care homes up to April 15th, which was a long way into the pandemic, acknowledged that patients admitted to care homes from either hospitals or their own homes “may have COVID-19, whether symptomatic or asymptomatic” and “Negative tests are not required prior to transfers / admissions into the care home.”

That document clearly undermines and reveals as spin any claim that care homes were being carefully protected by the UK government. If anything, care homes were thrown under the bus in order to clear hospitals for new waves of Covid patients, following a devastating attempt at a herd immunity strategy with no vaccine. It is just one example — though a very topical and atrocious one — of a government attempting to rewrite history and shirk responsibility for an inept response and avoidable deaths.

With the politics of newspapers and other media outlets often closely aligned with political parties in power, attempts to spin unsavoury facts and rewrite history are often successful. It is critical, therefore, that decent and honest people flag up things the media chooses to ignore. The hashtag #GovernmentCovidSpin will help this process. Don’t let them get away with spinning the pandemic.

Will is an anthropologist, journalist and former clinician. He is the author or Veneer of Civilisation, Psychopathic Cultures and Beyond the End of the World

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