Inside Story

The worst draft of history

Highly strung journalists aren’t doing anyone any favours tweeting about Covid-19

Peter Brent 31 March 2020 1352 words

On Tuesday night of last week, immediately following a national cabinet meeting, Scott Morrison held a press conference to announce a serious ramp-up of restrictions aimed at limiting the spread of the coronavirus. It was a long list, a lot of it quite arcane.

The reaction on Twitter was swift, an orgy of nitpicking and purported confusion. Oh, what a shemozzle of a performance: unclear, inconsistent, woefully communicated.

And that was just from the journos.

I bow to no human in my disdain for articles and analyses that purport to divine the state of the world through the writer’s recent experiences on social media. The classic of this genre goes along the lines of “the left has lost the plot, and as evidence let me quote some loony tweets from people you’ve never heard of, most of them anonymous. Under Hawke and Keating the left didn’t behave like this.”

But Twitter can illuminate when the tweeters have public profiles outside social media — mainstream media identities, for example. You can observe their immediate reactions to events and watch stories develop before they’re written and published. As most tweeps will tell you, the temptation of impetuousness forever lurks, leading to the hasty pounding out of that hot take that’s almost immediately regretted. It’s so different from, and in some ways more revealing than, the carefully crafted words that appear in formal settings. (This applies to me too, of course, but I’m not famous.)

Spending a lot of time on social media does change a person. Calling it online radicalisation is way too strong, but I’m referencing that concept anyway because the dynamics are similar. A mindset, or just an inclination, at first tentative, is gradually reinforced by self-selecting validation. In the case of politics, a person might come to believe that an online consensus among a tiny, unrepresentative, politically engaged, highly opinionated and often loud, angry and/or drunk subset somehow reflects something wider.

Before you know it you’re calling for the governor-general to sack the government. (Poor Antony Green has spent a lot of time in recent months patiently dealing with demands along these lines.)

Now, as far as I know no mainstream journalist has bought into that last example. But a small minority do seem to get carried away with the latest pile-on, or at the very least are swayed by it. The temptation to beat up has always been there, but social media has turbocharged it.

Just as Morrison’s summer bushfire stumbles were exaggerated, so the theme of a chaotic government response to the coronavirus has taken grip.

So, Morrison speaks of “essential services” and then makes the rhetorical point that “all jobs are essential.” Out come the journo tweets: this was a stumble! Talk about mixed messages! This bunch can’t get anything right!

Weddings, five people maximum; funerals, ten! What’s going on? Food courts closed but schools still open! What? Where’s the consistency?

And on it went. What a mess!

The highlight came when the prime minister announced that professional haircuts would be limited to thirty minutes. This facilitated lots of self-referential online fourth-estate chortling. Very soon the directive was found to be unworkable and the government withdrew it. What a shambles! tweeted some. This mob has lost control.

And of course the inevitable flick to meta, because it seems so much more above the fray: the public is confused! (We know because we saw it on social media.)

Thursday’s 7pm ABC news announced at the top: “More confusion — the government aborts its thirty-minute haircut rule.” This was so important it was the second story. Then, half an hour later, 7.30 anchor Leigh Sales quizzed the deputy chief medical officer on the same topic. It was still big news on Friday morning.

It’s like reporters think this is an election campaign, where stumbles and gotchas are a staple.

On top of that, let’s face it, most journos are left-leaning. (Don’t demand the data to back this up; this is a statement of the bleeding obvious.) At News Corp they enforce a right-wing worldview from the top down, while at Nine papers and the ABC managers try to control the leftish tendencies of those at the coalface.

A lot of people in the media don’t like this government (and much prefer the Kiwi version). News Corp bigwigs do. Let’s just say that if this were the Gillard government uttering the same words and making the same plans, we’d be on the other side of the looking glass, with Holt Street carpet bombing criticisms and others showing much more understanding.

I’m not saying there isn’t a lot of excellent journalism out there at the moment, particularly on the ABC — too much to list. It’s a small minority getting caught up in the herd. But as the haircuts showed, it does creep into formal news.

Now, this article is not some schmaltzy call for unity and “my government right or wrong” in a time of crisis. Obvious mistakes have been made and are rightly reported. And a variety of opinions about the strategy have quite rightly been aired. But the claims of “chaos” and “confusion” are getting very tired.

Given that very few Australians tune into those press conferences, perhaps, as one journalist suggested, the media has another role to play?

There is a gaping vacuum because the government has not let us in on the strategy, apart from its aim of spreading out the virus’s peak so as not to overload the health system. Some are insisting the government share the “modelling,” which is totally what you expect journalists to demand.

Now it’s true that Australian governments are overly addicted to secrecy, even more than comparable nations. In general they and we should err on the side of disclosure. But the more you know doesn’t always mean the better off you are. Societies don’t work like that; humans don’t. Possessing only limited knowledge of the world around us is how we get through the day.

On Monday the deputy chief medical officer relented and announced that modelling will be provided later this week. It will, presumably, contain a bunch of guesstimates, including number of deaths, and lots of “wait and sees” and contingencies. Some reporters will shoehorn it into their “confusion” narrative. Some will go to town with the numbers — “they’re allowing for that many deaths?” Naturally, differing opinions will be offered, strongly expressed, on its robustness.

It won’t be twenty-five million Australians interpreting the modelling; it will be journalists and experts doing it for them. To claim that it will somehow calm people, or make them more likely to comply with instructions, is a bit too neat.

Leading American expert Anthony Fauci has just been reported as suggesting that up to 200,000 Covid-19 deaths are likely in the United States. That seems very low, representing around a 7 per cent increase in its usual annual death numbers. Of course, those deaths won’t be spread over the year, but predominantly over a few weeks and months, which points to one of those truths that it is difficult for officials to utter in public. It’s not the prospect of the fatality numbers, as such, that is forcing us to semi-chloroform the economy, but the likelihood they will be crammed into a short period, overburdening our medical system by a large factor, producing even more deceased. It conjures up those unbearable scenes from Italy.

In coming months and years Australia’s response to this crisis will be judged against how other countries handled it. Assessments will be made in terms of lives lost not only to the virus but also because beds weren’t available for people with other serious conditions, and in terms of the misery, isolation, unemployment, domestic violence and suicides flowing from the measures taken. The size and quality of the economic springback will form part of the equation. Will those skittish members of the media also reflect on their own role? •