Coronavirus has killed more Brits than every conflict since 1945, combined. But it has its uses, too.
It’s proven the priceless value of free, universal healthcare. It’s proven the worth of genome-mapping, vaccines and science. And more than anything else, it has shown that without journalism many, many more of us would be dead.
No medic, for all their training, could save all the lives that would be at risk if the message to stay at home was merely transmitted by our government. For that to have enough impact on a populace used to freedom and ignoring health advice about almost everything, it had to be amplified by the faces and stories of those who had died.
For that lockdown to still hold, in a nation that has endured a long, wet winter and is desperate to bask in the sunshine, it has to be enforced with the risk of public shaming for those who flout it.
And for a wealthy country to willingly impose restrictions on its own economy, for a Right wing government to embrace socialist change to protect against poverty, required the sort of political pressure that 66million people fuming quietly at home could never, on their own, produce.
All those things needed journalism. It took the Guardian , talking to metropolitan teachers, and the Sun , gossiping with White Van Man, and the Daily Mail , chatting with your mum. They happened because the Telegraph informed the retired colonel, the Express harrumphed with grandad, the Mirror delivered the news to 30-something mums. People at the top of the ladder paid attention when the FT discussed the figures and the Times discussed the thinking. Commuters saw it when the Metro chopped it all into bite-size pieces, and hundreds of local newspapers looked into what it meant for your street.
It took the BBC , Channel 4, Sky News , Al Jazeera, and ITN. It needed Heart and Absolute and Capital and LBC to carry it at the top of the hour. It took, roughly, 64,000 key workers who are so key that their work is as important, and as easily forgotten, as locking the door when you leave the house.
Those reporters, photographers, sub-editors, producers, presenters, floor managers, camera operators, sound technicians, printers, designers, artists and others include plenty of people who get things wrong, technically, factually, or ethically. Yours truly is one of them. Producing the first draft of history is tricky; doing it in a hurry leads to accidents.
It was journalism that broke the wall of silence around the outbreak in Wuhan. It was journalism that, when the Chinese authorities released misinformation, repeated it. And it’s journalism elsewhere that has shown the deadly impact of those lies, the fact they’re being told again in Iran and North Korea, and that is still revealing truths in a way China will never be able to stop.
Whatever journalism reveals, it later cocks up, then investigates, and finally confirms. It writes the second, third and final drafts, too.
Without journalism, stockpiling would still be happening, and might even have become looting. Police would be even more enthusiastically erroneous with their new powers. There’d be trips to the beach by people certain their faces would never be in the paper or on the evening news, and there would be more infection, and more death.
We’re not perfect. We’re not your favourite people. We never demand your thanks; we just want you to hear yourselves think.
My daughter has a pop-up book called The Story of Everything. It starts with the Big Bang, and goes through bacteria, dinosaurs, apes, agriculture, and industry all the way to the International Space Station. On the page with mud huts giving way to glass skyscrapers, there is a picture of a ship heading along a canal to a factory. On the ship are boxes labelled PAPER and INK , and the factory has a printing press in it.
Journalism went hand-in-hand with our growth as a species. The ability to write, share, gossip, shame, and inform, and spread it all widely, helped us evolve.
While covering the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, I and photographer Brian Cassey went, among other places, to Burma. We’d heard Brit backpackers dipped across the Thai border for a day or two to renew their visas, and may have been caught by the wave. We found a boat and a translator to take us across the river, and found some locals. Did you see the wave, we asked. Do you know of any foreigners here?
The Burmese knew about their village, and the next one along. They knew nothing about the nation, their region, their government, nor even the nearest town. It was an Arcadian, archaic place. There was no journalism, and so no knowledge, scrutiny, democracy or the thousand other things that it precipitates.
It suits many people to say journalism is a problem. It suits terrorists, misbehaving politicians, criminals, privacy campaigners and celebrities. For some of them, attacking a journalist guarantees headlines, sales and supporters. Write a tweet about how great journalists are, and an army of bots, supported by a vast number of well-intentioned twits, will tell you how atrocious they can be.
But I’ll tell you a secret: no-one hates a hack as much as other hacks. Every bit of bad journalistic behaviour you know about has been exposed by other journalists. That’s our superpower: our bias is completely unbiased.
There is no way to prove that journalism has saved and improved more human lives than any other job. So let’s just say that we’ve done our bit, along with medicine, education, sanitation and politics. It’s why we’re on the key worker list, and why journalists are catching coronavirus too.
Journalists are in the trenches as well. That’s why you know the trenches exist.
So it’s ironic that coronavirus is presenting journalism with a bigger threat, and opportunity, than the advent of television.
The world is desperate to hear news of the disease and its cure. It is equally keen to hear about dogs with funny faces. Businesses facing an economic crash need to advertise to get new custom, and have a guaranteed captive audience whether its online, in print, on TV or radio.
Instead, ad revenue is down because businesses don’t want to spend. Some are refusing to advertise near coronavirus stories, even though they’re the ones most people read. While TV and online audiences are soaring during the lockdown, print has dipped because fewer people are picking up a paper. Two newspapers have closed blaming coronavirus, a handful more are on life support. Staff have been furloughed and had pay cuts imposed, yet stay in the trenches because those trenches still exist.
It’s the ads that pay for the journalism – at least, all the journalism that isn’t the BBC. And if the BBC was all we had, it would not be good enough. There’d be no journalists keeping an eye on Auntie, for one thing.
Which is a long-winded way of saying: buy a paper. Thank the newsreader. Ask yourself how many neighbours rely on them, and look through your own social media to check how many times you’ve shared something from an established news brand.
Medics, carers, shelf-stackers and binmen all deserve our applause. Journalists do not ask for any. We have only ever wanted you to think, and today we’d like you to think about how much emptier your world would be without us.