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Coronavirus: screening the noise

It is interesting (if that is the right word) to see that the Guardian and other newspapers, including The Daily Telegraph and the Financial Times, are having serious financial problems.

These are so serious that they are having to cut back on non-editorial staff and postpone pay rises, while some senior staff are actually taking pay cuts in order to avoid wider redundancies.

The paradox here is that, in terms of readership, the newspapers have never done better – as long as it is measured by online audiences. Print circulation for the most recent period has not been disclosed, but there are plenty of reports that suggest they have taken a nosedive.

On the other hand, the Guardian claims that its unique browsers have doubled to hit a record 366 million in March, with readers clocking up 2.17 billion page views. There is no reason to doubt that figure – even this lowly blog has seen its hit rate more than double.

The big problem is that the increased activity has been accompanied by a substantial fall in advertising revenue. In part, that reflects lower economic activity, but there is also a reluctance of advertisers having their products associated with reports on Covid-19, so many of the adverts are being blocked.

What must also be causing newspaper proprietors more than a little bit of grief is the experience of the Financial Times, which boasts more than a million paying subscribers. Yet they too are having financial problems and if they can’t make the subscription model work, no one can.

Some papers might be taking some small comfort in their increased reach, anticipating that some of the extra traffic may stay with them once the Covid-19 pandemic has run its course (if that ever happens). Thus, as long as they sustain their high level of coverage – or so the theory goes – things will come right in the end.

However, there are some small indications that some of the high hopes will lead to disappointment. For sure, there is increased traffic, but some of that comes from the number of people locked down or under-employed, who have more time to surf the web.

But there are many others who are actually seeking information as to what is going on. And, failing to get a coherent picture from any one source, they are cycling through different media websites in order to assemble enough clues to give some idea of where we stand.

Given the partisan approach of the newspapers, and the inbuilt biases of the broadcasters, media consumers are then left with the task of reconciling often widely differing viewpoints, trying to make sense out of the diverse offerings.

It has certainly been the case that my media surfing has increased dramatically, but I cannot say I am any better informed for it. Most often, I am using the media as a noticeboard to alert me of breaking stories. For the details, I will then either go to source (if I can be bothered), or read multiple reports in order to synthesise a more complete picture than any one news site has to offer, adding missing points or clarifying where necessary.

As to the media generally, it is quite evident that they do themselves no favours. One finds it hard to believe that it was necessary to have dozens of reporters and camera teams camping outside St Thomas’s Hospital while The Dear Leader was undergoing his confinement.

Undoubtedly, the reporters were updated by telephone messages from their own offices, who were in turn getting their information from the office of The Dear Leader in Downing Street. What extra credibility was gained by having pictures of reporters standing outside the hospital, I cannot imagine. Perhaps they were expecting bulletins to be posted on the palace/hospital railings?

But, if I was to hazard a guess, one of the main reasons why media expectations might be dashed is for another very simple reason. While people are desperate for information, they are getting less and less of it from the media. Instead, we are suffused with almost overwhelming noise, as a largely ignorant media trades quality for quantity.

In quantitative terms, it is probably true to say that we have probably never been better served, with the main papers and the broadcasters running endless “explainers” and multiple daily “blogs”, following every twist and turn in a drama which seems increasingly to take on the character of a low-grade soap opera.

The problem here is that, as the noise increases, the information quotient decreases and one has to search harder and harder to glean a diminishing amount of intelligence. This increased activity may be interpreted as interest. In fact, it may be exactly the opposite, representing the amount of effort needed in the forlorn attempt to keep informed.

I have to say that, had I not been committed to writing this daily blog, having invested 16 years of my life in it, it would be easy to walk away and spend my time on more entertaining interests. I have enough unbuilt models in my stash to keep me going – with care – for about two years (including another Revell Flower class corvette, which will take at least a year to build).

But what worries me – and keeps me motivated to continue – is the adage to which I have previously referred, that reading a newspaper (or watching the television) is a means of ensuring that we remain ill-informed.

The theme of the moment, for instance, is that the rate of infection seems to be slackening, inviting much discussion on whether, when, and how the lockdown should be lifted. Much of the discussion is so dire that one can scarce believe that anyone would publish it – but then, that does seem to be the role of the Telegraph.

But, right across the political spectrum, the same notion exists, with concern about the lack of a Covid-19 exit plan, redolent of the failings on Brexit, where progress has been hampered by the same failing.

Thus, even when a newspaper, in this case the Guardian does come up with some real news, it very often fails to join the dots and delivers only half the story.

The particular story here, on the front page of today’s edition, reports on how a sharp rise in home deaths is being recorded. And, while some are not related to Covid-19, many of them are.

Add this to the number of deaths in care homes, and there is sufficient cause to doubt that we are experiencing a downturn in the epidemic. With so many cases (and deaths) being excluded from the official figures, government (and the media) may be deluding themselves that things are under control.

But Covid-19 deaths apart, there is in this article, and this, that people are dying at home from treatable conditions because, for a variety of reasons, they cannot or will not use the existing health care provisions.

It is all very well, however, the health panjandrums assuring people that they should refer themselves to hospitals if they have health concerns but, in what has become primarily a National Covid Service, hospitals are very dangerous places to be.

In what will have to be detailed in another article, one is seeing increasing evidence of people going into hospital with relatively minor complaints – such as a broken arm – or for entirely routine procedures such as gall-bladder operations, only for them to catch Covid-19 while they are there, and die.

This tends to reinforce my view that turning district general hospitals into treatment centres for Covid-19 was unwise. In my extreme moments, I might even remark that it was barking mad, and the people responsible should be held accountable in the courts.

This is in stark contrast to the “happy-clappy” deification of the NHS which, despite the heroic efforts of staff members, is turning out to be a killing machine that is, in a perverse way, helping to prolong the epidemic.

Amid the noise, where clever-dick journalists concoct ever more detailed reviews of how the current claque of politicians is responsible for everything, the so-called “experts” blame everyone but themselves, and the opposition seeks to make mischief, simple truths are being lost.

As the cumulative (reported) death toll reaches 12,868, with many more falling victim to SARS-Cov-2, without their passing even being acknowledged, we are being drowned in a cacophony of media-generated noise. Only the dead are silent, and nobody is speaking for them.


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