Perhaps I’m not the best person to be writing this article. Self-isolating at home for the last few weeks, my media consumption has mainly revolved around my three-year-old son’s favourite TV animations. But in between episodes of Paw Patrol and Peppa Pig, I’ve been watching the Covid-19 news narrative unfold. Media revenues have generally plummeted as advertisers withdraw their spends and even the big digital players like Facebook and Twitter have seen big falls in profits. But news is in demand as never before from a locked-down (or, in the case of Britain, semi-locked-down) public. The audience for television news, especially on BBC, has skyrocketed. And while their print circulations have been in long-term decline, the big newspapers have also strongly influenced public debate about the pandemic, providing many of the stories we access through social media.
Journalists have been using the word 'unprecedented' to describe the present situation. But this pandemic is not some 'black swan' event; there have been similar viral pandemics before and scientists had been warning that something like the present emergency was going to happen. What is new is the scale of the political and cultural reaction to the virus: in the modern era, there has never been a global lockdown of healthy populations and this has helped to make Covid-19 the biggest media story in history.
Much of the mainstream coverage of this emergency has been informative and I don’t agree with the view, popular in online alternative media, that journalists have simply been fuelling panic or fear about the coronavirus. In Britain, at least, politicians and media were blasé about its potential threat for far too long at the beginning at the year, although there is certainly some room for debate about how much 'overreaction' there might have been to Covid-19 since then. Experts are not unanimous on this question and there are obviously going to be fierce debates in future about the relevance of the pandemic measures that have been implemented; perhaps in a year's time we will have good enough data to judge whether the total number of excess deaths caused by this coronavirus really justified global lockdown.
But this is a genuine crisis, if only because the countries the virus is impacting have mostly been very badly prepared for it: having placed profits before people, they completely failed to invest in the scientific research and healthcare equipment needed to cope with a widely foreseen pandemic. In 2017, for example, the British government rejected a recommendation for all frontline NHS staff to be given protective equipment during a flu epidemic on the grounds that it would be too costly. For the most part, mainstream media have acknowledged the scale of the resulting problem. Yet there’s much to criticise in the media coverage of the emergency. After all, a media system owned and directed by the exploiting class is bound to discuss Covid-19 in ways that reflect capitalist interests and ideologies. Here are just a few of those ways.
Over recent weeks, the media have introduced us to several neologisms, such as 'social distancing' and 'contact-tracing' (which cynics might say is just a less alarming word for 'surveillance'). But the media have also used some more familiar discursive techniques. For example, many media and political discussions of this crisis have been wrapped in the language of patriotism and war. Trump called Covid-19 the “invisible enemy” and across the major media outlets, journalists have routinely talked of the ‘fight’ or ‘battle’ against the virus. “WAR ON CORONA” went the headline of Scotland’s Sunday Mail on 15th March. Other British papers have praised the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ of the population. Of course, war metaphors are always popular among politicians and journalists seeking dramatic effect, especially when the state perceives a threat to its authority (British newspapers were full of them during the 2011 riots). Boris Johnson's talk about “beating” the enemy virus helped him to project his strength and ‘leadership’ skills at a time when even other members of his class were questioning his abilities.
For the rest of us, however, this war talk is quite unhelpful. For one thing, it might have distorted public perceptions of the crisis. In one of their online broadcasts in March, Novara media showed footage of an elderly Londoner (a woman clearly in the ‘high risk’ category) declaring that she would not stay at home to curb the spread of infection because that would be “giving in to the virus” – as though Covid-19 were a group of jihadists hell-bent on destroying ‘our way of life’! It has also been suggested by the chief executive of the organisation Suicide Crisis that describing the crisis as a war is potentially distressing to people with mental health conditions, who might feel ashamed that they're not tough enough to cope. And from a more macro-political angle, presenting this emergency as a ‘war’ conditions the public to accept the tougher new policing and digital surveillance measures being put in place by governments across the world and which many people fear will continue after the lockdown has ended. You don't have to be a 'conspiracy theorist' to have concerns about this - you only have to look at what is already happening in China.
Finally, militarist language tends to channel working-class dissatisfaction with capitalism into admiration for the nation state. Before the first ‘Clap for our Carers’ event which swept across Britain on 26th March (and which then became a weekly occurrence), Leo McKinstry of the right-wing Express came over all Churchillian, asking readers to “salute our NHS heroes in this their finest hour”. And after the event, the front page of the left-leaning Mirror newspaper was given over to photographs of smiling NHS workers being publicly applauded. “Your country LOVES you”, gushed the newspaper, along with “NATION SALUTES VIRUS HEROES”. Not to be outdone, the BBC’s Breakfast programme started a daily Hero Half Hour segment, in which viewers were invited to share praise for key workers “on the frontline”.
But there’s something fishy about this newfound love for often low-paid workers and as for NHS ‘heroism’, perhaps we should recall Albert Camus’ novel The Plague, whose central protagonist, a doctor called Bernard Rieux, states that his work “is not about heroism”, but about doing what’s necessary in an absurd situation. In fact, ‘Clap for our Carers’ has been a well-camouflaged propaganda campaign. It has certainly tapped into positive public feelings of solidarity with hard-pressed healthcare workers who are saving lives under difficult circumstances; however, those circumstances are due in no small measure to healthcare cuts imposed by successive governments, including the present one.
The media’s militarist and nationalist framing of the event has tended to obscure such facts, deflecting any criticism of the state with the feelgood patriotism of 'we’re all in this together' - indeed, the appeal of the campaign is libidinal as much as rhetorical. 'Clap for our Carers' works in a similar way to the insidious Help for Heroes campaign: if you criticise it, you'll quickly be accused of disrespecting 'our brave boys and girls'. It also works as a kind of anti-strike propaganda, allowing any future complaints, protests or industrial action taken by key workers (such as the Amazon strikes that have occurred in various countries) to be reframed as acts of intransigence against the national interest. How can you think of protesting when there's a war on?
Britain's tabloid newspapers have a global reputation for sensationalism and racism and they haven't disappointed during this emergency. Back in January, for example, the right-wing Daily Mail and other mainstream media sources published lurid images of a Chinese woman eating a bat in what some claimed was a Wuhan restaurant, although the pictures turned out to have been taken in 2016 in a restaurant in Palau and were therefore not connected with the recent outbreak. But that didn't matter. The ‘fake news’ story went viral, no doubt because it appealed to racist Western stereotypes of exotic orientals with bizarre habits.
It’s hard to prove that the media affects attitudes or behaviours in the real world, but it seems likely that the anti-Chinese messaging of the tabloids has contributed to the present climate of xenophobic hostility towards East Asian people. This has led to harassment and sometimes brutal physical assaults. On the 3rd March a Singaporean student was left needing facial reconstructive surgery after being attacked in London. And on 14th March an Asian-American family, including a two-year-old girl, were stabbed in a retail outlet in Texas by a man who apparently feared that the victims were infectious. Being the cynics that they are, politicians such as Johnson and Trump, who has referred to Covid-19 as the “Chinese virus”, might be hoping to benefit from this popular anti-Chinese sentiment, as they try to sidestep responsibility for their failures in handling the outbreak by shifting the blame onto China – even to the point of asking for ‘reparations’. 'The Chinese' have become a useful scapegoat.
In parts of the left-leaning media, meanwhile, the China card has been played in a very different, but equally questionable way. During an interview on the Kremlin-supporting Russia Today television news channel, Stalin enthusiasts George Galloway and Ranjeet Brar heaped praise on the efficient and organised Chinese response to the outbreak. This is reasonable up to a point. After all, a case could be made that China marshalled its immense state apparatus to deal with the coronavirus outbreak more effectively than many other countries and it seems to have kept its death toll low.
Then again, we surely ought to be suspicious of health-related statistics reported by the Chinese state. And Galloway and Brar conveniently forgot that the Chinese government had initially tried to suppress the warnings of medical professionals about the spread of the virus. It should also be added that just as tabloid stories about the virus have generated widespread anti-Asian sentiment in the West, misinformation about the virus and its origins has also fuelled xenophobia and racism within China. This has been experienced particularly by black immigrants in China, who have been evicted by their landlords, barred from entering restaurants, and so on. One Chinese official, Zhao Lijian, has even tried to spread the rumour that the US army brought the virus to Wuhan last year.
None of this has stopped left-wing ‘anti-imperialist’ publications from praising the glorious People’s Republic. The People's Dispatch even published an article with the title ‘How Chinese Socialism is Defeating the Coronavirus Outbreak’. I can only recommend that the authors of this piece actually visit China to witness its obscene wealth gap, rural poverty and hyper-exploited workers. China's rulers may pay lip service to Marx and communism, but they actively persecute and 'disappear' Marxist activists and university students. So no, China isn't socialist, it's a state-capitalist authoritarian nightmare and this left-wing cheering for China is as disturbing as the right-wing Sinophobia.
Some very odd ideas about socialism have also been aired in more mainstream media. On 20th March, in the right-wing Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard urged that ‘Boris must embrace socialism immediately to save the liberal free market’. But this only shows the capitalist press's confusion about the meaning of socialism - or perhaps its ideological opportunism (as Paul Mattick once noted, Marxism is the last refuge of the bourgeoisie). For Evans-Pritchard, socialism means the state taking over control of the economy from private industry. Ironically, he shares this understanding of socialism as state control with much of the political left, not to mention parts of the Internet-based conspiracy community. For example, one of the more imaginative members of the conspiracy milieu, Max Igan, is currently arguing that the Covid lockdown is a socialist-communist plot organized by modern-day Bolsheviks to harvest the organs of the population! (Assuming we all come out of this with our kidneys in situ, it'll be interesting to see how Igan walks back his macabre predictions).
Of course, the state has indeed taken over aspects of private industry with dizzying speed in recent months, with the nationalisation of the hospitals in Ireland and the suspension of the rail franchise system in the UK, to give just two examples. Genuine socialism, however, means a world without classes, commodities, money and borders. What we have been seeing over recent weeks is not socialism, but the capitalist state putting in place measures to cover a proportion of workers' wages, bail out businesses and keep key services running. The state is simply doing what it must in order to head off any ‘social unrest’ that might arise during the epidemic and to ensure that the wheels of production can grind back into motion afterwards. To a limited extent, governments have been “putting their arms around workers” - but only so that they can get their hands back around our necks when normal business resumes.
Another, particularly daft media myth has been that the virus is a social leveller. This idea gained some traction in the major media when, on 25th March, the British public learned that the virus had pulled off its most audacious stunt so far, shamelessly infecting the first in line to the throne, Prince Charles. In the Express, Dr Hilary Jones was quoted as saying that the virus “is a great leveller” that will be “just as virulent for politicians and celebrities and the monarchy as it will the homeless and destitute”. A few days later, Clare Foges of The Times waxed lyrical on the theme, writing: “Coronavirus: the great leveller. Infecting princes and prime ministers, making hermits of most, hushing the concrete council estate and the millionaires' leafy square”.
Fortunately, not many people seem to have been fooled by this sort of twaddle. Sceptics on social media have argued that Prince Charles, who had shown only minor symptoms of C-19, had ‘jumped the queue’, having been given a coronavirus test despite NHS guidance that only hospitalised patients could receive one. The public has also given short shrift to celebrities claiming to be ‘just like us’ when faced with the threat of the virus. Wonder Woman actress Gal Gadot’s attempt to prove that “we’re all in this together” by leading a star-studded singalong to John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ was widely ridiculed on social media. And megastar Madonna, the world's wealthiest female musician, was mocked for an Instagram video in which she called Covid-19 “the great equaliser” while sitting in a petal-filled bathtub.
Far from thrusting us towards socialism or uniting the celebs with the plebs, the corona emergency has brought the savagely class divided nature of our world into sharp focus. It is true that anybody can catch the virus and this is surely one reason why the capitalist class is taking it very seriously. But this has been a tale of two pandemics. On the one side, the super-rich have headed for their disaster bunkers in private jets; on the other, workers on temporary or insecure contracts have faced destitution (by early April in Britain there had been one million new registrations for Universal Credit), while the most vulnerable groups in society, such as refugees, homeless people, those with pre-existing conditions, or the many low-paid key workers who cannot simply ‘stay at home’, are widely exposed to the virus.
Of course, the mainstream media cannot cover up these grotesque social inequalities completely. In April it was widely reported that the world's richest man - Amazon founder and boss Jeff Bezos - had added $24 billion to his wealth since the start of the year, owing to the growth in demand for online shopping. At the same time, workers in Amazon-owned Whole Foods Stores in the US were given a t-shirt emblazoned with the word 'Hero' on it, which I'm sure more than made up for being in a public-facing job without union protection or face masks. Perhaps they could wrap their t-shirts around their mouths.
Their Media and Ours
Despite all of these myths and mystifications, the mainstream media are not entirely bad and they cannot simply ignore the widespread public awareness of the government's incompetence. That's why tough questions have sometimes been asked of the government. For example, on 26th March the editor of The Lancet, Richard Horton, appeared on the BBC's Question Time discussion panel, condemning Britain's unreadiness for the pandemic as a “scandal”. Throughout April, much of the British media castigated the British government’s inability to guarantee adequate testing and protective equipment for NHS workers. A BBC Panorama investigation (27 April) has detailed the British government's failures and The Sunday Times (19 April) has also put the boot in, perhaps suggesting that Rupert Murdoch is distancing himself from the Tories.
But the general perspective of the mainstream media has been narrow and anti-working class. There have been plenty of stories about people flouting the social distancing rules, but none questioning how the profit system has hampered the medical response to the crisis. It has been primarily through the social media that working-class people have found solidarity via community information and support groups. And only socialist publications such as The Socialist Standard have been cutting through the nationalist claptrap and geopolitical blame games of the politicians and mainstream media to expose the underlying problem: the global capitalist system, which exists to protect profits rather than human life.