Fierce rebuttals mark change to UK Covid-19 media strategy | World news

Key government advisers spent a portion of the weekend writing 2,000-plus-word, line-by-line rebuttals of two highly critical news newspaper stories, in what appears to be a marked shift in media management.

The responses to stories in the Sunday Times and Financial Times, posted to the government’s website without an author credit, are unlikely to reach anything like the audiences who read the original articles – but suggest deep concern in Whitehall regarding criticism of the handling of the pandemic.

Furious government rebuttals of press stories are nothing new, nor is the practice of posting them to an official website. The difference this time is the manner in which the authors of the pieces dedicated themselves to going through each piece so meticulously.

One response was to a widely shared piece by the Sunday Times Insight team, which built the case that Britain wasted five weeks in appreciating the threat of the virus due to mismanagement and a focus on Brexit at the top of government. Sources said those involved in the “team effort” to respond to the piece included some of Boris Johnson’s political aides, one of Matt Hancock’s key advisers, and a number of government officials, who worked throughout the day to challenge some of the points made in the piece.

While some of the rebuttals were over semantics, others focused on specifics. One point complained that when the Sunday Times criticised the government for allowing 279,000 items of protective equipment to be sent from the UK to China in the early days of the outbreak, the newspaper failed to point out that 12m items had since come back in the other direction.

However, government ministers may find that doing their own journalism is an equally fraught process. One of those quoted in the government’s rebuttal was Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet medical journal. Horton himself is now rebutting the rebuttal, accusing the government of “deliberately rewriting history in its ongoing Covid-19 disinformation campaign”.

The second piece that angered ministers was an article by Peter Foster in the Financial Times, which criticised the government’s attempts to persuade industry to build new ventilators for hospitals. In a sign of changing attitudes to media, the government’s 2,900-word rebuttal to this piece focused as much on Foster’s tweets about the story as the original piece – potentially recognising that the number of people who read an individual article on a news website can often be smaller than the number of people who see a Twitter thread.

Although both rebuttals were widely shared in political and journalism circles on Twitter, they are unlikely to reach a mass audience. The original Sunday Times piece already clocked in at just over 5,000 words. The government’s response – setting out what they claimed to be a “series of falsehoods and errors” in a piece that “actively misrepresents the enormous amount of work that was going on in government at the earliest stages of the coronavirus outbreak” – was 2,000 words long.

Instead, a recently departed government press aide speculated that the real purpose may have been to blunt the impact of the critical narrative taking hold in other outlets and being repeated by broadcast news outlets that reach millions of people.

A government source said they had always responded to articles perceived to be inaccurate: “The length of our rebuttal depends on how much we have to correct and how much any article misrepresents what’s actually going on.”

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