The press is absolutely right to challenge Johnson over so many avoidable deaths | Owen Jones | Opinion

Has the fourth estate overstepped the mark, piling undue pressure on a beleaguered British government doing its utmost to navigate through a national catastrophe that was not of its own making? That’s certainly the conclusion of our political masters, who three weeks ago briefed that their polling showed public dissatisfaction with “gotcha” questions from journalists.

It is the verdict, too, of Robbie Gibb, the former BBC head of political programming who became director of communications under Theresa May. Journalists at press conferences were “asking questions through the prism of political culpability” and were hunting for “government U-turns”, he claimed, suggesting they focus on medical queries about the virus instead. Even Lord Sugar chimed in, arguing that the public “do not want or need to blame”, let alone require “constant criticism of our government, who are doing their very best in a very difficult and unprecedented global emergency”.

Why are government outriders so keen to delegitimise scrutiny, to portray any questioning as sabotage; to cast dissent as embittered opponents opportunistically lashing out, contemptuous of Boris Johnson’s mystical connection with the British electorate? As it happens, polling finds that the newspaper most consistently critical of the government’s strategy – this one – has been judged to be doing the best job of covering the pandemic by the public; the most pro-government newspaper, the Sun, the worst job. Independent polling has not shown any public backlash against a supposedly excessively critical media: it is a myth.

Far from being a victim of partisan skulduggery, the government is facing little scrutiny for the largest civilian death toll outside of conflict. In the middle of March, the government’s chief scientific adviser, Chris Whitty, declared that keeping coronavirus deaths below 20,000 would be a “good outcome”. As of today the official number of coronavirus deaths in hospitals and in the community stands at more than 26,000, making the UK the third-worst-hit country in the world, behind Italy and the US. We are still at least a year away from developing a vaccine.

So when Johnson simultaneously insults and deceives the nation, saying, “many will be looking at our apparent success”, where is the deafening outrage at a prime minister who has made Britain an international case study in what not to do in a pandemic? A fortnight after assuming the premiership, Johnson declared that “our first duty is to protect the public in the most basic way”. He has betrayed that most basic and sacred responsibility of government.

The government’s attempt to airbrush from history their embrace of herd immunity – a policy even Donald Trump denounced as “catastrophic” – has been aided and abetted by a largely supine media. Instead of being opposed, the strategy was facilitated by some parts of the media. While Lombardy in northern Italy appeared consumed by a biblical disaster, ITV’s Robert Peston was writing an article headlined “‘Herd immunity’ will be vital to stopping coronavirus”.

When the British government abandoned contact tracing after 10 deaths and 590 confirmed cases, it made a choice. “If we hadn’t stopped it on 12 March, our epidemic would have been much less,” as Anthony Costello, a professor of global health, puts it. “They effectively allowed it to spread.” As the virus passed from person to person, the country had insufficient surgical gowns, visors, swabs or body bags, because the government had failed to buy personal protective equipment in its pandemic stockpile. Now ministers clap and cheer the key workers they left exposed to a deadly illness. If the media cannot land a blow on the government for decisions that lead to thousands of avoidable deaths, then what is it for?

The systematic attempt to stifle even mild attempts by the media to hold government to account is itself dangerous. A fortnight ago, a senior cabinet source told the Telegraph: “We didn’t want to go down this route in the first place – public and media pressure pushed the lockdown, we went with the science.” If there had been more determination by the media to challenge the government’s decision to make Britain an international outlier in the pandemic, lockdown may have happened earlier and thousands of lives could have been spared. Decisions made by our government have left us one of the most devastated nations on Earth. The cost? Personal suffering as thousands of families mourn the loss of loved ones and unnecessarily grave economic and social turmoil. If our democracy cannot hold our government to account for turning an inevitable tragedy into an avoidable national catastrophe, then it has failed altogether.

Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist

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