By now it must be obvious to all but the most ardent mask-wearing, lockdown-demanding scaredy-cat that the official response to coronavirus is doing far more harm to society than the virus itself.
A huge part of the problem is Matt Hancock, the “gimlet-eyed fanatic” (© Lord Sumption 2020) who’s been UK Minister for Needless Misery and Deaths throughout the sorry saga.
On his own, this lamentable apparatchik would have been replaced months ago, skewered by the murderous shambles he presided over during the actual pandemic in the spring.
But Hancock has the media, and in particular the state broadcaster the BBC, at his back. And the media and BBC are assiduously prolonging the grandest – and presumably most enjoyable from their side of the table – moral panic they have ever been able to whip up.
If you aren’t familiar with the term moral panic, do read this very good 2015 article from Psychology Today on the subject of who benefits from public fear.
Central to the moral panic concept is an argument that public concern or fear over an alleged social problem is mutually beneficial to state officials—that is, politicians and law enforcement authorities—and the news media.
The relationship between state officials and the media is symbiotic in that politicians and law enforcement need communication channels to distribute their rhetoric and the media need tantalizing news content to attract a wide audience which, in turn, attracts advertisers.Moral Panic: Who Benefits From Public Fear? | Psychology Today UK
Moral panics go back to the beginnings of widespread literacy in the 19th century. For example, the London garotting panics of the 1850s and ’60s. The term itself was popularised by the South African criminologist, Stanley Cohen, in his study of the almost entirely media-driven hysteria over scuffles between mods and rockers in England in the mid-1960s. Cohen’s book is on Kindle at a none-too-cheap £12.99 or you can read the key points for free in extracts here at Google Books.
Cohen wasn’t the first nor certainly the last to detail the media’s use of framing and priming (see the Psychology Today link above for definitions) to massively exaggerate the scale and significance of an issue.
However it is true to say that COVID-19 differs from many earlier moral panics in at least one respect. Classical moral panics centre on distinct minorities of ‘outlaws’ or folk devils – e.g. razor gangs, Satanic abusers or guys wearing parkas on scooters.
The COVID panic, or perhaps ‘panicdemic’, raises the media’s and authorities’ game to promulgating a war of all against all. Yes, they do occasionally single out such shocking individual behaviours as going to the park or the beach but the general theme is that everyone is criminally irresponsible unless they’re actively cheering for hands, space, face and a spanking good lockdown.
In that sense this panic more of a continuation, or refinement, of the rhetoric and encroachments on civil liberties practised under the umbrella of the so-called wars on drugs and terror.
It’s also important to note that the object of a moral panic need not be something unreal or trivial. SARS-CoV-2 was after all the most serious strain of its type to hit the world for a generation in terms of its tendency to rapidly overwhelm and kill elderly, frail and often functionally already slowly-dying humans.
I use the word ‘was’ advisedly. Although SARS-CoV-2 is still active and will now be with us forever – along with its common cold and flu cousins (not to mention other natural phenomena like daffodils, seawater and the trillions of bacteria and virus cells we all carry around with us all the time) – SARS-CoV-2 has already mostly had its day in the sun.
Here’s a handy picture of it coming and going.
As the graph says, COVID-19 did its worst across Europe between April and June. And then, as viral epidemics do, because viruses have had millions of years to perfect the art of not killing all their hosts, excess mortality dropped back into normal range. The ‘demic part is effectively over. It is only the panic that continues to, in a favourite word of the fear-mongers, “rage”.
Keeping the panic alive
The graphs are so bloody obvious that neither the traditional print media nor the execrable Hancock should by themselves be able to keep the moral panic going. Unfortunately they have each other – and the BBC. The latter’s willingness to do literally anything to avoid displeasing either the commercial media barons or the government is too depressing to contemplate.
If the BBC was doing its job as an impartial news organisation it would constantly challenge the way the other two players use framing, priming, cherry-picking, deliberately misleading headlines, exaggeration and downright lies to maintain the public’s heightened sense of imminent danger.
Instead, the BBC has fallen over itself to go along with everything the Pink-Tied Robot Hancock says while at the same time trying to outdo the rest of media in spreading panic.
At this article says, our broadcasting media seems largely uninterested in scientific views that run contrary to the mainstream notion that COVID is plague-like.
Farcical ‘press conferences’ are set up by the Government, with supine journalists uninterested in questioning any of the underlying assumptions behind Government policy. Questioning of the delivery of policy, rather than of the policy itself, is the favourite practice of these so-called journalists; a practice that produces a façade suggesting they hold the Government to account, when in reality they are doing nothing of the sort.Broadcast media and the second wave of fear — Bournbrook Magazine
It comes to something when an inveterate lefty-type like me quotes even a small-‘c’ conservative publication like Bournbrook Magazine. But then dangerous times create strange bedfellows. It is now down to the citizenry to expose the moral panic for the facade it is.
The … final set of actors, the public, is the most important player in the creation of a moral panic. Public agitation or concern over the folk devils is the central element of a moral panic. A moral panic only exists to the extent that there is an outcry from the public over the alleged threat posed by the folk devils.
Moreover, the success of politicians, law enforcers and the media in precipitating and sustaining a moral panic is ultimately contingent upon how successfully they fuel concern and outrage toward the folk devils among the public.Moral Panic: Who Benefits From Public Fear? | Psychology Today UK
Back in the 1960s, the public soon got tired of the media hooha over mods and rockers. After all, there were only three bank holidays a year for chucking deckchairs around. And besides, a place like Brighton had not long before endured far, far worse than rowdy youths, such as the 225 civilian residents killed and 20,000 properties destroyed or damaged by bombing there in WWII.
The moral panic over coronavirus is an order of magnitude more egregious than mods and rockers; particularly the unprecedented degree of cooperation between the government, our state broadcaster and today’s mainstream media including the likes of Twitter and Facebook with its highly concentrated ownership.
We don’t have to go along with it like sheep, though. Keep reminding your friends and acquaintances of the widening reality gap between the actual seriousness of the outbreak at this stage and the media’s presentation of it.
Write to your MP. If they’re a Tory then point out that Hancock is becoming pure poison inside and outside the party, and should be sent off to play with soft toys as soon as possible. If they’re Labour then suggest they put pressure on Starmer to stop playing the media’s game of questioning policy delivery instead of policy and start pressing for an immediate end to Hancock’s Reign of Terrible Mistakes.
If you get a new paper, stop buying it. Send the circulation department an email telling them why. Take a break from social media.
We’re starting to see cracks in the fanaticism. One hopeful sign is the grudging willingness to consider reducing self-isolation after a (likely false) positive test from 14 days to a week – a sure sign the authorities and media are getting signals from all sides that the public are losing their patience if not yet all their fear.
And to end with, a quote from C.S. Lewis that will never grow stale:
“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”