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This is a key moment in the public's view of mainstream news | Alan Rusbridger | Opinion


The government was late to wake up to the fact that so much of the population was receiving news about the crisis from wildly unreliable sources. There were immediate calls for a clamp-down. Not social media, but astrology. Not Covid-19, but the early days of the Second World War, as it became alarmingly apparent how much the British people relied on newspaper soothsayers such as Edward Lyndoe of the People and RH Naylor of the Sunday Express for their “news”.

Naylor’s advice for his readers as they anticipated the Blitz depended on their star sign: he counselled people born in January and November, for example, to take their chances in the open rather than underground shelters. The Home Office (Intelligence Branch) began an investigation and found that 40% of the population had some belief or interest in astrology and that a huge number of people were influenced enough to change their behaviour during air raids. The financial secretary to the Treasury called for “strong action to put a stop to this form of journalism”.

Today, we have social media and Fox News, the latter much more culpable than star-gazers since it presents itself as a reliable news channel. While the 89-year-old Rupert Murdoch reportedly cocooned himself in the safety of his eight-acre California vineyard, his Fox News toilers faithfully trumpeted the alarmingly erratic views of the man described by the writer Fintan O’Toole as “America’s vector in chief”: the president of the United States.

It was only a couple of months ago that Boris Johnson’s key advisers were pushing to replace the BBC with “Fox News equivalents”, together with “talk-radio shows and bloggers”. That hasn’t aged well. Most surveys of who people rely on during the current crisis show the BBC to be overwhelmingly the most trusted news organisation in the UK, with 60% thinking it has done a good job, according to a recent Reuters Institute of Journalism study. That’s double the number who would say the same of Sky News and 10 times the number with anything good to say about the Sun.

So let’s hope the hapless Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport “consultation” on rapidly dismantling the funding basis for the BBC has been quietly shelved. DCMS civil servants would be better employed working out how to save beleaguered theatres, orchestras, newspapers and sporting bodies.

The penny seems to be dropping in some quarters that journalism can be a matter of life and death. How many of our friends and loved ones die in this pandemic is to a great extent reliant on what people believe to be the truth about its seriousness. Experts are back in business. In a world of information chaos, journalism has to re-assert its claim on our trust. Many news organisations have risen remarkably to the challenge, fully justifying the decision to categorise journalists as key workers.

In addition to the BBC’s all-round and in-depth excellence there have been invigorating campaigns (the Mail’s airlift of PPE equipment); forensic analyses of the government’s inaction (the Sunday Times, the Observer) and impressive use of data and graphics (the FT). I have loved the Guardian’s photo-essay about those still travelling on the underground; the BBC’s health editor Hugh Pym’s portraits of life on the NHS front line; the quietly precise analysis of well-informed specialist science and health writers; the David Low-like cartoons of the Yorkshire Post’s Graeme Bandeira – full of humanity and pathos.

There have been less happy moments, too, including the Daily Star’s apparently casual linking of 5G networks to coronavirus and a widespread and mawkish evocation of Second World War metaphors and imagery. The Telegraph’s offer of a free six-month digital subscription to “our brilliant NHS staff” attracted much mockery from those who had not previously detected much admiration for the NHS from that particular quarter.

Nevertheless, there has been so much to admire and it can’t be easy keeping up with the enormous public appetite for reliable information with newsrooms dispersed around a thousand bedrooms and kitchen tables. There has been an almost unprecedented surge in online traffic to compensate for the slump in printed copy circulation. According to the RISJ study, there was also widespread public support for outlets including the Guardian, most approved of among newspapers, ITV and Sky.

And yet the crisis has also highlighted some more deeply embedded structural, economic and conceptual problems about journalism in this country. The structural and economic ones are familiar enough – the lingering death throes of the daily printed newspaper; the dramatic decline in associated advertising revenues; the reluctance of people to pay for news.

More worrying in a way are the metrics on trust. Nearly all surveys – pre-Covid and today – show a similar picture. A lot of people still rely on mainstream news, but consistently place journalists as the last people they would place their faith in. It was there in Edelman’s mid-March survey of trust during Covid: journalists bottom of the league. It was there again in the YouGov/Sky News survey of a week ago. It was there in last year’s EuroBarometer survey of trust in newspapers: the UK last.

All surveys come with health warnings, but it’s difficult to dismiss these regular signals of how people regard British journalism, much of it mired in metrics and algorithms that prioritise eyeballs over the dull but deadly serious business of public-interest journalism.

We can smile at the folly of astrology. We can, and should, hold the West Coast giants to account for the disinformation they pump out. But this crisis feels like a decisive moment in how citizens think of mainstream news – especially if we think of Covid as a dress rehearsal for climate change.

Journalists as essential workers? It may take a pandemic to convince a sceptical public, but the opportunity is there to be grasped.

Alan Rusbridger is principal of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and chair of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism

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