Lambs to the slaughter

Statistics – every one of them a life – can be double-counted, time-lagged or even wrongly adjusted
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By Jonathan Spencer

The UK’s epidemic had reached a peak in April when Donna, a critical care patient in Warrington Hospital, told Sky News, “I don’t want to be a statistic in this.” Nobody does.

As a crisis like no other sees horrific death tolls increase, the pandemic pulls focus on government communication strategies and the broad cycle of media interviews. A strategy requires media engagement, the public must be informed. There’s a time and a place – a platform – and no end to the interview bids as breakfast TV audiences swell with so many people at home.

Interview requests, or bids in broadcast jargon, are tentative until confirmed since there’s usually too many and there might be a better offer – or a better use of Minister’s time. Sometimes there’s a darn good reason not to accept and avoid the interview at all cost.

And it is a cost, because public information, clarity of messaging and, above all, the accuracy of data, is vital if a narrative is to be sustained. It can be a battle lost. It is always a judgement call.

The weeks become months, dozens of deaths become tens of thousands, and the media loves anniversaries as much as comparative totals. There are some headlines a government just can’t stomach.

The US faced the virus claiming more than the total number of Americans killed in Vietnam (now twice that number), whilst in the UK: Toll exceeds civilian lives lost in London blitz (as we passed VE Day 75 commemorations) – and on a trajectory towards 60,000 (total British civilians killed in WWII) by the 80th anniversary of The Battle of Britain. Or the number of UK healthcare workers: …more than the number of British soldiers killed in Iraq. Sobering markers all of them.

Whilst daily tolls are falling, the true scale may not be avoided with the adjustment of figures – which one eminent statistician has called “a number theatre” – as untested Covid-19 certified deaths add to the others that are consequential due to referrals and appointments missed.

Lies, dammed lies and… Statistics – every one of them a life – can be double-counted, time-lagged or even wrongly adjusted. But lies they are not.

From a UK perspective, news coverage is unrelenting. Daily news conferences are managed, calculated appearances: the data updated; the science teased out in consumable bites from professors and medics who are sure carrying the weight of the nation’s health, if not the story as they articulate it.

There’s that well-worn phrase of feeding the beast – never allow a gap in communication – to avoid a vacuum that’s only filled by speculation, or tirades of comment. So the evening briefings from No.10 are topped by the theatre of breakfast TV interviews. It’s a battalion of spokespeople that goes over the top.

ITV’s Good Morning Britain, with its arch anchor in residence, Piers Morgan has the care minister, Helen Whatley in his clutches. She has the task of explaining the oversight or lack of preparedness of the UK’s care sector, where deaths have risen exponentially. It’s a rough few minutes for anyone, but the minister can’t explain the headline figure of care workers lost. She isn’t helped by Morgan’s combative engagement as he exploits the opportunity, his questions becoming a typical rant.

Piers has a point. Surely the minister for care must know how many healthcare workers have died. Badly briefed …perhaps. But if there was just one answer needed for her Zoom interview, that was it. She repeats key messages (when she can get a word in). But thwarted in the angst, her incredulity forces an awkward expression. It’s a cruel snare – that doesn’t deserve the next question, “…why are you laughing minister?” 

Interviews are harder down-the-line. You must project through the digital wall. You don’t have the presence sat there remotely – and a rough ride can be hindered by the frame-freeze, a missed word or a misjudged pause.

A Minister of the Crown reduced to a quiver; in the circumstances and context it seems unfair. And yet she is put up a second time a week later. Like getting back on a horse to regain confidence.

Lambs to the slaughter. It is attritional, the line of ministers engaging when they may have thought better of it. An important audience, as every public portal is right now, but sometimes you have to decline. Preferably before it becomes a boycott of the network.

Politicians always come under fire when it comes to scrutiny. Better to lose one battle and keep your powder dry for the next.

If you don’t have an answer to a question demanded by a headline – when it’s your job to know it – then you don’t do the interview.

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