Richard North, 17/05/2020  

Public safety was substantially enhanced here in Wibsey, the night before last – if the conspiracy theorists have got it right.

As witnessed by this intrepid reporter, the plod was out in force to close off a neighbouring road yesterday, to allow the dismantling of a 5G mast which had mysteriously caught fire overnight. But, as a bored PCSO guarding the site – brought in from the local Bradford suburb - said, "I can't believe people are stupid enough to believe in that theory".

Meanwhile, the Observer is playing a somewhat devious game in trying to link a downturn in approval for the government over its handling of the Covid-19 epidemic and reported unease over its strategy for easing the lockdown.

It is possible that the two are linked, but I don't think the case has been made. Yet, that doesn't stop this paper making the association which amounts to little more than guilt by association. If the police tried the same tactics, one hopes that the Observer would be suitably outraged.

Nevertheless, the downturn in approval is interesting – as measured by the pollsters, Opinium, which has been tracking public views since March. It has found that approval has "plummeted" by nine points in the last week, while net approval ("approves" minus "disapproves") – which stood at +42 percent on 26 March, it has now fallen to minus three.

Some of this might have more to do with the government's treatment of care homes, even if it is only the Sunday People which gives the issue any prominence, with the front page proclaiming "Dumping Ground", with the lead story telling of a Kettering home that had to be closed after 15 elderly residents died and staff fell sick following a "sudden influx" of patients from NHS hospitals.

There are times, one feels, that the tabloids are more in tune with events than the supposed "quality" press. Out of left field in this respect though is not another newspaper, but Reuters, the news agency. This is running an online report, drearily claiming to be an "exclusive", headed: "Review contradicts Boris Johnson on claims he ordered early lockdown at UK care homes".

This by-passes the liar Hancock and goes straight for the liar-in-chief, Johnson, pointing out that there is "no evidence that any such early lockdown was ordered". Referencing its own report about care home victims, the agency is very clear that there was no formal order or any government guidance for care homes to close before the general lockdown ordered by Johnson on 23 March.

Not for the first time, we wonder if it might be no bad thing if Reuters cut out the middle man and went direct, as it is doing a better job than the media it serves. One must bear in mind though that, when it comes to the media, the term "quality" is relative – especially when it comes to the Express (which struggles even to be considered a newspaper).

Its front page tells us that Britain is "on fast-track to virus recovery", having prime minister Johnson hoping to get the country "near to normal" by July. It says something for the Express (and the media in general) that it also runs a story headlined: "Is Britain close to a second wave? Alarming map shows which UK region is most at risk".

This, in a way, sums up the entire English media. With pro- and anti- lockdown stories - spiced with "project fear" reports on an impending second wave, spiced with the occasional optimism, the papers are having difficulty working out how to treat the Covid-19 epidemic.

Yesterday, for instance, the Telegraph was running another of its "secret squirrel" exclusives, telling of a "Second more deadly wave of coronavirus 'to hit Europe this winter'". Today, we are told: "Don’t place too much faith in models predicting another coronavirus wave".

However, at least The Sunday Times has Matthew Syed tell us that: "fixated on the flu and shrouded in secrecy, Britain's scientists picked the wrong remedy", getting half the story, a month after this blog worked it out.

Down this road, unfortunately, the BMJ has yet to travel. Focusing the blame squarely on government for "delay and dilution", it still finds "inexplicable" the move from the "containment phase" to the so-called "delay phase", and the cessation of community testing.

Remarking that "there was no future plan for community based case finding, testing, and contact tracing", it still hasn't sussed that the government was following the protocols set out in its own pandemic flu plan.

There is a suspicion in some quarters, though, that "scientists" are being lined up to take the fall, when public confidence is finally lost and the blame game starts in earnest. That we might also be seeing in The Sunday Telegraph which is running a story headed: "Coding that led to lockdown was 'totally unreliable' and a 'buggy mess', say experts".

Interestingly, this is, effectively, a re-run of this story first published on 6 May in a blog, reviewed on EU Referendum. True to form, though, the Telegraph makes no reference to a blog, rewriting the story spiced with "expert" opinions to give it the added prestige.

For all that, the story is the same, rehashed to tell us that the Covid-19 modelling "that sent Britain into lockdown, shutting the economy and leaving millions unemployed", has been "slammed by a series of experts".

This, of course, is Neil Ferguson's modelling, and his computer coding was derided as "totally unreliable", this time by "leading figures" in the industry. One of these, David Richards, co-founder of British data technology company WANdisco, warned it was "something you wouldn't stake your life on", describing it as a "buggy mess that looks more like a bowl of angel hair pasta than a finely tuned piece of programming".

What puzzles me is why Ferguson achieved the prominence he did, almost universally accepted by the media as the "go to" man on Covid. Looking at his CV, the man is a physicist. He has no medical qualifications, he isn't an epidemiologist and he has neither status nor qualifications as a software developer.

Something the media might ask itself is why it took Ferguson at his own valuation – not only on Covid-19 but on Foot & Mouth and other issues – when he so obviously lacked professional qualifications in his chosen field. Of course, it never will, as it would have to admit to being besotted with prestige, and blinded by anything which has a credible label attached to it.

As we pick our way through a litany of unforced errors, where the media is performing almost as badly as the government, the one thing we can complain about is a shortage of choice. Perhaps with so much to work on, the media is confused by being spoilt for choice.

For the moment, though, there is less coherence in its stance than the 5G mast-burners, and considerably less entertainment.

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