Opinion

The wages of s(p)in

Spin, silence & lies

So Boris is in intensive care. The reports emanating from Russia Today that he was on a ventilator yesterday after he was admitted to St. Thomas’s Hospital were dismissed by Number 10 as ‘disinformation’. Who is being ‘dis-informed’? We are. The British people. We have been told dangerous and barefaced lies ever since this virus put us all on the front line. And now, those lies are exposed – we cannot even trust this government to tell us the truth about our Prime Minister’s health – even in the face of facts that even my 3 year old could deduce didn’t add up. That he is running the country but just having precautionary tests. He’s in good spirits but ill enough to be admitted to St. Thomas’s. He’s still at the head of government but in intensive care. As if all of that is perfectly normal and nothing to worry ourselves about. As if it’s perfectly normal in a world where no one is being admitted to hospital unless they are seriously ill. As if it’s all okay for the media to trot out the government’s official line without commentary, without scrutiny and without any visible intention to question the veracity of what they are passing onto the public. Nowadays, it seems, Russia Today is more reliable as a news source than the BBC. Propaganda, it seems, is alive and kicking in the UK.

I am sick and tired of the dishonesty surrounding politics – both the impunity with which our leaders lie to us and the complicity of the mainstream media in passing on those lies unfiltered and without cross examination. It seems to be endemic. And I cannot, as a responsible citizen, make sensible choices when my government is (a) demonstrably dishonest and (b) the media I consume is seemingly the department of communications for that dishonesty .

When this pandemic first appeared on our radar, I, like so many, felt “here we go again – another swine flu, another SARS”. I thought that it would all blow over in a few weeks, that it was just another public health scare to keep the population cowed and the newspapers sold. Oops. When Boris stood up and said that, regrettably, many families were going to have to reconcile themselves to the harsh fact that they would lose loved ones ‘before their time’, he must have known the UK was utterly unprepared for what was to come. But his job is to get us prepared. It’s ok for a private citizen to get it wrong, or to be complacent, like I was. I only affect me, or at least a few people around me. But the government’s lack of preparedness combined with its evident complacency when we had the warning from Italy, is serious. If the first duty of government is to protect the population, we have a government guilty of the dereliction of its first duty.

When Boris made that statement – in marked contrast to Jacinda Ardern’s vow to do everything she could to protect lives in New Zealand (which she has done) – you knew the country was fucked and you knew you were on your own. And you were. Where NZ imposed one of the strongest and most immediate lock downs in the world and closed its borders, the UK is still flying people into our airports without any quarantine or checks. Where NZ closed down the economy and schools immediately, our government shilly -shallied for so long, individuals and organisations started acting autonomously to lock down. The people not the government took the initiative. The consequences of this lack of leadership allied to our lamentable state of readiness, the government’s pursuit of one policy then its exact opposite and confused miscommunication from day one, has meant that many more loved ones have died before their time than was necessary. Almost 40,000 of them at the last count. Residents and staff in care homes and hospices have been abandoned. The inefficiency, lack of preparedness, callousness and sheer incompetence on display from the UK government is best summed up by the laughable paradox that the Prime Minister, the most protected person in the country, went down with the virus because he utterly failed to protect himself. If the PM can’t even protect himself, how will he protect all of us?

Do we get an admission of all these blatantly obvious mistakes? Do we get any admission of responsibility from our government? Do we hear any contrition? No. Instead we get a stream of self-justification and stammered replies to questions as government spokespeople attempt to cover up the mess they have made. Every day, the government’s press briefing churns out more deadly statistics. There is no humility, no admission they got it wrong, just obfuscation, vagueness, badly thought through and badly expressed self-contradictory instructions, and, worst of all, double-speak. Orwellian black is white and white is black.

The other night, when the UK overtook Italy as the leading European nation in the death statistics to become the nation with the second highest mortality rate in the world, Dominic Raab, Foreign Secretary, tried to make the claim that British statistics were world renown and that, by implication, these foreign statistics, from foreign johnnies who can’t really add up, were somehow nonsense. As if the point is a purely statistical one, rather than an emotional milepost that spells out the catastrophe that is this country’s handling of the pandemic. As if the main issue is that British statisticians’ honour has somehow been called into question, rather than the fact that tens of thousands of people have died unnecessarily due to malfeasance. The arrogance and wilful misdirection of the debate is breath taking. Especially as it goes unchecked or unchallenged by Laura Kuenssberg and the other lobbyists.

As this crisis continues, the government is now at loggerheads with the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, who have all kept the “Stay at home” message in place. By contrast, Boris changed the key message to one of “stay alert” on Sunday. He urged everyone to return to work…but not to use public transport…unless you can work at home…but if you can’t, go to work…unless you’re a dentist of hairdresser…or someone else…unless you’re not that person. This babbling, self-contradictory effluent from Number 10 Downing Street has spawned so many spoofs, from a Laurel and Hardy sketch to Matt Lucas’s pastiche.

I watched it and was reminded of the Monty Python sketch with John Cleese playing the headmaster in The Meaning of Life. In the public school scene, he describes the extraordinarily convoluted and contradictory procedure for children to go out on exeat for the weekend. It involves getting chits signed and moving coats from the lower peg to the upper peg if they are going on exeat with another boy’s family, but if they are not going with another boy’s family, then they need to reverse the coats on the pegs, get a chit from matron after they finish games but before lunch….you get the picture. A bugger’s muddle of nonsensical half instructions, half wishful thinkings, which have ended up confusing the hell out of everyone and inviting scorn and ridicule from one end of the land to the other. And from abroad, too. For example, all this confusion and incompetence is having a catastrophic effect on our universities. Foreign families, once so keen to educate their children at schools and universities in the UK, are now putting their children into higher educational establishments in other countries because they see the total mess the UK has made of the crisis. Parents don’t think their children will be safe in the UK. They are right. Their children will not be safe. We, the citizens, are not safe. And we are being told half truths and lies by a government which is patently neither up to the job nor has the moral courage to admit it. A little bit of honesty would go a long way.

Over the last two decades, British politics and the media have permitted spin – or, more accurately, lying – to become the norm in public discourse. Everyone from Blair to Alistair Campbell up through Cameron and Steve Hilton and now Boris and Dominic Cummings, have cheerfully added to the dilution of the credibility of our country’s leadership. From the barefaced lie about weapons of mass destruction having been found in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, through the cruel lie that we were “all in this together” during the 2010s austerity programme, to the calumny and deliberate mistruths spread from the Brexit Leave campaign – Britain has been lied to by its cynical leadership class consistently over the last twenty years. This time, it affects all of us, not just the armed forces and their families, or the poor, but all of us. We are all now paying the wages of spin – which is death.

In WWII, there was a famous propaganda poster that stated “careless talk costs lives”. It does. Careless talk, talk that is careless with the truth, does indeed cost lives. Lying is lethal. It was when we went to war with Iraq on a lie and so many innocent civilians died; it was under the Tory austerity programme when the poor and vulnerable suffered disproportionately, with many paying the ultimate price; and here we are again, nearly 40,000 bodies and counting in a pandemic that should have been handled with far greater competence and far more honesty. I am fed up with being lied to by the people I have elected – or, in this case, by the people I haven’t elected.

Can we please re-set the political debate and force our politicians to treat us like adults, admit when they make mistakes and re-affirm the contract between the governed and the government: ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’? We need to have an honest national debate about our political discourse and our failings as a nation. And we can start by with exhibiting some long overdue humility by sending a task force, once we can travel again, to Germany and South Korea to learn from them how to manage a health crisis. Britain’s reputation was already in tatters after three years of Brexit in-fighting and constitutional crisis. Any shred of reputation that we had as being well organised, pragmatic and good at managing in a crisis – remember Keep calm and carry on? – well, just read the foreign media. We are a laughing stock. But it’s not funny when people are paying the price with their lives. We are literally spinning in(to) our graves.

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