“The first casualty of war is the truth”

By Ian Murray, executive director of the Society of Editors

Whether attributed to US politician Senator Hiram Warren Johnson in 1918, or Dr Samuel Johnson in 1758, or even the ancient Greek dramatist Aeschylus around 550 BC, the quote would appear to accurately recognise the challenge facing both sides of the equation during times of crisis.

The current ‘war’ being waged against the coronavirus is proving no exception as rumours and conspiracy theories circulate.

The setting fire last week to several mobile phone masts in response to the theory that 5G is causing the virus to spread brought condemnation from the government and a call for social media platforms to do more to close down the scaremongering.

Describing the theory as “dangerous nonsense,” government minister Michael Gove railed against those spreading the notion that the virus was created by technology. The Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) waded in also, labelling the theory “crackpot” and calling on the digital platforms to do more to remove such disinformation.

On Monday the chair of the DCMS committee, Julian Knight MP, wrote to broadcast regulator Ofcom seeking action on curtailing the spread of disinformation including investigating the possible role being played by foreign powers.

There is logic as well as frustration in the responses from those in authority. The 5G theory undermines the government’s official warnings and advice on how to protect from the virus. And the attacks on the communication network could hamper the work of emergency services.

Once again there will be plenty of heads nodding in agreement that more should be done to silence the rumours. It is always so in war and times of crisis.

But while we should applaud attempts to debunk disinformation and wild conspiracy theories, we should also be wary of creeping heavy-handedness that could bring about censorship.

Broadcast regulator Ofcom already played its part in tackling the spread of disinformation last week when it criticised a small community radio station in Sussex for allowing an on-air guest to talk-up the 5G theory. Claiming to be a registered nurse, although it later transpired her field was alternative medicine, she also questioned whether nurses and doctors still had the right to be considered trusted sources of information.

The regulator decided the line of questioning from the interviewer was not robust enough to debunk the claims being made and that it crossed the line in ensuring that content could not be considered potentially harmful to listeners. In this instance the station quickly agreed and took down the interview from its website.

Ofcom also warned it was prioritising Covid-19 coverage, saying that while it recognised broadcasters will want to provide content about the crisis and that dissemination of accurate and up-to-date information to audiences will be essential, they should be alert to the potential for significant harm to audiences related to the Coronavirus.

Licensees should be mindful of broadcasting “harmful health claims; harmful medical advice; and misleading statements about the virus or public policy regarding it,” it said.

Consistent with freedom of expression, broadcasters can include content in their services about the Coronavirus, added Ofcom, “but they must ensure they provide adequate protection for the audience from the inclusion of harmful material”.

The warning will probably do little to curtail major broadcasters such as Sky, the BBC and the larger radio groups with their access to in-house legal advice, but for many if not all smaller and community providers, the ruling and warning from Ofcom will have had a chilling effect. Better to tow the official line, they may decide, and stifle any debate that runs contrary for fear of falling foul of the powers that hold their licence in their gift.

Ofcom’s remit does not run to the printed press, however. Hence why newspapers were able to report the regulator’s findings and repeat the claims made by the conspiracy theorist, although with a healthy dose of scepticism.

Major broadcasters have not shied away from reporting conspiracy theories elsewhere. The BBC and others reported how rumours were circulating in China that the virus was the product of germ warfare, created in the United States and taken to the outbreak Chinese city of Wuhan by US military.

Were they wrong to help spread such misinformation? Certainly not, particularly as the broadcaster went to lengths to counter the claims. And the UK Government this week also attacked foreign players for helping to spread misinformation, naming a Russian broadcaster for falsely reporting Prime Minister Boris Johnson was about to be placed on a ventilator. The Chinese media also came in for criticism. Both attacks shied short of blaming those nations’ governments themselves.

The media’s role in this game of claim and counter claim during the crisis is a balancing act.

Mindful of the need to continue to play its role of holding those in power to account it continues to question, rightly, aspects of government policy on such topics as the provision of personal protection equipment for health and emergency service staff, the lack of testing for the virus and the workings of financial efforts to sustain a population held in lockdown.

But editors and news teams will be mindful of the need to be seen as supporting the efforts to defeat the virus. Ask too few questions and when problems arise the public may come to see the media as on the side of those failing them. Dig too deep and too hard and they may decide the media is part of the problem not the solution.

And understanding where the line between false information and reasonable discussion can be drawn is challenging. On one day last week the Mail Online carried separate reports of a Chinese top doctor accusing the US of poor medical practices, how a senior medical expert in the US was reporting that the virus could be spread by just talking, and how a German scientist believed Covid-19 could not be contracted as easily as first feared. Each of the items came from recognised, official sources in those nations yet could be construed as being at odds with the UK’s position. Will the articles have caused some confusion for readers? Probably yes. Was the Mail Online correct to run them? Most certainly yes.

So far, the relationship between media and those in authority here in the UK appears to be finely balanced and working. We have only to cast an eye over the Atlantic to the acrimonious briefings at the White House to see how relationships can easily breakdown. And if we look towards such countries as Hungary where to question the government’s approach is now a crime, we can see the alternative can be far worse.

It is the media’s role to seek the truth and place the facts as it can honestly determine them before the public. Societies have learnt to their cost what happens when the truth is sacrificed for some perceived common good.

The Greek playwright Aeschylus would understand this point. He was after all the inventor of the art form we now recognise as the tragic drama.

Pictured: The death of Agamemnon from Aeschylus’ three-part tragedy, The Oresteia, 450BC.