Issues with government communications “at every step” during pandemic

Posted on: November 12, 2020 by Claire Meadows

Journalists have experienced issues with government communications “at every step” since the start of the pandemic, the Society of Editors (SoE) has heard.

Discussed as part of a panel discussion for the Society’s Virtual Conference for 2020, leading journalists in the Midlands said that despite officials having “a thankless task” at the start of the pandemic, communication had been “chaotic” at times and there had been ongoing problems with both central and local government communications during the crisis.

Chaired by Marc Reeves, Marketplace publisher for Reach plc in the Midlands & Wales, the discussion heard from Liz Hannam, Head of News at ITV Central, Jane Haynes, BirminghamLive & Birmingham Mail People & Politics editor, Dan Martin, Politics reporter, LeicestershireLive & Leicester Mercury and Ruth Smeeth, chief executive at Index on Censorship.

Dan Martin said that his experiences reporting in Leicester had been a whirlwind and, particularly at the start of the pandemic, the centralisation of government communications had been a “car crash” with confusion from the public as to the facts around the situation in Leicester.

He said: “If you were being generous you might call it chaotic in terms of the way the government communicated. We found ourselves at so many stages in this trying to pin down important announcements from MPs tweets and things like that and drips of information. This was stuff that people needed to know immediately. It has been really tough.”

His comments were echoed by Jane Haynes in Birmingham who said that dealing with government had been her “biggest source of grief” during the pandemic and officials had failed to involve the regional media at “every step” during the crisis.  

She said: “What this government has failed to do abjectly is involve the regions and the regional media pretty much in every step and in every journey throughout this pandemic. Even allowing for the fact that this is a once in a generation crisis of huge magnitude and we are all going to make mistakes – we have made them and the government has certainly made them – when you see that repeated over and over again it starts to feel like a strategy rather than something that has been forced on them.”

Despite widespread praise for local public health officials who, in Leicester, regularly answered questions and faced scrutiny via Facebook Live, local officials in Birmingham had initially been guilty of using the pandemic as an excuse to go behind closed doors, said Haynes.

She said: “I certainly took Birmingham City Council to task over not meeting for a month and a half. They didn’t hold any public meetings and we didn’t know what was going on. There was no scrutiny – they used the emergency legislation to say “we can’t meet in public”. They carried on meeting on Teams but behind closed doors. There were no minutes – we literally had nothing. We challenged them on that and they did eventually, in June I think, publish a list of all the delegated decisions they made during that period…at the time we were really cross about it and said this is not acceptable.”

Liz Hannam at ITV Central in the Midlands said that, in terms of coverage, Covid had undoubtedly taken priority during the initial stages of the pandemic and into the summer.  The “cost of Covid” taking precedence in newsrooms probably did have an effect on other areas that would ordinarily have faced added scrutiny she acknowledged.

“In April, May and June people were turning to us like never before – our viewing figures were off the scale. We pretty much did all Covid – within that we did heart-warming stories and positive stories. It wasn’t all a diet of negativity and horror. There were a lot of good, community, happy stories but everything else seemed to take second place.

“It is hard to separate Covid from anything. If you look at what happened with exams and the whole of that education fiasco that was token Covid but was it something deeper and why didn’t we know until the day after the A Level and GCSE results that there were going to be huge inequalities? Certainly, the government was slow. Were we slow? It was out there – people were saying that this was going to be chaos.”

Ruth Smeeth, Chief Executive at Index on Censorship said that Index had legitimate concerns around the long-term use of emergency regulations as we come through the crisis and the effect of temporary measures on public access to information and a free press. Alongside this, freedom of expression must be considered when looking at how best to balance the rights of anti-vaxxers with protecting public health, she said.

She added: “The Scottish government, under their emergency powers, extended the timeframe for how long an FOI request was going to take from 20 days to 60 days. We have seen quiet changes in regulations and scrutiny panels at councils and the way in which local politics is interacting as well as the nations and government. We need to be wary of what is happening as we come through Covid.

“In terms of fake news, freedom of expression and some of the anti-lockdown and anti-vaxxer campaigns there is a genuine issue about how we manage this going forward.

“We have got to get to a point where we are open about it. People are going to be scared about the vaccine – we have never had one developed this quickly. There are going to be legitimate concerns in terms of health that we are going to have. I am all for dealing with the anti-vaxxers in the way that we should which is “you’re wrong because…” not just “you’re wrong, go away”.

The full video of the debate is available for catch up here.

The debate was able to take place thanks to the sponsorship of Facebook Journalism Project and Camelot.

Camelot has sponsored the Society of Editors since 2001 and you saw that short video from their CEO Nigel Railton at the beginning of the session. If you would like to discuss anything with Camelot – story ideas, ways to improve working together or anything else – please let the SoE know and we’ll put you in touch with them.

Details of all the panel discussions in the weeks ahead alongside how to book for the keynote discussions can be found via the Society website here.