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Media scrutiny has been harmed by Covid-19 crisis: SoE debate finds

Posted on: November 25, 2020 by Ian Murray

The ability of the media to scrutinise those in power during the pandemic has been severely hindered, a debate on the importance of free press during the Covid-19 crisis heard yesterday.

Panellists taking part in the latest debate of the Society of Editors’ Virtual Conference 2020 spoke of frustration at delays in providing information under Freedom of Information requests and the effect of executive decisions on how the public were being kept informed during the crisis.

The debate – entitled Information in Lockdown: The importance of a free press and the difficulties of reporting in a pandemic – was hosted by Donald Martin, Editor-in-Chief of Newsquest Scotland. Taking part were David Clegg, Editor of The Courier; Lorraine Herbison, Head of News and Sport Scotland for Hits Radio Network & Greatest Hits Radio; John McLellan, Director of the Scottish Newspaper Society and Joy Yates, Interim Editorial Director of JPI Media Scotland.

 “There is no doubt the pandemic and the restrictions we all face have had a profound impact on us as individuals and society in general. Tragically, too many lives have been lost to the virus and as we search for that light at the end of the tunnel, we are balancing freedoms with restrictions, jobs and businesses with lives and health,” said Donald Martin.

“It has never been more important to have a free press able to deliver trusted, credible information, insight and analysis. It has never been more important to have platforms for informed debate and rigorous scrutiny.

“But just how easy is it to get accurate information in lockdown? What are the challenges the media faces reporting in a pandemic? How do you avoid confusion and provide clarity when the Scottish and UK governments have slightly different approaches?” 

David Clegg told the debate subscriptions for his paper had tripled during the pandemic. 

“It has been a real challenge and what a brilliant job people have done. The challenges and the opportunities have shown our flexibility and our flexibility and how in the most difficult circumstances we can be quite brilliant.

“I pay tribute to our IT department who have played an absolute blinder. It was a seamless experience for the end user.

“To do the job to hold institutions to account you are also aware that scrutiny is on people who are going through the same challenges we were and it has been about judging when to cut people slack and when not. But in some situations, some have used Covid as an excuse to deflect scrutiny.

“A lot of best scrutiny comes from pub gossip and you realise people are not seeing their contacts. What are they not finding out because of this environment? With all the will in the world we can try and recreate a conversation as best we can, but people are not going to confide with you the same over Zoom.”

The panel discussed the issue of investigating the numbers of deaths in care homes in Scotland where they said it was practically impossible to find information.

John McLellan explained how he had experienced a personal tragedy with the death of his father from Covid-19 after being sent to a care home from hospital. “He is one statistic out of thousands where families want to find out what went on,” said John.

“The Scottish Government seems to say this is something that happened at the beginning and now let’s move on – nothing to see here. There are a significant number of questions about the whole enquiry process going on in the Scottish government now.

“What is also worrying is the amount of decisions going on under delegated authority. They often don’t receive any kind of scrutiny at all. 

“Journalists across the UK have to be very, very much on their toes to keep on top of the decisions going through without anybody knowing at all. It is much more difficult to do that when you have much more limited contact.

Lorraine Herbison said that for broadcast media there had been particular challenges in maintaining news coverage.

“Our biggest challenge was to move everybody overnight out of the offices. How do you suddenly have a studio in your living room, your kitchen? Some people were in cupboards with duvets around them to try and get rid of any echoes. 

“But teams say although we are further apart, we are absolutely more together than ever.”

Joy Yates explained how she had spent one day in Edinburgh in her new role before having to return to Durham to lockdown.

“Communication and delivery has not been easy to do and not something an editorial community were even aware you could do. How we get products out, how we get websites out is just beyond me.

“There has been massive support from our HR colleagues to enable us to train remotely -devise remote training programmes over night – implementing wellbeing processes overnight – something we wanted to be top of. Not everyone has outside space or inside offices – we have to recognise that. 

“Getting information, we have had good and bad experiences previously and we still have pretty much the same experiences now. But I have tried to be a little understanding –understanding how it might be for others.”

Going forward the panel said it was essential to ensure that audiences remained aware of the value and relevance of the media in providing trusted news.

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 a short video from their CEO Nigel Railton played 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 the upcoming panel discussions alongside how to book for the remaining keynote discussions with Rachel Corp, John Whittingdale and Christian Broughton can be found via the Society website here.