‘We failed’. An editorial in Ekstra Bladet, Denmark’s leading tabloid, berates the Fourth Estate – including itself – for failing to hold ministers to account during the pandemic. Worn down by repeated warnings of ‘the dormant corona monster under our beds’, Ekstra Bladet claims Danish journalists mostly took the government line.
‘We have not been vigilant enough at the garden gate when the authorities were required to answer what it actually meant that people are hospitalised with coronavirus and not because of coronavirus,’ the paper told its readers.
Ekstra Bladet’s accusation is that the Danish media did not properly question hospital admissions data, which appears to show that many of the country’s Covid hospitalisations might have been incidental (patients ‘with Covid’ but admitted to hospital for something else). The same self-criticism could, of course, equally be applied in the UK, where hospitalisation data has been similarly opaque. Two weeks ago, Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, clarified that ‘incidental’ Covid cases made up approximately 25 to 30 per cent of admissions, similar to the Danish experience.
So if the Danish media was not sufficiently sceptical of the government’s approach, is there a simple explanation for this apparent failure? Perhaps our own experience in the UK may offer an answer. Back in March 2020, at the outset of the pandemic, Sir Robbie Gibb, the former Downing Street director of communications, called for normal media hostilities to be suspended. Gibb denounced the ‘petty sniping’ of government communications which served ‘only to undermine the central message: stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives’.
‘In the weeks leading up to the Prime Minister’s address to the nation,’ Gibb wrote, ‘Government communications has been an easy whipping boy for those in need of some ‘business as usual’ criticism to fill their columns and weave into Twitter threads.’
To give Gibb his due, it was a message that he was far from alone in making.