One of the advantages of COVID from a government and media perspective is that it has allowed other crucially important issues to be left aside or placed on the back bench until the pandemic is under control. As always a crises provide opportunities for ambitious politicians and their media supporters.
The Age and many others run a constant online commentary on the events of the day relating to COVID, including statements by the relevant politicians and health officers. Side by side with these is a blog where the reader can make comments. Equally, reports about new cases dominate the first five to ten minutes of television evening news coverage where personal interest stories are used to anchor the more abstract questions of distortion, vaccination and ultimate responsibility for the several ongoing responses to the pandemic.
And at the height of the COVID crisis in Victoria last year, the Murdoch tabloids took pains to condemn the state government for its handling of the multiple problems associated with the pandemic every day, especially for the effects it had on closing parts of the economy.
The data on COVID has been easy to present statistically, allowing people to make their own comparisons, as unscientific as these might be. But this plays on the sense of fear that can easily percolate into the individual because of the uncertainty of whether one will catch the virus in a manner that cannot easily be predicted given the asymptomatic condition of many of the carriers. And this unpredictability is exacerbated by the lockdowns which prevent movement, place people on guard, have a detrimental effect on small businesspeople and create a yearning for a new sense of normalcy which cannot yet be easily foreseen.
Picking up on the fear and the present impossibility of seeing a watertight outcome has given an emotive depth to coverage of the pandemic. In the mainstream media it has been expressed in part by the use of personalities, especially political leaders, on whom responsibility for (in)action can be placed and blame assigned, and by the reporting of personal tragedies. It also allows the media to compare and contrast the actions of state premiers in relation to the Prime Minister and the Minister for Health in relation to their handling of the issue. Whilst some of the media has avoided defining the issue on party political lines too blatantly, many have.
Where it has been most blatant is in the contrasting media reporting of the COVID breakouts in the two largest states, Victoria and New South Wales. Whilst the premiers and state health ministers–and the state’s chief health officer–in both states have been pushed strongly into the media eye, it is Victoria that has suffered from the barbs of the Murdoch press in particular.
When the first serious lock-down occurred for an extended period in Victoria last year, it was the daily attacks on Daniel Andrews by representatives of Sky News that were really conspicuous. In contrast to the incapacity of the opposition leader, Michael O’Brien to offer anything constructive at all. These attacks were noted by certain parts of the media and it is difficult to assess if they did any political damage in Victoria, where Andrews seems to have been lauded for his leadership and for fronting press-conferences for months on end.
It has been pointed out by both Dennis Muller (The Conversation 29/6) and Jon Faine (The Age 27/6) that the media treatment of the handling of the virus in both states has been quite different.
Muller points out that the treatment of the recent Victorian lockdown was political in contrast to the ongoing partial lockdown in New South Wales where the media has been more informative. This continues the oft stated view in the media and pushed by the federal government that the NSW contract tracing was gold-plated, whereas that of Victoria was a shambles. Nothing much has been said about the present contract tracing in New South Wales where infection cases are now increasing daily. Protection of the Berejiklian government is imperative.
Yet this whole coverage might now be overtaken by the realisation that the federal government’s planning of the whole response to the virus has been a shambles. This has not been helped by Scott Morrison’s mixed messages, his shoot-from-the-hip style and apparent refusal to consult or take responsibility for anything; most recently demonstrated by him recommending Astra Zeneca for those under forty when there has been considerable reservations about this in epidemiologist circles.
But will the difference in reporting really be of interest to anybody but those who follow the media closely or who are wholly partisan in their outlooks?
Two themes have been emerging. On the one hand, there is the concern to increase the vaccine rollout from the shambles it has been due to the conflicting desires of the state and federal governments.
On the other hand, there is the call that lockdowns must be as short as possible in order to minimise any negative effects on the economy. Especially the effect on small business, even where big business receives the real rewards in financial handouts; irrespective of how this might effect the virus contagion. The underlying contrast between compassion and economic growth mirrors the difference between the LNP and the ALP and the Greens, though this connection has not been made in the media.
There has been insufficient impartial reporting about the slow roll out of the vaccine in Australia in relation to other first world countries, especially since this is ultimately the responsibility of the federal government. It is the states that have been doing the heavy lifting whilst most media reports do not bring out the discrepancy between the respective roles of the different levels of government. The pandemic has exposed these sharply. It is as if this has been a metaphor for the running of the country as a whole, though to make this leap will be too much for most media commentators.
Could we imagine a way in which this pandemic could have been treated better with the media playing a more responsible job and not singling out ALP state governments for criticism?
Not whilst politics in this country is becoming increasingly polarised even in a national crisis where all levels of government should pull together. For the federal government in particular, the saturation coverage of the pandemic has severely reduced debate in other areas where they have been remiss, such as economic equity, climate change and foreign policy.