For a critical two-week period, Boris Johnson’s near-death escape from the coronavirus infection topped the news agenda diverting the focus of much of the daily coverage away from vital, searching questions that needed to be asked about the government’s handling of the pandemic.
Day after day the tabloid press became obsessed with the fine detail of a sensational personal drama, a touch and go moment in the life of a Prime Minister, alone in Downing Street, separated from his pregnant fiancée, Carrie Symonds, also infected by the virus.
But the end of March and early April was the very time the UK’s popular newspapers should have been directing the full force of their front pages to demand why more was not being done to ramp up testing and increase the supply of personal protective equipment for health and social care staff.
While the death total was rising towards almost 1,000 a day – and despite scandalous under-reporting of mounting fatalities in care homes – the saga surrounding the Prime Minister’s predicament remained headline news, with page after page devoted to intimate trivia.
In the initial hiatus over his week-long self-isolation in Downing Street, and later during his intensive care, the newspapers with the biggest circulations side-lined – and almost certainly helped to delay – the urgent need to challenge the government on why the UK’s infection and death rates were already on their way to becoming the worst in Europe.
Johnson and his girlfriend understood – and exploited to the full – the tabloids’ craving for personal colour.
Carrie’s Twitter feed was an invaluable source; there was news of her pregnancy scans being forwarded to his bedside; and after his release from intensive care, Downing Street was said to have loaded an iPad with his favourite films and his family supplied much-loved books.
As the popular press helped to dramatize the Boris and Carrie love story – a script line that would have delivered a record audience for Casualty or any other tv drama – across the country, in hospitals and care homes, a vast tragedy was unfolding as doctors and nurses were forced to wear bin bags for protection and care staff left without the resources to stop the spread of the virus among their elderly residents.
Like any true journalist Johnson understood that his release from hospital had the makings of a scoop that topped any other in his career: he had a tale to tell which only he could deliver.
Only he had possession of the details of his bedside care and treatment, and he was master of their presentation.
He knew the importance of giving precise name checks and paying a personal tribute to the two intensive care nurses who had monitored his breathing and ensured his survival.
With the flair and bravura that has made him a household name, he took full advantage of the opportunity to deliver his heart-felt message that the National Health Service was “unconquerable...powered by love”.
However much one might sympathise with the plight of Johnson and his fiancée – and this was the scariest moment in his life – countless thousands of families are facing the same testing times.
This pandemic is shaping up to become as damaging and alarming as the trauma inflicted by both world wars and unlike the censored news coverage of those conflicts, we benefit from a media environment which has almost limitless powers of scrutiny, in which newspapers play a commanding role.
Whereas ministers were shielded when Johnson was topping the news narrative, replete with gushing headlines, leading pro-Conservatives newspapers have since become far more critical of the government’s performance and their front pages are clamouring for a more effective response.
In early April, readers of the Daily Mail were diverted by soap opera headlines: “Carrie’s Agony” and “Mr Invincible” (7.4.2020).
By the fourth week of the lockdown the Daily Mail was on the warpath and its frontpages bristled with hostility: “Fiasco of NHS safety kit flights from China” (13.4.2020); “Care Homes Catastrophe” (14.4.2020); and “4,000 feared dead in our care homes” (15.4.2020).
For the Sun, the shift has been slower. “He stayed at work for you...now pray at home for him” (8.4.2020) was topped by another Sun headline, “Get Well Soon Babe” (11.4.2020), and then on Johnson’s release from hospital, another classic “Bojo’s Angels” (13.4.2020).
When not backing Boris, the Sun deployed its front pages to support the NHS, “On the Side of the Angels” (9.4.2020). A sharper reaction followed the dire prediction that two million could lose their jobs, “Lockdown Meltdown” (15.4.2020).
So far, the Prime Minister has largely escaped personal criticism and that hands-off approach among his tabloid friends and supporters seems all set to continue while he convalesces at Chequers.
Having succumbed to Coronavirus and then survived intensive care, Johnson will be able on his return to speak with far greater authority because of his experience and the popular press will afford him unprecedented leeway, but like other world leaders he is a hostage to events and a potential media backlash that might eventually topple his government.
Illustrations: Sun, 11.4.2020; Daily Mail, 7.4.2020; Sun 13.4.2020.