Another day, another terrific New European front page, the SIXTH since I went into self-isolation while Boris Johnson was still shaking hands in hospitals, encouraging people to go to the races in their tens of thousands, and showing off at rugby matches.
Week in, week out, the paper produces excellent covers – this was the best – and some great journalism inside; lots of politics home and abroad, culture, travel, books, history. It really is a quality newspaper, put together on a shoestring by a tiny team in Norwich.
Today’s front page gathers headshots of all the NHS workers who have died fighting Covid-19 and presents them in the colours of the rainbow. Every one of them leaves behind heartbroken friends, families and colleagues. Now try to imagine 18,000 faces like that. This is a national catastrophe we are living, and neither politics nor media is really reflecting that right now.
I enjoy being editor-at-large, which essentially means writing what I want every week, and pinging regular emails to the real editor, Jasper Copping, about things I have seen, thought, read and done, to say ‘what about doing something on this?’
The other great thing about the paper is that we do not assume the reader has the attention span of a gnat. Issues are addressed in depth. Writers with interesting ideas are given time and space to develop them. I was worried when the heat went out of the Brexit debate (for now, but it is surely coming back) that the paper would struggle to hold on to its own identity. On the contrary, freed of the sense that we were all and only about Brexit, it has developed a deeper and richer sense of that identity, and though the economics of newspapers remain really tough, I am more confident than ever it will be part of the political and media landscape well into the future.
This week, I have revisited a theme on which I have written many many times since the word coronavirus replaced Brexit and football as the go-to subjects for virtually every conversation I have – government communications.
It is now over a month since I wrote this piece here setting out ’20 ways for the government to improve its communications.’ Here I go again, for my New European column this week, with ’20 ways for the government to improve its communications.‘ Much of it is so obvious it is mind-blowing that this part of the operation has not been sorted. And Number 10 can spare us this narrative that it is going a bit wrong because Boris Johnson is off the pitch – a lot of what has gone wrong flows from his style, and the decisions he took, or didn’t take, early on, when he was there.
Anyway, it is one of many reasons to buy, or even better, subscribe to the paper
My favourite pieces this week – a profile of Madame MARIE Tussaud (I did not know her first name till today!); an article on the Danish castle that inspired Shakespeare to write Hamlet; a column by Liz Gerard worrying that the weekly clap for carers is being exploited by populists and may lead to avoidance of actually giving frontline workers what they need; Bonnie Greer on how many of the countries doing well in this crisis are led by women; and diary writer Tim Walker has his usual stories allowing him to reveal how much he loathes a former Telegraph colleague by the name of Boris something or other.
Oh, and just to show how much we love and appreciate foreign languages, a headline with perhaps the longest word in a UK headline I have ever seen … ‘from outbreak to öffnungsdiskussionorgien’ (it’s about how the Germans have handled the crisis. Buy it, and you’ll get the translation!)
Anyway, here is my offering this week with, in brackets, observations to add even since writing it a few days ago ….
Given I’ve written thousands of words of well-intentioned advice about the government briefing operation, which seems to get worse not better, I’m not sure another ’20 ways to improve your communications strategy’ memo from me will have much influence. But here goes anyway.
- More openness and transparency. Go for a major shift on the provision of data. The daily slides on transport were useful at the start. Far more important now are cases and deaths, NHS capacity, testing and the economic consequences of lockdown. Provide the data before being asked for it. (How could Dominic Raab not have a figure, even provisional, for the numbers of staff deaths in care home, and well done Keir Starmer for ‘putting him on notice’ he will ask it every week till he gets the answer?)
2. Get Parliament back up and running as fully as possible consistent with social distancing or whatever measures are taken as the lockdown eases. People know this is going to be a long-term issue, that you will have to keep one foot hovering over the brake even as the other presses on the accelerator. Share the data and the science without it being asked for. We are not all going to read it, let alone understand it, but at least publish it and tell us where we can find it. (The secrecy surrounding the science and the work of SAGE is becoming a real problem. They, not just the politicians, are in for a hard time at the public inquiry WHEN it comes.)
3. Treat people as adults. The relentless repetition of slogans, or the formulaic opening to all briefings, was fine for when you were first pushing a message. Now it feels too much like you are still in campaign mode, not government mode, let alone crisis management mode. There are ways of repeating a message without sounding like robots. Starting the briefings with the exact same script is no longer necessary. Go straight to detail, data and fact.
4. Be honest about trade offs and choices.Take people into your confidence about the real choices being faced. When the issue was predominantly a public health one people were prepared to leave it to experts. But the longer this goes on the more people start to worry about longer term issues. Be honest about some of the trade-offs between suppression of the disease and mitigation. Be honest that some of these are economic and political judgments, not just scientific, and start to share that thinking. (Both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron have made detailed speeches setting out different options and different consequences from which option is followed.)
5. Broaden out from journalists. Some of the best communications I have seen has come from those leaders who engaged in briefings not just with media, but the broader public, and doctors and scientists.
6. Stop finessing the death rates. Stop making direct comparisons with countries that are operating vastly different methods of calculations. The public prefer the unvarnished truth and can cope with it better than the sense that a varnished truth is being dragged kicking and creaming. These issues are too big to imagine people will have forgotten by the time a post crisis analysis takes place. So be honest now.
7. Apologise for past mistakes. It has been embarrassing to watch ministers continue to pretend that the strategy has been unfolding seamlessly or to think that promises made about protective equipment can just be replaced by new and bigger pledges when the old ones have not been met. It was embarrassing to watch Priti Patel use the word ‘sorry’ without apologising. Being ‘sorry if they think that’ is the worst form of weaselling. Fair and reasonable people – the majority – will think better of you, as the French did of President Macron, if you admit that as the crisis rushed in you did not get everything right. Apologise in particular to front line NHS staff and social care workers.
8. Under-promise, over deliver. If you fail on the 100,000 tests a day target, you have a real problem now. You are becoming cavalier because you have not felt that much heat for failing to meet previous targets on this and other issues. Boris Johnson told the Commons on March 25 that social care workers would have protective equipment by the end of that week … that is several weeks ago. Another scandal, barely noticed. The government has had good headlines for the promises made. But failure to deliver on them will catch up with you. Dial down on promises, dial up on delivery. (They are seeking to shift the goalposts on this, as Raab did in the Commons yesterday, from delivery to capacity. Just be up front for heaven’s sake).
9. Show real empathy. I know I am probably unusual in having watched every minute of every briefing, apart from one of Alok Sharma’s when I gave up half way through. But the formulaic trotting out of grisly figures, followed by ‘our thoughts and prayers are with …’ has simply not met the gravity of the moment. To respect lives lost, tell stories of those who have lost them. Pay proper tribute. Empathy must be real, and I simply have not felt it, other than about the Prime Minister’s own care. Empathy is about not just saying but doing what it needed to make sure those who are suffering have what they need. And for heaven’s sake, put an end to these ‘Father of the Nation’ pitches from ministers most people have never heard of. (My earlier piece on Gavin Williamson and Robert Jenrick’s efforts here.)
10. Appoint ministers to key tasks. It is clear that a very small number of ministers – Dominic Raab, Rishi Sunak, Matt Hancock and Michael Gove – are carrying the bulk of the responsibility. They need more and better support, both from the Whitehall system, but also from colleagues. A minister should have been deputed to work purely on testing; another on broadening capacity. (Tony Blair has been talking about the same thing, in huge detail. Just because he is Tony Blair, some people don’t want to listen. Precisely because he is Tony Blair, the government should; and so, as I argue in The Guardian today, should the Opposition.)
11. Allow medics to speak out. There is a real hypocrisy in ministers being photographed clapping the NHS each Thursday, while nurses and doctors are being gagged. The effort to shut down voices like consultant Abdul Mabud Chowdury, who made a public appeal for protective equipment, and died from coronavirus a few days later, is wrong, and will be counter productive.
12. Accept the consequences of actions. I have seen both Matt Hancock, and Dominic Raab say that they do not accept that our higher death rate is linked to a slower reaction than other countries to the virus. This risks making them seem absurd. I think we know that if we were at the bottom of the European death rate tables, not the top, you would definitely be accepting a link between government action and consequence.
13. Signal a broader shift of attitude and policy. Indicate that the new found respect for who and what key and essential workers are will be reflected in a revision of the immigration policy, for example. Mr Johnson should also disown the right wing think tank whose launch at the Foreign Office he got the taxpayer to fund, and which is dedicated to breaking up the NHS to allow the American market greater access to it – ‘a noble fight’ as he put it at the time.
14. Dial down the language of war. It is a global fight against a virus, not a war. We are not going to defeat it by being better people than the Germans, by grit and determination and resilience, but by trusting leaders and scientists to make the right, rational decisions. Most of us have been at home, on a sofa, not in a trench, or flying a plane.
15. Step up international co-operation.This has been one of the worst aspects of the whole thing. Having Trump as US President has made international co-operation harder, if course. But, as Gordon Brown showed during the global financial crisis, global leadership can come from the UK. We need that now.
16. Dial down the soap opera. All but the evils and the crazies were pleased the Prime Minister was out of hospital, and I know there will be a temptation to feed the media desire for colour and drama about his recovery. Resist.
17. Pre-empt a public inquiry. Whilst staying totally focused on the crisis here and now, indicate that there should and will be a full independent public inquiry as soon as we are through the worst. Do not be dragged kicking and screaming to this too. (Raab’s response when asked about this in the Commons suggests, alas, that kicking and screaming it will be. When will they learn to get ahead of the questioning, not constantly fall behind? The idea there will not be a proper public inquiry when so many have died is for the bloody birds. And nor will it deflect focus from the challenge in hand, as Raab argued, to say there will be one.)
18. Get the experts to stick to expertise.The experts should resist straying into messaging better left to politicians. I did not think it was sensible for Stephen Powis, medical director of NHS England, to talk of ‘green shoots.’ I did not like Ruth May speaking about issues that went well beyond her role as Chief Nurse. Ministers should try to resist the temptation to use experts as political human shields. (I am getting a lot of messages from people in the scientific and medical community that they do not feel well represented at these briefings … ‘establishment, not independent, too much like spokesmen and women.’ The medics and scientists need to reset. Perhaps that was what chief medical officer Chris Whitty was doing yesterday.)
19. Think ahead to the issues that you know are going to become major problems down the track, and set in train the work required to deal with them all. (I wrote about this right at the start of the crisis, mentioning domestic violence, mental health and prisons in particular. I woke up this morning and the first item I heard on the news was about prisons, the Prison Governors Association saying nobody in government was gripping it. There has been some action on domestic violence, but insufficient, with lack of government grip again the issue. And on mental health, there is going to be a tsunami on this. Matt Hancock – this is not a criticism – cannot possibly be on top of that as well as the crisis itself. It needs a Cabinet minister focused on this alone, supported by a task force of experts along the TB model, working now before the tsunami hits.)
20. Keep some of your best people out of the day to day. Some of the brightest and best should be thinking about, and planning for, the next phases of strategy. (This is hard, but important and I can say from experience, something we did not get right.)
There you go. Rant over. It may well all fall on deaf ears. But I feel better for having written it.