March 16, 2020

The Times, this morning: “Boris Johnson will attempt to wrest back control of the coronavirus crisis today after No 10 was stung by criticism of its performance and the death toll rose to 35.” One small sentence, of the sort your eye glides over daily by the bucketload in our wonderful British press. Let’s take it apart.

The writers have no idea what is in the Prime Minister’s mind, or whether he indeed woke up this morning and mumbled “I’ve gotta try and wrest back control of this virus, Carrie” (to which “From whom?” would be the only reasonable response), but tell us his entire government (“No 10”) has been “stung by criticism” anyway. If I claimed to know what was in your mind and wrote it down as fact, how would you describe my behaviour?

That’s not the worst offence against decency in those 30 words. Look at the sentence’s end: the conjunction to link this intangible “criticism” with “the death toll rose to 35.” As though the death toll might have not increased, might been zero, had No.10 not been occupied by a man who drives a too-large proportion of the media into paroxysms of hatred.

When I gave up writing about politics and resumed my career as a statistician, lots of people asked me if I was sure what I was doing. The subtext: “If you just went for it harder, you could make it as a pundit. Why would you bury yourself in some faceless company doing that geeky stuff?”

It hit a nerve, because in 2017, at the end of a sabbatical year writing speeches for a cabinet minister, I did look at The Rest Of My Life, and asked myself the same question. Yet I made a deliberate choice to return to the pharmaceutical R&D outfit that had been my home since 1998. I’ve done well, becoming one of the company’s VPs for research-orientated statistics, and a large number of people depend on my strategic ability. So why was the media such an obvious wrong choice?

In 2011, I won an Orwell prize for my political writing. I never knew I could write, never had the desire, yet somehow I have a facility with words that sufficient people enjoy that makes the endeavour worthwhile. After the Orwell ceremony — the next day — I was offered a gig at the Daily Telegraph that lasted three years. Even when that ended (thanks for sacking me while I was on holiday!), I’ve never lacked offers for paid writing.

It was always obvious to me that the pay you get for a writing gig wouldn’t cover the mortgage. I asked my editor back at the Telegraph how anyone could possibly make a living from political writing. “You write a book,” he said – one of those books no-one reads, but which your friends in the Sundays review — “And you get a media profile.” The two are not unlinked.

So I tried that for a bit. I stopped ignoring the calls and texts from the BBC and so on, and turned up on Today and PM and tried to offer what I thought about issues like the licence fee and Scottish nationalism.

It was awful. I was awful, unremittingly so. I remember getting up in Brighton at 4am to do a BBC Radio spot about Scottish nationalism. It turned out that the BBC had also invited a former pop star who proceeded to shout whenever I spoke. I was furious, but because I’m a lower middle-class Tory I sat politely in the booth, listening to the pop guy screeching down the line from Glasgow. I picked my way back to our flat afterwards, avoiding the zombie-torpor of the early morning drunks and thinking “This is no way to live your life”.

But it is a way, a way of life for anyone who wants to make it as pundit. All those talking heads on TV, opining on this or that: a pop star screeching at them wouldn’t be a debasement of intellectual rigour: it would be an opportunity! He’s got a profile! Think what a Twitter-spat would do for your Likes! The singer himself tried to “reach out” to me on social media later on the day of our “interview”, fake-pretending to wish that our intercourse had been of more value. If he were less of an onanist he might note the irony; perhaps even write four rhyming lines about it to chunter over in some out-of-season caravan park on his next “tour”.

So don’t ever believe those talking heads are speaking for you. They prioritise themselves, always. Another Telegraph memory: I got off the Brighton train at Victoria, it was pouring, I saw a young intern from the paper. I offered to pay for a cab to a political meeting that I knew we were both attending. Ten years later, that intern, now a successful pundit, used my Toryism as an example of partisan stupidity in a blog. The kindness I showed counted for this much: it provided a name to use for political point-scoring.

If this were just a time of Brexit, or the last election, my disdain for the British media might matter, but not that much. It matters now, because a virus is trying to kill us.

There is one useful group of people to talk to about coronavirus. They’re epidemiologists, cousins of statisticians. They’re careful and thoughtful and combine medical insight with statistical modelling to make predictions upon which policy-makers — such as the Prime Mininster — have to rely.

No epidemiological model is trivial and not one is obviously “right”. Uncertainty persists (the statistician’s maxim), and good modellers — of the sort I’m sure are advising Sir Patrick and Dr Witty — will make politicians aware of that. Those politicians then have to work out how to share that complex, dynamic message with us.

How much of that simple fact has been made apparent to you in the columns you’ve read this last week? How many epidemiologists have been given space to write columns, or front pieces on the BBC, or Sky?

In contrast: how many un-science columnists have written anything useful about anything? To what extent has their evident immunological ignorance modulated the authoritative tone in which they tell you what to think? “Who’s up? Who’s down? We decide!” At the best of times I find this reduction of politics to soap operatic cod-psychology irritating. At the dawn of this virological hinge-event, it should be unacceptable.

For shame on the media class of this country, incapable of raising its game, unwilling to change its politics-as-sport behaviour, more interested in rehashing its Boris-hatred than educating its readers about epidemiology and immunology: for shame. It’s true we get the government we deserve. But surely we don’t deserve this wretched media class, the blue-tick conspiracists who prefer paranoia to fact, factionalism to evidence, hot-takes to science. Coronavirus is a terrible threat to our health, but it’s the daily output of the British media that sickens me right now.