John Humphrys - Covid : Are We Being Manipulated Like Children?

November 27, 2020, 7:46 PM UTC

The Prime Minister announced this week new measures the government plans to put in place when the country’s second lockdown ends on 2 December. It’ll be a return to the hastily-abandoned tiered structure of restrictions, varying between regions, but toughened up. Things will then be relaxed a bit over Christmas before being tightened once again from the end of December. But the government has been accused of trying to ‘manipulate’ public opinion by trying to ‘instill a certain emotional reaction in people’ rather than just giving us the facts and justifications straight. In short, the charge is that we’re being treated like children. Is the government guilty of infantilising us and, if so, does it matter?

Boris Johnson has always had a reputation for using colourful language. This is not surprising since his old day job used to be as a journalist. Or perhaps that might better be described as being an arresting wordsmith. A journalist is usually expected to be in the business of reporting the truth but the reputation Mr Johnson built for himself through his newspaper columns depended more on their colourful bravura than on their truthfulness, which was often just as well. For a politician to be a talented wordsmith is usually an asset. It certainly was for his hero, Winston Churchill. President Kennedy once remarked that Churchill had ‘mobilised the English language and sent it into battle’. We can all think of recent political leaders whose use of language was so grey and dull that nothing they ever said has stuck in the memory.

The Prime Minister has been deploying this talent since the beginning of the pandemic. Right at the start, when presenting a graph showing the likely steep rise and eventual fall in the number of cases of infection and of death forecast if nothing were done to stop it, he quipped that his task was to ‘flatten the sombrero’. He said too back in March that he was absolutely confident he could ‘send the coronavirus packing’ (and within twelve weeks at that). And in May he said he’d have a ‘world-beating’ track-and-trace system up and running by June. (He didn’t, and still hasn’t.)

His defenders would say this sort of ‘booster’ talk, so characteristic of his personality, is necessary and valuable in a crisis because it’s vital for boosting morale (though it might be pointed out that Churchil took a rather different view, telling the British people in 1940 that all he could offer them were ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’). His critics, however, protest that what Mr Johnson’s language and his promises show is that he is taking us for fools, or treating us like children who have to be jollied along, when what he should be doing is treating us like responsible adults and simply giving it to us straight.

He could be said to have been at it again on Monday when he presented MPs with his ‘Covid-19 Winter Plan’. During the course of his statement, delivered from his enforced isolation in Downing Street, he said: ‘This virus is obviously not going to grant us a Christmas truce. It doesn’t know it’s Christmas, Mr Speaker.’

To some this will seem no more than a typical Johnsonian turn of phrase. It’s certainly not one you could imagine coming from the mouth of Theresa May or Gordon Brown. But to others it will seem at the very least patronising: we as adults are very well aware that a virus ‘doesn’t know it’s Christmas’ and will rather think it’s the sort of thing a teacher might say to a class of six-year-olds when she’s trying to make them understand that this Christmas isn’t going to be like last Christmas. She might even go on to say, as the Prime Minister did, that “ ‘tis the season to be jolly careful”.

Some people will protest that drawing attention to what is, after all, just a bit of light relief in an otherwise typically stodgy prime ministerial statement (no doubt drafted by a civil servant) is to make a mountain out of a molehill. Except that this small item of evidence of the infantilising use of language seems to fit into a much wider charge, that the government is more generally not treating us like responsible adults in its handling of the pandemic but is instead manipulating us as though we were children.

That seems to be the view of Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, the chairman of the Winston Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication at the University of Cambridge, at least with regard to the way the government has been deploying facts and statistics during the pandemic. Speaking to the Public Administration Committee of the House of Commons on Tuesday, Professor Spiegelhalter said the government was developing a track record of using ‘spurious’ data to frighten the public into acquiescing in the restrictive policies it was imposing. His point was not to challenge the policies themselves, and still less to pooh-pooh the seriousness of the threat posed by the virus. Rather, he questioned the government’s use of statistics to justify them. He said: ‘I don’t want to ascribe motivation to anyone, of course. But if someone was really trying to manipulate the audience and frighten them and persuade them that what was being done was correct, rather than genuinely inform them, then this is the kind of thing they might do.’

He cited the bandying around at the beginning of the pandemic of the possibility of 500,000 deaths if no action were taken. And he referred to the citing, at the time of the imposition of the second lockdown, of ‘worst-case scenarios’ of numbers of infection doubling every week and of reaching 49,000 by the end of October (the actual number turned out to be 14,000). He went on: ‘What I’m objecting to strongly is the fact that such spurious data and graphs were being presented to the public as a justification for the decisions that were being made. There is good data available and yet at some point the need to persuade people, to instill a certain emotional reaction in people seems to take over at really quite a high level of decision-making.’

What he clearly meant by ‘a certain emotional reaction’ was fear.

If he’s right it is perhaps ironic that the people he is accusing of selectively using statistics to generate fear for their own political purposes are the very people who accused their opponents of operating ‘Project Fear’ during the EU referendum campaign. (We are about to discover whether or not those fears were justified.)

The point about fear is that it’s what parents deploy in trying to get children to do something they might not want to do, and on the perfectly justifiable grounds that children may not yet know enough to realise for themselves what the prudent thing to do might be. No one is denying there is plenty concerning Covid about which we should most certainly feel alarmed. The issue is whether we need to be frightened by dodgy statistics in order responsibly to react to the threat.

According to Professor Spiegelhalter, we don’t. Earlier in the pandemic he said: ‘The public out there who are broadly very supportive of the measures, they’re hungry for details, for facts, for genuine information and yet they get fed what I call this ‘number theatre’ which seems to be coordinated really very much more by the No 10 communications team rather than genuinely trying to inform people about what’s going on.’

If what he alleges is true, then it is tantamount to the government treating us all like children. But if so, does it matter? Those who think it does would argue that if we are treated like children, eventually we become like them. That’s to say, we become inured to depending on others to take decisions for us, just as parents do for children. We cease to see ourselves as responsible adults, who make our own decisions and must live with the consequences, and instead become dependent and then blame others for whatever may happen to us. Both fecklessness and victimhood are the result. This is bad not only for us as individuals but it’s bad for society as a whole. It leaves power wholly with those who take the decisions but they may end up taking the wrong ones. Indeed they most certainly will if they are unchallenged and, in a democracy, they will be challenged only if there is an electorate of informed, responsible adults who know enough to draw conclusions for themselves and make their own decisions to turf one lot out and install others who might do better.

The point here is not that governments shouldn’t take decisions on our behalf. Of course they should – it’s their job. But, the argument goes, they shouldn’t do so as parents telling us that the reason they have to is that ‘ the virus doesn’t know it’s Christmas’. Rather, it has to take them because some things (public health being a prime example) simply can’t be left to the lottery of what might ensue if everyone were allowed just to do their own thing according to their own lights. When the good of all of us is at stake, governments have to step in and act. But in doing so they should treat us as responsible citizens who can handle the facts and deserve to be given them unvarnished so that we can make up our own minds whether the government’s decisions are the right ones or not.

To some, all this will seem like idealistic wishful-thinking. We’re already children, they’ll say – just take a look at city centre pubs on the eve of lockdown. So we need to be treated like children. And that means putting the frighteners on. If a little selective use of statistics serves as an aid in doing so, then so be it. And that’s all the government is doing by leaning heavily on ‘worst case scenarios’ and reminding us that the virus isn’t going to call a truce at Christmas. It’s all for our good.

What’s your view? Do you think the government is guilty of treating us like children, talking down to us and manipulating statistics to put us in a state of fear, or not? And if it is, is it right or wrong to do so?

Let us know what you think.