Opinion: UK's leaders want a disengaged public

6:39 am on 31 May 2020

By Sophie Bateman*

Analysis: Unprecedented times call for an unprecedented level of communication with politicians, so we may look upon the faces of those who govern us and contemplate shoving them into a locker.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson (R) and Number 10 special advisor Dominic Cummings leave from 10 Downing Street in central London on October 28, 2019.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, right, is accompanied by adviser Dominic Cummings. Photo: AFP

The United Kingdom has had more than 271,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 so far, with more than 38,000 deaths. Estimates by the Office for National Statistics suggest there are currently 8000 cases per day in England alone.

And now, as a bit of a pandemic treat, the UK government is screening a 45-minute absurdist comedy sketch every weekday at 5pm, which they have confidently been calling "press conferences".

All of the past week's briefings began with an announcement that the UK had done such a good job of beating coronavirus, and we were now in a position to begin moving from level 4 to level 3 of the nebulous risk management system hurriedly rushed into policy about two weeks ago.

Each daily presenter - none of whom was the prime minister, who you might expect to be present at these things - delivered the identical statement with the exact same intonations of surprise to trick the viewer into thinking something new was being said.

It was a jarring reminder that every single one of these briefings is the same, from the sombre death toll count ("as of today, 37,159 people have... sadly... died, next slide please") to pointing at charts to eventually taking questions.

After a couple of hand-picked softballs from the public, the journalists appear one by one, peering into webcams with the nervous expression of someone who knows that too probing a question may result in unforeseen technical difficulties and swift removal from the call.

The chosen minister, typically a white guy called Matt or Tom or Simon, is flanked by one or two "scientific advisers" - no craggy-jawed Dr Bloomfields sadly, only mild-mannered lab coat types. That's excluding Dame Angela McLean, who is abrasive and cold like a piano teacher who knows you haven't been practising your scales.

A handout image released by 10 Downing Street, shows Britain's Health Secretary Matt Hancock attending a remote press conference to update the nation on the COVID-19 pandemic, inside 10 Downing Street in central London on April 21, 2020.

UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock takes his turn at the daily briefing. Photo: AFP

"We've been very clear," she hoots peevishly at any attempts at clarification.

Everyone insists the government has been very clear - so clear that every day reveals more loopholes and exceptions to the rule. In a startling new twist, leaving your home while sick with Covid-19 and driving 420km to your elderly parents' house is acting "responsibly and legally", if you happen to be Boris Johnson's chief of staff.

The briefings have allowed the ministers to perfect the art of parroting reporters' questions back at them, nodding magnanimously to suggest they have provided an illuminating response.

"Two very good questions!" Matt Hancock roars at a reporter from the Financial Times, going on to answer neither.

Priti Patel, whose shivers of rage are so intense she appears to be vibrating, answers a question about NHS care workers getting visa extensions by saying "the immigration system is complicated".

A handout image released by 10 Downing Street, shows Britain's Home Secretary Priti Patel speaking during a remote press conference to update the nation on the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, inside 10 Downing Street in central London on May 22, 2020.

UK Home Secretary Priti Patel sometimes shivers with rage, Sophie Bateman writes. Photo: AFP / 10 Downing St/ Andrew Parsons

Etonian accent essential

The non-answers wouldn't be half as effective without those Etonian accents, the crisp consonants falling evenly one after the other to lull the listener into an impression of portentous wisdom that is entirely absent from the government's attempts at action.

Last Wednesday, a ham-faced man named Tim or George or Michael announced "Pick for Britain", a Blitz-style call to action for citizens to go and work in orchards for the summer harvest due to the current lack of immigrants taking our jobs.

The website for the patriotic fruit picking endeavour promptly crashed, although whether it was too many teary-eyed Brits smashing the "apply" button with one hand while saluting with the other or basic technological incompetence remains unclear.

One of the benefits of a country as small as New Zealand is the unavoidable intimacy of government. There can be no faceless authoritarian state when citizens regularly run into MPs at the supermarket, so some level of openness is required.

Things are different here. The featureless ministers, the droning answers that say nothing, the avoidance of anything resembling liveliness or humour or a shared acknowledgement of humanity - all of it is intentional to keep the public at arm's length.

That's not just because the Tories hate their own constituents, but because a disengaged population who thinks politics is boring and inaccessible poses no threat to power.

They want people to leave these briefings befuddled and bored, deciding they'll use their own common sense rather than listen to what a bunch of Westminster elites have to say.

Then when a deadly virus kills a vast swathe of the population because public health advice wasn't followed, they can say it was our fault.

* Sophie Bateman is a New Zealand-born journalist currently living in the UK.

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