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Journalism News

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Covid conspiracy theories – what’s a journalist to do?

Reporters have generally been careful to stress that there’s no scientific basis for people’s worst fears – but that hasn’t stopped some angry abuse for the journalists

By Paul Breeden, chair, Bristol NUJ

HOW should journalists cover conspiracy theories? That’s never been so much of a  burning question as it is now. The Covid-19 crisis has brought not just the usual suspects out of the woodwork – the 9/11 deniers, the world government theorists and the lizard-ruler fantasists – but those who are genuinely worried that the new virus is something other than a natural event.

5G: Real, but probably misguided, health fears have become conflated with scientific nonsense linking the technology with the Covid pandemic Image: Ria Sopala from Pixabay

It’s not surprising when something as devastating as the coronavirus occurs, causing death and economic meltdown the world over, that some people don’t accept at face value the explanations they’re being given. The truth is often nuanced, and conspiracy theories give a simple answer.

What’s a journalist to do? My abiding belief has been that it’s our job to explain all the arguments to people so that they can make up their own minds. What, though, when the evidence is overwhelmingly on one side – as with climate change? It seems wrong to present a ‘balanced’ debate for and against human-induced global warming when 97% of the best qualified experts assert that, yup, it’s happening, and we’re to blame.(1) 

The same would seem to apply to the current crop of campaigners who assert that  Covid 19 is somehow connected the rollout of 5G telecoms networks.

The difficulty for journalists is that when we attempt to deal responsibly with conspiracy theories – those for which, when we examine the facts, we find no evidence – we can be accused of “covering up” by not delving into every nook and cranny of the arguments. Often people will dismiss the barmier theories, but continue to think ‘there’s no smoke without fire’ or ‘there might be something in it, and the full facts are being hidden from us’.

The Covid conspiracy theories vary. Some state that 5G transmissions magnify the effects of the virus (untrue, say all qualified scientists – there is some limited and irrelevant electro-magnetic activity related to bacteria, but not viruses). Others claim that the 5G transmissions actually cause the infection (which is just bunkum – there is no plausible mechanism by which this could happen, and if it did, Covid infections would cluster around 5G installations; yet Iran, where there is no 5G, has an awful lot of Covid deaths).(2)

There is a more understandable worry about possible health risks from 5G. Some people who are genuinely fearful about 5G assume there might just be something in the Covid claims too, and so the two groups of 5G opponents overlap.

That’s when I think we should talk a step back and look at what the majority of the best-informed and broadest-based scientific groups with the relevant expertise are saying. You have to weigh the relative opinions of, say an “activist and philosophy lecturer at the Isle of Wight College”, quoted by the Daily Star as a reputable source on Covid, and, say, the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection, Ofcom, the WHO and Public Health England, all of which were used to  inform a comprehensive rebuttal of the Star article by Full Fact.(3)

I remember a similar and equally passionate campaign against Tetra, the low-frequency comms system developed for the police and emergency services in the early 2000s.

Some of the opponents were clearly one fruit loop short of a breakfast; others well-intentioned; some wore tinfoil hats to protests. But never mind them, read these comments from a Guardian article in 2001:(4)

‘Roger Coghill, an independent research scientist and a member of the Department of Health’s UK mobile telecommunications health research programme, said: “A criminal could not have come up with a better system. They couldn’t have chosen a better frequency with which to disarm and debilitate the very forces that are trying to secure their arrest.’

‘Alasdair Philips, an expert on the biological effects of electromagnetic radiation and director of the campaign group Powerwatch, said Tetra had the potential to become the “next asbestos”.’

These claims were listened to. Police officers who were diagnosed with cancer after using Tetra feared the radios might be the cause. Communities campaigned against the technology, and several succeeded in having Tetra masts cancelled or removed. (5)

So what has happened with Tetra since 2001? It’s been in use by all UK blue-light services since 2004 or so. To answer the legitimate health fears, the Government authorised the Airwave Health Monitoring Study, the largest study of its type in the world. It’s still going, assessing the overall health (not just radio magnetic effects) of more than 45,000 UK police officers – an enormous sample for a scientific study.

The conclusion: there is no evidence of Tetra radio use being associated with cancer risk or other ill-health (though the follow-up continues).(6) Sometimes people get cancer; it may coincide with a change in their life, such as using a new kind of radio. But proving that one caused the other takes a controlled, scientific study, and there are fewer bigger or more comprehensive than the Airwave Health Monitoring Study.

Why am I banging on about this? Because it’s easy as journalists to feel a responsibility to people who are genuinely concerned, and seem to have found some “worrying evidence” that they want explored. The problem is that if you enter a discussion with a conviction that there is a smoking gun to be found, then you will find it. It’s called cherry-picking the evidence: you only look for what you want to find and, consciously or unconsciously, you ignore everything else.

You may even find apparently well-qualified, relevant experts like the ones the Guardian quoted in 2001. The Guardian was right to report them then; but despite their colourful claims, they have turned out to be wrong.

There is still controversy about mobile phone use and cancer risk, it is true; but most of the relevant experts do not think there is a real danger.(7)(10)

I’ve been interested to read various articles, in regional and national press, about the supposed link between Covid and 5G. Most, apart from the Daily Star piece, have given the scientifically illiterate theories short shift – see for example, ‘The contagion of misinformation and a Bristol Facebook page linking 5G and coronavirus’ by Alon Aviram in the Bristol Cable on April 6, 2020(8). 

Or ‘The Bristol man who calls 5G mast vandals “heroes” and peddles dangerous fake news from city parks,’ by Conor Gogarty on Bristol Live, April 15, 2020(9).

Both articles firmly take the view that there’s no basis to any links between 5G and Covid 19. But there’s a marked difference when you look at the comments made by readers online.

The BristolLive readers are mainly critical of the 5G conspiracy theorist Robin Campbell featured in the story, who appears to advocate people damaging telecoms masts, and claims the Covid-19 pandemic is “all hype”. One reader calls Campbell a ‘terrorist’ and others criticise BristolLive for giving him a platform.

At the Bristol Cable, though, author and Cable co-founder Alon Aviram received a torrent of abuse for his refusal to give credence to the 5G claims. He told Bristol NUJ: “I had had legal threats [about stories in the Cable] over the years but I’ve never had to deal with personal attacks and threats – people wishing all sorts of things on me and my colleagues.” 

He faced accusations that he was in the pay of the telecoms industry and veiled threats to him and his family. “It does shake you up, it’s not nice,” he said. There are 27 comments online to the Cable story – most of them negative.

Perhaps the difference between the reactions of the two sets of readers is because BristolLive is a traditional, ‘mainstream’ local news outlet, while Cable readers are more likely to be activists, younger, and less trustful of authority.

Alon draws a different conclusion, though, pointing out that the loud voices of the online protesters do not represent the majority of Cable readers.

‘Although there were was a very vocal community of people lambasting us for our coverage, our loyal readers and members supported the coverage and we experienced no cancellations as a result,’ Alon said.

Tellingly, many Cable readers seemed not to believe there was any real link between 5G and Covid. Instead, they were offended that the Cable had ignored what they thought were real worries about other health risks from 5G transmissions. They accused the Cable of a lack of independence and ‘ignorance’ of the many health concerns which have been raised about the technology.

In fact, there have previously been several articles in the Bristol media airing worries over the 5G rollout – in BristolLive, Bristol 247, and, indeed, in the Bristol Cable. It can be hard for journalists to ignore a well-established campaign which can quote many eminent and apparently expert commentators on a new health risk.

But what’s the right thing for a journalist to do? I think it’s to look for the best evidence from the most qualified sources. Question even that, for sure, if there is good reason to do so. But when an enormous scientific study is set up to investigate these worries, as happened in the case of Tetra, we have to pay serious attention to the outcome.

We have a responsibility here – especially at times of global crisis. We have to call the facts as we see them – airing arguments, yes, but refusing to be dragged into scientific illiteracy or giving unquestioned support to well-intentioned but probably baseless theories. The consequences could be serious – in this case there has already been serious damage to telecoms masts, imperilling people who might need to use their mobile phone. Perhaps worse, sowing doubt unnecessarily could lead to a lack of trust in the things most likely to rescue us from the pandemic – civil order and a hi-tech pharmaceutical industry.

I haven’t mentioned the V-word – vaccines. It’s interesting that throughout the Covid crisis the fringe of the alternative health movement, which holds that pharmaceuticals are harmful and vaccination positively dangerous, has had very little traction. Almost the whole world is waiting in high anxiety for Big Pharma to come up with a vaccine for Covid 19. Which would you trust – a shot in the arm from Glaxo Wellcome, or a homeopathic pill from your friendly community naturopath? When push comes to shove, we know which answer most people will give.

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ForgottenFreelances: NUJ letter to Chancellor

21 April 2020
The National Union of Journalists has launched a #ForgottenFreelances campaign for a fair deal for the many freelances who have fallen between the cracks of the government’s rescue schemes for workers during the Covid-19 pandemic. It has sent a letter to the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, outlining how many members are unable to get access to financial help while their work has completely dried up and they face real hardship. Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said: 

“The NUJ is calling on the Chancellor to take urgent action over the many gaps in provision that have left freelances feeling cast aside and forgotten, plunging many into financial crisis.

“Practical support and help now is vital if freelance journalists are to sustain themselves and their families and be in a position to work once the economic shockwaves of lockdown subside and the recovery begins.

“The fault-lines in the industry have left many in precarious positions. Freelances carve out their careers working shifts and on short-term contracts. Now they are being penalised for the way in which the industry employs them. Media companies are refusing to furlough PAYE workers, which is absolutely contrary to the spirit of the Job Retention Scheme. Freelances must be given real support and the same safety net as other workers.”   

On 26 March, the UK government announced the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS) to support self-employed individuals (including members of partnerships) whose income has been negatively impacted by coronavirus.The NUJ welcomed it, but it soon became clear that many people were excluded. 

One problem has been news organisations which pay many journalists and photographers PAYE although they are not on the staff. Many of these companies have refused to put these people on a furlough with the work colleagues they sit next to, day in, day out.  The union’s freelance office has been inundated with pleas for help from other members who have fallen foul of criteria laid down in the SEISS. The present crisis has laid bare the precarious nature of the UK media workforce. To make a living, many freelance journalists, photographers, illustrators, editors and PR workers have to juggle a portfolio of jobs, each paid and taxed in different ways.  

The letter to the Chancellor sets out a whole raft of circumstances which have left members high and dry, without government assistance.  If you are a freelance with problems, download this letter to help you make your case to your MP Support freelance colleagues by sending this letter to your MP which urges the UK government to revamp its scheme to provide more support for freelances, PAYE individuals and the self-employed.  It says: “Longer-term support is also needed beyond June since most will see a longer-term impact from cancelled work and postponed events that will extend well beyond the summer. When furloughed/employed individuals start going back to work many freelances will still be facing significant continuing loss of income.”


 You can find your MP’s email address on the WritetoThem website. Support the NUJ’s #ForgottenFreelance campaign by tweeting using the hastag or using the #ForgottenFreelances logos.  #ForgottenFreelances: FEU provides seven solutions to protect creative freelances 

Freelance campaign
freelance campaign
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Lyra McKee ( 31 March 1990 – 18 April 2019)

AGENDA WEST Journalism News: Lyra McKee and the 25 journalists killed or murdered in 2019

This April is the first anniversary of the murder of the journalist Lyra McKee in Northern Ireland during a riot. She was shot dead by the Real IRA who later offered an apology and an explanation which her family rejected.

It was a shocking incident which revealed even in the UK journalists face hostility, danger and even death in the course of their work. Around the world in 2019 25 journalists were murdered or killed in cross-fire or bombings with hundreds more imprisoned, detained or assaulted. Syria, Mexico and Iraq appear to be some of the most dangerous places but from Ukraine to Chad and from Honduras to Haiti nowhere is safe where there are wars, civil conflict or out of control criminality.

Lyra’s murderer has never been brought to justice although three different people were arrested and later released without charge by police. In recent years on the island of Ireland journalist Veronica Guerin was shot dead by criminals in 1996 who she was investigating over the Irish illegal drugs business and Martin O’Hagan was killed by the Loyalist Volunteer Force in 2001.

The list of those journalists who were killed in 2019 was compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists. The list is here:
https://cpj.org/data/killed/2019/?status=Killed&motiveConfirmed%5B%5D=Confirmed&type%5B%5D=Journalist&start_year=2019&end_year=2019&group_by=location

For more details for the work of the journalist Harry Mottram visit www.harrymottram.co.uk

Follow Harry on FaceBook, Twitter @harrythespic, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube.

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