Features Australia

Fear porn panic

The press and the politicians deserve each other

23 May 2020

9:00 AM

23 May 2020

9:00 AM

I think there is enough evidence in now to conclude that we have just lived through the worst public policy fiasco in upwards of a century (unless you are reading this in Sweden or Taiwan).  Not all, but the vast preponderance of the press (including lots of commentators on Sky) and likewise the politicians got swept up in the fear porn panic. Almost none of them questioned the wisdom of a lockdown, though there is everyday more and more evidence that lockdowns don’t do much of anything and may well be counter-productive. A small number of people, including me, months ago pointed out that any sane public policy-making has to balance likely future deaths and devastation, caused by the measures you are proposing to take, against likely present deaths and devastation, were you not to take those measures. When we pointed out that basic cost-benefit reality the response was overwhelmingly ad hominem – ‘you want to sacrifice the old’, ‘you are a heartless bastard who puts the economy above human life’, ‘you demean human dignity and justice by questioning our absolutist commitment to a souped-up, steroids-enhanced precautionary principle’, et cetera, et cetera.

Now those are the reasons why I was against the lockdowns, but I’m not sure it’s why the dissenting epidemiologists who rejected the Imperial College modelling were; or why Sweden was against them; or Taiwan; or a good many numerate people who looked at the numbers themselves – because this is not a credentialling game where no one can be correct or contribute who hasn’t got a job at Imperial College, London as an epidemiologist; or why we almost never heard rebuttals of the arguments found daily on Toby Young’s magnificent website lockdownsceptics.org.

Leaving myself aside, there are well-meant, humane, kind people who from the start have favoured the Swedish approach, common sense, isolating the old and vulnerable but assuredly not imposing any economy-killing lockdown.  Take Lionel Shriver the novelist, who can’t see why we should be sacrificing the prospects and, yes when the economic carnage comes then for some also the lives, of the young later for those of the old and already sick now. When you find yourself in a bad situation where no good outcome is available is the Shriver view immoral or wicked? I don’t think so.


But this Morrison government and almost the entirety of the press corp has implicitly taken that view. The government made the right call about the travel bans and quarantine but after that it has, in my view, made a bad situation worse. In the long term a lot worse. First it shut down most of the private sector – without any costs imposed on the public sector and indeed without politicians themselves showing solidarity by taking a pay cut (which is plain out disgraceful). Then in response to the carnage caused by its own actions, it panicked and opted for pretty much the world’s most generous per capita government spending to prop up the now ruined economy. Look, here’s Allan’s Rule that no right-of-centre political party anywhere in the world should ever break: In per capita terms never, ever, ever outspend Justin Trudeau’s government in Canada. Messrs Frydenberg and Morrison did so without a moment’s thought about how they would escape from this later on.

Let me say that again. The geniuses in the Coalition who opted to be near on the world’s most generous with your tax dollars did so, seemingly, without any clear and definite strategy for what they would do to unwind things later and repair the economy they were ruining. Also, along the way the goals mysteriously transmogrified from ‘flattening the curve’ to either ‘eradicate the virus’ (which is a pie-in-the-sky goal) or ‘waiting for a vaccine’ (which may never come and anyway may not be any more efficacious than the flu jab).

And then, when they knew they had to open up, they couldn’t figure out how to do that without admitting the errors of their ways. In what has clearly been a political salvage operation, they must have consulted with some lover of the metric system and arbitrarily plucked ‘10’ and ‘20’ out of thin air. Why a limit of ten sit-down customers as stage one? There is no non-arbitrary basis for plucking that number out of the ether even in the apocalyptic musings of the Imperial College modeller, and man-about-town bonking- machine, Neil Ferguson – a man whose epidemiological models have every time in the past overstated actual outcomes by orders of orders of magnitudes. And yet Boris and ScoMo took this guy seriously. Or at least their medical experts did, with the politicians genuflecting unthinkingly before them like the left-leaning press does towards Beijing.

And speaking of the press, boy do they have a lot to answer for. Virtually no scepticism of the lockdown. Daily doses of virtue-signalling and fear porn. Barely a word about the loss of individual freedoms. Oh, and dollops and dollops of innumeracy. It would not kill a newspaper or TV report to place the corona deaths in context, you know, noting as well how many die of, say, the flu or from car accidents.

Instead, we have seen the tech giants indulging in the worst form of censorship, actually removing articles and pieces by sceptics of the lockdown presumably because the sceptical case was, you know, convincing. And you can’t have that when you’re hand in glove with big government. (As an aside, I think we are nearing the stage where the Americans will need to treat big tech as effective monopolies and break them up or turn them into quasi-utilities under the government so that First Amendment jurisprudence will apply, a sort of opting for inefficiency to preserve a modicum of free speech. Not great. But better than leaving what I can read to Mr Zuckerberg et al.)

Last point. At least here in Oz we haven’t seen the blatantly politicised media response to the corona virus we’ve seen in the US. Look, Trump has actually done a pretty good job in his reaction to corona, miles better than in Europe and with a press that treats him less favourably than the Ayatollah in Iran or Kim Jung-un. The politicisation of the press there is such that they’ve effectively gone back to the Jacksonian 1830s, and each side of politics buys its own news. And wholly discounts the other side’s. Despite the best attempts of ‘our’ ABC we aren’t there yet in Australia.

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