The most sobering images coming out of China are stills of doctors, who are working on shifts of up to 12 hours at a time. Even off-duty, their faces are indented with the marks of surgical masks and protective gear. And the ophthalmologist who first warned of the impending public health crisis has died. It is the age of fake news, and Li Wenliang of the Wuhan General Hospital was reprimanded by the police for spreading “false comments on the internet”. At the age of 34, he must be one of the least likely victims of coronavirus, and should have survived.
Other sobering images are coming out of China and Hong Kong, which has sealed its border with the mainland. The very day the BBC showed the Chinese ambassador to London urging the UK not to scare-monger and panic, video reports coming in from the Far East totally contradicted his story. In Hong Kong, amidst supermarket shelves picked bare, people struggled to get at the last stocks of food. One high-rise had been identified as the focus of community transmission of coronavirus, indicating that the pathogen is now loose on the island and passing from citizen to citizen. A cruise ship with infected passengers has been quarantined offshore, and a passenger is seen talking on a video app to relations on the balcony of his apartment on shore. His home is within sight, but could be a world away. And footage of masked passengers playing cards in the ship’s lounge is like something out of The Hot Zone or The Andromeda Strain.
After the world had weathered a spate of haemorrhagic fevers caused by filoviruses like Ebola and Marburg, there had been some discomfort about the dramatic coverage, presented as if these were plagues from the heart of darkness. Both researchers and the media were accused of generalising from a few dramatic cases to sensationalise these new health crises, diverting public attention from the success with which they were contained. But the crisis in China is not going to draw similar charges, because almost all the coverage is about containment and management. It is a mixed story, though. While the BBC marvels at the speed with which stadiums and public buildings are being turned into gigantic hospital wards, the New York Times reports that the warehousing approach, while impressive in scale, offers minimal medical facilities. And while the BBC shows empty metro trains in Shanghai, and shops and establishments which have been closed for a week, and speaks to a citizen who wonders how long she will be able to remain indoors, the NYT goes a little further to Wuhan, reporting that a miasma of fear has seized the city.
At long last, the English have Brexit. Now, they are looking for more contrary things to do. While the world considers the idea that the model on which most of world’s media runs — advertising, sponsorships and non-commercial support — is seriously broken, and that paying for news is a much healthier practice, the culture secretary of the UK has threatened to scrap the BBC’s licence fees. Yet again, because this has been a recurring Conservative dream. But it has been rephrased this time, with culture secretary Nicky Morgan prophesying that if the BBC could not keep up in the age of Netflix, it could go the way of former video rental giant Blockbuster.
It’s not a brilliant analogy but certainly, the TV fee is delightfully quaint, like warm beer and the changing of the guard at Buck House. It is a year older than independent India and was instituted after World War II to keep the BBC solvent. Everyone receiving a TV signal, with a TV set or without, has to pay up. Some people have gone to jail for failing to pay. Oh dear, yes, it’s quaint, and vaguely reminiscent of times when people could be strung up for poaching the local lord’s deer. But in contemporary times, when familiar media models have been faltering, journalists may look upon a pay-as-you-go model quite wistfully.
Speaking of the BBC, Hard Talk had an interesting guest this week — Lauri Love. The archetypal hacker, with an Asperger’s diagnosis, an association with Anonymous in its heyday (when they were “legion”, when they were “coming”) and of deep interest to the US authorities. Not in the limelight after Christopher Wylie and Edward Snowden published their books, he was an unusual choice, especially now that he has put on a white hat and counts himself among the good guys. But really, having a hacker interviewed by a generalist like Stephen Sackur is simply not interesting. Someone like Love interviewed by a peer — now, that would open up very interesting cans of worms.
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