Fright Night

17 May 2021

by Laura Dodsworth

“The coronavirus is the biggest threat this country has faced for decades. All over the world we are seeing the devastating impact of this invisible killer … From this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction – you must stay at home.”
From Boris Johnson’s speech to the nation, March 23rd 2020

I froze. Appalled by the words. Fight and flight are the better known responses to fear. If you believe you can defeat the source of threat you go into fight mode. If you see the danger as too powerful to overcome, you try to run away: the flight response. If you can’t defeat the danger or bolt from it, you freeze. Appropriately, considering my foreseeable future would involve not leaving the house, going out to work, or to see my family, friends or partner, I froze on the sofa.

But as I watched Boris Johnson’s speech to the nation, as he told us we ‘must’ stay at home, I also started observing his body language. Why was he clenching his fists so hard? Why the staccato speech? Something seemed ‘off’ and that triggered alarm bells. Later on I considered my own response. Until that point I had not been unreasonably frightened of the virus, so why was this speech frightening me now?

Like many others, I had done my best to qualify as an armchair virologist by mid-March 2020, and inhaled articles and YouTube videos about viruses, Wuhan and the Diamond Princess. So I understood that while this was a lethal and nasty virus, and much was still unknown, it would inevitably behave as all other respiratory viruses before it. Why would it not?

One reason that Boris Johnson’s speech alarmed me was because I was worried that the response was disproportionate. Never before had we quarantined the healthy. We were mimicking totalitarian China’s response to the virus. How I had pitied the poor Chinese welded into their homes! My mind fast-forwarded to the worst possible economic and social consequences. Should the precautionary principle in this case mean we should lock down – an un-evidenced method of trying to control a virus – or was it more prudent to follow well-rehearsed pandemic protocols, which had never recommended lockdowns? (At this point you may say, ah, but we had prepared for influenza, not coronavirus! In which case please let me assure you that coronavirus was on the National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies.)

I have to acknowledge my own fear – I am in no way immune. Indeed, I doubt I would have wanted to write this book had I not felt the prickles of fear myself. From the first night we were told to lock down I realised I was more frightened of authoritarianism than death, and more repulsed by manipulation than illness. Like the rest of the nation I stayed put for three weeks. Then three weeks more. And, well, we’re still here one way or another.

What was it that felt ‘off’ about Boris Johnson’s speech? Johnson is a performer, but he normally performs the ‘likeable buffoon’. You would expect such an important speech to be rehearsed, but it felt too contrived and different to his normal presentation. He was controlled, stern, and at a basic level that was hard to pinpoint, it didn’t feel genuine.

I asked two experts to help me decode Johnson’s body language and style of speech.

Naomi Murphy is a clinical and forensic psychologist who has spent many years working in high-security prisons, often with people who don’t always tell the truth. She echoed my reaction: “His words and some of his body language convey one message, but you sense another message, and that rings alarm bells. He doesn’t seem authentic.” She pointed out that there were times when he was giving a message with his head and hands, bobbing his head forwards and gesticulating, but his body was held back, suggesting that personally he did not believe in the essence of his words.

An appearance of inauthenticity could have been simply down to nerves. It would be natural to feel nervous before such a momentous speech to the nation, and that affects behaviour and body language. As Murphy said, “you can hear his mouth is dry, which is incredible for someone who is used to the limelight. This is a man who likes being liked, and he might be worried that the public will not like him anymore.”

Neil Shah, founder of the Stress Management Society and International Wellbeing Insights, has delivered leadership training which includes how to read non-verbal communication. We watched the YouTube video of the speech remotely over a video call, so that he could analyse it blow by blow.

“Twenty-six seconds in and you can see the tension in his fingers,” Shah commented. “He is clenching so hard his knuckles turn white.” He pointed out Johnson was hunched and leaning forwards like he was holding on for dear life. I asked what it means when someone clenches their fists so hard. He told me it can be for emphasis, or as an aggressive gesture, but “it also looks like a tantrumming toddler. The way he is jabbing his fists at us shows tension.”

Johnson also gives the most awkward and uncomfortable smile when he talks about compliance. Shah added that “it’s almost threatening. We smile when things are funny, but also when we are nervous. When he said that no prime minister wants to do this, a grave look would have suited the moment better than a ghoulish grin.”

Like Murphy, Shah thought the Prime Minister didn’t believe everything he was saying: “There doesn’t seem to be congruence between his words and his body language. It suggests he is not speaking from the heart and doesn’t believe what he is saying.”

Both believed his body language was more consistent with his words when he was discussing the impact on the NHS, but was incongruent when he was being more authoritarian in his message. The eyes never lie, so they say, even when the mouth does, and these conversations with Murphy and Shah proved to me that body language doesn’t either. The Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland would probably have been professionally coached to give the speech of his life, but the body betrays emotion and conflict regardless.

Unprompted, both experts offered astonishing analogies. Murphy likened Johnson’s speech to “a forced hostage speech”. Shah asked if I could see the resemblance to the episode of Black Mirror (the British dystopian sci-fi TV series) where the Prime Minister must be filmed for live TV having sex with a pig. I could see what they both meant.

Hindsight provides another level of analysis. We know the thrust of the message was not true. We did not lock down for three weeks. The reason we locked down was ostensibly to flatten the curve, but the mission creeped and we stayed in lockdown. We also now know that the curve might have flattened anyway, regardless of lockdown, since deaths peaked on April 8th, meaning infections peaked before lockdown.

When Johnson told us we would shut down the country for three weeks, the authenticity of his body language shut down too, his language and posture forced and aggressive. Johnson’s words were designed to call fear and death to mind: “invisible killer”, “lives will be lost”, “funerals”, and so on. He told us we were “enlisted” – very specific wartime language, evoking the Blitz spirit, but also emotionally manipulative.

At this point, Shah pointed out that we weren’t given a choice, so we were conscripted rather than enlisted. Actually, there was no room for conscientious objectors, so I’d go with press-ganged.

My experts and I found this video difficult to re-watch. With time the performance grates more and the words have acquired a bitter taste. Ultimately, whether you believe Johnson gave the most heartfelt and honest speech of his life, or was coached too hard and over-egged it, or was misleading us, it was a frightening speech. His words set the tone for the three weeks to follow and hovered in the air for many months. As Murphy said to me, “You can’t underestimate the amount of imprinting this speech would have created.” Johnson released a certain amount of fear that night, like an airborne virus, and you caught it one way or the other. Maybe you believed every word and it was an apocalyptic pandemic that would bring society to its knees. Maybe you were suspicious of the motives behind the inauthenticity, and perhaps there was an agenda that you feared would bring society to its knees. But it was frightening.

We were told we must follow the rules to “save many thousands of lives”. Threats littered the latter part of Johnson’s speech. The police would have powers to enforce the rules; we must follow the rules. The threat of power and penalty is designed to frighten us into compliance. But in a dishonest departure from the rule of law, the ‘rules’ he was ordering us to obey would not be made law for a further three days.

We didn’t know this. The nation took the Prime Minister seriously from that night. Deadly seriously, just as we were supposed to. When we’re in panic mode, our body directs less blood to our blood-hungry brain and more to our limbs so that we are able to fight or take flight as needed. As a result, when we’re threatened the brain needs shortcuts; we are even more primed to listen and obey in order to survive.

In fact, the priming had started weeks earlier.

This is an extract from A State of Fear: how the UK government weaponised fear during the COVID-19 pandemic, a new book by Laura Dodsworth that is published today.