The media

Western Audiences Have a Right to Be Accurately Informed About this War

Yesterday, Ukrainian fighters besieged in the Azovstal steelworks surrendered to Russian forces, after a battle lasting almost three months. There’s no doubt this was a surrender: the Ukrainian fighters – who belong to the Azov regiment – were taken in buses to Russian-held territory in Eastern Ukraine (as shown above).  

However, that’s not the impression you’d get scanning Western media outlets like the BBC, CNN and the New York Times. These outlets described what happened as an “evacuation” marking an “end to the combat mission”. Here are the headlines:

• ‘Mariupol: Hundreds of besieged Ukrainian soldiers evacuated’ – The BBC

• ‘Hundreds of Ukrainian troops evacuated from Mariupol steelworks after 82-day assault’ – The Guardian

• ‘Azovstal steelworks evacuated as Ukraine ends combat mission in Mariupol’ – The Times

• ‘The battle for Mariupol nears end as Ukraine declares ‘combat mission’ over’ – CNN

• ‘Ukraine ends bloody battle for Mariupol; Azovstal fighters evacuated’ – The Washington Post

• ‘Ukrainian authorities declare an end to the combat mission in Mariupol after weeks of Russian siege’ – The New York Times

In war, an “evacuation” is when you send boats, planes or vehicles to transport your own troops away from a hostile location. Dunkirk was an evacuation. It is not when the enemy transports your troops to a location under his control after those troops have surrendered. That’s called a “surrender”.

Despite reporting where the Ukrainian fighters were taken (Russian-held territory), some of the articles above don’t even use the word ‘surrender’. One is reminded of Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf – nicknamed “Comical Ali” – who became known for his preposterous claims about U.S. losses during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Note: this has nothing to do with being ‘pro-Russia’. This is about journalists using language that actually corresponds with reality. Which prompts the question of why? Why are they going around describing things in transparently misleading terms?

Why Are the Vaccinated Much More Likely to Want America to Go to War With Russia?

According to a new poll, those most cautious about the risk of catching COVID-19 – the vaccinated – are also the most likely to support initiating war between Russia and the United States. Mary Harrington at UnHerd takes a closer look.

It wasn’t a big sample, but the results were stark. Ekos Politics polled a random sample of around 1,000 Canadians, and stratified the results by vaccination status. This revealed that whereas 56% of unvaccinated Canadians oppose the idea of NATO imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine, an even greater number of the triple-vaccinated – 59% – support doing so.

On the face of it this makes no sense. Why would the most Covid risk-averse be the most enthusiastic about a policy that would, as 79 foreign policy experts from across America’s political spectrum put it in an open letter recently, “would mean going to war with Russia”? Well, if you hold (as I do) that humans are not actually very rational, it’s possible that what is in evidence here is less a lack of understanding impeding rational choice than a further iteration in the tribal clustering of political alignments.

Vaccination has been acutely politicised in Canada, where non-compliance has been rewarded with punitive measures such as restrictions on travel and shopping and additional taxes. In turn, vaxx refusal has begun to coalesce with other forms of political dissent, culminating in the Canadian truckers’ protest, supported by many whose grievances reached well beyond vaccination mandates. In this wider context, being triple-vaccinated has wider resonances than healthcare; it’s also a crude proxy for ideological alignment.

Humans have probably always clustered by belief, to an extent. But it’s been evident since at least 2016 that social media greatly accelerates the intensity of this dynamic by unmooring it from material life. I can’t very well ‘cancel’ my local butcher if we disagree about vaccines or Ukraine, at least not if I want to buy a steak off him tomorrow. But if I do my grocery shopping online, I can demonise and expel to my heart’s content.

The obvious link between being unvaccinated and opposing war against Russia is that they are both the opposite of the narrative being pushed by much of the media – though a difference is that Western governments are themselves currently opposed to escalating the conflict with Russia. But the differences also extend to measures Western Governments do endorse, with the unvaccinated being much more sceptical of sanctions and more supportive of the invasion itself, as shown below.

Lessons From the Pandemic

We’re publishing a new piece today by Dr. Simon M. Fox, a Consultant in Infectious Diseases and Internal Medicine in an NHS Hospital. Yesterday he wrote for us on his decision not to be vaccinated despite the threat to his career. Today he sets out the lessons the country needs to learn from the debacle of the last two years. Here’s an excerpt, from the section titled “Our institutions have fallen”.

Parliament sang with one voice, Conservative, Labour and the also-rans. Precious few voices questioned the narrative. Perhaps most dangerously, the media was craven in its daily standing ovation and baying for encore or worse, demanding stricter constraints. Homage to the mythical R number and the ghoulish daily death toll became a sacrament – proof against all argument and blasphemy to question. The few lone voices of individuality and independent thought were crushed in the stampede to applaud the dear leaders. The Hall of Shame for once respected media figures that ceased any pretence at scrutiny is now a long one. Most disgracefully some journalists even called for punishment and persecution of those who questioned or refused to comply. You will forever be held in contempt by those who recognise your dereliction of duty. On the whole, the legacy media institutions were an abject failure.

Police forces adopted their new role as arm of the authoritarian government with far too much relish. Harassment of non-threatening and easily subdued members of the public attempting to go about their daily lives was money for old rope. At the same time, they were all too eager to sink to one knee when faced with a baying mob and criminal damage. All the politically correct training designed by activists came to fruition and prevented the police realising that they are citizens in uniform and not an instrument of repression. The judiciary had little to say on civil liberties; all was justified by the pandemic.

Disturbingly, the medical profession for the most part demonstrated quite how willing it was to nod along with the dominant narrative. Our public health leaders, perhaps in exchange for a sense of importance for the first time ever, were willing to say things they could not know while denying things they knew to be the case. They continued to sell doomsday projections from defunct models without making the case that there were alternative opinions.

While there was some excellent scientific work carried out in haste, we catastrophically failed as a profession to uphold the principles of scientific scrutiny of the products of that work. Those that tried, like Sunetra Gupta and the signatories of the Great Barrington Declaration, were vilified. In a tunnel vision focus on the wretched R number, SAGE members sought above all to avoid any damage to their own professional reputations. They are beginning to discover that in doing so they have written their names in infamy for posterity. The failure to acknowledge the gathering evidence on the futility of mask mandates, lockdowns and other restrictions will weigh heavy in the final examination.

Committees and decision-making bodies filled with pole-climbers can pass unnoticed in normal times. But when the tide went out…

Our society depends on functioning and healthy institutions. We are going to have to walk back each and every step of the ideological long march through our institutions. That road will be long and hard, but few endeavours could be more important.

Worth reading in full.

Changing Attitudes to Lockdown in Left-Wing Media

We know that public health authorities have done major U-turns on both lockdowns and face masks. These things were advised against in the pre-Covid era, but they’ve since become part of ‘The Science’ we’re all meant to follow.

What about left-wing media outlets, which have been so insistent on the need for restrictions? Have they always sung the same tune regarding lockdown, or has their stance shifted along with ‘The Science’?

In the Anglosphere, two of the most influential left-wing outlets are The Guardian and the New York Times. Let’s begin with the former.

On 2nd Februrary 2020, The Guardian ran an article titled ‘China’s reaction to the coronavirus outbreak violates human rights’. (Hat tip to Francois Balloux for bringing this piece to my attention.)

“That the Chinese government can lock millions of people into cities with almost no advance notice,” the author wrote, “should not be considered anything other than terrifying.” Although part of her objection was that residents “had no time to buy food, medicine, or other essentials”, the use of “terrifying” suggests a certain scepticism about the policy itself.

“International law,” she went on to note, “is clear that during a time of public health emergency, any restrictions on human rights should be based on legality, necessity, proportionality and grounded in evidence.” And as people like Francis Hoar have argued, it’s far from clear that lockdowns meet this standard.

On 3rd February, The Guardian published an article titled ‘More surveillance, tighter controls: China’s coronavirus crackdown’. The author noted: “Observers and human rights groups say authorities are going too far.”

Yet one month later, the paper seemed much more sanguine, running a piece that described China’s lockdown as “brutal but effective”. Based on reports that case numbers had been brought down dramatically, the authors wrote, “Beijing’s approach appears vindicated”.

The Guardian later editorialised in favour of both the first and second U.K. lockdowns. Neither of these editorials mentioned “human rights” (though the first did note that citizens are “willing to cede their liberties” once the state “takes responsibility”).

Now let’s look at the Gray Lady, America’s newspaper of record. On 22nd January 2020, the Times ran an article titled ‘Scale of China’s Wuhan Shutdown Is Believed to Be Without Precedent’.

“China,” the author wrote, “is engaging in a balancing act with a long and complicated history fraught with social, political and ethical concerns.”

The author quoted a legal expert, who said that “the shutdown would almost certainly lead to human rights violations and would be patently unconstitutional in the United States”. This expert said that selective quarantines “could be effective”, but that China’s response “goes much further than that”.

Fast forward to March, and the Times was out in force making the case for a national lockdown. “All Americans need to shelter in place,” the editorial thundered. Like in The Guardian’s pro-lockdown editorials, no mention was made of “human rights”.

However, the paper did find space to write that “the United States still has a chance to apply hard lessons learned by China”.

To be clear: I’m not claiming The Guardian or The Times did anything fundamentally wrong from a journalistic standpoint. It’s good for newspapers to air a variety of views. And they should be free to change their editorial stance as new information comes in.

What’s more, China’s lockdown – from what we can tell – was more draconian than the ones imposed in Europe and the U.S. So it’s not necessarily inconsistent to defend the latter while criticising the former.

However, the timing and wording of the relevant articles clearly raises questions about the intellectual basis for lockdowns. Reading the early pieces about China’s lockdown, followed by the later editorials, one is struck by the difference in emphasis: human rights and civil liberties versus case and death numbers.

It all adds to the impression that lockdowns were implemented frenetically, without sufficient regard for individual rights, let alone overall costs and benefits.

Australian Cartoonist Sacked after Linking Mandatory Vaccination to Tiananmen Square

After releasing a cartoon on Instagram attacking the Australian Government’s push for mandatory vaccination, cartoonist Michael Leunig (pictured above) was later informed by the Age daily newspaper that he would no longer be working for them in his capacity as a Political Cartoonist. The cartoon was rejected for publication before Leunig released the material on social media, causing a backlash from pro-mandate accounts, while prompting the newspaper’s editor to inform Leunig that he was disconnected from the audience. RT has the story.

Speaking to The Australian on Monday, Leunig said that while the editorial team has censored about a dozen of his works this year, the last straw appeared to be an anti-mandate cartoon which was a play on the iconic ‘tank man’ photo. Leunig’s cartoon shows a man staring down a tank, with its main gun being replaced by a syringe.

The original photo depicts a lone Chinese protester standing before a line of tanks during the 1989 pro-democracy protests at Tiananmen Square.

While his cartoon was rejected by The Age, Leunig published the drawing on Instagram, triggering backlash from the proponents of vaccine mandates.

Shortly after the controversy erupted, Leunig, who worked at the newspaper for over 20 years, was told that his services as a Political Cartoonist were no longer needed. Gay Alcorn, Editor of The Daily Age, reportedly told the artist that he was “out of touch” with readers before notifying him of his dismissal. While Alcorn praised Leunig as “brilliant” in a comment to The Australian, he confirmed that his works would no longer appear on the editorial page. The newspaper still plans to commission lifestyle cartoons from Leunig, however.

Leunig accused the newspaper of “wokeism and humorlessness“, defending the cartoon as an accurate reflection of the times.

Worth reading in full.

Why Are People’s Risk Perceptions So Skewed?

Yesterday I noted that, 18 months after the start of the pandemic, a sizeable chunk of Americans still dramatically overestimate the risks of Covid. In a recent poll, more than one third said the risk of being hospitalised if you’re not vaccinated is at least 50%.

Of course, you’d expect some people to get the answer wrong just because we’re dealing with a small quantity, and there’s always going to be some degree of overestimation. But many people were off by a factor more than 10. What accounts for this?

Interestingly, Democrat voters’ guesses were much higher than Republican voters’ – about twice as many Democrats said the risk of being hospitalised if you’re not vaccinated is at least 50%. This suggests a role for ideology.

Throughout the pandemic, the ‘Democrat position’ has been to support restrictions and mandates, whereas the ‘Republican position’ has been to oppose such measures. This is clearly visible in a plot of U.S. states by average stringency index. Almost all the ‘red’ states are on the left-hand side, while almost all the ‘blue’ states are on the right.

Given that partisans (on all sides) like to avoid cognitive dissonance, they tend to adopt beliefs that are consistent with their party’s platform. Since Democrat politicians have been busy imposing all sorts of restrictions and mandates, Democrat voters have adopted beliefs that imply those measures were justified.

Most survey respondents don’t know numbers like ‘the risk of hospitalisation for people who aren’t vaccinated’ off the top of their head. Instead, they probably make a guess based on all the relevant information they can recall.

Democrat voters, who’ve spent the pandemic consuming media like MSNBC, CNN and NPR, will recall numerous incidents of pundits saying that Covid is extremely dangerous, and we have to do whatever we can to stop the spread.

They will also recall that they were locked down for months, that their kids’ schools were closed, and that they had to wear a mask whenever they went to the grocery store. 

Putting all this information together, they will tend to assume that the risk of being hospitalised from Covid is extremely high. ‘Why else,’ they might ask, ‘would there have been so many restrictions?’

Note: Republicans also overestimated the risk of being hospitalised from Covid, albeit to a lesser extent than Democrats. This indicates that people’s skewed risk perceptions cannot be blamed solely on the content of left-wing media (or the policies implemented in ‘blue’ states).  

The psychological quirk that may account for people’s skewed risk perceptions has a name in psychology: the availability heuristic. As Steven Pinker notes, “people estimate the probability of an event or the frequency of a kind of thing by the ease with which instances come to mind”.

Because plane crashes always make the news, people tend to overestimate the risks of air travel. And they may overestimate the risks of Covid for the same reason.

Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve been treated to morbid ‘daily death numbers’ – but for only one cause of death. Perhaps if these figures had been reported for all causes of death, people’s risk perceptions would be slightly less skewed. (Or perhaps they’d just be terrified of everything…)

During a pandemic, we obviously do want people to take precautions; we don’t want them nonchalantly walking into a care home when they have a high fever and a nasty cough. Yet – contrary to what some in government seem to believe – we don’t want people to be utterly terrified either.

There’s been so much attention on people claiming Covid is “just the flu” that the media has largely ignored the other end of the spectrum: people who believe Covid is the bubonic plague!

We can agree it’s bad if people underestimate the risks. But it’s also bad if they overestimate the risks. We want them to have the right risk perceptions. That way, they can make informed decisions.

Recent Coverage of Lab Leak Theory Was Driven by Right-Wing Media

In a recent article, I noted that many left-wing commentators are still reluctant to concede that Covid might have escaped from a lab. Why? It’s not because the lab leak theory is ‘racist’, or that it makes China – America’s ‘enemy’ – look good.

Rather, it’s because the theory makes ‘experts’ look bad, and – more importantly – makes the right look good. After all, right-wing Republicans have been claiming that a lab leak was possible since early last year. (At the time of course, they were denounced as ‘conspiracy theorists’.)

Donald Trump entertained the theory in April of 2020. If evidence eventually proves him right, the man’s critics (of whom there are plenty in the mainstream media) will have a lot of egg on their face.

While my article relied on anecdotal reports of the left’s dislike for the lab leak, a new study confirms that recent coverage of the theory has been driven by right-wing media.

David Rozado tracked media coverage by counting the number of times relevant terms (‘lab leak’, ‘laboratory leak’ etc.) were mentioned in 12 media outlets. He then computed, for each week since the start of 2021, total mentions as a percentage of all words published that week. This was done separately for each of the 12 outlets.

Rozado’s main figure is shown below. Each colour corresponds to a different outlet: turquoise is Fox News; faded green is the New York Post; grey is the Wall Street Journal; and orange is the Washington Post – the only left-leaning outlet that has covered the lab leak extensively. (For further details, see p. 8 of Rozado’s paper.)

The chart confirms that media coverage of the lab leak was all but absent until May of 2021, when it rose dramatically. A disproportionate share of the recent coverage is accounted for by just two right-wing outlets: Fox News and the New York Post.

In an attempt to explain the trend in media coverage over time, Rozado superimposed lines corresponding to certain key events, such as the publication of the WHO’s report on its visit to Wuhan.

Noting that the coloured bars start to get taller after the publication of Nicholas Wade’s essay on May 5th, Rozado notes “this particular event could have triggered increased media coverage of the lab-leak hypothesis”.

However, it seems more likely that an event on May 14th is what triggered the increased media coverage, namely the publication of a letter in Science signed by 18 experts, calling for a new investigation into the origins of Covid. “Theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable,” the letter said.

Whichever event or events led to the rise in media coverage, Rozado’s paper provides a valuable insight into the media’s coverage of the pandemic. And it’s worth reading in full.