I rewatched All The President’s Men last night, a great story, about two young reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein at The Washington Post in 1972. Following a complex chain of evidence, they uncover a plot coordinated by President Nixon, to destroy his political opponents, and cover up the effort to do so.
I found myself wondering how Woodward and Bernstein would write about the current plight of the UK….
On the 5th May 2020, the UK death toll from covid 19 became the highest in Europe. The reasons are complex, but they include, according to The Times, a lack of preparedness, resulting from the fact that since 2016, government business has been paralysed by Brexit. According to the Times, recommendations of an exercise testing UK resilience to a pandemic were pushed aside in favour of frantic efforts to deal with the possibility of a no deal exit from the EU. Additionally you could suggest that following the 2019 election, politicians selected for crucial cabinet positions, won their offices thanks to their position on Brexit, not because they were the most competent candidates available. Brexit also damaged recruitment and retention of EU workers in the NHS.
So this is the crime if you like. Then comes the cover up. How do you turn a disaster partly caused by nationalism into a national celebration? Well, the first thing you can do is find people who can be emblems of national pride, preferably with a military background, harking back to the victories of wartime. You make those people the object of charitable giving, and celebrate the achievement of large amounts of money raised. Then you start a regular street celebration. Ostensibly this recognises the work of health care workers, but also functions as a unification exercise, complete with naming and shaming of non-participants, as has happened in our local area. A minute’s silence is a similar device, originally instituted in socially turbulent times after World War One – the primary purpose of which was not remembrance, but powerful, symbolic social cohesion, where non compliance can very easily lead to group shaming. This combination of emblematic individuals, street celebration, and mass silence, all gives the impression of national unity and achievement, in place of national disaster.
Now I’m not saying that if I were Bob Woodward I could attend clandestine meetings in late-night multistorey carparks, in search of clues leading to the person responsible for this elaborate and subtle cover up. Yes, the government organise mass celebrations and silences, but it’s people themselves who make them happen. Yes, the newspapers supporting the government and its agenda choose individuals of symbolic national pride for their front pages; but they only focus on these individuals because they attract readers. In the last analysis this is a conspiracy produced by a majority of the population.
Bob Woodward’s car park contact told him that the Watergate conspiracy went everywhere. The UK’s situation is similar, except there is no final author of the plot. This plot goes everywhere – to the people at the top and to millions of other people as well.
I obviously don’t want to make anyone feel worse than they already do at this dark time. It is very tempting to cling to anything that makes us feel better. But if we are to make wiser choices in the future we need to be clear about what has gone wrong now. There should be no cover up. The editors of the Washington Post knew that when they ran Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate stories in 1972. We have to be brave enough to run similar stories in 2020.