Speculation abounds as Boris Johnson enters the ICU

Eleven days ago, Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, announced that he had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. In an upbeat video message posted to social media, Johnson described his symptoms as “mild,” and said he would continue to lead Britain’s response to the crisis from quarantine, “thanks to the wizardry of modern technology.” Last week, Johnson posted several more videos on Twitter; on Thursday, cameras in Downing Street captured him standing in his doorway clapping for his country’s caregivers, part of a coordinated, nationwide round of applause. As of Friday, Johnson had been in isolation for seven days; he should, at that point, have been allowed out, according to his government’s guidance, but he informed the country that he was still showing one “minor symptom” of COVID-19—a fever—and so would have to stay put. Speculation started to swirl among British journalists that all was not as well as it seemed; The Guardian, for instance, reported hearing last week that Johnson “was more seriously ill than either he or his officials were prepared to admit,” and that doctors were worried about his breathing. Late Sunday, Johnson was taken to the hospital. His aides insisted he was admitted for “precautionary” tests and was fine to keep running the country—but reports trickled through that Johnson had received oxygen, and stayed in hospital overnight.

In Britain, skepticism about the official word on Johnson’s condition reflects more than journalistic impulse. Johnson has a notoriously fraught history with the truth, dating back to his days as a journalist for conservative newspapers; as prime minister, a post he’s held since July, his relationship with the press has been rocky. Ahead of elections late last year, Johnson dodged tough interviews, and officials with his Conservative Party—which ended up winning a thumping victory—pulled a range of dirty tricks. Since then, his advisers have been accused of “Donald Trump-like tactics,” including an attempt to ban disfavored reporters from a government briefing, a move which sparked a brief media boycott. Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s controversial top aide, has been accused of establishing “a network of mafia-style snitches” to catch officials accepting free meals from journalists. Encouraged, reportedly, by Cummings, Johnson has waged war on the BBC—banning his ministers from appearing on some of its shows, and entertaining reforms that would undermine its public-funding model.

ICYMI: The infinite scroll

Since the coronavirus crisis took hold, we’ve seen something of a détente. A few weeks ago, Johnson established formal daily briefings at which he, alongside other ministers and medical experts, has fielded journalists’ questions. Still, some tensions have persisted. Some outlets complained that favored competitors got preferential access to public-health information prior to the briefings being instituted; in the weeks since, their usefulness has been called into question. (Last week, even the Telegraph—a conservative newspaper that used to employ Johnson, and is typically fiercely supportive of him—splashed the damning headline “Questions without answers.”) As such, it came as no surprise when, at yesterday’s briefing, Dominic Raab—Britain’s foreign minister, who was standing in for Johnson—faced barbed questions about the true state of the prime minister’s health. Tom Newton Dunn, a reporter with right-wing tabloid The Sun, asked Raab how Johnson could both be “sick enough to be taking a valuable hospital bed, but well enough to be running the country?” Online, commentators, including Piers Morgan, took a similar tone.

Then, last night, the tone softened. Around 8pm, UK time, we learned that Johnson had been transferred into intensive care. Suddenly, the New York Times reported, Britain was keeping “a tense vigil… hoping for the best and experiencing, together, the frightening mysteries” of COVID-19. This morning, Britain’s newspapers, normally known for their pithy, scathing headlines, all led with simple variations on the facts—the facts we know, at any rate. Johnson’s status still isn’t entirely clear; his government has been quick to confirm major changes in his condition—his move into the ICU, for instance—but hasn’t revealed many details. (Britain’s political situation is a little unclear, too—unlike with the US presidency, there isn’t an established line of prime ministerial succession. For now, Raab, Johnson’s de facto deputy, seems to be in charge.) Overnight, we got some reporting on Johnson’s condition: The Times of London spoke with hospital sources who said he was not on a ventilator, and that he’d needed less oxygen than the normal threshold for ICU transferral. This morning, Michael Gove, a senior minister, confirmed on television that Johnson isn’t on a ventilator. But speculation has been the dominant journalistic mode. Various newspapers and TV networks—including, in the US, CNN—asked medical experts to comment on what Johnson may or may not be going through. Others shared statistics about patient survival rates at various stages of COVID-19 treatment.

Such speculation isn’t very helpful. We lack specific information about Johnson’s case, and extrapolating insight from general statistics is fraught—both because coronavirus data is deeply flawed, generally, and because the context here is so unique. (It’s hard to be sure, at this stage, whether Johnson’s ICU admission reflects normal procedure or an abundance of caution.) It feels invasive, too, to be demanding the finer detail of another human being’s suffering. Still, we should expect a certain level of clear, timely information about our leaders’ health as a matter of public interest, and there’s no doubt that, to this point, the updates about Johnson have painted a confusing, contradictory picture.

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Last night’s shocking developments may have changed the tenor of news coverage, but the dissemination of information at times of crisis always has a broader context. In the UK, the strained relationship between Johnson and the press, and his poor record with the truth, is an unavoidable prism for his current illness. It calls to mind Trump’s visit, last year, to Walter Reed Medical Center, for reasons that remain murky. The stakes were lower for Trump, as far as we know; still, as Jack Holmes wrote at the time for Esquire, “because this administration has lied so relentlessly, about things big and small… it is impossible to take anyone’s word at face value when it really matters.” When it comes to dishonesty, Trump’s administration exists on a different plane to Johnson’s. But both have made a habit of withholding and distorting facts, leaving vacuums that speculation has rushed to fill.

Below, more on the coronavirus:

  • The medicine cabinet: The Post and the Times both have stories on Trump’s continued touting of hydroxychloroquine as a coronavirus remedy. (The Trump administration and the medical community are both sharply divided on the merits of the drug; the Food and Drug Administration has authorized it for emergency use with COVID-19 patients, but its effectiveness is not clinically proven.) According to the Post, the Fox News host Laura Ingraham “and two doctors who are regular on-air guests in what she dubs her ‘medicine cabinet’” met with Trump last week to evangelize for the drug. According to the Times, executives in the president’s orbit stand to benefit from its increased use—and Trump himself has “a small personal financial interest” in a French company that makes it. (The Times story noted that six paragraphs in; several observers said it had buried the lede.)
  • Dept. of Stupidity, I: Last week, Thomas Modly, the acting Navy secretary, fired Capt. Brett Crozier after a memo in which Crozier pleaded for help containing a coronavirus outbreak on his ship leaked to the press. (Crozier himself has subsequently tested positive for COVID-19.) Yesterday, Modly told Crozier’s former crew that Crozier either leaked the memo to the media himself, or else was “too naive or too stupid” to be in charge. Modly’s remarks (you guessed it) leaked to the media. He has since apologized.
  • Dept. of Stupidity, II: Wisconsin will hold its presidential primaries and thousands of local contests as scheduled today. Yesterday, Tony Evers, the state’s Democratic governor, moved unilaterally to delay voting after failing to convince the Republican-controlled legislature to agree to a postponement, but Wisconsin’s Supreme Court overturned his order. For The Atlantic, Russell Berman writes that the mess in the state is a “warning for the November election.” Ben Wikler, chair of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, told Berman that it’s “a moral atrocity to suggest that the strength of your immune system should determine the strength of your rights in a democracy.”
  • Your daily media-hellscape update: Yesterday, the Dallas Morning News cut staff salaries across the board. (It’s avoiding layoffs and furloughs for now.) TEGNA is imposing furloughs and pay reductions at its news stations; the company “is the first of the big TV owners to announce such cuts,” Poynter’s Al Tompkins reports, but a “survey of local TV news directors predicts that other cuts are inevitable around the country.” The media arm of Alden Global Capital, a New York hedge fund, furloughed 34 employees at its Bay Area News Group, and imposed layoffs at other titles including the Denver Post, where 13 unionized employees are losing their jobs, and the Boston Herald, which cut at least five positions. (Alden-watcher Julie Reynolds has more details.) Stock in Gannett, America’s biggest newspaper publisher by circulation, closed at $0.67 yesterday. And in the UK, Reach—which owns tabloids the Daily Mirror, the Daily Express, and the Daily Star, as well as some local titles—is furloughing almost 1,000 employees companywide.
  • A better business story: The Atlantic has seen a surge in web traffic and paid readership since the coronavirus crisis intensified; in March alone, it added 36,000 new subscribers. Nieman Lab’s Sarah Scire reports that, according to Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic’s editor in chief, “it’s the magazine’s ‘most ambitious journalism’ that has been disproportionately converting readers into subscribers, citing work by Ed Yong, James Hamblin, Kaitlyn Tiffany, Sarah Zhang, Yascha Mounk, and others.”
  • In brief: McSweeney’s is publishing regular dispatches from people over the age of 60, in the belief that their voices—and even their lives—“have been marginalized, scapegoated, written off” in recent weeks. The Times, in partnership with Verizon, is giving high-school students free online access for the next three months. And Paige Cornwell, a reporter at the Seattle Times, created a GoFundMe to help journalists affected by the coronavirus crisis. So far, it’s raised more than $42,000.


Other notable stories:

ICYMI: Why did Matt Drudge turn on Donald Trump?

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.