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Here are three snapshots from these past six months reporting on the coronavirus pandemic from Scotland.
April: a few weeks into lockdown, I am waiting to be called on at the first minister’s daily briefing when a fellow journalist asks a question about the longevity of these restrictions: could family gatherings over the festive season be affected? Nicola Sturgeon responds, patiently: “No, Christmas is not going to be cancelled.” I struggle to stop my bottom lip wobbling before my question comes round.
Of course I have been emotionally affected by events I’ve reported on in the past, but this is at a completely new level of intensity. I am still struggling to compute what this pandemic means for me and my loved ones, and I desperately want someone to tell me that it’s all going to be OK. At moments like this, I am listening as a journalist, but also as a citizen, daughter, wife, friend.
June: I am running down the street in Glasgow city centre towards a police cordon when a contact calls to confirm what I was already dreading: that the hotel currently surrounded by emergency services is one that has been housing asylum seekers during lockdown. I have been writing since April about the way that hundreds were moved into city centre hotels where they claimed social distancing was difficult, the food was often inedible, and where strains on residents’ mental health was evident. The Home Office press office gave me a row for being “irresponsible”.
There have been a myriad unintended consequences of the pandemic, all necessary to highlight, but it has also been essential to keep asking who has been using it as an excuse, distraction or a cover for bad behaviour.
September: I report the response of the University and College Union (UCU) Scotland to harsh new guidelines just brought in for students, as thousands are forced to self-isolate in their halls of residence and a fierce row erupts over why young people were encouraged back to campus in the first place.
A furious pile-on starts. People who don’t agree with the UCU’s view that the Scottish government and university principals are “blaming students” attack me directly, accusing me of lies, fake news and “auditioning as BoJo’s press officer”. My timeline is so loaded with bile that I miss the replies from the students I’ve been trying to make contact with.
Scrupulously accurate and accessible reporting has never been more important, and in terms of the public health messages that the media carries it is literally a matter of life and death. But distrust, dismissal and disdain for reporters is growing exponentially, not just in Scotland but across the world.
On the practical side, I am used to working from home – the Guardian does not have a physical office in Scotland – but adjusting to “everyone else” doing the same has been a fair challenge.
Ordinarily, I spend far more time filing stories from pavements, fields, and squished into the passenger seat of my car than I do from my desk, but lockdown changed that dramatically. Vox pops are not pandemic-friendly and, for completely understandable reasons, even now people just want to get where they are going to rather than chat with a reporter. So the question becomes: what is the most responsible way to reflect what people are going through when you can’t speak to them face to face or observe them in situ?
Social media has certainly filled some of those gaps. During lockdown, I developed the habit of tacking on a few more general questions to every conversation I had, be that with a press officer, expert or frontline worker: what else is happening on your street, who else should I be talking to? Guardian readers have been so generous in sharing contacts and information, whether that’s responding to community call-outs or emailing personally.
Working from home brings its own particular challenges with a child under four, who doesn’t understand why his parents are indoors all the time but still can’t play with him. Or why, when he bursts into her office, mummy appears to be watching telly (retrospective apologies for all those Zoom calls where Batman made an unscheduled appearance).
Covid-19 has certainly provided a crash course in devolution, not least for our Westminster government. Some observers tell me that coronavirus has brought home the true extent of the devolved parliaments’ ability to diverge from London, and the ongoing conflict over the UK government’s plans for a post-Brexit internal market exemplifies its aggressive approach to devolution.
With health a devolved matter, much of my reporting has highlighted the differences in policy between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Both Welsh and Scottish governments recently called for improved communication with Westminster, and earlier in the pandemic there was exasperation when UK ministers failed to clarify when rules did not apply in Scotland.
I have to admit that we haven’t always got this right ourselves: reports and headlines have referred to the UK when they meant England, for example, and it’s made harder when editors and subeditors are off-site and can’t shout tweaks or reminders across the desk. But we’re more mindful of geographical clarity than ever.
The Scottish government briefing has become part of my daily routine. There are ongoing frustrations like the inability to ask follow-up questions, but still we have had unparalleled access to a national leader at a time of crisis. Right enough, it has also provided access to journalists: the stream of abuse that accompanies the live briefing feed is eye-watering.
Recently there have been increasing problems with amendments to guidance being made by health officials in broadcast interviews or even on social media. I appreciate that decisions during an escalating second wave must be made at pace, but not at the expense of clarity.
As her most recent approval ratings testify, Nicola Sturgeon has proved herself a trusted communicator during this pandemic. Regardless, it remains critical to interrogate the substance behind that: for example, Scotland’s own record on care homes deaths, as well as the longer-term political impact, for example those who have shifted to support independence over the past six months.
It does surprise me that the escalating tensions around the Holyrood inquiry into the Scottish government’s botched handling of sexual harassment allegations against Alex Salmond has not had more impact on public trust, but perhaps it simply reflects people’s focus in pandemic times.
Six months into reporting on a pandemic with no end in sight, I have to say that I am bone tired. At times it has been overwhelming, particularly at the height of lockdown when I felt that I could work 24 hours a day and still not do justice to all of the stories that were clamouring to be told.
I’m also incredibly grateful for newsroom colleagues who have pulled together, offering me black humour and solidarity when I’ve needed it most – and thanks to WhatsApp, I feel closer to colleagues in London and Manchester than I did before this began.
Source: The Guardian
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