How long since you read a headline that said, implicitly, ‘All is right with the world’?

Not since Professor Pangloss got a gig as tutor to Candide in Voltaire’s 1759 novel, I’ll warrant. 

Of course, if you were holed up in an inside cabin on the virus-laden Diamond Princess, ‘Rescue for Australians trapped on cruise ship’, would have lifted the spirits, but the promise of rescue from deep and fetid fundaments doesn’t really qualify.

The truth is bad news is good for the business of the media and governments. True, at least in societies that are broadly democratic in character and whose governments are created by electoral processes dependent on a popular mandate, societies in which discussions of issues of public and private importance is little fettered: The same societies where the media is largely free to report as their editorial processes judge to be important to the public interest.

One particular recent event illustrates the importance of the freedom of speech, freedom to report. Freedoms, which, when hampered, can have dire consequences.

False Information

On January 1, China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported: 

The Wuhan Municipal Public Security Bureau reported on the 1st that some false information about “Wuhan Viral Pneumonia” was circulating on the Internet, and the public security department investigated this. 

And: …some netizens publish and forward false information on the Internet without verification, causing adverse social impact. After investigation and verification by the public security organs, eight illegal personnel have been summoned and handled according to law.

On the same day the Chinese Centre for Disease Control published an article saying that the first cluster of patients with “pneumonia of an unknown cause” had been identified on December 21. However, other reports say that about two weeks earlier, patients exhibiting SARS–like symptoms were in the Wuhan Central Hospital. 

On December 30, an ophthalmologist, Dr. Li Wenliang, posted a warning on a WeChat online forum that a cluster of seven patients in the hospital’s ophthalmology department had displayed symptoms of viral pneumonia and diagnosed with SARS but treatment had not been successful.

On January 3, Li Wenliang, was summoned to the Wuhan Public Security Bureau where he was told to sign an official confession and admonition letter promising to cease spreading false “rumors” (sic) regarding the coronavirus.

It read in part “We solemnly warn you: If you keep being stubborn, with such impertinence, and continue this illegal activity, you will be brought to justice – is that understood?” Dr. Li signed the confession writing: “Yes, I understand.”

Rogue Virus

A week after these first meagre public airing of concern about a rogue virus, Chinese authorities censored the hashtag #WuhanSARS.  Anyone alleged to be spreading misleading information about the outbreak, especially on social media, was subject to investigation.

Li returned to work and later contracted the virus from an infected patient.  He died from the disease on February 7.  His legacy to the world?  These words: ‘There should be more than one voice in a healthy society’.

The first few weeks of an epidemic are crucial to disease control.  One measure of the potential of a disease to spread is the number of individuals an ill person is likely to infect.  That information is hard to estimate in the earliest days of an epidemic.  Free, open, communication between medical staff is a first step to disease control.

The second is public knowledge.  Accurate knowledge of the potential threat, and information of avoidance measures, is equally important.  

In this saga, China’s media, essentially a ‘good news media’ has shown itself systemically and politically incapable of acting in the true national interest.

Equally paralysed is the soviet structure of government, each level looking upwards for approval.  When Beijing finally acknowledged the health emergency, it was quick to blame Wuhan authorities and commence a purge.  Wuhan authorities shot back saying they were unable to take action without Beijing’s authority.  

Spreading the Word

Since then, Beijing has commenced a massive campaign, largely through the compliant media, to manage the discourse, to bring the good news of the central government and, especially, Xi Jinping’s confident management of the emergency to the attention of the Chinese public and the world.

This is good news media at work, letting loose a disease with unknown and, as yet, unknowable consequences, not just for China but for the world.

But before patting ourselves on the back, consider how recent Australian Federal Police raids on journalists and newsrooms, seeking to find the source of news leaks, is a deterrent to investigative reporting, a free press, in our own country. 

So if good news media is important to authoritarian regimes, bad news media seems vital to democracy.  It is saying ‘we are not living in the best of all possible worlds’: things maybe OK, but they can be better.

The right to say this confers a huge responsibility on the media: to be authoritative; to be as accurate as possible; to recognise and present rival ideas with fidelity; to respect the intelligence of readers and viewers; to be good public citizens; to correct mistakes, openly and without caveats. 

Social Media

These are, of course, ideals. But media consumers, too, have a role to demand these qualities of the media, and social media provides the mechanism for a running public critique of the media.

But does bad news fulfil a deep psychological need in us?  Are we hard wired to need a regular dose of bad news?  The way Chinese citizens have vilified their government and its handling of the health crisis, suggest it may be so.

Here is a bit of psychological speculation. The world in which we humans evolved is governed by the laws of physics.  One of these laws, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, codifies the observation that, in nature, order tends to disorder.  Or to put it in the words of that UK stage duo of the 1960s, Flanders and Swan, ‘Heat won’t pass from a cooler to a hotter, You can try it if you like but you far better notter’. 

So if the natural order is a progress to disorder might we (teenagers excepted) be naturally programmed to seek to bring order to the world? Is bad news a psychological prod to fulfil our innate need to create an orderly world?  

And does that same prod push government to do better too?

One can hope.

Vincent O’Donnell. 

Media Analyst and Researcher

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