There is no better illustration of the dangers of biased media narratives – media inequality – than the differing perceptions about Covid-19 in NSW, as compared to Victoria.
Victorians are of course more wary about covid because of their trauma at enduring the health crisis in 2020, and the resulting extended lockdown. They take covid seriously because they’re scared not to. The public in NSW don’t have this same experience to scare them, but there’s also another reason for differing attitudes in Australia’s two most populated states: biased media narratives.
From the beginning of the covid crisis in Victoria, news audiences were repeatedly told that the crisis was caused by two things: the Labor government’s failure to keep infected international travellers quarantined in hotels, and the Labor government’s failure to run a health system that can adequately test and trace cases to ‘suppress’ the virus. To back up this narrative, NSW was held up as ‘gold standard’, as having inherently better contact tracing, than the ‘failed state’ of Victoria.
This ‘gold standard’ narrative started with Scott Morrison. Everything Morrison does, of course, has a political motive. His motive behind the divisive state versus state covid-hunger games framing was twofold. The first was to bash the Labor government in Victoria, and particularly to undermine the popularity of Premier Andrews. Morrison finds Andrews’ popularity particularly galling because he is a much more trusted leader than Morrison himself.
The Liberal Party has also always had a larger-than-ordinary vendetta against Labor in Victoria because they threw the incompetent Victorian Liberal Party out of office after only one term, humiliating the born-to-rule types and rubbing their nose in it by winning the election after in a Dan-slide.
The second reason Morrison divided the nation with the ‘gold standard’ moniker is to promote his anti-lockdown argument. On 16 July 2020, when Victoria was headed into a lockdown, Morrison’s lack of empathy was on full display:
That’s right – the PM told Australians they would be protected from covid by living alongside the virus. It’s like telling someone the best way to protect yourself from being eaten by a lion is to live in the lion’s enclosure.
This anti-lockdown gold-standard narrative not only made the experience of Victorians much harder by telling them that their trauma was their own fault, but it also infected the way the majority of journalists reported about covid in Victoria and NSW.
As I wrote about last week, journalists aggressively accused the Victorian Labor government of failing to protect the Victorian public against covid, while just as aggressively accusing them of doing too much to protect them. Lockdowns, border closures, mandated masks and restrictions on movement – all strategies to contain and eventually eliminate a deadly disease – were framed as failings of the Victorian government, as too draconian and not proportionate to the threat.
For example, the original breach from hotel quarantine was blamed on Andrews for hiring private security guards, and false-narratives were spread about a security guard having sex with a guest.
In reality, the first community transmission that started the crisis-outbreak in Victoria was a hotel manager who caught covid from a guest – probably from aerosol spread in a communal area. Little did it matter that NSW also used private security guards for hotel quarantine, and two security guards indeed caught covid from arriving guests – Victoria was held up as ‘different’ to NSW, and that false narrative changed the audience’s understanding of the risks of covid breaches.
Once the virus was out in the community in Victoria, its spread was blamed simplistically on sub-standard contact tracing. This biased narrative ignored the fact that contact tracers can only trace those cases that come forward for testing. It ignored the obvious fact that once cases reach critical mass, contact tracing becomes near impossible. It also ignored the role luck plays in a pandemic – everything from super-spreader events, asymptomatic spread, cases occurring in casualised workforces who were not compensated for isolating, and inevitable cases not getting tested or isolating when they have symptoms.
The false-narrative that ‘Victoria can’t contact trace’ not only simplistically blamed contact tracers for everything that went wrong in Victoria, it also dangerously told the NSW public their exceptionalism would save them from Victoria’s fate.
The fact is, viruses spread because that’s what they do. Victorians were told the virus spread because of their failings, while NSW were told their ‘gold standard’ system allowed them to live alongside the virus without resorting to drastic measures like locking down.
There is no doubt this ‘gold standard’ trickery, along with the media’s attacks on the Victorian government when they brought in health measures like lockdowns, has influenced the NSW Premier’s reluctance to lockdown, even as the Delta strain has grown exponentially in the past week. Gladys Berejiklian showed this reluctance when she refused to even use the word ‘lockdown’, preferring ‘stay at home orders’. The NSW government is so far resisting a total lockdown, with only a small number of LGAs closed, and even then the rules about when you can leave home so wide that even a wedding can jump through.
This divisive anti-Victorian blame versus gold-standard NSW has failed everyone – the people of Victoria who were told they were the problem, the NSW public who now have a major Delta problem on their hands, and the rest of the country who benefits from states getting their outbreaks under control before they spread across borders.
Morrison, and in turn the media, should have dropped the politics, and promoted a narrative of solidarity and support amongst all Australians, encouraging each state to learn from each other’s experience of the virus, to put the whole country in a stronger position.
I really hope journalists and many other commentators are watching what is happening in NSW and are having a think about the way they covered the covid crisis in Victoria to consider how they played a part in toxic media inequality. United we stand, divided we fall. Let’s hope NSW can get on top of this virus and our covid-future is one of solidarity amongst every state – Labor or Liberal led.