BBC Sounds

The rites of Spring

The pandemic’s chief fact checker is failing to grasp the realities of the post-covid era

Artillery Row

Last Wednesday morning, the German police announced to the world they had foiled a far-right plot to take over the country. The apparent leader of the coup, a minor Aristocrat called Heinrich XIII, was arrested alongside twenty-five others including a celebrity chef. 

That night Marianna Spring, the BBC’s “Disinformation Reporter”, took to News at Ten to tell the nation: 

Whilst this group predates the pandemic, its audacious plot and its commitment to it perhaps goes hand in hand with the rise of disinformation about Covid-19 and the violent rhetoric that has accompanied that … The legacy [of the pandemic] and the conspiracy legacy that it leaves remains, and it can embolden these fringe groups in a way that just didn’t happen before and that’s really quite frightening. 

The Covid-19 disinformation angle was a curious one in a story that has since emerged to be far more complex. Indeed, in deploying Marianna as the lead correspondent on the story, the BBC appeared to be the only ones especially keen to push it. 

The group, unsurprisingly, believed some barmy things about not just the pandemic but pretty much everything else currently on the news agenda. Membership of the Reichsbürger, the dissident movement from which the coup emerged, had also risen by 4,500 to 21,000 since 2017.

The rest of her take was just bizarre — not least her implication that prior to the pandemic, mad people have never believed mad things and acted them out. At best, it was the sort of half-baked journalism hardly befitting the News at Ten. At worst, it was a tabloidy attempt to invoke a wider sense of paranoia about further violence in the wake of the “conspiracy legacy of the pandemic”.

I wasn’t surprised by the whole affair. I’ve followed Marianna Spring’s career at the BBC with acute frustration. I don’t doubt she has some talent as a reporter, but I have increasing concern about the way she has been managed at the corporation over the pandemic — and I am not alone. 

The “disinformation unit she pioneered now has a deserved reputation both inside and outside the organisation for being a de-facto mouthpiece for the government during those years. Watching Spring assert on the evening news that the events in Germany were more or less a consequence of “pandemic disinformation” made for uncomfortable viewing. Not least because Marianna and her team’s definition of “disinformation” has in the past appeared to implicate everyone from Peter Hitchens to an NHS doctor. What did she mean by it this time? 

Media outlets largely ignored valid criticisms of government policy

Having spent the day “researching” the group’s social media activity, Marianna broke the news that the foiled plotters believed in “Covid-19 and QAnon conspiracy theories”. This was hardly a secret. A seventy-five year old member had already tried to kidnap the German Health Minister whilst others had a track record of getting arrested for breaking lockdown. For a group who believes that the German state is illegitimate, and has even tried to up its own country, was this conspiratorial extremism in light of unprecedented state action really a surprise? It’s a bit like saying a wasp got “emboldened” because someone sat on it. 

Worse, in using the News at Ten slot to invoke a wider sense of paranoia about violence, conspiracy and the pandemic, Marianna just simply couldn’t help herself. This is hardly surprising for someone whose career has come to be marked by an obsession with fringe extremism and a profound disingenuity when it comes to distinguishing between valid opposition to the government’s pandemic policy and people who have completely lost their marbles. 

The latter was a particular obsession of the disinformation unit, and indeed other reputable media outlets, during the pandemic. They devoted a curiously large amount of coverage on fringe weirdness from the usual suspects. Meanwhile they largely ignored, sometimes even wilfully tainted, any opposition to government policy from the silent majority of dissenters with valid criticisms of the government’s response to Covid-19. 

One of the most frustrating angles pushed during the heightened anxiety of those years, was that pandemic disinformation was turning everyday people into violent lunatics. The implication was that anyone who even flirted with something that wasn’t “Hands Face Space” could fall down the rabbithole. Revisiting some of the myths that pushed this idea in 2022 is quite the story, something that should certainly interest Marianna and her team given their interest in how false information can go viral.

One particular example, that a 5G conspirator had tried to murder a telecoms worker, was parroted by dozens of sites and splashed gleefully all over social media. It has since turned out there is no clear evidence this individual acted on the basis of such a conspiracy. In fairness to Marianna, the BBC knew better on this particular occasion. But this didn’t stop them from pushing shocking scoops on everything from a bloke in a van being shouted at by a mad person to the now completely discredited story that anti-maskers were trying to maim people with hidden razor blades.

There are certainly some nutters that have been emboldened by the pandemic. Believe me, I’ve encountered a few in my own writing and reporting. There are also sad instances of people believing nonsense about the virus and subsequently dying from it. We know this, because Marianna and her team had the crassness to seek out those cases and hold them up as morality tales for why we should fervently listen to whatever came out of Number 10.

The scale of this madness and its severity have all too often been used as a substitute for seeking to understand and even discredit the far bigger and now growing number who have valid criticisms of government policy during the pandemic. Moreover, as was the case with her coup analysis and her recent interview with Antony Fauci, at what point does Spring’s laser focus on “trolls” who spread “online disinformation” become a tired, lazy and ultimately disingenuous means of understanding the world? 

Spring became the BBC’s first “disinformation reporter” in 2020. Around this time, the BBC vowed to challenge fake news and “fight back against information that claimed to come from a reputable news organisation”. Arguably, the term “disinformation reporter” appeared to go a step further than this. The word was a curious one, with its etymology in early Soviet state intelligence. Its definition has since come to denote any effort by sinister forces to shape public opinion. 

It’s hard not to see this title as a nod to the work of Carole Cadwalladr. At the peak of Cadwalladr mania shortly after she was awarded the Orwell Prize in 2018, there was an increasingly pervasive sense in establishment media that any dissent against the prevailing narrative was being exploited, possibly even dictated, by hostile foreign powers and nefarious underground networks seeking to undermine Western democracy. 

The extent of Cadwalladr’s allegations around the influence of Cambridge Analytica have since come under criticism. Indeed, many of the conclusions she has gone on to reach, particularly about the outcome of the 2016 Brexit Referendum, have aged very badly. Nonetheless, Marianna and the disinformation unit have arguably come to possess the same moral fervour as Cadwalladr in seeking to expose the shady networks of the online space that apparently threaten everything from people’s lives to the very existence of democracy. 

Marketing and journalism these days go hand in hand

It is interesting to note they have both succumbed to the same mistakes. Both are decent enough hacks, but can’t help letting their increasingly wild conclusions get in the way of a story. I’m not entirely sure that disinformation was allowed to run riot and create a terrifying “conspiracy legacy” of the pandemic as Marianna termed it on the News at Ten. Social media organisations generally did a pretty good job of getting rid of the bonkers stuff. In fact there is now mounting evidence, accelerated by the Twitter files, that they actually went too far in censoring perfectly legitimate information — including that of a Stanford professor

In light of this, it’s fast emerging that the most damaging legacy of the pandemic in relation to social media appears to be precisely this de-facto censorship by some of the world’s most influential online media outlets. Such foot-shooting paranoia gave ammunition to the barmy fringes whilst alienating people who had every right to access information that questioned government policy. 

It’s therefore not surprising that discomfort regarding Marianna’s latest “analysis” was felt within the organisation too. One senior BBC News journalist I spoke to raised an eyebrow at Marianna’s remarks on the News at Ten, going on to say that whilst they felt she had talent as a reporter, increasingly it was becoming less about the journalism and more about the profile. 

This is hard to disagree with. Next autumn, Marianna’s disinformation memoir will hit the shelves. This is a curious foray into the literary world for someone who has held the position for just two years and whose scoops have amounted to “exposing” a series of people who have clearly lost the plot. There are plenty of other journalists who have done far better, more nuanced and important work than Marianna in understanding the relationship between social media and the world around us. Alas, marketing and journalism these days perhaps go hand in hand.

Which brings us to the question: at what point does this profile become at odds with what we expect from the national broadcaster? I can’t help but think Marianna is having a particularly loud conversation with some of the deeply unsavoury characters she spends a lot of time researching. In projecting this battle between her and the extremes onto the larger narrative of the pandemic, and now events beyond it, she increasingly risks alienating an audience who want the national broadcaster to go beyond nut cracking and take on the complexities and nuances of the post-pandemic world. 

There is certainly a crisis of trust at the BBC, and I’m not sure it’s helped by the model of Marianna’s reporting. Holding yourself up as the arbiter of truth only sets you up for failure. Like the extremists she seeks to expose, Marianna continues to stick to an overly simplified narrative of the events between March 2020 and the present — that there was a government policy that some believed in and others didn’t because they were stupid enough not to listen to the high priestesses of truth. As more revelations embolden the opponents of the pandemic years, such a worldview may continue to miss the story to the point of oblivion. 

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