Sex and the Single Data Modeller

The news that Professor Neil Ferguson has been crunching something more than the numbers during lockdown means I need to stick a new post-it on my monitor to remind me that it’s ‘none of my bloody business’. It’s the business of certain newspapers, though, who seem to take great delight in having found somebody displaying that most human of characteristics: hypocrisy.

Should I care? Show me a person who isn’t a hypocrite and I’ll show you a rare Patagonian three-nostriled sloth that can rap when suitably stimulated. After all, how many people are clapping for the NHS and immediately jumping in a car to go visit relatives? Just from where I sit, I can probably point through the window towards eleven such hypocrites.

There is, of course, something else going on here and it doesn’t take a degree in Advanced Shittery from The Toby Young School to know what it is. The right-wing press has been losing the argument around the lockdown for months now and when they can’t win by playing the ball they are more than happy to play the man.

Much as I know it’s none of my business, the news that a high profile lockdowneer has been flouting the rules was always going to attract the attention of certain newspapers, who have a long track record of destroying public servants. Apparently (see PopBitch) even the currently much-loved charity hero, Captain Tom Moore, had to hire people to put the warnings out to papers about prying into his private life.

I just can’t find it in myself to be concerned that, in Professor Ferguson’s case, the papers did find a smoking data pointer. He was wrong to break the rules (I’ve complained about people doing that enough times) but I don’t think he was right to quit SAGE at a time when we need our experts in pandemic modelling to help beat this virus. Because let’s be pragmatic about this: does his sex life really impact the quality of his modelling? It might but probably in a positive way. If it helped relieve some of the stress he was surely under, then you could make the argument that his affair was in the national interest. After all, wasn’t that one of the boasts Boris Johnson has reportedly made about him (forgive me) “bursting with spunk”? I know I’m certainly not the first person to point out the staggering hypocrisy of the same media who celebrate Johnson’s baby, born out of wedlock (they usually seem to care about that sort of thing), whilst still married to Marina Wheeler (the divorce only announced today), compared to their treatment of an unmarried scientist breaking the lockdown rules (flouted tens of thousands of times a day across the UK) for a bit of horizontal data sampling?

No, this has nothing to do with the lockdown and everything to do with a media that would destroy anybody who doesn’t support their agenda. And that is what upsets me about what’s been going on in our press. From the bubble that is London, people don’t see – or more likely, don’t care about – the harm they do when they peddle this toxic nonsense. I know working-class people who read those papers and I watched an older generation believe the papers when they were told not to take COVID-19 seriously. I know people who ignored the government’s warnings because the likes of Peter Hitchens were assuring them it was just the flu, entirely overblown, and an attempt to steal away their liberty. The moment this changed was when Sky News started to report from inside Italian hospitals. Nothing I’ve seen has had an effect like those reports by Stuart Ramsey, who deserves a medal for what he achieved. I don’t believe it hyperbole to say that our newspapers led to unnecessary deaths. I also have no doubt when I say that Sky News saved lives.

So, should I care more about one man’s hypocrisy, which has never been labelled a crime, not even in the Bible where they were more than happy to turn ordinary human emotions into deadly sins? Or do I care about the wilful attempts of newspapers to mislead people based entirely on misguided ideology? Should I care about the public humiliation of a man who wasn’t even that much of a public figure? He certainly wasn’t holding press briefings like Scotland’s Chief Medical Advisor, Dr Catherine Calderwood, who also stepped back from her public-facing role after being cause visiting her second home against her own advice and was then forced to resign. Calderwood obviously couldn’t attend press briefings and not expect the media to keep hounding her. Ferguson’s business was the cold rational stuff of data, which doesn’t change based on the ambient temperature of his underpants.

No, Ferguson has become the latest casualty of this immensely dumb culture war that has blown up around this pandemic. None of us are better for it and we all might now be weaker.

@DavidWaywell

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