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What monkeypox tells us about the failure of UK journalism

Fears for a new infectious disease with echoes of AIDS were front-page news before the NHS acted swiftly and effectively. Why isn't this common knowledge?

Mpox virus

A close-up of the mpox virus.

NIAID on Wikimedia Commons.

In May 2022, the UK’s legacy media exploded with talk of a mysterious new disease that appeared to be circulating among gay and bisexual men. Monkeypox (recently renamed Mpox) quickly became front-page news because it echoed both Covid-19 and the initial stages of the HIV epidemic in the early 1980s.

But what happened next tells us as much about the failure of traditional forms of journalism to explain the world to us as it does about mpox itself.

If you’re not LGBTQ+, it’s likely that you won’t have heard mention of mpox since last summer. For many who aren’t part of the community most affected by the epidemic (and for many who are), the story just vanished.

What happened?

While mpox is still causing serious harm in the global south, the infectious disease was effectively eradicated in the UK (for this specific outbreak, at least). Using what health leaders had learnt from Covid-19 the NHS put in place a genuinely effective track-and-trace program, and the vastly smaller scale of the mpox outbreak meant the response was unaffected by the industrial-scale greed, corruption and profiteering that hampered the response to Covid.

Rapid response

The UK has had 3,732 confirmed cases of mpox since 6 May 2022. Almost all of these were among men who have sex with men, and transmission was more likely to occur in group sex settings and at gay saunas or sex clubs.

A month into the outbreak in June last year, the UK Health Security Agency (who respond to epidemics and pandemics) carried out a rigorous investigation into the 366 confirmed cases at that point. They found that four-fifths of cases were in London, and that 99% of all cases were among men who have sex with men (around 44% of whom had recently visited saunas, dark rooms or sex clubs).

Figure 1 for 7 Dec 2023 update

Mpox cases in the UK per week over most of 2023.


This detailed analysis, which included 45 one-on-one interviews, allowed the NHS to take action fast. First, they carried out the painstaking work of track-and-trace – ringing up each confirmed case and trying to trace their recent sexual partners. They were helped by mpox being much less transmissible than Covid-19, meaning that it rarely passed from one person to another other than through sex.

The NHS then rolled out a vaccination program. Sensibly, given the evidence, this was targeted at gay and bisexual men (despite the bizarre and misguided claim on social media and some parts of the legacy media that this was somehow homophobic). I had my first of two jabs in October 2022 (given that the majority of cases were in London, the vaccine roll-out was focused there initially).

Values and fears

This approach worked. Over time, cases fell dramatically to near-negligible levels. Throughout most of 2023 there were only one or two new cases a week, and in many weeks, zero (numbers peaked in late October with ten new confirmed cases in a week, before tailing off again). The epidemic has been effectively dealt with.

This has barely been reported in the media, despite the initial panic when the recent outbreak started. The reasons why speak to deep, systemic problems with journalism in this country – a model that is now so broken that it utterly fails in its job to help us understand the world and the events that happen within it.

Royal navy covid vaccine

Royal Navy personnel administering the Covid-19 vaccine in Bristol.

UK Government on Wikimedia Commons.

Firstly, traditional forms of journalism over-report a threat and under-report solutions that deal with that threat. Put simply, the story is more ‘newsworthy’ when its a serious danger than when that danger has been effectively responded to: ‘If it bleeds, it leads’. Monkeypox was never going to be a serious risk to anyone in the UK other than men who have sex with men, but it was in the commercial interests of the legacy media – especially the tabloid press – to make the outbreak front-page news.

Secondly, the fact that the epidemic was dealt with swiftly and effectively by the public sector ran counter to the narratives and values of the legacy media. Chronic underfunding by successive governments, and the very real problems that has created in the health service, has created a false narrative that the entire NHS is in a bad state and incompetent.

But the NHS’s rapid, effective and unremarkable handling of the mpox epidemic doesn’t make sense within this narrative, so it isn’t reported.

Hidden interests

Documentary-maker Adam Curtis has said that journalists have given up on explaining what happens in the world as being the result of complex and often contradictory systems, and have instead resorted to fitting all events into simple overarching narratives (“The NHS is collapsing” is an example). Any events that don’t fit with the narrative have to be excluded or go unreported – otherwise this approach doesn’t work.

Irish daily mirror

The Irish Daily Mirror on 20 May 2022.

Irish Daily Mirror.

But it goes deeper than that. Below these narratives are a set of beliefs that drive them. The underlying beliefs in this case are that the public sector is inefficient and incompetent compared to the private sector, and can’t be trusted to do anything right. These beliefs are rooted in the dominant ideology of neoliberalism.

Stories that appear to support this belief are given front-page prominence (the government’s incompetent handling of Covid-19), while stories that contradict it (the government’s handling of mpox) are buried. More often than not, the beliefs that legacy journalists adhere to on a subconscious level are wildly inaccurate (Mariana Mazzucato’s book The Entrepreneurial State shows how, in reality, the public sector is usually much more competent, efficient and innovative than the private sector).

Why are these beliefs so embedded in our legacy media? Most newspapers in the UK are owned by large corporations or billionaires, and it’s simply in their business interests to support and propagate a set of values that say that private enterprise is good, and that the public sector’s main job should be to get out the way of the wealth creators.

But the evidence emerging from the Covid-19 Inquiry shows that the opposite is true – that the lethal incompetence at a vast scale that characterised the government’s response to the pandemic was largely driven by the private sector. This includes both the limitless greed and profiteering in PPE procurement and the fiasco of the outsourced ‘Test and Trace’ service. The part that the NHS ran in-house, the vaccine roll-out, is widely acknowledged by experts as the only part that worked well.

Misinformed or ill-informed

If they were doing their jobs properly, journalists would explain this to you. They would tell you stories that reflect the complex and sometimes contradictory nature of reality, rather than just the specific stories that fit comfortably into their predetermined narratives. In time, this approach would help shift underlying values and beliefs that are, at best, inaccurate, and at worst actively harmful to us as humans.

At Now Then we’re going to be telling new kinds of stories in 2024 that unravel complex systems and play an active role in building a better world. This will move past the sensationalism, fear-mongering and cherry-picking that characterises the UK’s legacy media, and a form of journalism that is inadequate at explaining the world to us.

The dire reporting of the mpox outbreak is typical of an approach that impairs our understanding of all sorts of issues, whether health, finance, politics, or the dozens of other areas where newspapers keep us misinformed or ill-informed.

Sometimes journalists actively mislead us, because it’s not in the business interests of their billionaire paymasters for us to understand the corrosive effect of greed and extreme inequality. At other times, when the story no longer fits their narrative, it simply disappears.

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