Podcasts are a vital tool for understanding – and bearing – our new world

Photo from Thorpe Woods, Norwich, by author.

Like most people, my state-mandated exercise regime under lockdown is very simple. Every few days, it’s off on the bike for a dart around the hinterlands of East Norfolk – invariably taking a liberal attitude to the one-hour time limit and exhausting myself in the process. Cycling is the perfect physical solace: feeding my Columbus-like thirst for geographical exploration where, unlike running, you can rest on the downhills.

But equally valuable on the “off-days” (a term which perhaps overstates my levels of commitment) is a brisk evening stroll over the main road, to the field at the back of the village that a kindly local farmer has unlocked for the collective sanity of the residents. This is my mental release, as I stick on my headphones and enter the realm of the podcast. Whether it’s to escape the Covid-19 world for a familiar, less fearful time, to listen to the experts making sense of the fundamental alterations to come, or just to hear some new examples of basic human interaction, the coronavirus podcast is indispensable.

Even before the lockdown, the podcast dominated the listening market like the radio of the mid-twentieth century. According to Apple, approximately 550,000 podcasts and 18.5 million episodes now exist. Remarkably this blend of “iPod” and “broadcast” has been growing in popularity and scope since at least 2004. Somewhat late to the party, I discovered my first podcast, FiveThirtyEight Politics, in mid-2016, in order to better understand the lunacy of a fateful presidential election that has directly led to more than 500 cases of Americans injecting themselves with bleach. Listening was a reason to unwind from academic work, finding exercise, education and entertainment in the process. It felt particularly productive that, given how slowly the English language is spoken, it is easy to tick off episodes at 1.5x speed without compromising on comprehension.

In my view, the best features of podcasts are brevity, focus (a good content-to-small talk ratio) and the charismatic connection between hosts that leaves you inadvertently grinning like a nutter in the middle of the local park. There is as much to appreciate in the relatability of listening to real-life friends with their banter and idiosyncrasies – which cannot be easy to impart through the constraints of the medium – as the content itself. I found the hit podcast My Dad Wrote A Porno as entertaining for the interplay between hosts Jamie Morton (saddled with the father in question), Alice Levine and James Cooper as for the hilarity of hearing a middle-aged man’s supposedly erotic fiction. This is a formula hit upon in television format by the popular Channel 4 series Gogglebox, which I also watch religiously.

Still, particularly engaging hosts have produced some stunning monologue series. The same virtuosic creativity with words that animates Harry Potter audiobooks applies to Stephen Fry’s Great Leap Years and Seven Deadly Sins podcast series. In the latter, he re-defines the seven deadly sins away from Christian doctrine to encompass the modern fetishization of identity politics within “pride” and hyper-materialist Instagram culture to explain “envy” and “greed”. Cambridge Professor David Runciman’s Talking Politics: History of Ideas (a lockdown spin-off from the regular Talking Politics podcast) similarly adapts lectures on complex political themes to 45-minute chunks, made accessible through left-field parallels: for instance, between 19th century theorist Benjamin Constant’s conceptions of liberty and the lyrics of Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab”.

Since lockdown I’ve been less concerned with podcast brevity – we all need some way to fill the evenings bereft of social life – and more with the simple ability to eavesdrop on conversations between hosts and guests evidently relishing each other’s (virtual) company. Russell Brand’s Under the Skin encapsulates this as Brand interrogates the philosophical and psychological challenges of lockdown with a range of guests, alongside more diverting, wide-ranging content with famous names such as Ricky Gervais. The episode with Gervais encompassed comedy as a means to express authenticity and identity, the themes of grief and loss so sensitively conveyed in Gervais’ Netflix series After Life, but also religion and spirituality, all within an hour. It was a pleasure in itself to hear two highly intelligent, “self-made” men with diverse life experiences talk about something other than Covid-19.

My favourite podcast, The Tennis Podcast, combines an unreserved relationship between hosts, a thrilling subject matter and – an even more powerful drug at present – nostalgia. Adjusting to the likely prospect of no tennis for the rest of 2020 (as one of the most global sports, it might never return to “normal”), hosts David Law, Catherine Whitaker and Matt Roberts have delved into their capacious archive for embarrassing predictions, terrible Grand Slam finals, and historic evidence that the Big Three of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are in fact human. Interspersed with such diversions are “Tennis Re-lived” episodes – often, in my experience, “Never Lived” – focusing on the best matches and stories from across the Open Era. I particularly enjoyed the April episode on the 1986 Fed Cup which combines sport, identity and history in the story of Martina Navratilova’s emotional return to her native Czech Republic as an American who defected from the communist state in 1975. Law and Whitaker are outstanding tennis journalists whose weekly podcasts (daily at the Grand Slams) undoubtedly helped me fall in love with the game. Roberts, as a level-headed graduate often arbitrating David and Catherine’s amusing disputes, was a great addition to the team in 2019. Their reportage on inequities in the game – between genders; between Top 100 players and those below who cannot earn enough to make a living; between singles and doubles – is as important as discussions of current storylines.

Finally, on more positive days, I relish the political podcasts that first introduced me to the medium. As a Cambridge student I became aware of Talking Politics, a podcast crafted some 500 metres from my college, as the vital means to make sense of current affairs not only in Britain but regularly the U.S., Italy, France, and worldwide. David Runciman’s podcast gathers experts on current affairs but also history (Gary Gerstle), economics (Helen Thompson and Adam Tooze), political theory (Chris Brooke, Lucia Rubinelli) and a full cast of external guests. I rely on Talking Politics for my reading – I even used discussions on the 2008-9 financial crisis to construct an MPhil essay – and political conjecture that lacks the unfiltered immediacy and sensationalism of most Covid-19 news.

As another American presidential election comes into view, Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast is an equally useful tool to gauge the situation with the Lunatic-in-Chief across the pond. Regular discussions of polling data, economic statistics and virus-related CDC information demonstrate the global similarities in the battle against the disease. Yet while President Trump belittles his medical team and has lost interest in Covid-19 as a tool to win the election, the podcast also demonstrates the complete unfamiliarity of a British viewer with the American situation. As BBC America Editor Jon Sopel has written, if only they didn’t speak English.

I have been so disappointed with the sensational, negative picture provided by print and broadcast media during this lockdown period. Such an uncertain situation demands longer-form, dispassionate analysis from true experts who are willing to weigh up evidence and admit when they don’t know something. The daily picture of suffering and monotony also calls out for glorious diversion. Podcasts are the answer: engaging human interaction and mental stimulation providing hope for the present, possibilities for the future and a guilt-free dose of nostalgia for the past. It’s never been more important to shut off the world for an hour, do something resembling exercise, and listen to a podcast.


Lukewarm in lockdown? Attitudes to the UK government and media Covid-19 response

From: standard.co.uk

I compiled a survey through Google Forms over a 7-day span between Saturday 18th and Friday 24th April 2020. Respondents were asked a range of questions related to government and media handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, principally in the United Kingdom. I am very grateful to all 157 people who participated. The full details of where to find the survey report are found at the bottom of this blog.

The survey intended to explore attitudes from the full range of age groups behind the headline results of opinion polling on the coronavirus crisis, on the communications side in particular. As such, the questions cover topics from the government’s communications strategy to policy decisions, the value of media information and the role of the opposition in this crisis – a topic which elicited countless thoughtful and measured responses.

As a snapshot of the attitudes of family, friends and our respective social networks, the survey does not claim to have reached a statistically significant sample size. Nonetheless, it surmises a number of valuable conclusions:

• A slim majority (51%) of participants think that the UK government has responded well to the pandemic, compared to the one-third who believe they have responded badly. In general, older and female participants have a more positive view of the government’s response.

• Conversely, only 26% of respondents believe that the UK media has responded well to, and reported effectively on, the Covid-19 pandemic. Nearly 40% of participants have a neutral view, and 36% respond negatively. Those with a negative view are somewhat more male than female, while there is no significant age correlation.

• Less than a fifth of those surveyed judge the UK as well or very well prepared for a pandemic. Long-term contingency planning and lack of investment in the NHS and public services are widely cited as key reasons that have limited the government’s response.

• Nevertheless, trust in the government has stayed the same, or increased, for over three-quarters of participants. A majority do not see this crisis as connected to their view of the Conservative Party from an electoral perspective; indeed, 83% of respondents believe that party politics should not feature at a time of national emergency.

• The government’s communications strategy during the lockdown is viewed favourably by a slim majority of those surveyed, although those with negative views expressed them with considerably more passion than those with a positive opinion. While 89% of respondents have watched the daily media briefings on the crisis, most are watching them less than they used to. This is a likely sign of their reassurance (particularly with the performance of Chancellor Rishi Sunak) and the normalisation of the lockdown, as we enter the sixth week of distancing restrictions.

• Most respondents believe that the lockdown – and the government message underpinning it – are working. They view the measures as well-judged, or, in 30% of cases, somewhat too relaxed. While a majority judge that the lockdown was enforced too late, only 26% of those surveyed believe that the British government continues to struggle with the pace of events as regards an “exit strategy”.

• Angela Merkel’s Germany is viewed as the nation that has dealt with the pandemic most effectively so far, while 78% of respondents identify the US led by Donald Trump as the least successful nation. Judgments on the severity of the crisis, communication, rates of testing and tracing, and the compassionate following of medical advice constitute key features of the participants’ answers.

• A plurality of respondents acknowledge the hyperbolic tendencies of all types of UK media. Still, TV and radio broadcasting is viewed as the most useful news source in its coverage of the pandemic, with 56% of respondents identifying the BBC positively. For all age groups except 65 and over, print media is most negatively received – the tabloid press in particular. The performance of internet media has proven most divisive among under 25s, with older participants tending towards a neutral view.

• On “leadership” and “trust” questions, men prove somewhat less willing than women to support the institution mentioned in the question or statement. For instance, 14% more men than women agree that the government has not taken the strain on medical, caregiving and other essential services seriously enough. 25% more women disagree with the statement that the media has privileged positive stories over conveying the magnitude of illness and suffering. In general, this trend raises the question of whether women tend to have sympathy with the government and media response to this crisis. Meanwhile, men tend to be more sceptical; perhaps out of a sense that they know, and could do, better.

This forms the summary section of my full survey. Click here for the complete findings, with a myriad of colourful charts and graphs. The hyperlinks to other recommended studies and to navigate within the document should work if you download the PDF. Enjoy!


Male, pale and stale: The optical problem of Britain’s political response to Covid-19

What unites every one of the eight Cabinet ministers that has participated in one of Downing Street’s daily coronavirus briefings? They are men. Despite highly relevant briefs – the Home Office (Priti Patel); Work and Pensions (Therese Coffey); International Trade (Liz Truss) – no female minister has been involved in any of these press conferences. In the midst of a public health emergency in 2020, this is an indictment on a political establishment supposedly progressing towards equitable gender representation.

So what? – you might say: it’s only a press conference. And it is true that women have filled 40% of the non-political slots at these briefings; five have presented in total, compared with six men. But why is there a near-equitable gender distribution of medical and scientific talent, yet a total lack of female politicians to lead these briefings? Patel, Truss and Coffey are not accomplished media performers, and the other three female members of Cabinet – Baroness Evans, Anne-Marie Trevelyan and Amanda Milling – are untested. But Robert Jenrick and Dominic Raab hardly ooze charisma. The problem is in presentation: what message does male dominance communicate to girls with political aspirations? What does it typify about those who command the levers of power? And what does the masculine language of battles and warfare so ubiquitous in these briefings do to connect and empathise with normal people, struggling to quantify what is being asked of us? These briefings suggest that what is normal – even expected – governance in a crisis can only be provided by men.

Perhaps this would be forgivable if the public messaging was crisp, clear and measured with a genuine understanding of the sacrifices that ordinary citizens have had to make. But since the start of March, our government’s presentation of its coronavirus response has been chaotic at best. From a default of absenteeism, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was finally persuaded to start daily briefings on 16th March and reluctantly imposed his strategy to suppress the virus only one day after expressing public horror that the police might be required to enforce social distancing. Now stricken in intensive care with Covid-19, I of course wish him a speedy, full recovery, but his case raises questions about whether different social guidelines were seen to apply in Westminster to the rest of the country. Furthermore, the default of Cabinet ministers such as Robert Jenrick and Michael Gove is to obscure policy on thorny issues – especially with regard to virus testing and increasing ventilator supplies – such that we rely on medical and scientific experts to piece together government strategy. Regardless of the detail of policy, their manner of presentation consistently alludes to what Caroline Criado-Perez, in her ground-breaking 2019 book Invisible Women, calls the “default male” perspective. The way the daily briefing is communicated links to the ‘misguided belief in the objectivity, the rationality… of the [white] male perspective.’[1]

With the exception of Chancellor Rishi Sunak, this communication deficit applies to the male politicians much more than the male experts. Chief Medical Officer for England, Chris Whitty, and Chief Scientific Officer Patrick Vallance do not attempt to cover gaps in their knowledge with bluster and provide useful advice. But I wonder whether these men, of a similar age and background to their Cabinet colleagues, can give – for example – young women, single mothers or self-employed workers the full reassurance that they understand the burden of lockdown and social distancing for people like them.

This is where the diverse representation of the medical community – from Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jenny Harries to Chief Nurse Ruth May – is critical at this briefing. Advice from May, with her day-to-day knowledge of the “frontline” in hospitals, carries more weight than that of ministers reading from autocues. Where Boris Johnson dubiously declared that we could ‘turn the tide of the virus in 12 weeks’, Harries has always calmly urged caution, stating that 6 months is more likely. She has reassured with her explanation of the detail of social distancing and the long-term rationale behind once-contentious school closures.

Harries compares to Deborah Birx, the White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator: both strong communicators and the sole women regularly invited to give these briefings. In stressing the importance of social distancing, Birx spoke of her grandmother’s anguish at bringing home the 1918 Spanish flu from school, which led to her great-grandmother’s death, and on Monday told Americans that she refused to visit her ill 10-month-old granddaughter to prevent the virus spread. This solemn display of a leading figure putting theory into practice provides welcome relief in President Trump’s rambling and similarly male-dominated news conferences, which belittle medical advice and erode trust in government.

The female political perspective is so valuable as it facilitates the inclusion of marginalised groups in a shared, societal effort to combat coronavirus. This has been evidenced in Norway and New Zealand, where Prime Ministers Erna Solberg and Jacinda Ardern respectively have hosted press conferences for children. No doubt informed by their experience of motherhood, these served to allay, without patronisation, young fears about the virus’ impact on schooling and family life. Ardern has been praised for her transparency during the crisis, presenting a practical four-stage framework for combating Covid-19 which, at the time of writing, has taken the country beyond the peak to its lowest level of cases in two weeks.

Writing in The Conversation, Suze Wilson of Massey University, New Zealand, wrote of Ardern’s capacity as an excellent ‘public motivator’ during the emergency. ‘In freely acknowledging the challenges we face in staying home’, she writes, ‘from disrupted family and work lives to people unable to attend loved ones’ funerals’, Ardern demonstrates the empathy lacking in male-dominated national political briefings. One could scarcely see Dominic Raab, for instance, sensitively improvising a response to a question about the Easter bunny.

Wilson attributes Ardern’s crisis proficiency to a mastery of the Mayfields model: an American metric of leadership consisting of direction-giving, meaning-making and empathy.[2] We can view in the responses of President Trump – or Prime Minister Johnson’s address of 23rd March imposing Britain’s lockdown – plenty of the overused, characteristically male trait of direction-giving. But neither has grappled well with the meaning of sacrifices required to suppress the virus (Trump stated his refusal to follow advice to wear a face mask), nor much compassion. Having staked his reputation as an object of fun, Johnson is temperamentally unsuited to this. But if the emotional resonance of emergency measures given by largely male leaders is blurred, how can citizens be expected to take orders?

Molly Crockett, associate professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University, refers to a “projection bias” or “naïve realism” in which white men in particular assume our way of thinking is a societal norm when truly our bias is exacerbated in a culture that reflects our experience back to us.[3] As such, incorporating more female voices to government will lead to more flexible decision-making, pragmatism and a hesitancy to accept established wisdom. If British governments had taken gender balance seriously over the last decade, might we have a pandemic response plan more like New Zealand’s and less like the reality: a report virtually unmodified since its writing by Labour Health Secretary Alan Johnson in 2009? This report assumed a strategy of mitigation in a Covid-19-type situation, leading to 250,000 deaths, and was followed persistently – despite the drastic lockdown precedents taken in China or Italy – by our male-dominated political leadership until the Prime Minister’s volte-face on 23rd March.[4]

To blame the male dominance of politics for our sluggish pandemic response is probably going too far. Nations have pursued a range of experimental remedies to a global disease unprecedented in its scale and virulence. But the male dominance of politics should be blamed for the vague, confused and emotionally-stunted presentation of the United Kingdom’s policy. This is seen in direct opposition to the more reassuring, empathetic entreaties from a medical and scientific community that reflects the talents of both genders.

I’m not suggesting that by enlisting Priti Patel to head the British government’s daily briefing, communication will suddenly improve. Lest we forget, also, that Nicola Sturgeon’s Chief Medical Officer in Scotland, Catherine Calderwood, was forced to resign on Sunday for failing to follow her own advice on essential travel. My intention has been to probe the endemic, structural problem of male bias mistaken for common sense, which is exacerbated by a chronically unbalanced Cabinet in this time of crisis. The optics of a pale, stale but particularly male press briefing raises myriad questions about how effectively our nation can be governed in this emergency.

[1] Caroline Criado-Perez, Invisible Women (2019), p. 24.
[2] Suze Wilson, ‘Three reasons why Jacinda Ardern’s coronavirus response has been a masterclass in crisis leadership’, The Conversation, 5th April 2020 [Link].
[3] See Caroline Criado-Perez, Invisible Women (2019), pp. 269-70.
[4] See Harry Lambert, ‘Why weren’t we ready?’, New Statesman, 30th March 2020 [Link].

Chart 1: Speakers in daily UK government Covid-19 press briefing
[Source: YouTube]