Developing Chapter 2: The Covid Briefing

Developing Chapter 2: The Covid Briefing

In this post, I explore the decisions made in developing this chapter of my dissertation because it set the tone for the rest of the essay. I thought that my initial at A3 was strong, but I will show how new ideas or changes, largely suggested by my tutor, were incorporated at A4 and A5.

Learning Objective

LO2 synthesised and articulated your critical, contextual and conceptual knowledge and understanding into a coherent critique of advanced academic standard

Developing Chapter 2: The Covid Briefing

1. A strong start

This is the structure presented at A3.

Chapter 2 (750 words) 

MEDICAL DOMINANCE IN THE ‘CORONAVIRUS PRESS BRIEFING.’ 

· Analysis of two images – Institutions employ motifs, graphs, and language to emphasise knowledge/power. 

· My content analysis 

· Mythologies of ‘war’ and ‘greatness,’ ideological system and practices 

· ‘Rules’ that counter resistance.

This is original text which is italics. I will annotate this with tutor comments

2. The whole of Chapter 2 (746 words) – COPY

Medical dominance in the ‘Coronavirus Press Briefing.’

Do institutions control people’s responses to medical images and knowledge?  Figures 1 and 2 are images from a televised ‘Coronavirus Press Briefing’ (BBC News Special: Coronovirus Update 15/02/2021, 2021). This was shown after the 3rd wave peak of cases when 15 million people had received their first vaccine.

Figure 1: BBC News Special: Coronavirus Update 15/02/2021 (2021) Directed by BBC. 15/02/2021; 32.06mins. At: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000ssfg/bbc-news-special-coronavirus-update-15022021?page=4 (Accessed  16/03/2021).

Figure 2: BBC News Special: Coronavirus Update 15/02/2021 (2021) Directed by BBC. 15/02/2021; 38.05mins. At: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000ssfg/bbc-news-special-coronavirus-update-15022021?page=4 (Accessed  16/03/2021).

NOTE: The images have been removed to avoid copyright issues. Underlining of the text is mine for selecting words of passage under discussion in this post.

The denotive aspects of this video are that three people enter a room to stand behind wooden lecterns which have placards on them which say, “Stay home – Protect the NHS – Save lives.” Screen texts inform us that this is the ‘Prime Minister,’ flanked by the ‘Chief Medical Adviser, Dr Chris Whitty,’ and ‘Chief Executive Officer of the NHS,’ Sir Simon Stevens. The Downing Street logo fills a TV screen to the left of the room and a suited man is signing speech to the right of the image. The room is wood-panelled, with elaborate light holders, a bright patterned carpet in front of the speakers and unfurled Union Jack flags visible in an anteroom (Fig 1).

The conative aspects are of these scenes are that three institutions orchestrate a display. The first is a broadcasting company that answers to government and “reflects the balance of opinion amongst elites” (Mills and Sinclair, 2017). Next, the institute of government is represented by its prime politician and two senior medical doctors, who also represent medical institutions and are answerable to politicians. This is a display of governmental, media and medical power; power within power, within power. This is a lecture about managing covid-19; most of us accept the reading that they have the knowledge and authority to do this, because ‘that is their job’ or ‘they know what’s best.’ Dr Whitty employs graphical images to re-enforce their knowledge credentials. 

EXTRACT FROM A3 TUTOR FEEDBACK

“Action points 

Terminology: Connotation and Denotation are crucial concepts in Semiotics, Structuralism, Marxism, Cultural Studies and in literary and cultural theory. I have been using connate and denote, and while they mean ‘implied’ and ‘literal’ this are NOT the correct technical words as used by Barthes. A subtle but important point. (Same precision applies to definitions too).”

I had not realised that technical meaning of connotation (and denotive) as opposed to the familiar conative word that I might use in another setting. This is about being precise. 20 minutes of reading Barthes and others put this right.

My content analysis participant’s speech reveals two main themes; “the vaccine rollout is going well’ and ‘there is still a threat as infection rates are very high.’ The commonest word used after “vaccine” was “high or very high;” Prof Chris Whitty used the latter word five times. The Prime Minister’s celebrates “powering past the target’s we have set,” and helping “vulnerable people” (the third most used phrase) and being cautious for the future. The context of this briefing is that it pre-dates a “road map” for reducing constraints amidst pressure from conservative politicians and other critics to release social restraints; they are the target audience for this briefing. 

Several myths are referenced in this tableau of signs and signifiers. The first is  ‘war briefings’ from the 1940’s; the union flag, the panelled room at “No 10”, reference past war successes. This analogy is inferred yet understood by viewers; “The meaning is already complete, it postulates a kind of knowledge, a past, a memory, a comparative order of facts, ideas and decisions (Barthes, 1957). The Prime Minister ‘wrapped’ in the Union Jack references past glories of when Britain was ‘Great,’ (Johnson, 2014). In this context his analogy reflects the success of British technology to produce a successful vaccine. These ideological systems, whose meanings and messages are orchestrated and founded on culture, knowledge and history, are read consciously or unconsciously by viewers.

EXTRACT FROM A4 TUTOR FEEDBACK

“Myths, audience and representations: Good section on myth – there is also the audience dimension “where viewers are willing participants in notions of empire” and are not simply observers. There is a cycle here of the production, consumption, and dissemination of visual material (Hall); visual culture is re-circulated by doctors, patients and media which continues to affect behaviour and future productions of visual media – spell that out.”

It was reading Barthes’ ‘Mythologies’ that helped me best to understand the notion of mythologies in societal displays. I was surprised that his explanations were as extensive as they were.

EXTRACT FROM A4 TUTOR MARGINALIA

Yes- it is also important to, at least, briefly comment on how this plays on the viewers’ desire to propagate the Great Empire notions; notions upon which many sins, like Brexit etc., are committed. The message is understood because this type of power relationship is already accomplished and shared between operator and spectator.

Several myths are coded in this tableau of signs (Barthes, 1977:33-35). The first myth signified is ‘war briefings’ from the 1940s, with signifiers of the Union Flag, panelled room, and “No 10”, that reference war successes and notions of ‘Empire’ such as the ethnocentrism of Brexit. The Prime Minister ‘wrapped’ in the Union Jack signifies past glories of when Britain was ‘Great,’ and references the success of British technology to produce a successful vaccine (Johnson, 2014). This analogy is inferred yet understood by viewers; “… it postulates a kind of knowledge, a past, a memory, a comparative order of facts, ideas and decisions” (Barthes, 1957:226-7). These ideological systems, whose meanings and messages are orchestrated here, are founded on culture, knowledge, and history, and are read and understood by viewers who at a distance share and reprise responses to these myths.  

EXTRACT FROM A3 TUTOR FEEDBACK 

“Further research: Research Erving Goffman and ‘total institutions.’ And Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, specifically the chapters “Performances” and Discrepant Roles”. 

This was a very helpful reference. I was familiar with Goffman’s work and had used dramaturgy as an interpretative framework for another degree. I had not noticed his ideas about false ‘fronts’ in public presentations which developed this section about ‘truth’ explaining behaviours in these briefings and as a counterpoint to ‘myth.’. This is the new section that went into A4. 

EXTRACT FROM MY A4 ESSAY

“A counterpoint to myth is truth; can the audience know that what is presented is truthful? Goffman, in his analysis of behavioural performances, discusses inauthentic performances or ‘false fronts,’ which he defines as “a discrepancy between fostered appearances and reality” (Goffmann, 1956;66). ‘Front,’ refers to the setting, and performers’ appearances and manner. Goffmann says that we can infer falsity and ‘secrets’ from what is said but we are unlikely to be able to define its substance if the performance is well constructed and ‘believed’ by presenters and audience (Goffmann, 1956;77). He concludes that, “…the real secret behind the mystery is that there really is no mystery” or indeed the “chief secrets are petty ones” (Goffmann, 1956;76). Perhaps that is the case with Boris Johnson’s attempt to defend his aide Dominic Cummings, about breaching Covid-19 regulations, in a Covid  briefing in May 2020? (Duncan, 2020). There was a ‘secret’ reason for Cummings’ strange behaviour, which was later revealed to be ‘prosaic’ information about personal security: a far cry from an explanation about ‘driving blind’ in Bishop Auckland (Shaw, 2021).”

Development of the text is a key theme in my learning. My tutor was keen that I explain the ideas in the text fully and where theory applies explaining how it impacts on the subject under study. 

One might argue that medical and political dominance in Covid-19 policy is a ‘preferred’ response; it is a natural, ideological and hegemonic. Doctors gift patients the power of a clinical gaze where patients accept their scientific knowledge. The problem is that not everyone shares this ideological view, which leaves little room for disagreement, challenge or counter narratives, such as those about delayed lockdown and increased coronavirus deaths. We see this in the ‘Q and A’ session of this briefing, where press and public are given an opportunity ‘challenge’ this strategic dominance. The leadership trio control what is sayable and ignore or neutralises disagreements, while superficially giving the appearance of public accountability. 

In his later writings Foucault comments that systems of power are usually strategic and always include plans to nullify dissent, “every relationship of power tends, both through its intrinsic course of development and when frontally encountering resistances, to become a winning strategy” (Foucault, 1994).

EXTRACT FROM A3 TUTOR FEEDBACK

Using Foucault“Take it further.” You should include more of his ideas and your reactions to his work so that he a visible partner or ‘foil’ in your essay. For example, the quote on strategies to quell dissent needs to be expanded to explain how this Foucauldian idea applies in this situation. 

There is a significant change here which follows a six-week period of studying several Foucault books, and in particular his understanding of practices that foster the control of power and subjugation of others. 

EXTRACT FROM MY A4 ESSAY

Foucault comments that systems of power are usually strategic and always include plans to nullify dissent, “every relationship of power tends, both through its intrinsic course of development and when frontally encountering resistances, to become a winning strategy” (Foucault, 1994a;346). There are three elements to Foucault’s conception of ‘strategy:’ a description of means to achieve a certain end; to consider how the audience will react; and to design procedures “to reduce him to giving up the struggle” (Foucault, 1994a;346-7). It is this last strategy of a carefully constructed question and answer section in this briefing, where strident questions from journalists are neutered so that control remains with the presenters and “Stable mechanisms replace the free flow of antagonistic reactions” (Foucault, 1994a;346-7). The leaders of this meeting vigorously control what is sayable and ignore or reflect disagreements, while superficially giving the appearance of public accountability. 

To summarise, in this Covid-19 briefing we see a regime of representation with visual and textual practices about medical knowledge of how to manage a pandemic, rules about talking about the pandemic and counter narratives, and practices for with dealing with people – its polities. In this essay, we will explore how we have arrived at these polities and means of representation and examine challenges to medical dominance in visual culture.

END 

EXTRACT FROM A4 TUTOR FEEDBACK

“SummariesAt the end of each chapter summarise the written response to the questions raised at the start of the chapter – spell it out. Recapitulate what you did and where it got you.”

This was the only chapter that had a summary at the end of each chapter until A5.

2. Reflections on developing Chapter 2

Chapter two had a strong analysis before I made changes. The main change was to clarify the ideas in it and extend it, as in Goffman’s insights and applying Foucault. As it was well-received it boosted my confidence a great deal and I began to be more precise about what I needed to do, particularly in developing theory and my thesis. I had a better sense of what was expected of me.

I could have chosen another chapter, such as the introduction, which is the most re-worked part of my dissertation, but this is the chapter where I can most clearly define what was the original and how it changed.