Project Fear: How the Establishment took back control

After a chaotic weekend, Sajid Javid marked his first week as Health Secretary by signalling a move towards a more libertarian approach to covid restrictions. As 19th July draws closer, we can relax into a summer of sport and dream of Gareth Southgate’s boys bringing it home.

The national mood is a million miles from where it was during the depths of lockdown. And why wouldn’t it be, you might ask, we’re on our way out of a pandemic! But what if the misery wasn’t just because of the real-world impact of covid, but rather how it was presented?

Enter Laura Dodsworth’s A State of Fear: How the UK Government weaponised fear during the covid-19 pandemic. A surprise bestseller, Dodsworth’s new book claims fear inducing behavioural psychology has been at the heart of the government’s response to the pandemic.

Dodsworth opens her book with The Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviour’s (SPI-B) report, Options for increasing adherence to social distancing measures, from March 2020. “A substantial number of people still do not feel sufficiently personally threatened; it could be that they are reassured by the low covid death rate in their demographic group”. It recommended that “the perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased… using hard-hitting emotional messaging”.

The rest is history, and we all lived through it. What Dodsworth does is convincingly dissect what we experienced and argues that fear was used to manipulate, scare and frighten us into compliance with covid rules.

The reviews of the book are predictably partisan. It won plaudits from The Daily Telegraph and prominent lockdown sceptics such as Lord Sumption, yet drew ridicule from David Aaronovitch at The Times, who picked up Dodsworth’s unfortunate penchant for conspiracy theories, unnecessary to her arguments. But what this book represents is too important to relegate it to the ‘cult classic’ shelf.

Dodsworth argues there is a rise in authoritarianism, across the political spectrum, that has even seeped into science. As ever, communications is a critical enabler, but our industry’s deeper understanding of science, technology and behavioural insights has raised the stakes. With great influence wielded by communicators, her book reminds the industry of its great responsibilities. Like or loath it, A State of Fear poses questions that the industry cannot afford to ignore.

Can the ends justify the means? What should the limits be of the emerging field of behavioural psychology? What are our moral and ethical responsibilities and duties of care to people whose behaviour has been nudged?

Perhaps we can learn something from Southgate. Over the past two weeks, he has shown immense leadership, not just with great results on the pitch, but by uniting the country, authentically talking to people at their level and bringing them with him.

As we cheer England on tomorrow, remember the power of unity and how good it feels. We mustn’t let fear win.

Ben Cope