A man might have bitten a dog. We’re not sure. But if the man had bitten a dog, (e.g. the COVID-19 virus escaped from a bio-weapons lab in Wuhan), it would be an incredible, earth-shaking story. But we’re far from certain. We are sure, however, that even if we can’t prove the man has bitten a dog, the interest in this scenario is so high, we really can’t help writing about it. Because, the internet and because of great power politics.
Media doesn’t generally report on the ramifications for murders that did or didn’t happen, or wars that did or didn’t start. Generally, something has to happen to be news. One exception could be the early reporting of the suspected death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He was reported dead numerous times.
With the Wuhan lab leak story, it’s hard to recall another tale that is so frequently trotted out despite the lack of verification.
A criterion for a fact in news is that it is verifiable, or at least mostly verifiable, or at least has the possibility for verification.
The Wuhan lab leak story – because it’s action is located behind the Great Firewall, in a country controlled by a government both authoritarian and evasive – really has none of that. On a good day, the Wuhan lab leak story has a less than 50 per cent chance of being a plausible explanation. The odds never seem to change.
No matter how many virologists have a change of heart, or Trumpian partisans have a brain wave about this, the facts just aren’t firm enough. The details are not known. The origins of COVID-19 remain murky. The facts remain obscured because of the Chinese government’s actions. But adding one fact (an outbreak occurred) to another fact (China is hiding something) does not equal the third fact that “China created COVID-19 in a weapons lab.”
Yet, there is tremendous appetite in the weaponized virus scenarios being proven true. There is genuine anger at China for their mishandling of the pandemic, which it helped unleash on the world. The anger and uncertainty helps drive interest in endless articles, debates, and even books about what may or may not have happened.
At the end of the day, this news is written from the grassy knoll.
Because it’s not driven by facts, but suspicions, it smacks of “post-journalism” rather than reporting.
Pursuing a story in the hopes of holding a government to account is legitimate. But it’s not clear the CCP is feeling the pressure. Instead, a non-disprovable conspiracy theory is reventilated and recast over and over. Online, it begins to rate higher in searches and go viral on social media. The Wuhan lab leaks story begins to generate its own momentum.
If democracy relies on the possibility and power of truthful discourse, tolerating the media amplifying speculation for profit is a sorry substitute.
Geopolitically, hyping an uncertain conclusion runs the risk of becoming the flawed basis for future action.
The idea of Western media seizing on an uncertainty as a motive for political action brings to mind another famous case of that: the Gulf of Tonkin incident. The North Vietnamese probably didn’t fire on a US Navy vessel, but it was much more politically expedient to contend that North Vietnam did do this.
An almost predictable, fully avoidable political tragedy ensued.
What surprises me in the Wuhan lab leak saga is how it diverts Western attention from facts we know to be true about China’s mishandling of the outbreak. China did deceive the world in the critical early days of the pandemic outbreak in Wuhan.
To what degree we don’t know.
But some basic facts and dates are verifiable.
The World Health Organization’s own review of what happened in the initial stage of the pandemic concluded:
“It is glaringly obvious to the Panel that February 2020 was a lost month, when steps could and should have been taken to curtail the epidemic and forestall the pandemic.” The major factors in the uncertainty and delay was China, where the government response was to hush the medical people warning about the new illness, such as Dr Li Wenliang.
What would a deeper investigation of this timeline yield? Probably a lot. What would it tell us about China’s communication with the WHO?
Much of this would be verifiable from what was known publicly at the time.
But those stories aren’t being prosecuted. It’s as if the lack of free speech in China for the medical sector has been forgotten.
In reality, we’re all paying the price.
And instead of a march toward a central place, where we can find the truth of the matter, we’re being encouraged by merchants of conspiracy to let our imaginations roam and wonder.
Our understanding of the pandemic’s beginning moves from one of forensics to one of fables.