Battles, bugs and beefburgers Becoming the public face of a crisis
The UK's chief medical officer could have seen out his career in relative obscurity, issuing the occasional well-timed intervention on public health matters.
Instead, the coronavirus outbreak has turned him into a household name overnight. He's been a regular at Downing Street press conferences alongside the chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, and speaks to potentially tens of millions of people on nightly news programmes.
A former professor of public and international health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, he is now having to deal with the enormous scrutiny that comes with shaping the government’s approach to the coronavirus crisis.
In 1990, the Conservative agriculture secretary, John Gummer, was struggling to combat growing concerns about the safety of British beef. With journalists and the public highlighting the risks of BSE – also known as mad cow disease – he saw his opportunity to show his belief in the safety of UK agriculture by getting his four-year-old daughter to tuck into a beefburger in front of camera crews at an event in his constituency. Unfortunately
Cordelia very publicly rejected the burger, creating one of the iconic images of the crisis.
The Falklands war was one of the last conflicts before rolling news coverage brought wars directly into people’s homes. It therefore fell to Ian McDonald, a Ministry of Defence civil servant, to be the face of the conflict for many Britons. He delivered updates on the battles between British forces and the Argentinians battling for the Falklands in the South Atlantic.
McDonald was known for his patient and careful delivery in matter-of-fact style, whether it was announcing the loss of a ship or a British victory on the battlefield.
Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf was the information minister in Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi government, becoming its frontman when a USled coalition invaded in 2003.
His enthusiastic predictions of the imminent demise of US troops were much mocked at the time, not least when he was filmed by journalists with US tanks behind him – earning the nickname Comical Ali or Baghdad Bob. Of late, observers have pointed out that his predictions of US failure in Iraq were ultimately correct.