ONE of the most noticeable media phenomena of the last few chaotic weeks is the way in which otherwise huge stories have been lost beneath the barrage of information and updates brought about by the coronavirus.

An obvious example in Scotland is the way that the Alex Salmond trial has been partially hidden beneath the canopy of a global pandemic, relegated to the inside pages and virtually ignored in some editionalised London-based papers, where the trial has been all but forgotten.

As recently as two months ago, the vast majority of commentators had predicted that the proceedings of the High Court in Edinburgh would be Scotland’s so-called “trial of the century” and many were openly relishing the damage it would do to the independence movement. Irrespective of the outcome of the trial, most would agree it has not had anything like the expected levels of attention.

Nor is Scotland alone. All around the world, stories which might have dominated the news agenda are sidelined, subsumed or simply lost. The recovery stories of the Australian fires have been swept aside and Harvey Weinstein’s arrival in Rikers Island jail is now all but a footnote. The murder trial of Hashem Abedi at the Old Bailey would

normally have led news bulletins. Abedi was accused of helping his brother to plan the Manchester Arena terror attack, in which 22 died at an Ariana Grande concert, but it barely registered on network news. Yes it was dutifully covered but in a low-key way.

Another story missing in action is trade deals with the EU. Whatever happened to Brexit, the big idea that has dominated political discourse for years, has virtually vanished and those oven-ready trade deals appear to have been shoved to the back of the pantry. There is only one show in town and that is Covid-19, everything else is subservient to its alarming impact.

No matter how crucial the reporting of the pandemic has become, some stories are too important to leave buried as media afterthoughts. This week the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) annual report identified a recent surge in white nationalism in the US.

The SPLC’s report on extremist groups is usually a milestone in social affairs reporting but not so much this year. The 2020 report claims white

nationalist groups have risen 55% over three years – from 100 in 2017, to 148 in 2018, to 155 in 2019. A national climate of border controls, the war on terror and president Trump’s bellicose reign has provided the perfect backdrop for open and self-confident racism.

The SPLC is America’s leading anti-racist organisation. Based in Montgomery, Alabama, one of the cradles of civil rights movement, where in 1955 Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a local segregated bus, the centre has evolved into an organisation that monitors hate. Its focus is on tracking the activities of domestic hate groups and other extremists – including the Ku Klux Klan, the neo-Nazi movement, neo-Confederates, racist skinheads, black separatists, anti-government militias, Christian Identity adherents and others. Its annual report is usually a landmark moment for reflection, for opinion pieces and deep-dive investigative reporting but this year the report has fallen like droplets on editorial desks, as the interest is clearly elsewhere.

This year’s report describes a troubling faction of US white nationalism as “mainstreamers”, who often call

themselves members of the “dissident right” and try to appeal to a wider audience beyond old-style racism. “Much of the movement’s energy lies in the growing accelerationist wing, which, for the most part, is organized in informal online communities rather than formal groups,” the report says. The groups currently monitored by the centre are diverse in their hatred and include the Aryan Brotherhood, the Atomwaffen Division and the Oath Keepers. The Aryan Brotherhood’s motto is “blood in, blood out”. Chapters of thevirulently racist organisation can be found in most major federal and state prisons.

As a crime syndicate the AB participates in drug trafficking, male prostitution rings, gambling, and extortion inside prison walls. The Atomwaffen Division is a Nazi spin-off of a deeply unpleasant website called Iron March, which openly celebrated Aids and welcomed the death of gays, and the Oath Keepers, an organisation of former law enforcement officials and military veterans which spreads baseless conspiracy theories about state intervention and taxation.

Quite apart from the quality of the report itself, the centre publishes a remarkable piece of data visualisation – a heat map of racist presence in cities across America, which allows citizens and anti-racist activists to stay in touch with right-wing activity in their community.

The law centre is perhaps predictably sceptical about the White House and blames Donald Trump’s first presidential campaign for energising white nationalists, who they claim “saw him as an avatar of their grievances and their anxiety over the country’s demographic changes”. The resultant theory that white people are experiencing a “great replacement” by non-white populations is a powerful force driving far-right extremism, according to the report.

It will be a year before we know whether Trump’s targeted insults at Chinese and Koreans for the outbreak of the coronavirus will lead to changed racial attitudes to Asian-Americans, thus far Trump has used the term “Chinese virus” and more recently his talk of “a hidden enemy” raises the temperature of division.

Trump’s short, firm Twitter rhetoric may work amidst the hasty crassness of social media but it is alarmingly vile in times of global caution and sensitivity. As the Daily Record’s Westminster editor Torcuil Crichton put it: “Trump is blatant in his search for a scapegoat for his own failure to act earlier.”

What neither Trump, nor the UK’s flailing and increasingly incoherent Prime Minister Boris Johnson, seem to understand is the dangers of off-the-cuff grandstanding. Both think that complex matters of public policy can be resolved by one-liners, glib catch-phrases and barrel-scraping jokes. Johnson has been a desperately poor performer in recent weeks, easily upstaged by the peerless Nicola Sturgeon, who seems to find the tone and the tenacity for challenging times.

Whilst the coronavirus crisis has underlined the qualities of compassionate leadership, it has relegated too many important news stories to virtual irrelevance. Last week the draft conclusions of the independent review into the treatment of Caribbean migrants who were detained or deported as part of the Windrush Scandal implied that the Home Office itself, or powerful figures from within

Westminster, have influenced the final report. Earlier accusations that the Home Office was “institutionally racist” over its “hostile environment” policy towards migrants have been removed from the delayed report, raising the spectre of political interference. The 275-page report claims that the roots of the problem could be traced back to racially motivated legislation during the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

In normal times, an independent review of central government’s bad practice would be the stuff of front-page news and extensive journalistic scrutiny and whilst most major papers did report on the findings, they were buried beneath a mountain of material on the Covid-19.

No-one is arguing that the media should dial down their coverage of what is a global health pandemic, but there has to be a reasonable hierarchy of value. Last week saw too many important news stories overwhelmed by journalism that at times creaked with desperation – reports on celebrities singing online Imagine songs, personal anecdotes about trips to the supermarket and so-what stories about relatives stuck for a few hours at a continental airport. It often smacked of feeding anxiety rather than explaining it.

Coronavirus will dominate our media for many months to come yet, and rightly so – but that does not mean a wholesale abandonment of news values or significant stories. Perspective can be a great antidote in troubled times.