By Senior Campaign Agent Luke Walpole
In the past three years, we’ve come to expect a new political ‘normal’. Much of that flows from the election of Donald Trump, but these ripples have been felt in South America, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and here in the UK. At the crest of this wave is the discrediting of journalism; a trend which, historically, has been a foundation of authoritarianism. A free press is a fundamental part of the political landscape, and it would be remiss to allow this siege to continue.
A few months ago, the world was enraged, for a few weeks at least, when journalist Jamal Khashoggi was brutally murdered by Saudi Arabian forces in a Turkish consulate. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) stated that he was one of 94 journalists to be killed in targeted attacks during 2018. For example, in Malta, Journalist and blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia’s was murdered via a targeted car bomb. At its simplest level, this is 94 too many.
But it is not just murder which should grab our attention. The discrediting of journalists across the globe has been a rhetorical device used by leaders of political parties to encourage support. By pitching the media as dishonest and misleading, political leaders entrench an adversarial tone which serves to undermine political stability, even if it is a sure fire way to elicit support. Phrases such as “Fake News” and “Alternative Facts” have become parodies and punchlines, but lay at the heart of a broader campaign of discrediting.
The language, however, goes further. Former Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico called journalists “filthy anti-Slovak prostitutes.” Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic has suggested that they are “spies in foreign pay.” Jean-Luc Mélenchon, of the French far-left, stated that “hatred of the media... is fair and healthy.” But this is not just an ideal consigned to the political fringes. Upon his election as president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro was adamant: “The elections are over. Enough lies. Enough fake news. Really, we’re in a new era.”
A new era indeed, yet in many ways it is appallingly regressive. Labelling the media, as Trump has, as “enemies of the people” only feeds into this swelling tide. For a country so deeply indebted to the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment, there is a growing faction in American politics which will only accept free speech if they agree with it.
To some, the assault of BBC cameraman Ron Skeans was a drop in the ocean and entirely incidental. It was solely the action of a man who had been whipped up to fever pitch and was acting without the consent or support of the establishment. However, the attack was symptomatic of a war on journalism which is distorting political discourse. It is all well and good for the Press Secretary, Sarah Sanders, to come out and condemn this assault, but this comes from the top. Trump has always had the ability to set the tone, something which has become even more acute since he took his place in the Oval Office. Unless he comes out in defence of the media, the vicious cycle will only continue.
So, what can be done?
Holding power to account does not mean that every story has to be Watergate. However, it also means that even simple stories need to be treated with keen accuracy. For instance, the BBC suggested that Donald Tusk had said all Brexiteers had a “place in Hell” waiting for them. Yet a simple, added piece of context shows you that Tusk was criticising those in key positions who had no contingency plan in place, not the entirety of the Brexit-voting populace.
On the other side, the often-repeated “sick of experts” phrase coined by Michael Gove (something which feels like it was said fifty years ago, not in 2016) has been used ever since as a yardstick for the apparent anti-intellectualism of populism. Yet once again, context informs us that Gove was criticising experts who consistently come in and get it wrong. This caveat may be small, but it is vital. The media is right to challenge the words used by presidents, but it also follows that their own words need to be pinpoint accurate, now more than ever.
The gradual swing away from the instant gratification - but lack of editorial oversight - which plagues Twitter is a good sign for journalism. People are turning to longer-form, well-researched pieces which have the benefit of breathing space. Additionally, the increased willingness of people to pay for their journalism is encouraging. Subscriptions to the New York Times have grown significantly, while The Guardian’s payment model is proving that you don’t just need to shift papers in order to run a media business. Supporting journalism is of paramount importance, even if it means paying a small financial fee.
This is all not to say that the media and politicians should be cosying up to each other. Both sides need to hold the other to account, but we need to reinstate a level of mutual respect. Politicians need to underscore the necessity of the media and treat severely those who threaten and kill journalists. British politicians ‘condemned’ the Saudi Arabians for their role in the Khashoggi affair, yet within weeks it was forgotten. Trump, too, has been eerily silent.
The media itself needs to recognise its partisan leanings without pandering and distorting facts. This may all sound conceptual, but on a day to day basis it requires vigilance from both parties, as well as the general public.It may feel like pushing against an authoritarian tide, but it’s vitally important.
Image: Jeff Eaton @flickr