The Labour leader’s bid to discredit journalists is the hallmark of politicians uncomfortable with the truth, writes Euan McColm
Among the many depressing aspects of the nascent presidency of Donald Trump, his willingness to brush off facts as fake news is especially troubling. How unsettling the thought that the American president cares nothing for truth.
That his supporters are willing to accept his brazen distortions whenever it suits them to do so gives a bleak insight into the mind of the true believer. Unquestioning and malleable, these devotees have turned from self-proclaimed patriots into defenders of a man who cares nothing for their previously beloved constitution.
The effect of Trump’s fake news strategy will be – for a substantial number of voters – the further delegitimisation of the mainstream media. Fortunately for these disenchanted souls, a steady stream of completely accurate information is available via the president’s spokesman, Sean Spicer, or straight from Trump himself, via Twitter. By ignoring the fake news of the mass media, supporters may reassure themselves that their guy is a visionary who’ll make America great again, and not a lousy huckster.
Low though public opinion of journalism and those who practice it may be, the fact remains that the news media exists to perform a role on behalf of those who consume it rather than those who govern us.
Journalists test propositions to destruction, pick at the proclamations of politicians, and ask awkward questions on behalf of the voters who are now being told that their work is faked. Trump, I’m afraid, is succeeding in turning a substantial part of the population against organisations they should see as allies. Conspiracy theories about media collusion with dark, sometimes unspecified, forces have flooded from the fringes into the mainstream.
We have our own experience of a senior politician seeking to undermine news organisations when they reported facts unhelpful to his cause. During the 2014 independence referendum, with the Yes campaign still lagging behind despite his insistence that he was heading for victory, an increasingly desperate Alex Salmond began attacking the media, in particular the BBC. The corporation was completely biased, working against the people of Scotland and for the British state. You’ll remember the sort of thing.
Having convinced supporters that the BBC was not to be trusted, Salmond could then confidently dismiss any uncomfortable questions from the media on the grounds that this was just another example of bias. His attacks on the BBC and its then political editor Nick Robinson were not often coherent but they cut through to Yes campaigners who proceeded to march on Pacific Quay and demand the dismissal of journalists deemed to have transgressed.
The malign influence of the BBC on the result of the independence referendum remains one of Salmond’s obsessions. His disdain for the corporation is shared by many of those who share his disappointment over the referendum result.
As demagogues attack the press, we need politicians who will stand up for the rights of journalists to ask difficult questions. It’s time for those who say they believe in democracy to argue that a free press is a vital component.
Enter Jeremy Corbyn, leader of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition and the man who might yet kill the Labour Party. Asked on a BBC news programme last week about rumours he had informed colleagues of a date on which he planned to depart from the Labour leadership, Corbyn replied that he was surprised the BBC would report fake news.
The BBC was doing no such thing. In fact – and it’s dispiriting that this needs to be reiterated – a journalist put a question to him about speculation that had swept through the Labour Party. The most loyal Corbynistas are already deeply sceptical about the integrity of the BBC. He enthusiastically fed that paranoia to deflect from an awkward line of questioning.
Among Corbyn’s closest advisers – one thinks of his communication director Seumas Milne, for example – are those who lament the passing of the Soviet Union. It would appear that Team Corbyn looks to that rotten state for inspiration on how to disseminate information. Dissenting voices are being attacked and marginalised, while an officially agreed version of the truth is to be dictated by the party leadership. Triple vodkas, all round. Let’s drink to this brilliant – if sinister – con played on those labouring under the misapprehension that Corbyn could get within shouting distance of a general election victory.
Corbyn’s cynical adoption of Trump’s fake news play is contemptible. Make no mistake, the Labour leader and his acolytes know exactly what he is doing: he wants to undermine journalists who ask legitimate questions about his disastrous stewardship of his party. He wants to be able to dismiss awkward truths by pointing at the messenger and saying they cannot be trusted.
Belief in the idea of fake news created to deliberately misinform the public grants one immunity from having to think about one’s beliefs. It’s a thumbs up and “keys!” for adults purporting to be engaged with politics.
The press, of course, has played its own substantial role in damaging its credibility. But, even so, we should not simply accept from politicians the charge that the dishonest media is out to get them in lieu of answers to difficult questions.
The rise of Donald Trump to power and Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party are stories that share striking similarities. Both men were seen as outsiders, the chances of either winning their respective contests were written off as negligible and, having won, both have shown themselves to lack the competence required to effectively perform their roles.
Corbyn supporters may disdain President Trump, but their own political hero is happy to use the same tactics to get on. Corbyn has inflicted incalculable damage on the Labour Party since his election as leader in 2015. With his suggestion that reasonable journalistic questioning equates to fake news, it appears he now wants to damage our ability to hold the powerful to account.