Journalists trained in ‘balanced’ reporting are being manipulated into publicising the far-right’s lies, writes Joyce McMillan.
In all the blazing row which has erupted over Donald Trump’s decision to retweet some hate-mongering, anti-Muslim propaganda from the far-right group Britain First, one thing is clear. This tiny, marginal and widely despised organisation – one of whose supporters shouted out its name last year as he viciously murdered the young Labour MP Jo Cox – could never in a thousand years have afforded to buy the publicity they have now been given, free of charge, by the man elected last year as President of the United States.
Since the President’s tweets first appeared, mainstream news audiences across the western world have been treated both to detailed descriptions of the blurry video material first posted by Britain First’s deputy leader, and to opportunities to watch the videos themselves.
Then, throughout most of the British broadcast media, the debate over these images – deliberately manipulated and chosen to show Muslims and their faith in the worst possible light – has been subjected to what one commentator here in Scotland has called “the balance thing”; in other words, the presumption that in an argument between quasi-criminal hate-mongering and normal political debate – or, straightforwardly, between lies and truth – broadcasters have an obligation to give equal air time to both, thereby legitimising and helping to normalise a kind of politics that can only lead towards violence, social breakdown, and immense human pain.
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As a result – and following robust criticism of the President by the British government and others – audiences in the UK have now been treated to a second round of sickening pro-Trump propaganda, suggesting that it does not matter whether the videos were genuine or not (since the existence of the “Muslim threat” is not to be questioned), and that Theresa May should be focussing on an alleged “crisis” of Muslim violence in Britain.
In just 36 hours, in other words, Mr Trump has succeeded in pushing British political debate on this matter measurably to the right, in radically raising the profile of Britain First, in promoting the insidious suggestion that Britain is actually awash with Muslim violence which is somehow being concealed from its citizens, and in actively encouraging a culture of hatred and distrust among different communities in this country.
Although some powerful voices have been raised in the UK against the President’s increasingly obvious racist views – notably those of Jo Cox’s widowed husband Brendan, and of the Prime Minister herself – the ideological shock-troops of the American right must surely be congratulating themselves on another major victory in souring the political discourse of the once-liberal west.
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The question of where we go from here, in other words, is one of the most vital and the most critical that we in the western world have faced since 1945. Certainly broadcasting organisations such as the BBC need to re-evaluate their definitions of “balance” in the light of what is happening to western politics. Ever since the emergence of the debate between serious climate science and climate change “deniers”, this question has been posing itself ever more acutely. It surfaced strongly during the EU referendum campaign, when many felt that the strict electoral rules of balance applied by broadcasters were giving a spurious legitimacy to arguments that were factually false.
And then beyond questions of fact, there are questions of values; in covering events like Wednesday’s suicide at The Hague of the convicted Croatian war criminal Slobodan Praljak, for example, it’s arguable that an organisation like the BBC should not simply be reporting this as a human interest story – and therefore allowing his lawyer an unopposed opportunity to attack and defame the International Criminal Court for alleged injustice – but has at least some obligation to uphold the civic values behind the existence of the court, perhaps by giving a matching voice to the victims of Praljak’s crimes.
It is possible to understand the whole post-war settlement as an attempt to put policies like genocide, or the mass removal of civil rights, beyond the pale in international law, and to make it impossible for any nation to legitimise such acts through the manipulation of public opinion.
So where journalistic organisations now find themselves under pressure to recognise and readmit policies of these kinds into public debate, they should at least be holding very serious public and internal discussions on whether and where any line should be drawn, in suggesting that all points of view should be heard and discussed, and on how they should deal with a new reality in which material previously considered completely marginal, and clearly based on ridiculous lies and distortions, is suddenly at the top of the news agenda – put there by the man who is still, arguably, the most powerful leader in the western world.
While the pain of decent people at hearing such hate-mongering voices on mainstream media is understandable, though, there is an element of shooting the messenger about some of the anger such coverage attracts. The bitter fact is that the American Presidency is now in the hands of a man who chooses to promote ethnic hatred in terms all too familiar from history, and who shows many signs of sympathy for white supremacist thinking. For so long as he is President, his acts and his views – however repellent – will be reported, debated, and given further currency. And while Mr Trump’s actions this week clearly bring him into conflict with the core principles of the country he leads, so far there is no sign of the American body politic gathering the courage to name him as unfit for office, and to begin the process of impeachment.
He won the Presidency, of course, with the popular votes of only 25 per cent of Americans. Yet until the 75 per cent can find a way of burying their differences, and uniting to oppose a kind of politics that can only destroy the United States and the liberal west as we have known it, we all seem to be on a roller-coaster ride into a new kind of 21st century darkness; with a destination that is both unimaginable and somehow all too familiar.