Journalism finds itself at a crossroads.
In a time when truth itself is in the grip of a tug of war between guard dog and guardian, it is incumbent upon those who live by their pen to assert the validity of their world view. Before those with an innate suspicion of the media cry ‘Thought police!’, it pays to consider the alternative. To the extent that Donald Trump harbours a genuine agenda other than the affirmation of his ego – and to credit the US President with more intelligence than he is due is to risk legitimising his public positions – his intention is to monopolise information. That this is a trick older than Goebbels may be common knowledge among right-thinking people (yes, I dare speak of such a thing); the fact that its implicit censorship makes him guilty of the very crime he almost daily rails against, however, is in urgent need of contemplation.
To begin with, the White House’s campaign of misinformation is quite obviously a matter of objective right and wrong. Ever since the improbable Sean Spicer’s cringeworthy press conference led to Kellyanne Conway coining the regrettable phrase ‘alternative facts’, the outpouring of disbelief mingled with righteous indignation on both sides of the Atlantic has been heartening. We in Britain, of course, should not fall into the trap of thinking ourselves immune to the pandering of bare-faced falsehoods. Enough ink has been spilled over the £350m lie upon which the pro-Brexit campaign was founded. There was, though, a moment last autumn that indicated perhaps more than any other the shaky ground upon which embattled truth now stands. This came in the hours after UKIP MEP Steven Woolfe had been floored by the gloriously named Mike Hookem in the dragon’s lair otherwise known as the European Parliament in Brussels. Neither the fact that Hookem was the injured man’s colleague, nor the brawlers’ combined age of 111, was, we were assured, a source of embarrassment. ‘On the contrary,’ the party spokeswoman patiently explained to the BBC journalist, ‘this is great for UKIP’s reputation.’
At this point, assuming you have recovered from the brazen senselessness of this statement, you will be probably be wondering what explanation she came up with when pressed by the interviewer to justify her extraordinary claim. But with this reasonable expectation, dear reader, you betray your innocence of the true danger to which journalism is exposed. That explanation never came, incredibly enough, because the question was never asked. Alas, in a world where the value of facts over shallow propaganda and superstition is eroding, and the humble presentation of those facts is regarded not only with positive mistrust but with an angry contempt whose implications are still uglier than its expression, even some journalists are abandoning their post. In succumbing to intimidation, though, they have forgotten what they are there for.
In 2017 the journalist is an endangered species. On several fruitless occasions, PEN International has written to Angela Merkel to implore her to put pressure on the regime in Ankara that keeps numerous journalists behind bars on specious terror charges. In Turkey, then, the journalist is in jail. But in Washington he is in government. The merest glance at their keepers shows why the business of holding the hypocrites to account is not only a matter of fact and fiction, but a moral obligation.
It shouldn’t need to be said that, if politicians are allowed an agenda, journalists are entitled to one too. Ever since Gutenberg invented the printing press, that tension has been the keystone of free society. Disagreement is productive; autocracy leads to stagnation or worse. It is not a coincidence, after all, that Erdogan should, like Franco before him, be on the brink of granting himself a new title, and with it new and unassailable powers, in a country where freedom of expression has been quite deliberately choked off. The real possibility of just such a scenario repeating itself in other societies around the world is why unthinking hostility towards ‘the press’, a perceived hive mind bent on manipulating its readers to some nebulous but definitely malign end, is dangerous.
Besides, why should we gullible masses believe the gospel according to Trump’s ghost writer? According to the blinkered doctrine of his administration, that would be replacing one absolute truth with another. Instead, it falls to journalists to be the choir of opposition to his verbal diarrhoea. The vague conspiracy theories emanating from the Oval Office must be met with coherence. In polluted times such as these, it is no more or less than the journalist’s sacred duty to stand up for clarity.
As one who hopes soon to join your ranks, I appeal to you all. You have a voice. Use it, while you still can.