ALASTAIR CAMPBELL: The seeds of fascism are already sprouting
- Credit: PA Wire/PA Images
Donald Trump's attacks on CNN and NBC alongside the protests surrounding Stephen Yaxley-Lennon are warning signs for a renewal of fascism, writes Alastair Campbell.
You can read elsewhere in this week's New European Nick Cohen's brilliant analysis of the failings of the BBC in the Brexit debate. I won't add to his criticisms here, but when it was first published in the New York Review of Books, I was struck by the breadth of media voices echoing his concern that there was something rotten, and dangerous, going on inside our state broadcaster, one of the great media global brands in danger of doing irreparable damage to its reputation, and creating for itself an existential crisis.
The only explanation I can imagine is that at the top level, they fear that unless they more or less go along with the government agenda on Brexit, they will be first in line for political retaliation in whatever deregulated, free-for-all, smaller state Britain emerges post-Brexit. This is to misread history, and to misunderstand the mindset of the political right. History shows that when broadcasters get too close to government, the latter is strengthened and the former weakened. And any study of the right down the years confirms one of life's more general lessons – if you don't stand up to bullies, they walk all over you.
Which brings me to Donald Trump, and his refusal, in the garden at Chequers last week, to take a question from CNN on the grounds that they represent 'fake news'. Instead, he opted for a question from John Roberts of Fox News, or 'a proper network', as Trump put it. CNN is 'fake news' because it does not fawn over him, it gives platforms to people who criticise him as well as those who support him, it points out his lies when he tells them. Fox is 'a proper network' because it shares his world view, takes his side in pretty much any argument, denigrates his detractors, and operates as an extension of his own propaganda operation, in constant conversation with the 'base' that the Murdoch channel helped to create, and now feeds around the clock.
To be fair to John Roberts, he later criticised Trump on air, defending both CNN and a woman from NBC labelled 'dishonest' by Trump for asking him a perfectly reasonable question about his relationship with Vladimir Putin.
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However, surely we are reaching a point where the networks and newspapers need to agree to invoke a media equivalent of NATO's Article 5, in which an attack on one is an attack on all, and act accordingly, with a good old-fashioned walkout.
Trump, as last week's rambling press conferences in Brussels and Buckinghamshire showed, is never happier than when centre stage, making grandiose claims about his 'greatness', misrepresenting events in which he has been involved, spraying around abuse, spewing out lies which go unchallenged.
It is one thing for a politician to object to a story because it is untrue, and anyone in high-level democratic politics has plenty of experience of dealing with those. It is quite another to label an entire network 'fake news' because the politician doesn't like it. Like Nick Cohen, any criticism I have of the BBC comes not out of a desire to damage let alone destroy it, but a fear its leaders are doing that damage themselves. I suspect Trump, on the other hand, would genuinely prefer a US where CNN did not exist and only 'proper networks' did.
As the NATO summit ended, I was doing an interview in CNN's makeshift tented studio, south of the river opposite Big Ben, when Trump gave his unexpected press conference, in which he made grandiose claims about his greatness – single-handedly he had made NATO safer and stronger overnight; misrepresented the discussions that had just taken place (I was getting rebuttal updates from someone who had been in the room); spraying around abuse, to his predecessor as ever, but also to current 'allies' within NATO; and lying about issues as varied as Germany's energy supply system (he multiplied by a factor of almost ten the share of their gas coming from Russia ), NATO spending, and his own election.
CNN's John Berman, in London for Trump's UK visit the following day, was anchoring. As the Trump show came to an end, Berman recounted, accurately and without over-editorialising, the highlights of what had been said. Having asked for checks to be made by a researcher, he pointed out that whereas Trump had said the US contributed 90% of NATO spending, in fact it was 68%; also that it was untrue that Trump had been the first Republican to win Wisconsin, as Ronald Reagan had done so too.
In the discussion that followed, he turned to me and to a former senior CIA official joining us down the line from the US. Both of us were highly critical of Trump. Berman, without a Trump-supporting voice to throw to, did a good job of pushing back with what such a voice might have said. It was as far from 'fake news' as you could get. Berman, if I may adopt Fox News' grotesque description of itself, was 'fair and balanced'.
Madeleine Albright, the Czech-born daughter of a Jewish family which fled Nazism for England in the late 1930s, and later moved to the US where she went on to become Bill Clinton's Secretary of State, recently published a superb book called Fascism, A Warning. She had been planning to write it even before Trump was elected, but his occupancy of the White House makes it not just timely, but terrifying.
I read it not long after reading Laurence Rees' masterpiece, The Holocaust. What is remarkable about his book is less the account of the gas chambers and the deaths of six million Jews, a story most know well; it is the build-up, the normalising of the abnormal, the steady acceptance of what was once deemed unacceptable, not least by foreign governments and domestic media, the little things that Hitler got away with, and so became emboldened to chance his arm for more.
What was it Protestant pastor Martin Niemöller wrote: 'First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no-one left to speak for me.'
Today's world resonates in every page of Albright's account of fascism in the past. I never knew that Mussolini was the first to coin the slogan 'drain the swamp'. It is today that newspapers are calling judges enemies of the people for daring to uphold the law; parliamentarians being labelled traitors by fellow parliamentarians because they speak truth unto power; anyone with a view contrary to the one held by this newspaper or that, this broadcaster or that, this president or that, abused, derided, dismissed, labelled as a liar or an enemy of their own country. Make no mistake, these are the seeds of fascism.
The numbers demonstrating violently for Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (or Tommy Robinson, as he calls himself) – jailed after pleading guilty to contempt of court – may have been dwarfed by the numbers who protested peacefully against Trump. But that anyone wishes to defend as free speech an admitted breach of the rule of law indicates these are perilous times. That peril is multiplied many times over when the so-called leader of the free world has an ambassador who is fighting Yaxley-Lennon's corner, lies wilfully about the nature of life in our capital out of his hatred of the fact we have a Muslim Mayor, morally equates the views and actions of Nazis with those of liberals, sings the praises of dictators whilst attacking America's closest allies, has media figures as varied as Rupert Murdoch, Boris Johnson and Piers Morgan becoming cheerleaders, not least for the access it gives them, and a right-hand man, Steve Bannon, touring the world to stir racial hatred, on the British leg labelling convicted criminal Yaxley-Lennon 'the backbone' of our country.
First they came for CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post…
The judges and the investigators are already in the firing line…
And as for immigrants, which as in the 1930s is, to many, simply a codeword for anyone 'different', to be 'othered,'… the fascist seeds are growing fast.
So the next time Trump labels a reputable media organisation 'fake news', the whole lot of them should stand up and leave, make that the news, make sure the world knows they value free speech and the Constitution, even if the person elected to defend it does not. And if there is a next time he does it with Theresa May standing alongside him, how about, instead of standing there smiling, she says ''If you don't mind, Mr President, I will take a question from the gentleman from CNN'. She might also add, 'and by the way, I know Boris Johnson better than you do, and believe me, he would be a truly dreadful Prime Minister. Now … CNN?'
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