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Donald Trump, the Free Press, and ‘Fake News’

donald trump flagOn a basic level, it means that criticism of government is avoided or shut down. If the government does something wrong, Donald Trump will not accept it, and will not remedy the mistake. It is the mark of a good leader to be accountable and to accept mistakes, and consequently apply appropriate remedies. But this is not seen in Donald Trump. His supporters, following a cult of personality, reject any criticism that comes from news networks labelled by Trump as ‘fake news’. Criticism is neither heard nor accepted, as CNN is prohibited from attending many White House events and press conferences, where questions from the opposing side is most necessary. When truthful and just criticisms are rejected, all that remains to be heard are lies and falsehoods, bad policies remain, and good policies are scarcely implemented.

Another reason why a President who doesn’t accept questions or news from certain networks is bad is a more serious reason; it ensures that difficult issues and questions that Mr Trump has neither the desire nor capability to answer are not answered or talked about. A good example was seen in a recent press conference in early March 2017, where a reporter asked Trump about anti Semitic crimes – Mr Trump responded by complaining that the question was too difficult, and by simply saying he wasn’t anti Semitic. Mr Trump’s attitude to the press is one that reflects a wider problem; politicians are becoming increasingly skilled at avoiding questions, and giving vague or meaningless answers. But a President should be willing to answer all questions directly; “this is a problem, this is what we’re doing/are going to do about it”.

But perhaps worst of all, Mr Trump’s refusal to talk about specific issues and questions inevitably means that he, and he alone, sets the political agenda – only what he wishes to remain talked about in the political sphere remains talked about. If a journalist criticises him, they are uninvited from future events, and not allowed to ask any more questions. If a news network criticises him, they are shouted down in the middle of press conferences. All issues, however controversial or critical, need to be talked about or debated. It is talking about issues, in a free and competitive market of ideas, that forms the best solutions to political problems. But instead, opposing ideas are shut down under the false label of “fake news”; in doing so, Trump aims to establish a monopoly on ideas, a situation where issues he does not wish to hear are not raised.

Calling someone ‘fake news’ plays into the same style of anti-free speech politics we see on the modern day political left. Many of the ‘regressive left’ shut down opinions they do not wish to hear by labelling opponents as racists, or as bigots, or as sexists, or as a whole arsenal of usually falsely applied labels. Such an attitude undeniably restricts the freedom of speech of individuals, in the same way Trump’s shutting down of certain news networks and news stories as “fake news” restricts the freedom of speech of the press. This freedom is fundamental – it keeps governments accountable to the public, it makes the public aware of when the government is acting wrongly, it is the first line of defence against authoritarianism. When only praise of government is accepted, while criticism is rejected, we see the first bricks in this wall against authoritarians being struck away. I fear that his political rejection of certain news networks and of any criticism of his administration will one day transform into an attempt at full on legislative rejection as well. Think about what would happen if the United States did not have its Constitution and Bill of Rights protecting the free press and freedom of speech from governments; he could effectively walk all over those fundamental rights at his own discretion. In Britain, we are not so lucky, we have no such back up plan. If a Trump like authoritarian, with an extremely adversarial attitude to the press, were to be elected in Britain – there would be no legal barrier to stop them from totally banning critical newspapers; this illustrates perhaps the best argument on another issue, why Britain needs a codified and entrenched constitution. But to summarise the issue of Mr Trump; his attitude to the press is dangerous – it is a mark of a good President to accept criticism and act on it, it is the mark of a bad President to assume intellectual and political superiority in all areas – Donald Trump needs to change.

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