The debate about how to cover and engage with extremists is not a new one. In the 1990s, reporters conducted controversial interviews with committed terrorist Osama bin Laden; even as far back as the 1930s, the British press published an interview with Adolf Hitler where he sought to present himself as a reasonable, peace-loving leader. “I have been represented as having made bloodthirsty and firebrand speeches against foreign countries, and now the world is surprised at my moderation,” he said at the time.
Thankfully, we are not talking about that level of extremism today – it’s extremism of another kind. When Donald Trump re-tweeted anti-Muslim videos (at least one of which is fake) from far-right campaigner Jayda Fransen yesterday, Britain was understandably shocked. Was the US President aware that he had re-tweeted a video from the deputy leader of the anti-immigrant group Britain First? Did he know that the man who killed Labour MP Jo Cox shouted ‘Britain First!’ during the cold-blooded assassination in June last year?
And as we grapple with these questions, another one emerges: how do we cover this without giving a bigger platform to extremists and their ideas?
Some would say just ignore, ignore, ignore; in effect, starve the extremists of the oxygen of publicity. I can see the appeal of this argument but I fear that in reality it’s just not plausible. As much as we may loathe him, what the President of the United States does and says is absolutely newsworthy. We saw this starkly last week when Trump continued his bitter feud with CNN. He tweeted: “CNN International is still a major source of (Fake) news, and they represent our Nation to the WORLD very poorly. The outside world does not see the truth from them!”
Almost instantly, a Libyan broadcaster used the president’s message to undermine a shocking CNN report revealing how African migrants are being sold in slave auctions in the country. The broadcaster said: “Here the possibility arises that the channel has published the report of slavery in Libya to secure an as yet hidden political objective.” This and countless other examples prove that what the president tweets has real-world consequences and cannot be ignored.
Instead, the way to tackle Trump’s idiotic diatribes and the hatefulness of groups like Britain First is to confront them head on. Their intellectual arguments should be torn to shreds just like an old-school Jeremy Paxman roasting. Now retired from full-time broadcasting, Paxo’s refusal to take bullshit from anyone was legendary. One superb example of his no-fucks-given style is his famous interview with former Tory party leader Michael Howard (who was of course not an extremist):
Channel 4 handled this perfectly when it sat down with Jayda Fransen yesterday. They asked her difficult questions which visibly put her on the back foot. Fransen looked embarrassed and exposed and the broadcaster refused to show the rest of the interview – presumably to stop her from spreading her far-right message. This was perfect; tackle her intellectually and shut down any grandstanding.
But there are still risks. Fransen posted pictures of herself being interviewed on Twitter, lending apparent credibility to her cause amongst her feeble-minded followers.
And then there are examples of how not to deal with those whose opinions need to be tackled. This morning, Radio 4’s Today programme interviewed right-wing US commentator and provocateur Ann Coulter - essentially giving her a platform to defend Trump’s outrageous behaviour.
In case you don’t know who she is, here’s a quick round up of some of the highlights. After 9/11, Coulter wrote: “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.” And earlier this month, she attacked the release of a Barbie wearing a hijab as “JIHAD BARBIE!” (ITV and Channel 4 also featured interviews with the commentator).
A similar debate has been raging about a New York Times profile of a Nazi sympathiser in Ohio published at the weekend. Critics said the piece normalized the anti-Semitism and racism of the man being profiled while others wondered why they would choose to give the man an amplified voice when so often the voices of minorities are sidelined or silenced.
In response, national editor of the New York Times Marc Lacey said: “We recognize that people can disagree on how best to tell a disagreeable story. What we think is indisputable, though, is the need to shed more light, not less, on the most extreme corners of American life and the people who inhabit them. That’s what the story, however imperfectly, tried to do.”
But on Twitter people weren’t buying it:
The problem with this article and the interviews with Coulter is not that they happened; there are people out there who honestly hold these beliefs and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise. The problem is that we continue to maintain the myth of impartiality and objectivity. Instead, we should all be utterly outraged. In the case of the self-avowed Nazi sympathiser, there can never be enough outrage. There is no need for balance or fairness with Nazis. We’re talking about literal NAZIS! The Nazis who wilfully slaughtered millions of people and if given the chance would probably do it again. They should be undermined at every turn and not be the subject of soft-ball questions or profiles.
Journalists, writers, commentators – in fact, anyone who uses any sort of social media – needs to realise that the era of false impartiality is over, that we all have a responsibility to take a position and that we should argue it forcefully. Always be prepared to confront these people and the lies they tell.
When discussing the political revolution of Donald Trump’s candidacy, media columnist Jim Rutenberg argued we should all take a much stronger position against people we disagree with. He wrote: “Let’s face it: Balance has been on vacation since Mr. Trump stepped onto his golden Trump Tower escalator… to announce his candidacy.
“It may not always seem fair to Mr. Trump or his supporters. But journalism shouldn’t measure itself against any one campaign’s definition of fairness. It is journalism’s job to be true to the readers and viewers, and true to the facts, in a way that will stand up to history’s judgment. To do anything less would be untenable.”
Indeed, it’s the job of all us to forcefully and vociferously challenge those whose ideas need to be challenged. Failure to do this is untenable and completely unforgivable.