“Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.”Napoleon Bonaparte
The technique we look at in this chapter of the Populist’s Playbook is “Attacking the media”. I like to start out with some definitions and parameters. So, what do we mean by media, and what do we mean by attacks?
Who are the media?
The Media, or “Fourth Estate” was, for a long time, just the printed press, with newspapers that had developed from the pamphlets of the 16th and 17th centuries which had themselves displaced ballads as a way to spread news and influence public opinion.
In the twentieth century Newspapers and magazines were joined first by Radio and then television – to form the traditional “Main Stream Media”. Supplemented by the “underground media” – things like student newspapers, protest newsletters & zines.In the last 20 years the rise of digital media has distributed the mass media model.
We are all content producers now, as well as consumers. The exponential rise of “civilian journalists” bloggers, vloggers and podcasters across youtube & TikTok – and the fact we all carry TV studios in our pockets with global reach means the media landscape has changed. Lines have been blurred: It can be hard to draw a firm distinction, but for the sake of the scope I am mainly going to look at mainstream media; where the reporters would reasonably meet the requirement of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) in the UK;
“…making their living from professional paid journalism and reporting.”National Union of Journalists Membership Criteria
(With one specific example that may meet those criteria, but was unable to gain union membership…)
Defining an Attack
By ‘attack’ I mean actions by the populists and their movements to coerce and preventing the media from functioning in a free manner. The attacks we’ll look at range from basic violence and intimidation to attacks on the functionality of the media such as information control & manipulation, legislation, imprisonment & censorship, attacks on credibility, funding, governance and ownership.
Why attack the media?
Attacking the media is about controlling the flow of information, generally to the public.
Before the information is shared;
Either Preventing the Media from gathering and/or sharing unfavorable narratives, or coercing them to share favourable, inaccurate or incomplete narratives,
When the information is shared.
Diluting or discrediting the unfavourable narratives: by muddying the waters. ‘flooding the zone with shit’.
After the information is shared
Punitive measures against the source and distributor and attempts to intimidate to prevent repetitions. Discrediting those who criticise.
Fake News – Attacks on Credibility
“Fake News is a particularly problematic term. Depending on the speaker, it can have at least two entirely different meanings:
News that is false or invented
News that someone wants you to believe is false or invented.
Both are bad, but in different ways”Alan Rusbridger – News and how to use it. what to believe in a fake news world.
These two definitions came about fairly closely, one in reaction to the other. Trump took the first usage and subverted it. The modern common usage of the term was popularised in 2014 by BuzzFeed News media editor Craig Silverman
“I came across sites like National Report that were designed to look like real news websites , published articles written in the news style, but everything on the site was false. So I called it a fake news site… I kept “trying to be clear about my definition of fake news: “Fake News -completely false content, created to deceive, and with an economic motive.”BuzzFeed News media editor Craig Silverman
Then Trump subverted it
“I call the fake news now corrupt news because fake isn’t tough enough. And I’m the one that came up with the term—I’m very proud of it, but I think I’m gonna switch it to corrupt news.”Donald Trump 2019
Restricting Access to information
“Information wants to be free”Cyberpunk Maxim
One way that the populist can subvert the media’s ability to cover and disseminate information is by disrupting information flow – preventing journalists from accessing information either by physically restricting the journalist’s access themselves, or by restricting the flow of information from official sources – tightening channels or like Nixon sending in the ‘plumbers’ to plug the leaks.
The Freedom of Information Act (2000) in the UK gives a General right of access to information held by public authorities. It has been a boon to journalists who have been able to use information uncovered by FOI releases to hold power to account.
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The act does come with a number of exemptions, including a public interest argument -when the public interest in releasing the information outweighs the public interest in keeping it hidden.
Scotland’s SNP nationalist government sought to use the Covid-19 epidemic to suspend Freedom of information for the duration of the pandemic.
On 19 March 2020 the blanket suspension of freedom of information duties was described by the FOI unit as
“a substantial violation of Ministers’ commitment to openness and transparency”
Civil Servants warned ministers that the move would be unpopular and that the Scottish Information Commissioner did not believe such a move was necessary. Ironically, this story came to light through a freedom of information request – albeit one that was delivered 6 months late. If this attempt to suspend the media’s access to FOI had been in place then one of the biggest scandals to come out during Covid-19 would have stayed hidden.
FOI based investigation revealed the SNP had released infected patients into Care Homes even after they had tested positive for Covid-19 – resulting in an estimated 3,000 deaths.
As it was, even without the suspension of FOI, the Scottish Government initially covered up the data, refusing to release it in a move that was later ruled as unlawful
While Scotland under the nationalists has sought to oppress the press, there are also parallels in the wider United Kingdom.
Overall the UK is ranked 33 out of 120 countries for Freedom of the Press.
Regularly in the UK, across regions, FOI requests from Journalists have received closer scrutiny.
Despite the UK government’s stated commitment to defending global media freedom, domestic restrictions remained cause for concern. A secret government unit appeared to serve as a clearinghouse for freedom of information requests, and critical media outlets found themselves blacklisted or facing other restrictions.”Reporters sans frontiers UK report
The SNP Scottish government was criticised for similar restrictions in 2018 by the information commissioner.
Darren Fitzhenry, the commissioner at the time, found “unjustifiable, significant delays” in some cases and that journalists and political researchers were subject to an “additional layer of clearance” that he recommended should end.
The same report criticised the Scottish Government’s practice of referring FOI requests for clearance by ministers simply because they came from journalists, MSPs or researchers.
This was an additional direct, authoritarian-style, ministerial intervention in information that the public have a legal right to – seeking to restrict it if they are a member of the media. The Scottish Government has been criticised regularly in Holyrood by MSPs for failing to respond to some requests for information and a lack of transparency at the heart of government. It has also been accused of deliberate secrecy and cover-ups due to a refusal to release information.
This has included the key legal advice related to the judicial review brought by former first minister Alex Salmond, which the Scottish Government has refused to release despite MSPs passing a motion demanding it does so. As we’ll see this same conflict between the previous Scottish Nationalist Populist Demagogue and his protégée later led to a journalist being jailed.
SNP 2023 Leadership Hustings media ban
In 2023 following the resignation of Nicola Sturgeon (which some describe as ‘surprising’ but this site had suggested was strategically imminent 48 hours earlier) three candidates face election to be SNP leader, and probably First Minister.
While perhaps the interesting aspect of the Hustings is the lack of access given to SNP members, it was also initially the SNP plan to refuse all access to the media.
The party NEC, widely seen as being controlled by Peter Murrell, husband of the outgoing leader Nicola Sturgeon, claimed it wanted a ‘safe space for members to ask questions of the three candidates’.
Following outrage, and following statements from all three candidate saying they had nothing to hide, there was a partial roll back to allow one streaming camera.
A Safe Space to Attack the Media
Perhaps what the SNP NEC had been hoping to suppress was not just the views of the candidates but the views of the members. The very first question asked was an attack on the media.
More attacks on the media followed, with one member describing appearing on a televised debate as
“Are you ready for the television hustings, because you’re getting into bed with your mortal enemies”SNP Member at hustings
These attacks on the media at the Hustings were set up by the members, but as Conor Matchett analyses in the Scotsman, each of the three candidates has attacked the media to cover up their own failings.
Humza Yousaf can explain away his atrocious record as health secretary by saying it’s unfair of the media to cover it. Kate Forbes can say the only reason her extreme religious views against Gay Marriage and equal rights are an issue is because the press keep asking her about them. (How very dare they!). And Ash Regan can claim the media are unfairly putting her at a disadvantage by reporting her plans verbatim.
Following the poor coverage the SNP reverted to a closed door policy with no media or public access to the third Hustings.
Restricting Access of Specific Reporters
Jim Acosta is a veteran and respected reporter for CNN, and he was the Network’s chief White House correspondent during the Trump administration.Trump and Acosta were no fans of each other – from Trump’s very first press conference as President-Elect Acosta tried to ask Trump a question about Russia. Trump instead took questions from other reporters and denounced Acosta and CNN as “Fake News” saying –
“FAKE NEWS media… is the enemy of the American People”Donald J. Trump
Things came to a head in November 2018.
Acosta asked Trump a question about his racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric and TV ads. An Intern in the press room tried to remove Acosta’s microphone, he moved his arm and said “Pardon me ma’am” as he brushed her arm. The Whitehouse rescinded Acosta’s press pass security and released a doctored video of the incident which changed the speed of the video to make it look like a more violent contact.
CNN said the revocation of his pass
“…was done in retaliation for his challenging questions at today’s press conference.”CNN on Acosta’s Press Credentials being removes
Jonathan Peters, a media law professor, agreed
“Relevant precedent says that a journalist has a First Amendment right of access to places closed to the public but open generally to the press. That includes press rooms and news conferences. In those places, if access is generally inclusive of the press, then access can’t be denied arbitrarily or absent compelling reasons. And the reasons that the White House gave were wholly unconvincing and uncompelling.”Jonathan Peters
CNN pursued legal action, and a district court for the District of Columbia ordered that his press pass be reinstated for 14 days as his due process rights had likely been infringed. CNN dropped further action when Acosta’s press pass was reinstated.
Something similar to Jim Acostas experience was seen with Boris Johnson’s administration removing access to James Cusick.
Political correspondent for OpenDemocract, Cusick had held a parliamentary lobby pass for decades, but then after a number of exposes on how the conservatives were badly mishandling aspects of the Covid crisis was told he was not permitted to ask questions at the daily COVID press briefings.
Starving the Press of Information
Also information is restricted by simply not giving press briefings –
The Trump Whitehouse went an unprecedented 300 days without a press briefing.
This article from the conversation outlines why this is bad for democracy: Trump circumvented the press directly with sometimes incoherent tweets. A press briefing allows the media to speak to the adults in the room to find the position that is actually the government consensus.
It also gives the administration the ability to calm & clarify “This is what the President meant to say…”
Reporters that will give favourable coverage are given exclusive access, that’s one thing – but deliberately restricting the access, discriminating against journalists in an attempt to hamper them, is an attack.
Attacking the concept of a professional press
When the mainstream actual media is demonised, and othered, where the trust in it has been attacked, then it can create a void – and that void can be filled with partisan “citizen journalists” – bloggers, vloggers , who “tell you the news the mainstream media won’t”
Attacking Media Governance
Attacking the Media Governance & Funding
All media carries some bias, but if you want to judge the impartiality or balance have a look at who is attacking them. The British Broadcasting Corporation is far from perfect – but it says something that they come under attack from both the right and the left, and are criticised by pro-EU remainers, British nationalists and Scottish Nationalists.
The BBC is funded by the licence fee, in a unique way, that makes it a public service – with Balance written into its duty, and theoretically free of government control. The conservatives have sought to change that. The period of upheaval from 2013 through to the after the brexit vote of 2016 saw the BBC come under attack from both Scottish and British nationalists, and from both the right and left.
The BBC became the focus of Nationalist attacks during the Scottish Independence referendum of 2014. Things first came to a head when Journalist Nick Robinson dared to interview Alex Salmond in the week before the vote.
“What everyone was ignoring was that he picked the fight not me, it was a deliberate attempt to wrongfoot and unnerve, if not me, then my bosses in order to alter the coverage.”Nick Robinson on the attack from Alex Salmond https://www.theguardian.com/media/2015/jun/21/nick-robinson-bbc-lung-cancer-cybernats
Alex Salmond had taken umbrage at the BBC’s reporting of the Royal Bank of Scotland’s intention to leave Scotland in the event of a vote for independence.
There were a number of incidents in quick succession seemingly triggered by Salmond going on the offensive. In scenes that would become familiar again at Trump rallies a few years later, journalists were jostled and harassed by crowds of supporters. In a literal example of an ‘ad baculum’ Reporter, Kay Burley intervened when her cameraman was threatened with a stick.
A crowd of 4,000 nationalists marched on the BBC offices in Glasgow with a banner with a picture of Nick Robinson on it demanding his resignation. The attacks were not completely from the SNP camp – one journalist at this time was reportedly threatened online after announcing their intention to vote yes – but they were overwhelmingly from nationalists, against media that didn’t support independence.
At the request of the National Union of Journalists, security was stepped up at media organisations in Scotland, and journalists working on the referendum, including Robinson, had additional security training and close protection staff.
“We will be increasing security in the building during and after the referendum”Scotsman Newspaper in the weeks before the vote
This heightened tension, hate of the media & abuse of journalists for giving unfavourable coverage, became a recurring feature in Scottish news coverage since the referendum. Labour’s shadow Scottish secretary Ian Murray says this is harming coverage of events in Scotland – the intimidation is stopping the media from holding the Scottish government to account. He blames a “Cultish mob of silencers” that “Paralyses criticism of Sturgeon”
Sarah Smith – 2022
He cited the example of Sarah Smith. Sarah, during a live broadcast, said Nicola Sturgeon ‘enjoyed the opportunity of setting different covid restrictions from England.’
Nicola called her out on twitter to her millions of followers.
Sarah apologised 4 times for using the word “enjoying” – she clarified that she had wanted to show Nicola Sturgeon was embracing devolution rather than enjoying a crisis. Again nationalists called for her resignation, with Nicola’s tweet instigating a ‘pile-on’.
It escalated into offline abuse.
Sarah recalls how a car pulled up beside her and a man rolled down his window shouting
‘what fucking lies are you going to be telling on TV tonight you fucking lying bitch?’
This came to light again in February 2022, when Ms. Smith moved to the US , becoming the BBCs North American Editor, and said that it was a relief to be in the US to get a break from the hate and abuse she had suffered at the hands of Scottish Nationalists.
What’s telling was the reaction to the coverage of her abuse when she stated in an interview she had attracted ‘criticism, bile and hatred’ from some sections of the Scottish population.
As a result of stating that, Nationalists immediately proved her point using criticism, bile and hatred.
Nicola Sturgeon, eventually, condemned the abuse, and claimed she was not responsible and did not have “much in common” with those who had hurled abuse at the reporter even if they ‘claimed to be on the same side as me”.
However some of the abuse was coming not just from SNP supporters, but from SNP politicians.
SNP politician James Dornan accused Sarah of making up the abuse calling it imaginary, later rolling this back to ‘exaggerated’ when shown the evidence.
SNP MP Phil Boswell accused her of being a ‘traitor’ describing Smith as a “traitor to the highest metric within journalism”.
Many of the attacks were also misogynistic – Sarah’s father was John Smith, leader of the labour party, who had died 20 years earlier. Much of the populist growth in SNP support came from targeting Labour as Unionists, and Sarah was essentially accused of being incapable to having impartial views because of the politics of a long-dead male relative.
Misogyny in attacks on the media is not uncommon.
It is also seen in Bolonsero’s Brazil.
Attacking the media by becoming the media – Faking the news
One of Putin’s first power moves was to take control of the TV station NTB. Under Yeltsin, NTB had been independent, but the reporters were kept far from the action. Under Putin NTB staff were given an ultimatum – give up your editorial independence or give up your TV station.
Putin made three demands –
- End coverage of the Chechen war that was critical of the Government.
- Stop reporting instances of corruption in the Kremlin.
- Remove the Putin puppet from Russian ‘Spitting image’ type show “Kukly.”
The Puppet show responded with an episode exposing the ultimatum and representing Putin as a faceless biblical burning bush. Putin responded by having special forces storm the TV station’s parent company looking for ‘financial irregularities’ then having the owner, Vladimir Gusinsky, thrown in jail.
Charges were dropped when he agreed to sell up to the State-owned energy company GazProm. Recognising the power of TV, Putin made moves to create his own TV channel.
Russia Today, now RT, was conceived of by Putin’s press secretary, Aleksei Gromov. It is state owned and funded, and its aim was to promote Russia’s image abroad. In 2005 Putin’s government included it’s parent company on its list of “core organizations of strategic importance to Russia.”
Michael Dukalskis, an expert on the tactics of authoritarian propaganda, notes that RT does not overtly push Russian foreign policy, rather it –
” …instead focuses on presenting a negative picture of the United States and “the West.” It presents Russia as a “global underdog” to the United States and fosters conspiracy theories.”Michael Dukalskis – Making the World Safe for Dictatorship
In the Venn diagram of Populist, Nationalist Demagogue Propaganda RT sits in the overlap between Putin, and Alex Salmond.
A key plank of the Russian strategy of hybrid warfare, played out against NATO, against the EU and against Ukraine, is fostering division by supporting separatist movements. Scotland had come onto Kremlin radar. Edinburgh had the dubious honour of becoming the first office outside Russia for State propaganda newspaper ‘Pravda’.
Disgraced ex-first minister Alex Salmond had raised a few eyebrows during the referendum campaign when he had said he greatly admired Vladimir Putin, especially for restoring national pride, so it may have seemed a natural progression to launch his weekly political chatshow on what has been described as ‘kremlin TV’.
The Alex Salmond Show has been mired in controversy from the first episode.
Part of the format of the show is replying to tweets and emails sent in by ‘members of the public’ , however after the first episode it was noted that some of the tweets ‘replied’ did not exist, and others were only tweeted sometime after the show aired.
UK Media regulator Ofcom found that the show had breached broadcasting rules by being “materially misleading” and undermining viewers’ trust” http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-44850200
This technique: of using fake tweets as though they came from a deflected source and then answering them; either to set up a question, or as a strawman, fits the textbook disinformation technique on the “legitimating source” model.
It was also used in our second example of ‘alternative media’ –
‘The National’ newspaper.
Following the Scottish independence referendum tensions had been stoked, and heavy distrust sown in the mainstream media in Scotland.
Throughout the campaign, the media had challenged many of the fantastic narratives and impossible promises https://populistsplaybook.com/2020/07/08/promising-the-impossible/ that the nationalists had made.
Alex Salmond reacting badly to being asked if there were any downsides to independence was just the tip of the iceberg.
While some individual journalists were in favour, every daily newspaper in Scotland had, in the end, weighed the evidence and sided with a ‘no’ vote in their coverage, but in the aftermath of the referendum, it did seem there was potentially demand for a pro-independence paper, and ‘the national’. was launched to fit that role.
The national took pains to stress it was definitely not just an SNP mouthpiece… however this was rather undermined by its launch which was at an SNP rally
Questions have been raised about the funding and financial situation of the paper. The first edition had a run of 60,000 – which by 2019 had settled down to around 7,000 to 9,000.
Smaller than all Scottish regional papers. The editor of the Sunday edition had attempted to become an SNP politician on Ayr council, and in 2020 thr National and the SNP officially produced a ‘1 million household’ propaganda edition.
Does the National count as media or is it an attack on the media?
Consider this; for newspapers to have the credibility they generally seek to have some aspect of impartially reporting the news.
The National is the most openly biased daily publication.
In an overlap with Alex Salmond’s show on Russia Today, the National also used the legitimating source disinformation model by faking tweets and then having prominent Nationalists including SNP politicians responding to them as though they were real.
The international press standards organisation (IPSO) ruled the disinformation was misleading.
Legislative Attacks on the Media
“A free press is one where it’s ok to state the conclusion you’re led to by the evidence.”Bill Moyers
In the United States of America, the first amendment right of free speech proscribes Congress from making any law “abridging the freedom of the press.”
Amnesty International say that the Covid-19 pandemic has led to a global attack on journalists and media, citing several examples but mentioning specifically a raft of “Fake News” laws that Donald Trump could only dream of.
“…countries including Azerbaijan, Hungary, Russia, Uzbekistan, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Tanzania and several Gulf states, have used the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to introduce new laws against disseminating “fake news”. In most cases, it is at the authorities’ discretion to define what constitutes false news or misinformation”Amnesty International
After July 2021, following an embarrassing leak to the papers of Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s workplace affair, the Johnson government is trying to scrap an important protection for journalists. The official secrets act has what might be called a ‘whistleblower’ type protection – A journalist can expose something protected if it is in the public interests. Boris is looking to scrap that.
Under the conservative proposals, Journalists who publish a story that is simply “embarrassing” to the government – his government – could be jailed for up to 14 years.
The motion, of Home secretary Prit Patel, would see reporters who handle leaked documents face the slammer under new regulations designed to crack down on foreign agents.
This mirrors identical moves by Vladimir Putin.
The national union of journalists said
“Existing legislation distinguishes provisions and penalties between those who leak or whistleblow, those who receive leaked information, and foreign spies. The government proposes to eliminate or blur these distinctions. The government also wants to increase the maximum penalties that journalists might suffer for receiving leaked material from two to 14 years”National Union of Journalists
Essentially treating journalists as the equivalent of espionage from a foreign state – mirroring what Putin is doing in Russia.
In Russia, Putin is using legislation to effectively make journalism impossible. Unfavourable journalists are classed as ‘foreign agents” and legally must add the text
“THIS MESSAGE (MATERIAL) WAS CREATED AND (OR) DISTRIBUTED BY A FOREIGN MEDIA OUTLET, PERFORMING THE FUNCTIONS OF A FOREIGN AGENT, AND (OR) A RUSSIAN LEGAL ENTITY, PERFORMING THE FUNCTION OF A FOREIGN AGENT.”
on everything. An instagram post about coffee, a twitter joke, a newspaper column, a podcast.
It’s even more aggressive than that though – reporters Sonya Groysman and Olga Churakova have been discussing the implications ever since they were classed as foreign agents. The potential bureaucratic pitfalls are designed to make everyday life impossible for them.
As a foreign agent they question can they get another job without a visa? Can they even take money out of a cash machine without making a financial declaration? It’s Kafkaesque, it’s absurd – …it’s potentially an imprisonable offence.
As to the motivation – Boris’s own words have come back to haunt him –
“Where governments fear freedom of expression they often try to shut down media and civil society, or clip their wings.”Boris Johnson
Attacking the source
Its been an accepted truism that ‘the source is sacrosanct’. A case based on this is going through the courts at the moment, where ‘the state’ in the form of the Midland’s police are seeking to have a journalist to name their source: a terrorist who planted the bombs that the Birmingham six were wrongly convicted for, having been framed by the police.
In this case, I don’t count this as a populist attack on the media: There is a public interest argument, and it is going through due process consideration.
The Guardian: Journalist refuses to disclose source material in 1974 Birmingham pub bombings.
In contrast, where the government seeks to pressure journalists to reveal the source of government leaks – such as the expenses scandal, there is clearly a public interest in protecting whistleblowers.
The D-Notice, when the secret services would have a quiet word with editors, and Super-Injunctions, where a court can order even the existence of an injunction to be protected, are tricky areas to write on.
Jailing the Media
Authoritarian Populists and Demagogue administrations use jail, and the threat of jail, to intimidate and restrict journalists.
Just to pick some examples:
President Rodrigo Duterte threatens journalists that do not follow the official line with death. The recently introduced “Heal As One Act.” gives the government powers to prosecute any reporter or news organisation publishing a report that the Duterte government isn’t pleased with.
For an in-depth inside view of how totalitarian nationalism populism attacks the media, I strongly recommend reading the book “How to stand up to a dictator”. By the courageous Nobel Peace Prize laureate and persecuted Journalist Maria Ressa.
Maria Ressa has spent decades speaking truth to power. But her work tracking disinformation networks seeded by her own government, spreading lies to its own citizens laced with anger and hate, has landed her in trouble with the most powerful man in the country: President Duterte.Book Description “How to stand up to a Dictator”
Now, hounded by the state, she has multiple arrest warrants against her name, and a potential 100+ years behind bars to prepare for – while she stands trial for speaking the truth.
How to Stand Up to a Dictator is the story of how democracy dies by a thousand cuts, and how an invisible atom bomb has exploded online that is killing our freedoms. It maps a network of disinformation – a heinous web of cause and effect – that has netted the globe: from Duterte’s drug wars, to America’s Capitol Hill, to Britain’s Brexit, to Russian and Chinese cyber-warfare, to Facebook and Silicon Valley, to our own clicks and our own votes.
Told from the frontline of the digital war, this is Maria Ressa’s urgent cry for us to wake up and hold the line, before it is too late
In Egypt, their Supreme Council for Media Regulation (SCMR) has been used to block access to over 500 news sites in the country.
Reporters Sans Frontiers say that the rise to power of Trumpesque Bolsonaro is the direct reason that press freedom is falling in the country –
“President Bolsonaro, encouraged by his associates and members of the government, routinely insults and mocks some of the country’s leading journalists and news organisations, maintaining a climate of hatred and suspicion towards those working in news and information.”ps://rsf.org/en/countrie
Within the EU in Viktor Orban’s Hungary, laws have been passed that can jail journalists for up to 5 years for publishing “fake news” – and the government gets to decide what is fake, giving them direct control over media outlets.
The question of ‘who is the media’ becomes critically relevant in countries that do have more media protections. If someone can be classed as outside the media it removes some protection, support and credibility from them.
Craig Murray, a former British diplomat, and now Scottish Nationalist supporter of Alex Salmond, was jailed in Scotland for 8 months.
Scottish PEN described him as ““the first person to be imprisoned in Scotland for media contempt for over 70 years.”https://twitter.com/ScottishPEN/status/1421088360798560257?s=20
Judge Lady Dorrian found that Murray had breached her strict order to protect the identities of witnesses at the trial of Alex Salmond, who was acquitted on 11 charges of sexual assault, concluding that his blog posts would allow for “jigsaw identification”.
Most Journalistic codes of conduct rule out identifying witnesses and accusers in such cases who have a right to anonymity. Murray, who had posted on his blog, makes the defence that the information he shared was already publicly available in other media such as newspapers.
He had reported on court cases before, most famously on Julian Assange – it was Craig Murray’s reporting on Assange’s poor health in prison that led to medical interventions, and his blog reached millions of readers – yet the National Union of Journalists in the UK refused him membership, denying him official press affiliation.
He was previously a freelance journalist and was able to show that he earned more than 50% of his income from reporting – so should have qualified under the NUJs own rules, but the NUJ claimed they had received written accusations, which they have not verified, that he was not a fit and proper person.
So – who gets to decide who is and isn’t a ‘real’ journalist ?
– was jailing an appropriate or disproportionate sentence, and was any political pressure brought to bear on his accreditation or treatment?
There is no doubt that many of Murray’s views are fringe, and some of his hot-takes are conspiracy theories – but in the interests of a free press, they are less ridiculous, and arguably less harmful, than climate-change-denying columnists that we don’t threaten with imprisonment or deny press credentials to.
In the Herald, Ron McKay summarised that Murray was clearly in contempt of court, but in Scottish law there is only a convention that witnesses are named, and the more damaging long term impact of the sentence is that the SNP government would seek to use it as a precedent to restrict reporting in the future.
Florida Registration of Critical Bloggers
It is being reported in Florida that republicans are proposing that any bloggers who write about certain politicians would be required to register with the state, and face fines for not doing so. This would not apply to newspapers, but again questions the line between professional journalists, citizen journalists, and the free speech of individuals.
It’s unlikely, I hope, that this will end up on the statute books as it seems to be clearly unconstitutional. It could be seen as an attack on the media through creating administration costs & intimidation with the threat of legal action.
The sword is mightier than the pen
– Intimidation, Physical Attacks and Murder of the Media.
ON the 12 techniques that we look at, there is overlap – a technique of Populist, Nationalist Demagogues is “Threats of violence and intimidation” (or ad baculum – the argument from the stick) which we will come to in a later chapter – but we must mention it here because of threats of violence and intimidation, and actual violence, are used against the media.
This can range from coercion to threats of imprisonment through to imprisonment and murder. This can be done directly by the state or can be whipped up by setting followers onto journalists, at a step removed or with plausible deniability from the populists themselves.
Boris Johnson, Poacher turned Gamekeeper?
It’s debatable whether Alexander De Pfeffle, better known as Boris Johnson, has done more harm to the press in his role as a politician, or as a journalist!
He was amongst the worst of the media, being fired from his first journalist job for lying in making up a quote. Later he wrote a series of articles, with little basis in truth, attacking the EU.
It was also while he was a journalist, the Brussels correspondent for the Times, that he conspired with an old Eton pal and criminal Darius Guppy to get a journalist beaten up.
The journalist, Collier, was investigating Guppy’s crimes. Guppy contacted Boris to find Collier’s address so that he could send ‘heavies’ to give him “a couple of black eyes and a cracked rib “ and Boris agreed to do it.
As it happens, nothing came of it – and this was before he was a politician, but I think that it is a fair example to show his attitude to the press – but as we have seen he has continued to attack the press while in power.
Trump whips up the mob
Trump labelled the press the “Enemy of the people”. If you remember our definition of a populist as someone who claims to represent ‘the people against their designated elite then you will recognise this at once.
Throughout his campaign and presidency, he tweeted atacks on the media, and retweeted supporting videos that showed crowds at his rallies intimidating journalists. Many media organisations beefed up their security.
In her book “Demagogue for President” Professor of Rhetoric Jennifer Mercieca describes the use of rhetorical techniques by Trump, and one of them is Paralipsis. “I’m not saying – I’m just saying”
Trump’s BFF Vladimir Putin, who we’ll get to, has – if not ordered executions himself, maintained an atmosphere in Russia where critical reporters are killed, and given his support of Putin, Trump was asked about this.
“They are lying despicable people, but I would never kill them… ( considers) Let’s see, would I? – No, I would never Kill them”.Donald J Trump when asked about Putin’s alleged murder of Journalists
This is a barely veiled threat of violence and intimidation
That it is his choice and that he could have them killed if he wanted. This reminds me of the tendency of authoritarian/totalitarian dictators who want to appear benevolent. They do this by reminding you they have the ability to punish but are deciding not to – Thats Slavoj Zizek’s theory of power and autocracy.
It’s been estimated over 220 journalists have been murdered in Russia in the post-soviet Yeltsin and Putin years.
Often in contract killings. Russia currently ranks 180 out of 199 countries for press freedom, behind Iraq, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to the international watchdog Freedom House.
ALEXEI SIMONOV, of the GLASTNOST DEFENSE FOUNDATION keeps track of journalist murders. He says that Murders in Russia have an 80% solve rate – unless it is a journalist. Then it drops to 6%.
In some cases , such as Vladimir Sukhomlin, the assasinations have been contract killings performed by off-duty policemen – but while the gunmen were caught, often those who ordered the murders are not even charged.
Magomed Varisov, political analyst and journalist, was shot dead in Makhachkala, Dagestan – he had approached the police for help after receiving death threats and was refused aid.
Magomed Yevloyev was shot dead while in police custody, the police shooter got only two years.
Anna Politkovskaya was an investigative reporter for the newspaper “Noviya Gazetta. In her stories, and later book which was published posthumously she was a fierce critic of Putin, blaming him for the snuffing out of Russia’s fledgling democracy after the fall of communism and the breakup of the Soviet Union. Her book Putin’s Russia exposed how new Russians under Putin made their money.
At the time of her death she was working on an expose of corrupt puppet local leaders who had been instated in Chechnia and was preparing to file a report on torture there. Other journalists, investigating her death, show her being trafficked by two groups of men, some of whom they have identified as FSB.
She was gunned down on October 7, 2006 – Putin’s birthday.
We’ve seen the many ways populist, nationalist demagogues attack the press, and we know why – so what can we do about it?
- Support a Free Press Campaign:
There are a number of campaigns and organisations that look to protect journalists and the free press –
Open Democracy https://www.opendemocracy.net/
Committee to protect journalists – https://cpj.org/
2. Support what you want to survive.
This became a policy of mine through the pandemic when local businesses were struggling. You can’t offer something no support and then expect it to survive. This means paying for content. If there are journalists doing work holding power to account, sometimes you need to pay to get through the paywall so they can keep doing it – Or support them directly by buying a book or in other ways.
3. Follow journalists directly on social media & blogs.
The decentralisation of news has helped circumvent organisational pressure. In Russia, online news apps registered abroad have been a response to the ‘foreign agent’ crackdowns.
4. Break your filter bubble.
Go out of your way to read different coverage of the same story, to get a rounded view. One example of finding news in aggregate – the magazine the “The Week” looks at the key stories of the weeks breaking out with quotes about how they were covered in different papers. You might also want to occasionally check on the news on different channels – switching from CNN to FOX or vice versa for a couple of days- or looking at Al Jazeera’s global coverage.
5. Raise awareness of the Attacks
Learn the techniques that are being used to attack the media – and call them out where you see them. Point them out. Protest them. Lobby your representatives against press restrictions.
6. Have some Quality Control.
Try and give yourself a bit of quality control. Yes “citizen journalists ‘ bloggers have their role to play, yes some mainstream media is biased and some ‘gutter press’ journalists have acted unethically. But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
We need to recognise the value of a free-press profession of ethical, educated, investigative journalism. There is a place in the world for professional journalism, with sub-editors and fact-checkers, in keeping us informed, speaking truth to power, and holding populists to account. It’s not perfect, but it is precious.
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Other References –
News and How to use it” Alan Rusbridger ISBN 978-1-83885-443-0v