Donald Trump’s attacks on the truthfulness of the main stream media might have shocked the political establishment in Washington, but they have been a tried and tested ploy of South American revolutionaries – and were the weapon of choice for Arthur Scargill during the 1984-85 miners’ strike.
Studies just published by the British Journalism Review and the Columbia Journalism Review explore the thinking behind the tactics of lashing out at reporters and accusing them of peddling fake news.
In his paper for the BJR, Nicholas Jones says Trump’s brazen assault on the veracity of journalists has been as calculated and carefully crafted as the abuse fired off three decades earlier by Scargill.
Words and phrases used by the NUM President in his sustained denigration of the main stream media were almost interchangeable with the tirades of the US President about the ethics of the leading American news outlets.
When Trump harangued reporters and television crews corralled in media pens to accompanying boos from his supporters, his attacks mirrored Scargill when he berated the British news media for supporting Margaret Thatcher.
“What does Trump have in commons with Hugo Chavez? A media strategy” is the title of the CJR’s examination of the link with the media tactics of Latin American populists. An unrelenting attempt by the US President to undermine the credibility of the mainstream media was straight out of their revolutionary playbook.
The study found that Trump’s rhetoric had remarkable similarities with the tactics to mobilise supporters that were deployed by Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, and Argentina’s Cristina Kirchner – along with the late Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. They all rose to power in campaigns that targeted the media, and once in office, they continued their attacks.
“The No. 1 enemies of Evo Morales are the majority of the media,” said the Bolivian President; President Correa described his critics in the press as “liars”; Ortega called journalists “children of Goebbels”; Chavez frequently rounded on the media for being “coup plotters and fascists”; and Scargill denounced reporters for being a bunch of “piranha fish” that would always remain loyal to Thatcher.
The CJR says the necessary first step of a speech fomenting greater political polarisation is to marginalise the media, and more broadly undermine its ability to provide a shared unifying narrative, by lashing out at the media at public events, condemning and vilifying individual journalists.
In his look-back for the BJR (March 2017) on the tactics deployed by Scargill – and what if felt like being described as vermin – Jones examines what the NUM President hoped to achieve by traducing journalists:
Donald Trump’s brazen assault on the truthfulness of journalists in the US Presidential election was as calculated and carefully crafted as the abuse fired off three decades earlier by Arthur Scargill, President of the National Union of Mineworkers, during the year-long pit strike of 1984-85. The similarities were uncanny. Words and phrases used in their sustained denigration of mainstream media were interchangeable: Trump’s tirades about the ethics and veracity of leading American news outlets could just as easily have been uttered by Scargill as he berated the British news media for supporting Margaret Thatcher. As I watched Trump harangue reporters and television crews corralled in media pens to accompanying boos from the crowd, I could visualise myself back at a miners’ rally, standing there with the rest of the media pack, arm outstretched, holding my microphone, being denounced as vermin by Scargill, and getting jeered at by the strikers.
Firing up their supporters, be they strikers or voters, was a priority for Trump and Scargill, just as it was for two other underdogs who in my experience had deployed the tactic of blaming the journalists in their midst for the hostility they faced in the news coverage of mainstream press, television and radio. BBC reporters were a constant target for the Reverend Ian Paisley during Northern Ireland Troubles of the 1970s, as they were for Nigel Farage when promoting the United Kingdom Independence Party, and then campaigning for Leave in the EU Referendum.
My awareness of techniques for denigrating the media used by egotistical leaders when out on the campaign trail had been heightened by a rare insight into Scargill’s tactics. By chance, during an unexpected four-hour car journey early in the miners’ strike, I had an opportunity to probe his thinking behind the effectiveness of a warm-up routine in which he regularly denounced journalists – a strategy that seemed like a mirror image of the ploys that would be used decades later by Trump.
In June 1984, three months into the pit strike, I gave Scargill a lift all the way from a union conference in Llandudno to his London flat in the Barbican. As the journey wore on, and the two of us chatted away, he became ever more revealing about his varied strategies for squaring up to media hostility. Sometimes he was so effective in pinning responsibility directly on to those reporting the strike, that the boos and jeers of the audience turned nasty, and young miners would start to threaten working journalists. Fresh in my mind was the menace in the air at a strike rally earlier that June after Scargill had been accused in an infamous Sun front page of making a Hitler-style salute, a slur that prompted a fearsome rebuke.
“I wanted to wave to all the union members here, had it not been for the fact that one of these vermin here might have taken a photograph of me waving my arm in the air and then written something underneath it. (Cheers)
“Throughout this dispute, day after day, television, radio and the press have consistently put over the view of the coal board and government and even when the board and government have been exposed as being guilty of duplicity and guilty of telling lies, not only to the House of Commons but also to the British public, this bunch of piranha fish will go on supporting Mrs Thatcher. (More cheers) (Arthur Scargill, Jubilee Gardens, London, 7.6.1984)
Away from the cut-and-thrust of the pit dispute, as we headed south on the M6 and the M1 motorways, I gently probed Scargill’s motivation for firing up his supporters by mounting a blanket attack on journalists. In his opinion, reporters resembled predators, with the same sharp teeth and powerful jaws. Fleet Street was like “a giant fish tank where journalists were the piranhas going for the fleshy morsels, ready to savage each other to get to the juiciest mouthfuls”. He considered he had no alternative but to attack all reporters because there was no way he could single out individual correspondents. “Berating journalists at strike meetings invariably gets a good audience response. NUM members have had direct experience themselves of media bias, and they always applaud what I say...And, yes, attacking journalists does make me more interesting to the media at large.” By accusing journalists, interviewers and presenters for being biased against the miners, and for always siding with Mrs Thatcher, Scargill hoped to convince the strikers and their families that the media were part and parcel of an establishment conspiracy, an all-too necessary step in preparing the coalfields for the confrontation that he believed was inevitable once Ian MacGregor had been appointed NCB chairman with his mandate to close loss-making collieries
Trump’s strategy was so effective that it gave him massive exposure on American news channels. Like Paisley, Scargill and Farage before him, the Republican outsider connected in a language that his supporters understood. By blaming the journalists in their midst for the hostility of the mainstream media, all four succeeded in strengthening their individual and collective sense of grievance, almost alienation, and turned that to their advantage. Audiences at Trump’s rallies were regularly whipped into a frenzy when he directed a tirade of abuse towards those corralled in media pens. Reports by correspondents covering the Presidential election captured the anger Trump generated by outbursts that matched Scargill’s menace and bombast:
“Attending a Trump rally is a nervy thing for a journalist. Invariably, the Republican frontrunner singles out the cordoned-off media pen, pointing in our direction while declaring that we are mostly horrible people who are ruining the nation one word at a time...They boo us in the pen. They boo Fox News host Megan Kelly. ‘These are the most dishonest people, bad people,’ Trump says. It is taken as gospel that 80% of journalists are shrieking devil worshippers who want nothing more than to consume the souls of right thinking individuals all over the country.” (Dave Schilling, reporting from Nevada, The Guardian, 25.2.2016)
“As for the media, in a pen in the middle of the pavilion floor: ‘They are the most dishonest people in the world,’ he railed, eliciting loud boos. ‘They are the worst. Honestly...Do we like the media? (No from the crowd). “Do we hate the media?’ (Yes).” (David Usborne, reporting from Indianapolis, I, 22.4.2016)
In persistently abusing the media Trump had seemingly made precisely the same calculation as Scargill. His ten years as host of the American television game show, The Apprentice, meant he needed no lessons in manipulating the media, or in chasing the highest possible ratings. He understood only too well that high-profile attacks on journalists were taken seriously within the media community. Accusations of bias caught the attention of newsrooms, and one likely consequence was that editorial and production staff were far more likely to give his speeches a prominent position in news schedules. Whatever the backlash among opinion formers, this was of little consequence when the shared objective was the over-riding need to keep the rank and file fired up.
Trump’s speeches were so controversial, his outbursts so outlandish, they were often broadcast live, purposely timed to catch peak audiences. Much of the wall-to-wall television coverage he received over the 15 months of the Presidential campaign was uncritical, and after the unexpected defeat of Hilary Clinton, the networks were blamed for not having done more to challenge and correct his wildest allegations. CNN was often cast as the real villain in his demolition of mainstream media, as the BBC had been for Paisley, Scargill and Farage when they accused journalists of being in league with the British establishment. Trump’s pitch that the American media was part of a conspiracy to prevent him becoming US President sounded as if it could have been delivered at a British strike rally in the 1980s:
“The corporate media in our country is no longer involved in journalism. They are political, a special interest, no different than any lobbyist or other financial entity, with a total political agenda, an agenda that is not for you, it is for themselves. (Donald Trump, Today, BBC Radio 4, 5.11.2016)
Scargill’s speeches at strike rallies were the same heady mix of bombast and menace, laced with savage asides, put-downs and jokes, a music hall style routine that the activists greeted with lengthy standing ovations. As with Trump, there was an X factor about him, and I am sure the news channels would have realised that Scargill’s ability to shock made for compulsive viewing, and that if the pit dispute had taken place in an era of 24-hour news, radio and television channels would have been equally reluctant to pull away from the NUM President once starting a live broadcast from one his speeches.
Live transmission of rabble-rousing speeches is no longer a one off because they have another life on social media. Short clips or even lengthy extracts are uploaded on to a multitude of platforms, and often reach an audience via the internet that far exceeds that of the original live broadcast. Trump’s campaign team drove the online agenda with an audacity unmatched in any previous election, backing up his rallies with a barrage of postings that more often than not paid scant attention to truth or accuracy. While a British trade union facing the full force of the state would inevitably have had to come to terms with a far harsher environment than the post-truth level of communication that was apparent in the Brexit campaign, and then re-surfaced with a vengeance in the US Presidential election, there is now a whole panoply of highly-inventive ways to by-pass the stranglehold of the established media of press and television.
Whereas Farage and Trump could take advantage of many other avenues to speak directly to the public without having their messages mediated by the established media, Scargill had no such leeway. If it had been possible for a trade union struggling against Mrs Thatcher to exploit the range of social media that is currently available, I think there is every possibility that she might well have been forced to reach a settlement with the NUM rather than pursue a fight to the finish until half the men had given up the strike and returned to work.