Veteran BBC broadcaster James Naughtie has said that the media needs to be more vigorous and responsible in its reporting than ever before to win the ‘culture war’ that Donald Trump has unleashed on the free press.
Delivering the annual Hugh Cudlipp lecture – hosted by the London Press Club – the former Today presenter said: “There hasn’t been in living memory, in a western democracy, a threat to freedom of the press of the kind we see there.”
Drawing on his extensive knowledge of American politics after decades spent covering election campaigns and presidential administrations, he warned that, despite turning on them Trump has benefitted from the media more than any other US president.
“Language is skewed so that the greatest insult of them all, that will have them chanting at the rallies, is the ‘mainstream media’ – as if you can only tell the truth by being an outsider,” Naughtie said in his lecture, entitled ‘A World Turned Upside Down’, at The Museum of London.
Shaking his head in disbelief, Naughtie recalled comments made by Trump at a rally on the campaign trail when challenged about Putin’s record on media oppression: “I don’t like journalists but I wouldn’t kill them.”
He added that he had heard the Trump supporters’ cry of ‘Lock her up!’ in reference to Hillary Clinton sometimes changed to ‘String her up!’ in the frenetic atmosphere of his mass rallies.
The BBC’s Special Correspondent went on to illustrate how the attacks on the freedom of the press are being orchestrated.
“For journalism, it is the best of times and the worst of times. The attacks are stronger than we have ever known.
“There is a war on. It’s not a word – ‘war’ – that we should use lightly but it is appropriate.
“I’m calling it a ‘culture war’ because I think the values that keep us going in our darker moments are under attack as if they are some alien creed.”
But Naughtie had words of encouragement for four young journalists in the audience who were present at The Museum of London as finalists of the Hugh Cudlipp 2017 Student Award.
The editor-in-chief of Trinity Mirror, Lloyd Embley, presented Highly Commended certificates to May Bulman, George Greenwood and Jacob Furedi for articles they had written on the Calais jungle, the lack of opportunity in Higher Education and Brexit respectively.
The winner of the Hugh Cudlipp Student Award 2017 was Peter Yeung who focused on the plight of the homeless sleeping rough on night buses.
Naughtie told the audience of 130 people – which included Trinity Mirror’s Chief Executive Simon Fox and Chairman David Grigson together with print and broadcast journalists – that the press is fighting back in America: “The president always prefaces every mention of the New York Times with the word ‘failing’, although in print and online it has the biggest readership by far in its long history.”
Naughtie, who has covered politics for more than 30 years, said that the Trump attacks were different to other presidents’ prickly relationship with the press.
“Attacks on journalists aren’t new and they’re part of life, and no decent democracy can survive if people behave themselves all the time. It should get rough sometimes. But this is different.”
The broadcaster also addressed the challenges posed by the democracy of the internet.
“It’s graffiti by any other name. I have got nothing against graffiti, if it’s by Banksy or someone, but I don’t see the need to see it all as art, just as I don’t see the need to give equal weight to every view just because it’s on Twitter.”
Naughtie stipulated the importance of a rigorous journalism.
“The power of the web and the release of individual voices is obviously a good thing but the responsibility to apply judgement to this flood of material and not be drowned by it is bigger than ever.”
Read coverage and watch the lecture in full here.