As far-right ideologues are significantly influencing politics across the globe, journalists have been left to question how they should cover so-called populist politicians and figures, some of whom are in power – Donald Trump and Narendra Modi – and some who aren’t – Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen.
The challenges facing journalism are significant. The 24-hour news cycle demands rapid response. This urgency can lend itself to poor reporting, misguided conclusions and intensify the temptation to indulge wildly sensationalist narratives. It can, put crudely, become a choice between being first or being accurate.
This seeming need for constant reporting is paired with shrinking newsrooms and plummeting profits. Meanwhile, the social media echo chamber and growing distrust of institutions and journalists, seen as a homogenous mass lumped in with ‘the elite’, is thought to be curbing media influence. These shifts are incredibly important and also require the left to strategise about how to counter the far right’s huge online power.
Yet considered, careful and well-researched journalism has not ceased to be important. As media outlets struggle to keep themselves afloat, they must begin to resist far-right ‘populist’ tendencies. So the question is, what is the best way to do that?
The Guardian’s Martin Belam has pointed out that when far-right politicians – such as US President Donald Trump – lie, the media feel obliged to prove them wrong. This puts them on the back foot, dedicating precious time to defensive fact-checking instead of actively spreading truth. The latter, Belam argues, should be the media’s focus.
The pitfalls of reporting on the far right aren’t solely the product of the changing media landscape. There is a tendency to glamorise and sensationalise hardliners.
Not long after Trump was elected, the London Evening Standard – a paper, owned by a Russian oligarch and which is distributed free of charge around London – ran a story looking at ‘the faces of America’s young alt-right pack’. Accompanied by glitzy photos of far-right figures, the article described them as ‘stars’ – celebrities – and cast a supposedly innocent glance over their fashion choices.
Milo Yiannopoulos and Tomi Lahren were fawned over as icons to be examined, intrigued by and even lusted after. There was little serious intellectual engagement with their toxic platform. This temptation to sensationalise and glamorise the far right should be actively resisted by serious journalists.
But profiles of far-right figures – even of those who don’t hold office – have proliferated in recent months. As senior editor at Novara Media, Ash Sarkar, has pointed out, this form of reporting does not allow for the considered coverage that in-depth research and data analysis provide.
Instead, through profiles, far-right figures are treated as woefully misguided or as mere characters on the stage of politics. All the while, their abhorrent views and the real-life effect their politics have go unquestioned.
Similarly, the views of aggressively xenophobic, anti-Muslim ethno-nationalist politics like the National Front’s Marine Le Pen are, at times, normalised in the media. A recent article by Britain’s public broadcaster, the BBC, described Le Pen as a ‘nationalist’ who is ‘unabashedly opposed to immigration’, before going on to say: ‘But there is no hint in her of the far-right ideology that clung to members of her father’s generation’.
This is, essentially, an acceptance of Le Pen’s own branding; she wants to detoxify her image and the idea that she isn’t a far-right ideologue – despite her anti-Muslim politics – does just that. Journalists must refuse to cover the far right in this way, constantly second-guess themselves, and give space to marginalised voices who are consistently written out of the debate unless they are being talked about.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘The media should resist
far-right populist tendencies’.