And that’s the lesson for media everywhere. Don’t let them divide and rule you. If a newspaper that you think of as the opposition is not allowed access to a press briefing because the prime minister or the president doesn’t like it, you should be shouting about it just as hard as if it happened to you, because it is about the principle. If you don’t believe in the principle, in time they will come for you and no one will be there to speak out.
That’s the big point being made by Baier: it happened to us and people spoke up for us, so now I am doing the same. A seasoned Turkish journalist told me that one of the reasons the Turkish government led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was able to get away with restrictions on critical media early on, was because the liberal media hadn’t stood up for the principle in earlier years when conservative press outlets were being excluded or criticised.
Sadly, the UK media did not show many signs of standing united when, during this year’s general election campaign, the Daily Mirror, a Labour-supporting newspaper, was kicked off the Conservative Party’s campaign “battle bus”. The bus carries journalists and Prime Minister Boris Johnson around the country during the campaign. The Mirror, which has about 11 million readers, was the only newspaper not allowed to board the bus. When the Mirror’s political editor called on other media to boycott the bus, the reaction was muted. Conservative Party tacticians will have seen this as a success, given the lack of solidarity to this move by the rest of the media (unlike the US coverage of the White House incident).
The lesson here is to stand up for the principles of freedom and democracy all the time, not just when they affect you. If you don’t, they will be gone before you know it.
Rallying rhetoric is another tried and tested tactic. They use it to divide the public into “them and us”, and try to convert others to thinking they are “people like us”. If we, the public, think they are on our side, we are more likely to put the X in their ballot box. Trump and Orbán practise the “people like us” and “everyone else is our enemy” strategies with abandon. They rail against people they don’t like using words such as “traitor”.
Again in Hungary, people are put into the “outsiders” box if they are gay, women who haven’t had children or don’t conform to the ideas that the Orbán government stands for.
Dividing people into “them and us” has huge implications for our democracies. In separating people, we start to lose our empathy for people who are “other” and we potentially stop standing up for them when something happens. It creates divides that are useful for those in power to manipulate to their advantage.
The University of Birmingham’s Henriette van der Bloom recently co-published research pamphlet Crisis of Rhetoric: Renewing Political Speech and Speechwriting. She said: “I think there is a risk we are all putting ourselves and others into boxes, then we cannot really collaborate about improving our society. Some would say that is what is partly going on at the moment.” Looking forward, she saw one impact could be “a society in crisis, speeches are delivered, and people listen, but it becomes more and more polarising”.
But it’s not just the future, it’s today. We already see societies in crisis, with democratic values being threatened and eroded. This does not point to a rosy future. But there are some signs for optimism. In this issue, we also feature protesters who have campaigned and achieved significant change. In Romania, a mass weekly protest against a new law which would allow political corruption has ended with the government standing down; in Hungary, a new opposition mayor has been elected in Budapest.
Democracies need to remember that criticism and political opposition are an essential part of their success. We must hope they do.