Yesterday’s bizarre and deeply problematic ‘opinion’ piece in the Irish Times by an American writer living in Ireland which offered “everything you need to know” about the so-called alt-right that is everything you need to know except (obviously) any discussion about the extent to which they trade in racism, misogny, transphobia, and ‘post-truth’, must prompt a debate about how we expect our press to deal with far-right ideologues who will use any trick available to get their discourse into the mainstream media.
Our press needs to responsibly address the new confidence of the far-right and so-called ‘alt-right’ (let’s call them what they are, white supremacists), without facilitating the acceptance of their discourse and normalisation of their ideals.
We need to know how the press can handle this better, and why we should keep reminding them of their responsibilities, and opportunities, to do journalism well.
In November, Samira Ahmed published a great piece in The Guardian ‘How to interview extremists – and avoid normalising racism‘ in which she says the press should “Report them fairly, and challenge them robustly”, remembering all the time the “need to focus on reporting what controversial political figures actually do – not just see what they might say if you give them the airtime.” This piece relates particularly to interviewing individual figures, but the same principle should be applied to opinion pieces which are so unbalanced, and misleading, as to actually make the audience unable to distinguish where the truth starts and stops.
Usually when we talk about ‘normalising’ racism , we are talking about the way in which extreme racist language and ideas become part of our everyday language and range of ideas. By engaging with the language of extremists, we are forced to debate on their terms, not ours, and to be forced to defend long-established traditions of human and civil rights in a language which denies the very humanity of those who most need protection (Samira Ahmed’s piece refers to recent far-right “questions” over the ‘humanity’ of Jews in America). Debating on someone else’s terms is often part and parcel of democracy – the problem arises when those terms explicitly cannot and do not allow for the validity of other perspectives or those who offer them. By facilitating the easing of far-right language into the mainstream media, the Irish Times takes us down a very dangerous path indeed.