The politics of provocation and its pitfalls

This article is more than 12 months old

Fall of controversial right-wingers Steve Bannon and Toby Young

Two men of the right were pulled from pedestals this past week: one, American, for being a source; the other, British, for having been a columnist.

Their rationalisations and attempts at exculpation raise the question: does journalism operate in a space increasingly divorced from sober fact and judgment? Is most of it being enfolded, ever more completely, into entertainment or political intolerance?

The larger fall from the pomp of power has been that of Mr Steve Bannon, a journalist of the hard-edged right, who at the beginning of Mr Donald Trump's presidency had been chief strategist and briefly a member of the US President's National Security Council.

He was allowed to resign in August after an interview with the American Prospect put him at odds with the president on North Korea.

It was another interview that forced Mr Bannon to descend to a deeper circle of the Hell of Being Out of It. He spoke to Michael Wolff, author of Fire And Fury: Inside The Trump White House.

Mr Bannon said Mr Trump's daughter Ivanka is "dumb as a brick" and that a meeting between Trump campaign officials - including the president's son, Donald Jr - and Russian lobbyists in Trump Tower was "treasonous."

The president, Mr Bannon's erstwhile friend and employer, retorted that the former strategist had "lost his mind" after he left the White House, adding that "I don't talk to him" - the ultimate insult. Mr Bannon - who has not directly disputed his quotes in the book - then issued a statement calling the president's son "a patriot and a good man," describing the reporting about Don Jr. as "inaccurate."

Mr Bannon says his support for the president was "unwavering".

The British case involves Mr Toby Young, a former journalist who became an education entrepreneur, setting up "free schools" - institutions that are funded by the state but, much like their American equivalent, charter schools, allowed more flexibility with regard to curriculum and admissions.

He was proposed as a board member for a new Office for Students, designed to make universities more accountable to government, but this week he resigned, saying the furore over remarks he had made in the past would be too much of a "distraction" for him to continue.

In columns, he had claimed he found working-class students at Oxford University - where he studied - to be "small, deformed… with acne and anoraks".

He commented often on the size of women's breasts, wrote that wheelchair ramps at schools were one of the negative effects of "inclusivity," and advocated that embryos treated with genetically-engineered intelligence be made available to parents on low incomes with below-average IQs.

In a resignation statement, Mr Young wrote he was a passionate supporter of inclusivity and "helping the most disadvantaged," but that comments in articles "when I was a journalistic provocateur" were ill-judged or wrong "and I unreservedly apologise".

Mr Bannon's regrets (he does not believe in saying sorry) and Mr Young's unreserved apologies point to two large dilemmas in contemporary journalism. That is, how to judge what is written as serious, or, to use Mr Young's word, as merely the posture of a "provocateur", and how far news on partisan websites can be trusted.

Intriguingly, the Collins dictionary defines "provocateur" differently in American and British usages, and in both cases, each of the differing definitions fits both men well.

In American English, it is a "writer, artist, political activist, etc. whose works, ideas, or activities are regarded as a threat to accepted values or practices".

In British English, it is "a person who deliberately behaves controversially in order to provoke argument or other strong reactions".

The Breitbart site, which Mr Bannon took over when its creator, Andrew Breitbart, died in 2012, puts out news which is conditioned by its political agenda.

The dilemma which Mr Young dramatises is less obvious, but perhaps more insidious.

It is that, by "behaving controversially in order to provoke argument or other strong reactions," he puts journalistic commentary and opinion in a particular place.

Both men, however, have been wounded by the clash of contemporary opinion journalism and the public sphere.

By apologising, they attempt to slough off their comments, reported or written, as matters of no consequence.

It's their right in a free press to do so. But, deliberately, it fires up political enmity and prejudice.

The writer co-founded the 
Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford