During his presidential election campaign last year the ever-loquacious and unpredictable Donald Trump threatened to change Washington which he called a swamp. Not even four months after occupying the Oval Office Trump is sinking in the swamp he said he would clean up. Caught up in a labyrinth of charges of misconduct and worse, several Congressional and prosecutorial investigations into them, it seems to have escaped many that the week of leaks that produced these shocking revelations came from the media.
The American media that had been threatened during the campaign, journalists assaulted and manhandled and discriminated against once in the White House, has hit back hard at the man who promised new laws to curb the media and the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of the press. Many decades ago a prime minister of Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, had a more measured and understanding approach to dealing with the press. His policy, rather crudely but succinctly put, was not to mess with the press unnecessarily. There was a rationale to this policy as will be explained later in this column.
Unfortunately Donald Trump who has such an inflated opinion of himself thought he would adorn the Oval Office. Instead what he has brought to the White House is a totally bizarre and erratic behaviour and a presidential waywardness which has now brought him to the point of impeachment. When I joined Lake House (Beira Gedera as it was derisively called by Leftwing critics) immediately after university in 1962, breakfast time on the Observer was most often an entertaining time of the day with the afternoon daily “Observer” generally put to “bed” as they say.
That was when we journalistic novices listened to, with awe at times, senior colleagues regaling us with stories of journalistic derring-do, of politics and politicians and other personalities they rubbed shoulders with ever-so-often.
Lake House was the leading newspaper group at the time and had a powerful influence in shaping the political landscape of the time when even political critics had a respect for the institution though they intensely disliked its power.
One of the stories I still remember was about the extremely articulate S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike who was assassinated three years before I joined Lake House and never had the pleasure of knowing except by reputation and through first hand stories like those related in the Observer newsroom.
One morning Nimal Karunatilleke who was close to Mr. Bandaranaike and had won the Matale constituency for him in 1956 (the first result to be announced in a wave of victories for the MEP that were to follow) and my brother Mervyn were talking of SWRD’s sophisticated approach to the press which at the time consisted of four publishing houses and the State-owned broadcasting station.
The Oxford-educated and liberal-minded Mr. Bandaranaike understood the vital role of the press in a functioning democracy. He also believed that challenging the newspapers at every turn and contradicting them constantly as some were prone to do, was not a wise policy because the press could always have the last word.
This story came to mind while following last week’s fast moving developments in Washington that have sent President Donald Trump and the White House into a tail spin as they try to grapple with the compulsive indiscretion of the new man in the Oval Office that has led to the appointment of a Special Counsel to investigate a number of extremely serious allegations against him including the leaking of sensitive security information to the Russians and the obstruction of justice by asking the recently sacked FBI director to drop the investigations into the President’s national security advisor who has also been removed.
US President Donald Trump seemed to adopt an adversarial stance, antagonising the American media by constantly attacking it and threatening to undermine a foundational plank of American democracy – the First Amendment to the US Constitution that guaranteed freedom of the press.
Even before he left America late last week on a foreign visit that included Israel which is said to have provided the classified information that Trump passed on to the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (who by the way served in Sri Lanka) he was claiming that he was the victim of a “witch hunt”.
He claimed that no American president has been treated the way he has been treated. That is true of course. But then no American president has behaved as Trump has in the short time he has been president.
Those who have watched televised press conferences at the White House held by Trump would surely be appalled by the hostility he continues to show the media. It happened just the other day when he virtually ‘shot’ the journalist down in mid-sentence and rudely said “next question”.
His surly attitude towards any person who is critical of him, even if it is only to ask him a question or quote him accurately, is so obvious that he has brought into media conferences a hostility that has never known to have been seen before.
It has even reached the point where some media organizations or journalists are barred from attending White House or other conferences where Trump is present.
Even more disturbing, Trump has said that he wants to be able to take legal action against those he considers unkind in their reporting of him or his policies (however fleeting such policies maybe).
It was just the other day at a meeting in Texas that he showed his utter contempt for the First Amendment’s freedom of the press. He said that he is “gonna open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles we can sue them and win lots of money”.
It sure does remind me of some Sri Lankan ‘big wigs’ we know whose idea of negative reporting is anything that is critical of them, their actions or their conduct.
As though that was not enough of a condemnation of the media and his threat to silence them Trump went on to say “I think the media is among the most dishonest groups of people I’ve ever met. They are terrible”.
So Trump dons the mantle of a saint as though he is the cleanest of the clean, something Sri Lankans who listen to or associate with their politicians and their nepotistic relatives and cronies are regularly made aware of.
This Trump fiasco which is only in its early days also brings to the fore another vital issue. That is the need for non-partisan investigation of the allegations against the country’s highest elected official and the basic principle of prosecutorial independence and the rule of law.
In this case the Trump exposures have attracted worldwide attention because of the office he holds, the importance of the country, the ramification of the charges against him and the threat to the norms of democratic governance.
But even if it a far lesser person and the charges are far less damaging, there is a basic need to adhere to the rule of law. Justice demands that investigations are conducted in an independent manner and without interference from the legislative and executive arms of the state.
But over in Sri Lanka even if our leaders understand the importance of non-interference in the investigative process so that rule of law that the politicians promised before and after the dual elections in 2015 is preserved it does not happen.
We have heard of interference in the prosecutorial process by some holding high legislative and executive power thus undermining the norms of democratic governance.
There are two lessons that have so far emerged from the Affaire Trump. But our leaders are more likely to behave like the proverbial monkeys. To permit independent investigations into the plethora of criminal issues before the country and refrain from interfering in them cuts across the grain of their own interests and agendas.
Of course that cannot be permitted and to hell with the rule of law.