Let’s take a moment out of our busy fun-packed/despair-laced schedule to talk about questions.
So much of what’s happening politically at the moment has to do with answers. We all want them and a few of us (Russian speakers, no doubt) might even have them. Yet the problem with answers is that they usually begin with a question and questions are far trickier to handle. It’s not that they’re limited. We perhaps have more questions than we’ve ever had to ask. It’s just that there are very few places where we can ask them and those places are growing scarcer by the day.
Take, for example, the increasingly murky business of American presidential press conference. Twenty eight days into his presidency and it’s already obvious that Donald Trump does not like questions. He might “comprehend very well […] Better than, I think, almost anybody” but he answers questions less well, perhaps, than almost anybody. Back in January, he landed his first presidential press conference with the skill of Harrison Ford behind the stick of a vintage nosedive. It was lucky journalists managed to walk away unscathed but, in the case of CNN’s Jim Acosta, it left some obvious bruising.
Then, on Thursday, he helmed one of the most white-knuckled press conferences the East Room of the White House will ever see. Somewhere the ghost of Richard Milhous Nixon was fist pumping the air as it celebrated the fact that Nixon will no longer be recognised as America’s most paranoid president. Trump mocked the reporters in the room who he said would describe his outburst as a “rant” but, really, that’s exactly what it was. He ranted about the media, accusing them of misreporting the facts. At one point, he turned carefully-worded question about antisemitism in the country into a question that accused him personally of antisemitism. He was seeing monsters where there really weren’t even shadows.
Much as the Thursday press conference will dominate the news agenda for a few hours, it would be a mistake to think that it was in any way representative of the way the Trump White House have been handing the media in the first month. Between the first and (at the time of writing) last press conference, The White House had been adopting a non-confrontational game plan.
When Trump met Theresa May, he began by fielding a question from Steve Holland of Reuters but the second question went to John Roberts of Fox News. A trend was beginning which would see, over the course of four press conferences, Trump taking only a single question from a member of the non-partisan press. May, meanwhile, picked the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg whose questions prompting Trump to turn to the Prime Minister and cry: “And this was your choice of a question? There goes that relationship!” That relationship might well have been Trump’s relationship with real news organisations.
As the questions became softer, the conferences became increasingly uninformative. When meeting Japanese leader Shinzō Abe, he called out Daniel Halper of the pro-Trump New York Post (not to be confused with the “failing”, “fake news” New York Times) and Blake Burman of Fox News which is, of course, a stable-mate of the Post. Last week, Trump played softball with ringers in the cheap seats during his press conference with Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau. Trump smacked easy questions from WJLA (yes, you’re right, it does roll off the tongue) and The Daily Caller, a website so far beyond the mainstream that alongside politics, sport, business and opinion, it has a section dedicated to that perennial favourite of right-wing ventriloquists everywhere: “Guns and Gear”.
By Tuesday, pretentions of serious questions had gone. Greeting the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump fielded questions from those famous bastions of independent reporting: the self-explanatory Christian Broadcasting Network and the less self-explanatory Townhall. As is so typical of websites with inclusive and communal names, Townhall is neither inclusive nor particularly communal and has a staunchly Christian conservative outlook.
Suppression of the press (or, more, specifically tough questions from the press) has now become a feature of the Trump White House. If, like me, you’ve been enjoying the White House daily briefings that don’t involve Melissa McCarthy, you’ll have also noticed how the format has altered under press secretary Sean Spicer. Ostensibly done to open the process to non-DC based reporters, the press conferences now make room for questions via Skype. The results are often awkward and insulting to the professionals in the room. A few have involved oddly angled cameras from what looks like a militia compound in the depths of Montana and shaven-headed bloggers ranting about the previous administration before setting up an easy question for Spicer to knock out of the heavily fortified park. It’s easy (and psychologically healthy) to mock such brazen news manipulation but there is a serious point here. This is a strategy designed to disrupt our sense of what is and is not news. Trump is trying to control the agenda and, more importantly, is largely succeeding in that the White House press corps are left frustrated and unable to properly interrogate the president or his spokesman.
Watching all this from the relative tranquillity of the UK, we might dismiss the trend as being peculiar to the American form of government. British journalists have a different attitude towards our leaders. Often overlooked in debates about monarchy is the sensible way we’ve separated the roles of monarch and prime minister. We give the Queen the deference that Americans are expected to give their presidents, leaving the Prime Minister to argue the politics. It is, I think, a healthier way of dealing with the business of government and why we have a richer tradition of satire in that questioning our leader is quite different to insulting our country’s figurehead.
That doesn’t mean, however, that we’re immune to the same problems. Currently there are moves to push John Bercow from the Speaker’s chair in the Commons and that, surely, goes right to the valves and ventricles of the matter. Beyond the issue of personality or impartiality there’s the issue of how and when questions can be asked of our leaders.
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Now, I admit, the opportunity offered by James Duddridge’s motion of no confidence in the Speaker would tempt anybody given a chance to do a bit of shoving. John Bercow is eminently suited to shoving. Everything about the man makes one think that he enjoys his role just a little too much. He’s even started to walk like Lord Belborough’s butler from Chigley (near Trumpton) and he loves his gold trimmed robes about as much as I imagine he enjoys his perch.
Yet that’s precisely why I think he’s such a good Speaker of the House of Commons.
Michelangelo produced some of the most celebrated representations of the human form but you probably wouldn’t want to be downwind of his armpits. It’s said that he never bathed in his life but that, perhaps, is what underpinned his genius. Geoff Boycott’s career, defined by his stubborn determination not to give his wicket away cheaply, was the result of a deeply stubborn nature. In other words: some people are just a good fit for the jobs they do.
Which brings us to Bercow. Neither a Michelangelo nor a Boycott, he is, however, pompous, self-important and, at times, deeply frustrating and it’s those very qualities that make him a force for good in parliament. It’s that arrogance that the best speakers display that allows them to stand up to the government of the day. It is how Bercow has proven himself to be a true champion of the back benchers, with a recent chart in The Telegraph highlighting how Bercow has granted 159 urgent questions in five years, compared with only 42 under five years of previous Speaker, Michael Martin.
As Matthew Parris put it in The Spectator this past week:
“John Bercow has been both outstanding as a Speaker, and seriously flawed. You would need to be a sixth-former or Westminster habitué to know of the impact he’s made on public access, on engaging with the voters and with young people, on the lecture evenings to which he’s opened his Speaker’s House home, and the endless dog-hangings, so important for public-spirited people, on which he tirelessly drops in”
Now, of course, this is very much a discussion about process and some might argue that we can spend too much time gazing at our navels and questioning the role of the free press. Most people are no more interested in the operation of the House of Commons than they are in the relationship of the American president to the press corp. Yet process is important, as Americans are now discovering with a President who is forcing them to study the small print of their Constitution. The ability and right to ask questions of our leaders is instrumental to the functioning of our two democracies. Those that fight for the big issues should first champion the smallest, such as the right to determine which questions they can ask. Without questions, there can be no answers and that, as far as too many politicians are concerned, is something they appear to find terribly appealing.