Anything that Trump doesn’t like is dismissed as “fake news”.
America’s President Donald Trump is as touchy as late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi about what the newspapers say about him. As his current tour of Brussels, London, the Turnberry resort in Scotland and Helsinki, Finland — probably all regarded as distant outposts of America’s far-flung empire — shows, his image is carefully cultivated like the cascade of dyed hair that is said to conceal a bald patch.
Anything that he doesn’t like is dismissed as “fake news”. The press is the scapegoat of vain politicians.
As the world knows by now, the US President was monstrously rude and condescending about Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May even while lapping up her lavish hospitality. He spoke disparagingly about her as if she were an incompetent junior member of his staff and told London’s Sun newspaper what a fine Prime Minister her arch-critic Boris Johnson, the UK’s recently-resigned foreign secretary, would make. He denounced her Brexit plan as an impediment to any trade deal with the United States.
Meeting her the next morning, the President said: “I want to apologise because I said such good things about you.” Ms May’s response filled him with admiration. “She said,” as he recalled later, “‘Don’t worry, it’s only the press’.’” Mr Trump thought “that was very professional.”
Unknowingly, Ms May was taking a leaf from Mrs Gandhi’s book. In April 1980 India’s Prime Minister met for the first time Gen. Zia-ul Haq, Pakistan’s Chief Martial Law Administrator, whose CMLA acronym many Pakistanis interpreted as “Cancel My Last Announcement”. Gen. Zia’s malicious remarks about Mrs Gandhi had featured prominently in the media. But she “was all smiles and courtesy” (to quote my old colleague, the late Inder Malhotra) when they met at Zimbabwe’s independence celebrations in Salisbury, now Harare.
To continue the narrative: “‘Madam, please do not believe everything you read in newspapers’ was Gen. Zia’s opening gambit.
“‘Of course not,’ replied Indira. ‘After all, aren’t they calling you a democrat and me a dictator?’”
I once asked Mrs Gandhi’s trusted information adviser H.Y. Sharada Prasad if she was bent on suppressing the free press. “Oh no,” he answered, and went on to quote the 19th century poet Arthur Hugh Clough’s “Thou shalt not kill; but needst not strive/ Officiously to keep alive” to illustrate her attitude.
Perhaps. But although she advised Kunwar Natwar Singh that a thick skin was the first requisite for a political career, she herself could be extremely thin-skinned. That Mrs Gandhi was as much a prima donna as Mr Trump was illustrated at the Non-Aligned Movement’s seventh summit in New Delhi in March 1983. Watching her receive the dignitaries as they arrived at Vigyan Bhavan, I contrasted the smiling coyness with which she submitted to the bearhug in which Cuba’s Fidel Castro enveloped her with the wintry smile and distant handshake to which she treated Sri Lanka’s President J.R. Jayewardene.
The coldness of her reception was especially noticeable because I had seen on other occasions how warmly Mr Jayewardene’s predecessor, Srimavo Bandaranaike, and Mrs Gandhi embraced and kissed each other like a pair of English county hostesses meeting for tea and cucumber sandwiches.
It was only a short, light news article, forgotten almost as soon as it appeared. No one thought it merited comment. I was surprised therefore to read long afterwards that Mr Jayewardene had talked to a newspaper about the concern that press coverage can cause. The example he gave was of Mrs Gandhi going to see him at the NAM summit to ask anxiously if there had been any reserve or coldness in the way she had greeted him at Vigyan Bhavan.
A secondary irony was that in that high noon of “Garibi Hatao” and all that went with it, Mrs Gandhi and her courtiers publicly affected to detest the newspaper that I worked for. But however politically unacceptable my paper’s policy might have been, the woman in the Prime Minister was sophisticated enough to value its social judgment.
No such nuance of gentility marked Mr Trump’s joint press conference with Ms May at Chequers, the British Prime Minister’s official country residence 40 miles from London. He rambled on, sometimes incoherently, sometimes inconsistently. The Sun interview was “fake news” because it didn’t include the “nice things” he had said about Ms May, who stood beside him. Corrected by the political editor of the Sun, who was covering the press conference, Mr Trump at once climbed down. “Oh good, OK. If you reported them, that’s OK. I said very good things. Thank you very much for saying that.” For good measure, he added that the Sun journalists “seemed like two very nice people”.
But he still had a grouse. “They didn’t put them (his “good things” about Ms May) in the headline. I wish they had put it in the headline.” The President then revealed that Ms May had told him not to worry about the interview as “it’s only the press”. Ms May’s “You’re going to antagonise them” was locking the stable door after the horse had escaped. He refused to let a CNN journalist ask questions, saying: “CNN is fake news. I don’t take questions from fake news.” He mocked the Reuters correspondent for covering his baldness with a hat. He brushed aside NBC with “such dishonest reporting!”
Sardar Vallabhai Patel captured the basis of this complex and ambivalent relationship. I don’t have the exact quotation here in London, but he said it all when he argued that there was no reason for a government to be grateful for press support when it was in the right. It was when the government was wrong that the true attitude of the press was put to the test. But of course, some governments — Mr Trump’s for instance — are never wrong!