Dr Mark Ledwidge, Senior Lecturer in American Studies, reflects on the legacy of Obama’s foreign policy and looks ahead to what we might expect from the leadership of Donald Trump.
Peter Vujakovic, Professor of Geography in the School of Human and Life Sciences, explores the use of caricatures in media publications during the festive season.
T’is the season to be jolly! This December many news magazines have decked their covers with humorous caricatures and satirical graphics. The New Statesman has Donald Trump and Theresa May ski jumping …over the cliff edge? The Week has Boris Johnson in the ‘dog-house’. Even Time Magazine’s ‘Person of the Year’ cover seems to have been strategically arranged so the title letter ‘M’ provides a devilish touch to Trump’s profile. Time denies intent and notes that given the letter’s “location on the cover, many other subjects in the past have also appeared to sprout extra features. It’s happened to Hillary Clinton at least twice.”
What is clear, however, is the stinging intent in celebrated cartoonist Peter Brookes’ cover image for the Spectator. This features Trump and Putin literally carving-up the globe (in the form of a pudding), with Putin serving himself a large slice of the ‘Middle East’. Brookes’ cartoon is a direct pastiche of one of the most famous political graphics in history, James Gillray’s 1805 ‘The Plum Pudding in Danger’, in which the original protagonists were Pitt and Napoleon. This cartoon has been recycled many times; including Thatcher and Foot, Bush and Gorbachev, and recently Cameron and Sturgeon. Like an element of any great festive pantomime it’s an old joke with a contemporary twist. The globe or map in cartoons has always been subject to the power of the protagonists; to control, ‘cleansing’, fragmentation, or even destruction. Numerous examples abound, from Lenin sweeping the globe clear of capitalists, clergy and kings, to Putin ripping a map of Ukraine apart. But are these images under threat?
As Will Self has noted satire must ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’, and Brookes’ work does this. There is, however, a danger that true satire might be endangered by two contemporary processes, first a ‘scatter-gun’ approach in which, as Self has pointed out, the ‘afflicted’ have been made uncomfortable by some of the images produced by cartoonists; he cites cartoons of Mohammed. And secondly, the growing problem of ‘self-censorship’; a reaction to the threats of both violent extremists and the litigious tendencies of the rich and powerful. In the same month as Brookes’ cartoon, US artist Alison Jackson, who has recently published photographs with Trump ‘look-a-likes’, has claimed that she has to fight hard against ‘self-censorship’. “It makes you frightened, it makes you put the brakes on and that is very worrying.” She goes on to note, “Whether it’s artists or cartoonists or satirists, there has to be free and radical thinking. Without that we get into the realms of dictatorship.”
Dr Michael Goodrum, Senior Lecturer in the School of Humanities, discusses Kellogg’s decision to pull its advertising from Breitbart and its history of decision-making based on values.
The cereal giant Kellogg’s has pulled its advertising from Breitbart, the alt-right news service that has attained recent prominence thanks to the appointment of its executive chairman, Steve Bannon, as President-elect Donald Trump’s chief strategist.
In a statement, Kellogg’s announced that their decision was based on Breitbart not being ‘aligned with our values’. Breitbart has responded by declaring war on the company, running a series of derogatory stories and sparking a social media campaign through the hashtag #DumpKelloggs to encourage its readers to do precisely that. Kellogg’s decision fits into the broader pattern of economic warfare currently being waged by the group Stop Funding Hate, who also use social media to advance their cause. This group campaigns to get companies to pull their advertising from publications that publish stories deemed to be inflammatory.
Kellogg’s, however, has faced down right wing opposition before in a very similar situation. In 1946, Kellogg’s was the main sponsor of the Superman radio serial in the US. The serial was broadcast five times a week, and was nationally syndicated. According to contemporary Hooper ratings, it regularly attracted the highest juvenile audience of any radio show. Kellogg’s ran tie-in campaigns, and also ran adverts within the show, meaning the brand was closely aligned with the superhero.
This was seemingly just another sponsorship deal until, in 1946, the writers of the serial took a socially relevant direction. In a story known as ‘The Clan of the Fiery Cross’, Superman and his friends from the Daily Planet Lois Lane, Jimmy White, and Perry Olsen, took up the fight against a Ku Klux Klan-like organisation who sought to drive a Chinese American family out of Metropolis. Thanks to information gathered by the journalist and political activist, Stetson Kennedy, who went undercover in the newly reformed KKK, the writers of the serial had genuine information on passwords and rituals to place in their scripts. The Klan reacted furiously and, like Breitbart, declared war on Kellogg’s, urging their sympathisers to boycott Kellogg’s and staging pickets outside shops to press the issue. Kellogg’s refused to back down; Superman’s defeat of the Klan, or at least its thinly veiled allegory, rendered them ridiculous. The stream of stories issuing forth from Breitbart on the issue seems to be achieving the same function, even without Superman’s help.
Academics from our Politics and International Relations programme offer their initial thoughts on Donald Trump winning the 2016 US Presidential election.
Dr Agnes Gulyas, Reader in Digital Transformations, looks at the role the media play in politics, focusing on the current US Presidential election.
In the current US Presidential race Donald Trump has accused the “disgusting and corrupt media” of representing him and his campaign dishonestly and falsely. He claimed that if “media covered me honestly and didn’t put false meaning into the words I say, I would be beating Hilary by 20%”. Mr Trump arguably exemplifies post-truth politics which is based on reliance on assertions and feelings rather than facts and seems to be focusing on reinforcing rather than addressing prejudices. His political campaigning, style and communication marks a departure from practices of previous presidential candidates.
However, with blaming the media, Mr Trump is following a long held tradition among politicians who are trailing in the polls, or who have found themselves in the middle of an uncomfortable scandal. For these politicians, media are easy scapegoats and blaming them is a logical, if cynical, way to try to divert attention from themselves. These types of accusations are often vague with a hint of a conspiracy theory. Even their use of the word ‘media’ is ambiguous, as the term is so broad and all-encompassing it can refer to anyone who produces any type of media content. I suspect though Mr Trump’s criticism is really aimed at news media that have published unfavourable stories of him and his campaign.
From their point of view, however, these news outlets follow traditional functions of media and journalism in democratic societies: to provide information and analysis, hold politicians accountable and offer balanced news reporting. There can and certainly are issues with how news media report on and represent certain individuals, groups of people and events. There are examples of misrepresentations, especially of those societal groups who are in minority, lack power or underprivileged. There are also examples for lack of balanced news reporting. For example, several studies show that the coverage of the EU Referendum campaign earlier this year was heavily biased towards the Leave side in a large section of the UK print media.
However, the media are not a monolithic all-powerful institution. Political debate and public discourse agendas in democratic societies are shaped by the interdependent, hybrid relationships between politicians, media and the public. The debate about the effects of media, including the influence news coverage has on how people vote, has a long history and it is one of those questions that cannot be conclusively answered scientifically. The dominant view on the issue is that the news media do not tell people what to think but they have an influence on what people think about through framing and influencing public debate agendas.
This agenda-setting role, however, is arguably changing in our digital age where post-truth political culture is increasingly prevalent. Traditional ways of accessing news are shifting as news audiences are becoming more fragmented and news consumption on mobile and via social media platforms are rising. But the digital news environment does not automatically provide balanced news coverage for the audience, and relevant information and analysis could be difficult to find. On social media people tend to communicate in echo chambers with others who have similar views to themselves. Although we can access more information and analysis than ever before, there are indications that too much information can lead to greater confusion especially when facts, opinions and feelings are blurred, as they are in a post-truth political culture.
Instead of blaming the media, politicians should focus on ensuring that all of us continue to have access to news media that provide quality information and analysis, hold politicians accountable and offer balanced news reporting. The need for such news media and journalism is as important in the digital age as it was in the analogue epoch.
Ahead of the US election on 8 November, Kevin Ruane, Professor of Modern History, reflects on the nuclear anxieties associated with a possible Trump presidency.
In August this year, no less than 50 Republican national security experts aired their fears should Donald Trump become President and thus gain access to the USA’s awesome arsenal of nuclear weapons. ‘If we have them, why can’t we use them?’, Trump repeatedly asked one senior briefer. (Independent, 9 August 2016).
The British government is also doubtless in a state of agitation and anxiety at the prospect of a Trump finger on the proverbial nuclear “button”. Then again, since the dawn of the nuclear age in 1945, UK governments have routinely succumbed to nuclear nervousness around the time of US presidential elections. Trump might be more alarming than most White House hopefuls, but he is in distinguished company when it comes to arousing concern in the corridors of British power.
For much of the Cold War, the United Kingdom was a primary target for Russian (Soviet) nuclear attack if “hot war” broke out. True, there was not much to be done if the Soviets launched a surprise attack. But what of the Americans? Here we find plenty of evidence of British worries that recklessness, provocation or miscalculation by Washington could bring on a general war with Russia which would leave the UK a radioactive ruin while America possibly went unscathed.
In November 1952, for example, the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was delighted by the presidential triumph of his old wartime comrade-in-arms, General Dwight D. Eisenhower. At the same time, Churchill privately confessed that ‘this makes war much more probable’.
What frightened Churchill was not Eisenhower, a sane and sensible man. Rather, it was the Republican party in general, out of office for twenty years and populated (so many in Britain believed) by anti-communist fundamentalists bent on using America’s great nuclear advantage to coerce the Soviet Union into agreeing to an international settlement on Western terms.
In the event, Eisenhower confounded British doubters and held the Republican right-wing at bay while shaping a US nuclear policy far more measured and statesmanlike than his party’s electoral rhetoric had suggested. “Ike”, though, had a dodgy heart, and that troubled the British. ‘We must hope that Gen. Eisenhower stays alive’, wrote one senior Foreign Office official at the end of 1952, otherwise his Vice-President would be in the charge of nuclear weapons. And who was that? A certain Richard M. Nixon.
UK governments have usually been more anxious about Republican than Democratic presidents in the nuclear age: aside from Eisenhower, Nixon in 1968 and Reagan in 1980 caused tremors in and beyond Whitehall. But even in these instances, wisdom and decent judgement mostly prevailed. After all, the Cold War remained just that, a cold war.
As for a President Trump, I suspect that Theresa May’s government is today experiencing the same nuclear nervousness as its predecessors, but in more acute form thanks to “the Donald” factor. In the past, incendiary nuclear rhetoric by would-be presidents has seldom crystallized into policy following victory. But what of Trump? Here the fear will be that Trump will live out or live up to his rhetoric. But with a new Cold War in the offing with Putin’s Russia (and like the old Cold War, this one has real war potentialities), now is not the time for hot-heads in the Oval Office.
Then again, we may be worrying unduly. Trump wants a ‘special relationship’ with Putin, he says. In which case, we may be able to shelve some of our nuclear worries if Trump wins on 8 November and get on instead with dealing with the consequences of his craven appeasement of Russia.
Professor Kevin Ruane, Professor of Modern History at Canterbury Christ Church University, has recently published his latest book, Churchill and the Bomb (2016), Bloomsbury.
Professor Peter Vujakovic from the School of Human & Life Sciences explains how recent world events show why geography matters.