Born in the USA

The White House today released Barack Obama's full birth certificate. But will it persuade the "birt

So did Donald Trump win? Or will President Obama manage to draw a line beneath the controversy about his citizenship, once and for all? The White House has just released a copy of Obama's full birth certificate, showing, of course, that he was born in Hawaii and is eligible to be President of the United States.

Minutes later, Obama appeared at the White House podium, declaring the country just didn't have time for such "silliness" - and it was all becoming a distraction from real issues like the economy.

The issue suddenly hit the headlines again after a poll showed that two-thirds of Republican voters believe that Obama was born outside the United States, or say they aren't sure. The fact that it re-emerged at this precise moment was largely due to Donald Trump - who may or may not be considering a presidential bid. He's repeatedly been quoted on the record, asking for that full birth certificate to be revealed.

The GOP's party's Presidential hopefuls have already been forced to distance themselves from the false claims by so-called "birthers" - who have been obsessed with challenging the President to produce his full birth certificate and prove where he was born.

There is nothing secret about the document: the official certification released by the authorities in Hawaii shows that Barack Obama was born in the state in 1961 - a fact recorded by local newspapers at the time.

So among the 2012 contenders - Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum have completely rejected the "birther" idea - while Tim Pawlenty said "I'm not one to question the authenticity of Barack Obama's birth certificate".

But not every Republican leader was so unequivocal. House Speaker John Boehner, for example, says that although he does believe Obama is a US citizen - it's not up to him to tell the American people what to think. Huh? Tea Party supporter Michelle Bachman actually had to be shown a copy of the Hawaii certificate by ABC's George Stephanopolous before she admitted she would "take the president at his word".

Yet tune into a right wing talk show and the claims persist - along with other accusations about Obama being a Muslim, educated at a Madrassa and so on. The Hawaii document, originally posted on the Democrats' website during the 2008 campaign - has been dismissed as fake - even though the independent Factcheck.org website confirmed it is authentic. And a new book on the controversy - Jerome Corsis's Where's the Birth Certificate? The Case that Barack Obama is not Eligible to be President has already rocketed to the top spot on Amazon weeks before its publication date.

Arizona's governor, Jan Brewer, has just vetoed one of the many so-called birther bills which are progressing in several states. Louisiana and Indiana are still debating the measures, which would require any presidential candidate to provide proof of their American citizenship in order to be included on that state's ballot.

It has already proved remarkably fruitful for Democrats, who have siezed on the Donald Trump pronouncements to raise funds from their outraged supporters. But isn't it truly astonishing in this day and age that the citizenship of the President of the United States is an issue at all - let alone one that seems to have gained almost mainstream currency? As White House spokesman Robert Gibbs put it, two years ago: "You couldn't sell this script in Hollywood".

Moments after the brith certificate was published today, Trump emerged in New hampshire, taking full credit for the disclosure - and insisting he's proud of himself. "I've accomplished something that nobody else has been able to accomplish", he said, barely able to restrain his glee. But will this really draw a line under the whole affair, as the White House hopes - and consign the doubters to the furthest conspiracy-theory extremes? In his statement today, Obama urged the media to ignore the "sideshows and carnival barkers": with wars in Afghanistan and Libya, oil prices soaring and a huge debate over the deficit, he wants to show the American people that he's the one in charge - and the one taking the country's problems seriously.

Felicity Spector is a deputy programme editor for Channel 4 News.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder