What the Washington press corps gets wrong when it comes to covering Trump

The week in the media – from how the White House corps should handle Trump to Gary Lineker on Leicester.

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Excluded by Donald Trump’s team from press briefings, “mainstream media” members of the White House press corps should take the chance to do some proper reporting. Although more open than its British equivalent at Westminster, the White House corps is in some respects worse. Our lobby correspondents seek stories from MPs of all parties as well as from the PM and her team. Their Washington counterparts – currently including six each from the New York Times and the Washington Post – cover only the president and his senior officials. Like most reporters who cover top politicians, they focus on political process and don’t ask the important questions. One member compared his job to “covering a horse race from inside a horse”.

At the 2006 White House correspondents’ dinner, the comedian and TV host Stephen Colbert said they had been “so good” on whether the administration’s claim that Iraq had WMDs was false. “We Americans didn’t want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out.” If this was a joke, none of the hacks laughed.

 

Fighting talk

Trump hates journalists but loves soldiers. With the appointment of Lieutenant General H R McMaster as national security ­adviser, he now has three in his cabinet. Military involvement is not new in US politics. Several early presidents, starting with George Washington, had successful military careers. As recently as 1952, Dwight Eisenhower was elected after spending his working life in the army. Douglas MacArthur, a Second World War general like Eisenhower, was seriously mooted for the Republican nomination in 1948. Alexander Haig and Colin Powell, both four-star generals, served as secretary of state under Reagan and George W Bush respectively.

We British are usually warier of military connections. Although Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee and others had military experience, the only career officer to become PM was the 1st Duke of Wellington, hero of Waterloo. After less than two years, his stubborn opposition to widening the franchise caused nationwide riots and forced his resignation. Since then, many military folk have graced the Tory benches but they were rarely regarded as leadership material; Iain Duncan Smith, who lasted just over two years as Tory leader, was an undistinguished exception. In Britain, soldiers were widely considered too inflexible and narrowly educated to make good politicians.

Not so now, it seems. Frequently mentioned candidates for Labour leader include Dan Jarvis and Clive Lewis, the only former military figures among the party’s MPs. We may, as Michael Gove suggested, be fed up with experts, but not apparently with those whose main expertise is killing people.

 

Price is wrong

Still, when it comes to organising a ballot, I’d prefer soldiers to accountants. The best that can be said of PricewaterhouseCoopers’s blunder at the Oscars – it mixed up envelopes so that La La Land was mistakenly announced as the Best Picture winner instead of Moonlight – is that nobody lost money. That will not be so, one fears, in the six cases involving PwC that are under investigation by the UK’s Financial Reporting Council. The latest, concerning “misstated balances” in audited accounts for Redcentric, an IT services firm, was announced the day after the Oscars fiasco.

Other cases are PwC’s auditing of the collapsed chain BHS, and of Tesco and its overstated profits. In a recently concluded case, PwC paid more than £3m in fines and costs for “falling short of the standards reasonably to be expected” in audits of Cattles, a financial services group liquidated last year.

If the firm struggles to do its day job properly, why would anyone pay it inflated sums to organise a ballot? Are there no “resting” actors who can hand out envelopes?

 

Snooze night

My late father would never tolerate TV news, documentaries or serious drama after 10pm. At that time, he insisted, the working man wanted dancing girls. He was (at least in principle) right. Television channels put on their most demanding programmes late at night not because of public demand but because, with many people already in bed, audiences for anything will be small.

Now, it is reported, the BBC is considering scrapping Newsnight (10.30pm) because without Jeremy Paxman it is too dull. Paxman’s wonderfully mobile face, expressing deep scepticism and faint boredom as politicians and others spun their tales, was, though not quite meeting my father’s demand for dancing girls, a form of light entertainment. Evan Davis, his successor as presenter, is a sharp interviewer but he and Newsnight’s editors suffer the misapprehension that the audience is fully awake.

 

He, Claudio

You would have thought Gary Lineker – who described the decision by his and my home-town team, Leicester City, to sack their manager Claudio Ranieri as “inexplicable, unforgivable and gut-wrenchingly sad” – would by now understand the business of football.

Ranieri might have survived if Leicester had finished, say, 12th last season instead of unexpectedly winning the Premiership. Yet the game is littered with examples of teams that took years to recover from success. All Leicester’s players commanded huge pay rises and extended contracts after winning the league. If the team, perilously close to the bottom of the Premiership when Ranieri left, were relegated, the club would be on the road to ruin, paying inflated wages from heavily reduced revenues.

One would wish football wasn’t so dominated by financial considerations. But that’s the world we live in: the last time Leicester supporters were so “gut-wrenchingly sad” was in 1985, when Lineker left his native city, and the team that guided him to international honours, to join Everton on greatly enhanced wages and perks. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article appears in the 02 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The far right rises again