We need free and brave media to scrutinise the rise of populist politicians

You may be weary of American politics right now and feel the need to concentrate on events here at home, but we mustn’t underestimate the impact that the election of Donald Trump as the next president of the United States will have on global politics.

The National

First published in The National, 22 November 2016.

Geert Wilders, leader of the Netherlands’ far-right Party for Freedom, even went as far as to hail the result as “the beginning of a patriotic spring”, with Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage, and Hungary’s Viktor Orban all clamouring to add their congratulations.

A supposed political outsider breezing to elected office via a populist campaign and an angry electorate? These politicians can’t believe their luck.

Now more than ever, the media has a crucial role to play in upholding democracy – or not.

The Brexit campaign was underpinned by decades of systematic untruth, misreporting, and outright ill-natured mischief from the Eurosceptic press, and hardly helped by the well-meaning but dry reporting from the rest.

You may recall the UK’s own Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson was a journalist based in Brussels, filing copy about the EU.

In his own words: “[I] was sort of chucking these rocks over the garden wall and I listened to this amazing crash from the greenhouse next door over in England, as everything I wrote from Brussels was having this amazing, explosive effect on the Tory Party – and it really gave me this, I suppose, rather weird sense of power.”

Politicians taking their foot off the gas have – rightly – received pelters for their complacency in allowing men like Nigel Farage to get where they are today, at the right hand of an American president-elect. There is a huge ‘anti-elite’ sentiment which has been capitalised on by populist politicians.

But there is an unlikely ally, stirring and beginning to flex its muscles. Like a boxer taken out of retirement, the media is throwing a few practice jabs, like Cathy Newman’s recent takedown of ‘Alt-Right’ Breitbarter Milo Yiannopoulos on Channel Four News.

The Fourth Estate is a powerful force, whether it’s print or online, classic stalwart or new-media upstart.

In fact, this very newspaper, The National, was launched as a response to the need for a pro-independence newspaper to better represent the views of the Scottish people in the wake of the independence referendum.

So I fully expect The National journalists to hold me to account when it’s in the public interest, fellow travellers or not.

The independence referendum and its aftermath, including the foundation of a wide range of news outlets, shows how fortunate we’ve been in our politics. People took their frustration, their desire for change, and their dissatisfaction with the way the world was going, and channelled it into something positive.

We live in interesting, terrifying times, and we need a free and brave media more than ever before. Trump and Farage are part of a wider movement that is on the march.

This must be rigorously challenged and scrutinised, by politicians and press alike.

So the question is where the media will go from here – brave, free and based on facts, or quiet and complacent? The former will always have my support, even when we disagree.