The ABC was wrong to believe that through an interview alone Bannon could be held to account
In his interview with Sarah Ferguson on the ABC, Steve Bannon sought to distance himself from the openly neo-Nazi far right, blaming their surge on the dreaded mainstream media. With extraordinary chutzpah, he said, theyve given a bunch of marginal, dangerous people a platform.
By this point Bannon, who has himself become more marginal (having lost his perches in the White House and at Breitbart) but is still dangerous (given his record in those positions), had already been given a significant pass by his interviewer.
Ferguson had said that while she had heard other interviewers call Bannon racist, on the basis of interviews and speeches she had watched, theres no evidence that thats what you are.
Ferguson should have looked harder. The archive of Breitbart the website where Bannon had leadership positions for a decade groans under the weight of the receipts.
In March 2016, the Southern Poverty Law Center published just one of many extensive accounts of the websites promotion of Islamophobia, myths about black crime, and anti-immigrant sentiment under Bannons stewardship. Under Bannon, the site also trafficked in strident homophobia, transphobia and anti-feminism. Apart from attacking any minority youd care to name, Bannon-era Breitbart serially promoted conspiracy theories about their perceived enemies in movements like Black Lives Matter, and celebrated Confederate iconography.
Bannon himself proudly described the website as a platform for the alt right, extending the welcome mat to readers from the racist, far-right movement, and promoting materials from white nationalist groups like Generation Identity.
To better promote far-right ideas, and challenge the Republican establishment, Bannon mentored writers like Milo Yiannopoulos. Back then that now-diminished far-right celebrity, as Buzzfeeds Joseph Bernstein put it, led the site in a coy dance around the movements nastier edges, writing stories that minimised the role of neo-Nazis and white nationalists while giving its politer voices a fair hearing.
Bernstein argues that, under Bannons active guidance, Yiannopoulos courted and communicated with outright white nationalists about Breitbart articles, while the final results were laundered for racism, or at least its most overt expressions, by Bannon and the Breitbart brains trust.
Theirs was a professionalised and systematic disingenuousness that offered a protective flank for a movement that reached its apotheosis on a murderous afternoon in Charlottesville last August.
Bannon doesnt conceal his political sympathies. In Bernsteins reporting and elsewhere, he is seen expressing admiration for fascist thinkers like Julius Evola, and the lurid anti-immigrant fantasies of writers like Jean Raspail.
He has repeatedly characterised the current moment as an apocalyptic civilisational war between the Judeo-Christian west and the rest. As he mentioned in his chat with Ferguson, Bannon is currently seeking to collaborate with anti-immigrant far-right parties in Europe, like Marine Le Pens Front National.
Whatever Bannon might say, this is what he has done. By assessing him on the basis of his public performances, rather than his public record, Ferguson effectively allowed Bannon to skate.
She pressed him hardest on the consequences of Trumps trade war, which is underpinned by a Bannonesque economic nationalism. But in so doing she accepted his customary alibi that this is about economic nationalism, its about populism.
Reactions to the interview mostly negative cascaded through social media all day Tuesday. The discussion was made more intense by the New Yorkers announcement that Bannon had been invited to their ideas festival an invitation since rescinded.
Many social media users railed at Four Corners for giving Bannon a platform. For some journalists, the very idea of no-platforming rubs them the wrong way. Perhaps this is because they misunderstand what it might mean in the context of journalism.
Its true that in reporting on far-right movements, it is sometimes necessary to talk to their members and leaders. I myself have spoken to many people like Richard Spencer or Jared Taylor whose racist views are more explicit, open, and perhaps more extreme than those nurtured by Bannon. (However, despite offers, I have so far refused to pose for post-interview selfies with them.)
We cannot and should not ignore these people, and the movements they lead. If we ignore them, they will not go away.But their words are a mere adjunct to the real story, which is found in the effects of their (often rudimentary) ideas and actions on segments of the population whom they despise.
For Bannon, who helped elect Trump and fostered the alt right, the consequences of his ideas, and his influence, are many.
At the level of policy they include a far harsher regime of immigration enforcement, including the separation of families; the so-called Muslim ban; and the destruction of the liberal international order. The emboldening of the far right has led to a surge in hate crimes (including murders), a proliferation of violent far-right street protests, and a generalised atmosphere of fear in marginalised communities.
Given his diminished relevance, and the already voluminous public record of his beliefs, its debatable whether its useful interviewing Bannon at all.
If it is, then its worth making all of this context clear. That context should include and ideally centre the voices of the people most affected by restrictionist immigration policies and far-right violence. Such voices have been heard far less frequently than Bannons in the course of the Trump era, and even less so by Australian audiences.
Fergusons mistake lay not in talking to him per se, but in believing that through an interview alone, bound by the normal conventions of civil debate, he could be successfully held to account.
But in a standalone interview, without additional context, he was able to make his case in a format that he performs well in, and regularly seeks out. Bannon was able to publicise his activities, have his ideas be presented as worthy of discussion, and allowed to further dissemble about the nature of his political project.
When Ferguson finally questioned him about the presidents response to the far rights rally in Charlottesville, and the murder that resulted, Bannon was allowed to speak as if it had no relationship with Trump, his supporters, and the political climate they have fostered.
The idea that a searching one-on-one conversation may not be adequate to uncovering the truth of a particular subject, and their impact on the world, offends the training, and perhaps the vanity, of many journalists, especially broadcasters.
Others, looking back over the way that Trump, and the alt right, benefited from even the most critical coverage, have begun to think about better ways of treating movements that present an existential threat to some of their readers.
When Guardian US senior reporter Lois Beckett talked to beat reporters about how best to cover the alt right, they had more of an expectation than usual that subjects may lie and deceive; a deeper sense of the history and context of extremist organizing; more acknowledgement of the connections between fringe extremist groups and mainstream racism; and an awareness of how much even critical coverage of these groups can amplify their messages and increase their reach.
Its hard to pull that off in a broadcast interview with minimal contextual material. It may be easier in a documentary format.
On the issue of amplification, some academic research offers the same warning.
A survey of journalists reflecting on the Trump phenomenon and the alt-right surge by Data and Society Institute researcher Whitney Phillips showed how just by showing up for work and doing their jobs as assigned, journalists covering the far-right fringe played directly into these groups public relations interests.
Australian journalists, who have seen xenophobic ideas about refugees become the meat of bipartisan immigration policy, should be more attuned than most of their colleagues to the dangers of normalising far-right ideas. Some ideas, like the falsehoods promoted in Breitbart, are not worth extended debate. Journalists need instead to show the harm caused by their dissemination, and sound a warning.
With News Corp providing an increasingly receptive platform for touring alt-right grifters, its important for the ABC to get it right.
Jason Wilson is a Guardian writer and columnist