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Beware politicians who say 'fake news' in the face of criticism

President Donald Trump. Photo/Getty Images

We are now fully engaged in a bewildering period when no matter how many shots the media take at politicians, the quarry escapes unscathed.

How can this happen? How can politicians so easily survive salvoes of bad news that would lay most of us non-combatants low as sobbing, riddled wrecks?

Let’s start with an object lesson from the archives of Australian Geographic magazine. The story recounts how early one morning in 1932, a small group of soldiers from the 7th Heavy Battery Royal Australian Artillery arrived in a tiny Western Australian outback town with two Lewis machine guns and 10,000 rounds of ammunition. It was the beginning of the Emu Wars and the humiliation of the Australian Army.

Twenty thousand rampaging emus had moved into WA from arid central Australia to find food – namely, the crops of hard-working farmers. The armed soldiers were given the job of eliminating the enormous flocks.

Within a week, the soldiers retreated. They had fired about 2500 rounds and killed between 50 and 200 of the big flightless birds.

Speaking of the army’s defeat, a Major Meredith was reported in the magazine as saying, “If we had a military division with the bullet-carrying capacity of these birds, it would face any army in the world … They can face machine guns with the invulnerability of tanks.”

Unlike the two-toed ostrich, emus have three toes that enable them to make lightning turns to avoid marksmen and, coupled with muscular, iron-like bodies, seem largely able to absorb bullet strikes.

Politicians are like emus. They can twist and turn, duck and dive, and it is extremely difficult to get them in your sights. They have skin so thick it seems impervious to any wound.

Ignore for a moment the open season of the New Zealand election campaign and check out the White House. Some of the world’s best and most highly skilled journalists pound Donald Trump’s Administration with explosive charges on a daily basis: collusion with Russia in the 2016 election campaign, alleged sex tapes of the President and some friendly young women playing water sports in a hotel room, rampant nepotism where the President appoints his family to key government roles, blatant White House obstruction of justice and a host of embarrassing gaffes by the leader of the Free World. Like a three-toed emu, Trump swiftly twists and turns 180 degrees, dodging every bullet. Occasionally, one of the weaker birds, such as his media minder Sean Spicer, takes one for the team and departs the scene, but Trump and the others survive with feathers barely ruffled.

Those of us who grew up in the era of the Watergate scandal might have supposed that, as happened with US President Richard Nixon, Trump’s attempted cover-ups, lies and evasion should have resulted in his downfall, thanks to the media.

More than 40 years later, the world has changed. Following the rule of the Big Lie technique, his administration combats every accusation by denying it and asserting the opposite, bellowing the idiot phrase “fake news”. As a result, a large number of Americans believe him rather than the cacophony of criticism from a media that many appear to despise and mistrust more than Trump.

Here, over the next several weeks as our various political tribes go to war, the American and Australian examples are worth bearing in mind. Beware the candidate who refuses to acknowledge the truth, who attacks the media for raising an issue and who seems impervious to a fusillade of condemnation. Especially beware of any who bray the words “fake news”. They are almost certainly an emu or a Trump.

This article was first published in the August 5, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.