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If you think Laura Kuenssberg's questioning of Theresa May and Donald Trump was 'undiplomatic', you don't understand how a free press works

What the furore around Kuenssberg’s Trump question really shows is that we now have a strain of politician who, with their supporters, relentlessly blame the media for their own shortcomings. It allows them to dismiss honest critical coverage

Joe Watts
Sunday 29 January 2017 16:51 GMT
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Political journalism, as opposed to diplomacy, was to the fore at the White House on Friday
Political journalism, as opposed to diplomacy, was to the fore at the White House on Friday (EPA)

When a bemused Donald Trump turned to Theresa May and asked, “this was your choice of a question?” the Prime Minister smiled and inexplicably pointed to the edge of the stage.

Maybe it’s where she wanted to jump off after the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg starkly set out for May’s new best friend and the controversial policies he’s backed recently.

In truth, apart from a little visible discomfort, May won’t have been surprised a journalist fired off a confrontational question.

A couple of weeks earlier she was asked by Sky’s Sophy Ridge a far more direct query on Trump’s infamous views about touching women.

Nor was anyone else in the East Room of the White House particularly surprised. Claims by a British Trump supporter that other travelling UK journalists were upset over it are laughable.

The only people who found it irritating, in fact, appeared to be Trump and his supporters.

“Disrespectful”, “rude” and “biased” were some of the words thrown about on social media. Someone even started a petition claiming Kuenssberg was “undiplomatic”.

So for the record, I’d like to offer a quick explainer on what political journalists are for. We are not diplomats, we are not commentators who offer unquestioning support, we do not need to politely dance around questions politicians don’t want to answer. The respect we have is for our readers and viewers.

It is that which drives us to do what we do – confront politicians with the difficulties and dichotomies of their own position. The difficulties and dichotomies are always there, hidden between the caveats and platitudes.

Exposing them is what both Kuenssberg and The Sun’s Tom Newton Dunn admirably did at the US press conference, and just 24 hours later in Turkey we were given the perfect example of why undiplomatic questioning is sometimes the only way to drive them out.

May’s spokespeople had, during the trip, been keen to push for coverage that did not suggest the Prime Minister is putting trade above all other issues, like human rights for example.

"There goes that relationship" - Donald Trump jokes about direct BBC question

Shortly before we landed in Turkey, news of Trump’s “Muslim ban” executive order broke. The policy was clearly at odds with other positions May has previously adopted, but would she now say so and risk angering the man she wants a trade deal from? The press conference on Saturday with her and the Turkish PM was the time to find out.

May could be forgiven for forgetting to give her view on Trump’s Muslims ban after a single question. After she apparently ignored a further one, British journalists in the audience became suspicious.

Only when another of her answers began winding around the question, did exasperated members of the British press begin undiplomatically shouting “what about the US?”.

At worst May’s refusal to offer any criticism suggested she is putting trade above other things. At best it revealed an unwillingness to engage in a question she knows highlights the contradictions of her approach to towards Trump.

A day later a statement said May “does not agree” with Trump’s approach. Either way, the difficulty and dichotomy of our Prime Minister’s approach to the new President had been exposed.

What the furore around Kuenssberg’s Trump question really shows is that we now have a strain of politician who, with their supporters, relentlessly blame the media for their own shortcomings. It allows them to dismiss honest critical coverage and is being used in both the US and UK.

You only need to look at today’s [un]presidential tweets directed at the Washington Post and New York Times to see a master of this kind of sorcery practising his art.

The response of journalists worth their salt will not be to pander and be more “diplomatic”, but to stand up and demand the answer.

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