The freedom and the right

Print edition : February 02, 2018

President Donald Trump meets the media at Camp David on January 6, a day after the launch of Michael Wolff's book on his first year as President. Trump discussed the book as “fiction” and said he was a "very stable genius". Photo: Chris Kleponis/Bloomberg

IN 18th century England, the book would have invited dire punitive action under the Scandalum Magnatum prohibition, which forbade publishing anything that besmirched the reputation of the peers and the ruling class. To target them was a far more aggravated offence than the libel or defamation of common folk. In today’s India, a book as forthright as this, say, about Prime Minister Narendra Modi, would in all probably be banned, or mean hell to pay for—for the author, publisher and perhaps even for anyone who dared to read it. Apart from possible Income Tax Department and Enforcement Directorate raids and harassment by police and other agencies of the state, there would be criminal defamation suits filed for a hundred or more, no less, crores of rupees, a la the one against The Wire for carrying a story on the sudden spike in BJP president Amit Shah’s son’s business fortunes since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power. In this respect, it is a toss-up between 18th century England and 21st century India.

The Modi-bhakt troll army would get into the act baying for the head of the scribe. There is, of course, the ever-present danger of a fatal visit by a helmet-clad (to protect his identity, not so much his head) motorcyclist wielding a countrymade pistol. The ones disposed to stop short of capital punishment for a literary offence of this nature would, nevertheless, clamour for the offending writer being dispatched to Pakistan, the favourite exile destination for all those who speak up against the government or the party running it, and are therefore, ipso facto, anti-national.

As an aside (an important one), going by those targeted for forcible emigration to Pakistan, one would think our neighbour is a haven of a refuge for the liberal, progressive and creative types. What happens if and when those earmarked for Pakistan get there to find that things are not so hunky-dory there either, for the free spirit. They would want to come right back, or be deported right back—if they are not decapitated or thrown behind bars there instead of here, that is. That is when the real cascading effect of the go-to-Pakistan strategy will kick in. After some initial demur, official and religious India that is Bharat can offer to take these ousted malcontents back. Open the doors of the house to these prodigal sons and daughters. It will be a grand and fitting climax to the “ghar wapsi” (come-back-home) programme. It will be re-established in the minds of the doubting Thomases and naysayers that there is no place like home, and no colour like saffron; and that if you take to the colour you do not have to take to exile and leave home. It will also show the world that India is a better place of and for unfreedom than Pakistan.

By now the reader must be getting exasperatedly impatient to know what book we are talking about here. It was not meant to be kept in suspense; it cannot be because it is the publishing sensation of the new year with soaring sales and saturation coverage, whose release has about the same effect as that of a particularly wild cat being unleashed among the pigeons. It is the one-man detonation job on the Donald Trump presidency, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff. It is like a report from the thick of a raging storm even as there is no sign of the storm subsiding before it takes everything down with it. And at the centre of the storm is Trump, a restless mess of a President. What the book says or rather throws at us is by now being eagerly seized upon and parsed across the United States and the rest of world. Even if there is nothing totally unexpected in these pages, even as we realise that what we are getting is along the lines of what we have learnt to expect from the man and this presidency, the gall of it all takes one’s breath away every once in a while. Wolff is both gadfly and fly on the wall as he pursues all the President’s men, and women, to give us a ringside view of his presidency, which, alarmingly, looks like a circus in which we cannot take our eyes off the impetuous, temperamental ringmaster, the President himself, and his fits and antics. This, if anything, must be post-truth, stranger than truth, let alone fiction.

The book itself has been dealt with in another article in this edition (“Whimsy in the White House”, page 65), and it would be redundant to go into the spicy, hilarious, zany details which would make a heady cocktail but for a sobering undercurrent of worry and despair—after all this is about the purportedly most powerful man in the world who has access to a nuclear button which can destroy it. The point though is that such a bare-all book can and has been written and published when, even in the U.S., it is not an easy time for freedom of expression, especially when it means questioning those in power.

Like in India, but with less impunity and more opposition, polarising the people and provoking intolerance in society have been the hallmark of this administration since it took over. But the constitutional guarantee of free and unabridged speech, which this President would gladly do away with if only he could, makes all the difference. It is the single but strong thread of the First Amendment that the press in the U.S. cling to as it relentlessly takes on this viciously maverick President. Trump, who in turn clings to his mantra of “fake news”, seems variously nonplussed, indignant and infuriated that this press will not celebrate him, nor can it be won over or brought to heel.

He pooh-poohed and then huffed and puffed against Wolff’s book, hoping that it would make it go away. When it did not, he issued a cease-and-desist notice to the publisher, Macmillan, who, however, has made it clear that it will neither cease nor desist. The Chief Executive Officer of the company, John Sargent, has, in a memo to employees, recalled how the First Amendment empowers the press. He quotes Justice Hugo Black in the Pentagon Papers judgment: “Both the history and language of the First Amendment support the view that the press must be left free to publish news, whatever the source, without censorship, injunctions, or prior restraints…. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government.”

Drawing on that and other judgments Sargent concludes in his memo: “There is no ambiguity here. This is an underlying principle of our democracy. We cannot stand silent. We will not allow any President to achieve by intimidation what our Constitution precludes him or her from achieving in court.” We here in India can only applaud from the sidelines at the non-negotiable non-justiceable absoluteness of press freedom that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees. Unfortunately, our Constitution does not make freedom of the press a specific, explicit right. And, as we now increasingly realise, we are that much the poorer, and our freedom of expression that much more vulnerable, for it.

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