Editor’s Note: Rosa Prince is an author and journalist who writes about US and UK politics. Her books include biographies of Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May. The opinions in this article belong to the author. View more opinion on CNN.
As a cameraman with 25 years’ experience working at the BBC, Ron Skeans probably knows a thing or two about hostile environments.
His colleagues have been killed and injured working in war zones and dictatorships the world over. But when Skeans landed the plum job in the corporation’s Washington DC bureau in 1994, he surely didn’t expect to come under physical threat while covering the rarified arena of US politics.
Of course, that was before the arrival of Donald Trump as commander in chief.
On Monday evening, the BBC reports that Skeans was violently attacked by a Trump supporter wearing a Make American Great Again cap, while he filmed a presidential rally in El Paso, Texas.
As Gary O’Donoghue, the reporter working with Skeans, later suggested when he described the incident, the assault followed a now-familiar tirade by the President against the press, in which he accused the media of failing to acknowledge his achievements and claimed “93% of the stories are negative.”
“This is a constant feature of these rallies, a goading of the crowds against the media,” O’Donoghue said. “I’ve been spat at before, they hurl abuse. … This was very different. A man got on to the platform after this (goading) had happened repeatedly in the President’s speech, and previous speeches. … It was an incredibly violent attack.”
White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders has since issued a statement, saying “President Trump condemns all acts of violence against any individual or group of people – including members of the press.”
Skeans was not seriously injured, and where once the incident would have generated a huge response, through the looking glass world where Trump is President and each day’s outrageous event is superseded by the next, it seems likely to be forgotten by almost everyone except the cameraman himself.
And while the US media has covered the story, its coverage has been somewhat muted: an assault on a respected member of the foreign press at the near-instigation of the President isn’t so remarkable in this new normal where in the last year a newsroom was the target of a mass shooter and friendly relations were maintained with a country (Saudi Arabia) which carried out the murder of a US resident (Jamal Khashoggi) writing for the Washington Post. (The Saudi Crown Prince denies any involvement.)
Though it may not have proved deadly, it remains the case that with the attack on Skeans, another line has been crossed in the President’s campaign against the free press.
As O’Donoghue suggested, by corralling them in pens, then whipping up the crowd, Trump places journalists attending his rallies in a particularly vulnerable position.
Perhaps the most chilling section of the footage which Skeans himself filmed of the attack is toward the end, when the assailant is being removed by security to cries of “let him go” by many of the rally attendees.
The hostility is naked. Now that the genie is out of the bottle, who is to say that more of these angry men and women will not take the logical step of venting their bile against journalists in a more physical manner?
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It surely cannot be long before organizations such as the BBC take more security measures to protect their employees at Trump rallies; the duty of care they owe to those who work for them is already stretched to the breaking point when professional media operatives are made to feel unsafe in the ordinary course of their jobs.
Sadly, the trajectory toward violence is only going to escalate as Trump’s anti-media rhetoric ramps up with the election cycle. And with no clear target among the Democrats yet, it is the press which will remain front and center.
Presidential speech has now literally been weaponized. And as election season begins, it seems that, while Skeans was the first, he may not be the last victim of Trump’s war against the media.