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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Sean Spicer on fake news, Facebook privacy  – and his tell-all memoir

Former White House Communications Director talks exclusively to The National

Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer. Antonie Robertson / The National
Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer. Antonie Robertson / The National

Not my problem any more … Sean Spicer doesn’t use these words when we meet in Dubai (to say that would be fake news). But the former White House communications director has reason to be grateful to have moved on to media pastures new.

The whirlwind turnover of staff at the top of Donald Trump’s administration; allegations that the president had a liaison with an adult film star; the ongoing saga of Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged collusion with Russia in the 2016 US election campaign; and now the developing story of how data harvesting may have helped to swing the vote. These days, somebody else has the job of explaining it all.

Mr Spicer has other things to brief. He is in the UAE for this week’s Sharjah Government Communications Forum to discuss, among other things, the challenge of government communications in the digital era. And it’s not surprising he was asked to attend.

It was he who would be awoken most mornings during his (brief) tenure with calls from reporters asking for a response to the dawn tweets that have become a feature of the Trump presidency. It was he who had to stand at what became his trademark podium and echo his boss’s insistence that, no, our eyes were deceiving us, that was the biggest crowd ever seen at an inauguration.

Say what you like about him (and America’s satire industry has worked overtime to turn him over), Sean Spicer himself has something to say about the media and it is worth hearing.

So is there a crisis in what people believe and don’t believe?

“There’s a potential crisis because so much of what goes out snowballs and goes viral and it’s hard to walk it back,” Mr Spicer says. “You find a lot of times that one little rumour becomes the basis for a lot of speculation and reporting real quick.

“Somebody posts something, everyone goes with it like it’s factual, and it’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle.”

But surely the Trump team – then and now – has been guilty of jumping on poorly sourced stories as though they were fact?

“I think it’s a two-way street. There are stories we may have jumped on but also stories the media promulgated that weren’t well sourced. The problem is only looked at in one direction. To folks in the media, I say ‘let’s look at stuff you got wrong’. There has to be honesty on both sides.” The timing of this week’s forum – under the patronage of Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah – could not be better. Coincidentally, Tim Berners-Lee, otherwise known as the founder of the internet, will also be there at what appears to be a pivotal moment for his world wide web and its relationship with government, the news – and the truth.

“The evolution of news has changed dramatically in 10 years, exponentially in 10 months,” Mr Spicer says. “Now there has to be a broader discussion about the balance between a government’s role in the era of social media – what do we regulate, what do we want to do to protect people but also give them the freedom social media has afforded us?

Read more: Variety is the Spicer life: Trump ditches press spokesman

“At some point, somebody becomes the arbiter. If we tell Facebook and Google and Twitter to start policing things, they’ll hire people we don’t know to make those decisions. Are they outsourcing the job to the cheapest source? What’s their degree of accountability?

“We’ll see on Twitter ‘This post is no longer available’. The question is, what did it say? Who decided it had to come down? Was it offensive? Was it false? Who is that umpire? But governments have to realise this is not something they can control.”

And then throw Cambridge Analytica into the mix. The British company stands accused of influencing, with the help of unauthorised personal Facebook data, elections around the world. Most notably, the one Mr Spicer contested.

“We [the Republicans] built a massive data operation,” he says. But he downplays any role played by Cambridge Analytica – “To simplify what happened in the 2016 election to what happened on Facebook would be a mistake” – while he admits there is a wider problem.

“We’ve seen data breaches with credit agencies and government institutions. That’s very concerning,” Mr Spicer says. “We share all this information on social media; who we value, our likes and dislikes.

“What safeguards need to be put in place? Well, we as consumers need to be much more careful about what we put out.”

Mr Spicer, 46, is a fairly infrequent and discreet tweeter. But expect a flurry of words, and perhaps indiscretions, with the publication this summer of his memoir of life in the White House, The Briefing.

You might have thought he would have enjoyed the relative obscurity of the past eight months and the time it has permitted him to spend with his family after those dawn-to-dusk days in the office. But he says there is another record to set straight, and this time it is his.

“I started reading stories about me, about what I thought, what I felt, and I realised if I didn’t do this it was leaving it up to others to write history. I loved the opportunity to do the job. It was an unbelievable honour. I’m glad I did it but I’m also glad I moved on.”

And move on he has, to the UAE for a few days at least. What does he make of it?

“It’s amazing,” Mr Spicer says. “Look at all those cranes, the amount of development, all you can see is cranes. I’ve always been a believer in what that can tell you about an economy.”

There’s plenty going on beyond the skyline too – much of it of interest to the US. The recent sacking of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, for one thing, has set tongues wagging in this part of the world.

“Rex is a brilliant man but it was clear he and the president weren’t seeing eye to eye,” Mr Spicer says. “If you’re going to be the administration’s representative you need chemistry.”

So what was the truth about Sean Spicer’s chemistry with Donald Trump? We will have to wait for the book.