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May 16, 2022updated 30 Sep 2022 11:19am

Journalists respond to double-standards criticism over Ukraine coverage

By Bron Maher

Journalists from Mail Online, Sky News and Reuters have defended UK coverage of the war in Ukraine from suggestions of double standards.

The Russian invasion has received more coverage in the UK than any other global conflict of recent years and prompted questions over why that is. The ongoing Ethiopian civil war for instance is believed to have been more deadly, but received only a fraction of the coverage.

The subject was discussed at the UK Society of Editors conference in London on Wednesday, 11 May.

Panel host Tessa Chapman – herself recently returned from a stint in Ukraine reporting for 5 News – asked Mail Online global senior reporter Nick Fagge: “What did you find when you got to Kyiv, and did you travel around outside to talk to people?”

Fagge said: “We started off, obviously, interviewing the refugees in the village. And again, very heartbreaking in the fact that they looked a little bit like me – they had the same kind of dog as I have. It was like seeing your neighbours lose their lives in front of you.”

During the subsequent question session, one audience member asked whether there were “double standards” in how the invasion of Ukraine has been reported.

“I was quite shocked when you repeated ‘these people look like my neighbours’. To me, it was quite offensive – because I wouldn’t hear you say that about one of my friends who comes from Syria. And yet, you know, you’re a human being. And yes, you identify with people who look like us, but I wonder how difficult that is, and whether there’s been more partiality [in the Ukraine conflict].

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“I noticed the other day Lindsey Hilsum on Channel 4 News – she was speaking to someone who had been across the border. The woman broke down, and she immediately reached out her hand, and she was stroking the woman as she spoke to her.

“And yet, you know – we’re told as journalists, be impartial, don’t get involved in the story – and yet a lot of that has happened in this war.”

[Read more: ‘A story like this is hard to leave behind’ – Lindsey Hilsum of Channel 4 News on reporting from Ukraine]

Asked by Chapman to respond to the accusation of double standards, Fagge said: “I can say with honesty that when I see a person with a cocker spaniel standing outside a station crying, then I feel that that could be me and my wife.

“That’s how I felt at the time.”

Fagge said he had not been to Syria – instead travelling to the Turkish border with the country where he had met Syrian refugees – but added later “I reported in Tigray [Ethiopia] last year, Yemen, Afghanistan… other wars do get a lot of coverage too.”

Chapman turned from Fagge to ask Jonathan Levy, director of newsgathering and operations at Sky News, whether he felt there had been double standards in the coverage.

“To a degree. You hope that all of us, as journalists, approach any war with a sense of common humanity when you see people in difficulty, that you can feel for their plight and identify [with them].

“Where there is a double standard, I think it’s a slightly different thing that’s been going on, a slightly ahistorical thing. This, ‘wow, big shock’, at war in Europe. Well – Europe has a pretty blood-stained past. It’s not that unique for there to be violent war in Europe at one time or other.”

Chapman said she was “mindful that we sit here, though, as a non-ethnically diverse panel, commenting on something that has been discussed a lot.”

She asked Simon Robinson, global managing newsroom editor for Reuters, whether double standards were something he had been aware of in his role.

Robinson said the volume of coverage partly arose from the war in Ukraine being more physically accessible than other conflicts.

“I think there’s a practical reason, partly, which is that access to Ukraine, because most parts of Ukraine [are under] Ukrainian control, is pretty much open.”

He contrasted it with the conflict between the Tigray Defence Forces and the Ethiopian government, “which is the place, at least to my mind, where – more people have died than in Ukraine, an incredibly violent civil war has been raging for two years. 

“We’ve done quite a bit of coverage there, but access is really really difficult. So I think there is a practical element.

“I also think that we need to take into account the fact that this is, for want of a better term, a superpower, or former superpower, coming into Ukraine. And the implications of that have, rightly or wrongly, beyond the impact on humans – which, obviously, is incredibly important – there have been many more implications for oil markets and all sorts of other things that you’ve seen a huge amount of reporting on.

“Having made those two points, I think it is incredibly important for us as journalists and as news organisations to remain aware that what is going on in northern Ethiopia is incredibly important, what is going on in Yemen is incredibly important, and we should commit to covering that. So I guess I see both sides.”

CBS News correspondent Charlie D’Agata attracted criticism early on in the war for saying that Kyiv “isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilised, relatively European – I have to choose those words carefully, too – city”.

Al Jazeera English presenter Peter Dobbie faced a similar backlash after commenting of Ukrainian refugees: “these are not people trying to get away from areas in North Africa, they look like any European family that you would live next door to.”

UN secretary-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, himself from Ethiopia’s northern Tigray province, said in April that “the world is not treating the human race the same way”.

“I don’t know if the world really gives equal attention to black and white lives”.

Picture: John Moore/Getty Images

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