Former BBC Today reporter Robin Aitken explains why he thinks Western media should have done a better job reporting on Russia before the invasion of Ukraine. This is an extract from from Reporting the War in Ukraine: The First Draft of History, edited by John Mair.
Even the sternest critic of the western media has to concede that it is much preferable to its Russian equivalent. From the first day of the invasion the audience has been offered dramatic and honest, often brave, eyewitness, reporting.
- August 11, 2022
- July 18, 2022
- July 12, 2022
In Russia, in contrast, strict censorship means the people have been fed a misleading and distorted narrative whose sole purpose is to bolster a war of aggression.
So, whatever our media’s faults, we are lucky to live in a country where accurate and truthful information is readily available to all who seek it out (even if many do not).
But the professional excellence of what we have been offered shouldn’t blind us to underlying weaknesses.
Two big questions arise: how well did our media perform in the years running-up to the crisis? And to what extent was the prior Western demonisation of Russia a contributory factor in the tragedy?
Ukraine war as a spectator sport
First- an observation: for western audiences foreign wars have become a cost-free spectator sport. For many people the Ukraine war is something they actively enjoy as news consumers. When the war began the BBC reported huge increases in website traffic and its audiences for traditional radio and TV news, the drama inherent in a violent conflict engages the audience in a way other news events often do not.
The progress of the war was reported in a way akin to a sporting fixture; once we had decided we were on Ukraine’s side (an instantaneous decision) the incompetence of Russia’s forces and Ukrainian successes were the main themes to emerge.
There can be no real quarrel with our partisanship – at this moment Ukraine does deserve our support – but the speed with which we, the public, fell-in behind the chosen narrative should give us pause for thought. It demonstrated, very clearly, how public opinion can be quickly marshalled when the mass media unanimously adopts a position on a foreign policy story. The effect is to squeeze out dissenting voices. It becomes difficult to articulate and deliver any contradictory viewpoint and those who try often find their efforts rewarded with scorn and abuse.
Part of the reason why the support for Ukraine was so unhesitating and so unstinting was because in the years leading up to the invasion Russia became an all-purpose villain for the liberal-left both in the UK and the US.
The exaggerated, and, in my view, frankly delusional, allegations about Russian interference in both the Brexit referendum in 2016 and the election that year in the USA of Donald Trump, was a constant theme in mainstream media coverage from 2016 onwards. This coverage primed public opinion; it encouraged an incipient Russophobia and when Putin launched his invasion in February 2022 it merely added the finishing touch to the portrait of a villainous and untrustworthy country.
The hypothesis that Trump was a Russian stooge and that his victory in 2016 was the result of Kremlin meddling was investigated by special prosecutor Robert Mueller and found to be baloney; it was ‘fake news’ – an obvious smear invented by Democrats unwilling to accept Trump’s victory.
As for the idea that Russian ‘bots’ swung the Brexit referendum – that is foolish nonsense which only the weak-minded could possibly swallow: the British people had 40 years to arrive at their considered verdict on whether to stay the EU. The Russian interference story was the invention of diehard Remainers who lost the argument and were determined to de-legitimise the result.
It was, anyway, wholly hypocritical to accuse Russia of wicked interference in our affairs when this is exactly what we (as ‘The West’) have been doing in so many countries, including Ukraine, for the past century and more.
Episodes like Nato’s aerial bombardment of Serbia in 1999, the Iraq invasion in 2003, the overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya in 2011 are only the most recent instances of direct Western intervention in other countries. You might – if you are a convinced liberal interventionist in the Blair mould – approve of all these actions as self-evidently well-intentioned; suffice it to say many people, especially in non-western countries, strongly disagree.
The Maidan Revolution: US inspired?
What is more germane, in this context, is Western, particularly American, involvement in Ukraine’s affairs.
In what became known as The Maidan Revolution in 2014, there was clear involvement of US politicians and officials in events which led to the overthrow of the pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. It was street-protests – not the ballot box – which toppled Yanukovych’s regime, although his election – in 2010 – was viewed by most international observers as fair. It was not coincidental that the Russian seizure of Crimea and its incursions into eastern Ukraine came shortly after Maidan. The Kremlin was alarmed to see yet another of its former possessions joining the Western bloc.
There are influential figures in Washington who have never made any secret of the fact that weakening Russia power and influence has been, and remains, a US foreign policy objective. In 1992 a draft policy penned by the under-secretary of state for defence policy, Paul Wolfowitz, leaked; it stated the ultimate objective of US foreign policy should be to establish a uni-polar world with America as the only super-power. Russia presents a substantial obstacle to achieving that.
The Maidan Revolution, and the toppling of Yanukovych, was an obvious defeat for Russia and a victory for US foreign policy hawks; without Ukraine in its orbit Russia is considerably weakened.
I believe that ‘Western values’, encompassing free and fair elections, the rule of law, a respect for human and property rights, are morally correct; these values are the foundation stone of ‘The West’. But we must always try to understand the viewpoint of countries we see as enemies, like Russia.
Anyone with any knowledge of Russian history knows there are underlying national neuroses which shape the country. Firstly, the fundamental question of identity: is Russian essentially European and Western or is it an East and Asian power? Secondly the question of borders: the largest country in the world by land mass has no natural borders in the west and southwest (the north and east are different). Thirdly the ‘nationalities question’. Russia has the characteristics more of an empire than a ‘country’ because of the 120 different ethnic groups that live within its borders; the Kremlin knows nationalist instincts in these groups pose a threat to its territorial integrity.
The ‘National Question’
In 1913 Stalin, then living in Vienna, wrote a short treatise ‘Marxism and the National question’ which formulated a solution whereby Russia’s many ‘nationalities’ could be subsumed in the Marxist super-state. The underlying ‘national question’ proved highly combustible and in 1989 was the trigger for the collapse of the USSR; national minorities asserted their identity and broke free.
Today’s Russia is the inheritor of this underlying instability which, in combination with persistent fears about its borders and uncertainty about its true identity have created a witches brew which has infected Putin, and now the whole country, with a deep paranoia about the future. Ukraine embodies all Russia’s deepest insecurities; geographically it is in the west, it is a border region and its population mix includes many Russians
Did the West miss the boat?
There was a moment, perhaps, in the 1990s when the West had a golden opportunity to save Russia from itself. The country was economically weak and America and its allies might then have intervened with generosity as they did after the Second World War when Germany and the devastated nations of Europe were restored to health by the Marshall Plan. No such generosity was extended to Russia in the 1990s; instead it descended into a lawless and brutal period best categorised as ‘robber capitalism’.
Meanwhile most of the formerly subject nations of eastern Europe joined Nato; Russian paranoia was supercharged as a result. There has been very little effort from our media to try to tell this story instead, from 2016 until the present, Russia has been painted as an ogre.
Understanding why Putin invaded Ukraine
The war in Ukraine is not the media’s fault nor the fault of our governments, the blame lies squarely with President Putin. But both the media, and our politicians, should have done more to understand Russia’s anxieties.
Britain’s foreign policy has been driven by hard-liners in Washington who cast Russia as the eternal enemy a view never properly scrutinised or challenged by our media. Furthermore, our media enthusiastically promoted the (absurd) fictions of the US Democratic party and Remainers in Britain. When the Ukrainian government was overthrown in 2014 we were supposed to cheer the fact – even though, by the standards of east European elections Yanukovych’s government was legitimate.
Ukraine and Russia are now the focus of obsessive media attention: where was that focus five, ten or twenty years ago? I believe Ukraine must, as a matter of both morality and natural justice, be allowed to determine its own future. Putin has put his country firmly in the wrong.
But how much better would it have been if our media had been paying attention to Russia’s concerns twenty years ago? Had we shown more understanding of its anxieties perhaps this tragedy could have been avoided.
Robin Aitken MBE was a BBC reporter for 25 years, finally for the Today programme. He now works as a freelance concentrating on media matters especially for the Daily Telegraph. His latest book is The Noble Liar (Biteback, 2020).