Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Duty media: framing the options on Russia and Ukraine

Current events in Ukraine offer yet another prime example of a Western service media jumping to dutiful attention.

While the BBC and other main media have been engaged in a brazenly one-sided view of the conflict, offering little, in particular, on the far-right and reactionary nature of the opposition, coverage of Russian military intervention has seen some of the worst examples of shrill, hysterical and slavish reiteration.    

A perfect example can be heard on yesterday's BBC Radio2 Jeremy Vine Show, with Paddy O'Connell standing in for Vine.

It's a classic package of BBC bias by headline selection, blatant omission, loaded language, guest selection and setting of discussion points.

O'Connell led the report with this introduction:
Now, it's been called the most serious crisis of the 21st century, a brazen act of aggression in violation of international law. Russian troops have moved into Crimea confronting the Ukranian armed forces. Given the fact that half the world seems now to be condemning what President Putin is doing, what exactly are we going to do to force Russia out of Ukraine again? 
Note, firstly, the non-attribution over who actually called this 'the most serious crisis of the 21st century'. It was, in fact, William Hague, but there seemed no apparent need to mention this. It was just assumed by the BBC as a generalised truth. A case of British state media automatically repeating the opinion of British state power.  

There's no mention either here of Iraq or Afghanistan as candidates for the 'century's most serious crisis'. Following Hague's line, it seems these crises have been ignored or 'timed-out', even as the daily crisis for Iraqis and Afghans goes relentlessly on. For many war apologists, like the BBC, these aggressions, it appears, are now just so 'early century'.

Consider, next, when the BBC ever used the words 'a brazen act of aggression in violation of international law' to describe any US/UK/Nato invasion or proxy intervention. Additionally, have we ever heard that phrasing used to describe Israel's multiple criminal actions of occupation, or its bombing of Syria?

Then there's 'the fact that half the world seems now to be condemning what President Putin is doing'. Where's the evidence for that 'fact', or how it 'seems' to the BBC, or even how a 'fact' can 'seem' to be the case?

And, of course, there's the key question: what are 'we', that assumed entirety of 'the free West', to do, using 'our' presumed right of force, to shift Russia out of Ukraine 'again' - one assumes 'again' to mean' after 'we' liberated it previously from the Soviet Union. 

A short synopsis of 'the crisis' follows, with various soundbites and some mild satire on the 'calamity' of leaked briefing papers suggesting the UK's reluctance to engage in punitive trade sanctions.

This sets up O'Connell's posing of four main options for how 'we' might act - smart sanctions, wider sanctions, war, or do nothing - to his two studio guests, ex-Falklands Admiral Lord West and Bill Browder, a hedge fund trader with Heritage Capital Management, whose lawyer had died in a Russian jail.

This, we're expected to believe, is a basis for 'balanced' discussion and consideration of 'our' 'legitimate' responses.

Browder proceeded to denounce Putin as a "maniac" and a "cannibal" who shouldn't be allowed to "dine at the fine tables" of the US and Europe. He approved the heaviest sanctions and ultimate move to war. Objecting that Putin is not a maniac, just darkly calculating, the more cautious Admiral dismissed the war option, approved some sanctions and urged diplomatic engagement.

While the latter understood the dangerous realpolitik of provoking Russia, neither figure had anything to say about Nato's own aggressive pushing on Ukraine's border, the EU's associate role in that exercise, or the West's more general hypocrisy in condemning Russian intervention.  

And nor did O'Connell. A few token comments from listeners were noted on the West having little moral right to judge Russia, but the key message of 'good versus bad' interventionism had been dutifully conveyed.

Cautious Obama, scary Putin  

The same framing of 'greatest century crisis', 'Putin the villain' and tortured reflection on what 'we' can/must do is evident all across what passes for a 'critical-independent' media.  
Thus could an Independent editorial lament that:
 Obama’s cautious style has left US foreign policy lagging events. On Ukraine, he must take the lead.
It goes obsequiously on: 
For Barack Obama, the de facto Russian annexation of the Crimea – not to mention the risk of further such encroachment into Ukrainian territory – is by far the greatest foreign policy challenge of his presidency. It is a test of both his own and his country’s credibility, in what increasingly seems a last act of the Cold War, the confrontation that dominated the second half of the 20th century. First and foremost, Mr Obama must reverse perceptions. His cautious and cerebral style in many respects is to be admired. His judgement is sound.
And with this shameless ingratiation, a plaintive warning that failure to act will only allow other suspect states to indulge in wider mischief: 
Not just Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin, but other potential rivals like China, have surely gained the sense that this White House will not react as forcefully as others in the past, and that they can act with relative impunity.
So, what must be done? Beyond the token nod that "Russia has legitimate and unique interests in Ukraine", this:
does not mean it can simply annex chunks of the country as it sees fit. Mr Obama must articulate, loudly and clearly, a plan of action in the likely event that Moscow does not reverse course. Direct military intervention by the West is unthinkable, as Mr Putin knows. But there are other means of ensuring that Russia pays a price. The expulsion of Russia from the G8 (an organisation it should never have been permitted to join in the first place) should merely be a start. Stiff sanctions against Russian individuals and institutions should also be introduced by Washington and its allies.
So, a clean sheet for a 'peace-holding' West and its noble institutions, 'sensible liberal restraint' in taking on that much bigger foe, stiff headmasterly punishments instead, and, to round it all off, a stirring call to our reticent commander-in-chief: 
Most important of all however, Mr Obama must take charge – with a forcefulness and a conviction that of late have often been absent.
Similar Obama-approving sentiment with a more open inference to the war option was tweeted by regular Guardian columnist and blogger Sunny Hundal:
We should welcome that President Obama isn't rushing into war and confrontation with Putin. But no option should be left off the table 
And, while excusing Obama's own warmongering, here's Hundal with another variation on the 'dark Putin' psychology:
Partly feel Putin wants everyone to think he's lost his mind. People get scared of unpredictable opponents.
Thankfully, amid all this grovel and hype came some welcome perspective from Jonathan Steele, lamenting the "hysterical reaction to Russian military movements".

For Steele:
Nato should refrain from interfering in Ukraine by word or deed. The fact that it insists on getting engaged reveals the elephant in the room: underlying the crisis in Crimea and Russia's fierce resistance to potential changes is Nato's undisguised ambition to continue two decades of expansion into what used to be called "post-Soviet space", led by Bill Clinton and taken up by successive administrations in Washington. At the back of Pentagon minds, no doubt, is the dream that a US navy will one day replace the Russian Black Sea fleet in the Crimean ports of Sevastopol and Balaclava.
Alex Thomson provided another worthy counter to the hysteria, distortion and bias - a welcome independent view which, alas, not for the first time, seemed confined to his Channel 4 News blog.

A further admirable piece from Peter Hitchens at the Mail, of all places, offered real historical and political background to the situation, while dismissing shrill claims of Russian ‘paranoia’:
What continues to strike me about this whole row is the inability of most people to view Russia as a country, or Russians as people. Russia is portrayed as a bogeyman, and its people as either oppressed or as tools of a new Hitler.
All of which reveals the mass conformity of 'our' supposedly independent and critical media.

The assumed Russian 'threat' to 'civilized Western order' also prompted a bombastic Spectator piece from Nick Cohen, smearing Noam Chomsky over his and the anti-war movement's 'lack of solidarity' with Ukraine.

As ever, Cohen and his interventionist peers could never countenance the principle that opposing lofty Western intervention is the most valuable and proactive form of solidarity. 

In further bouts of unleashed enmity, 'our' media 'finest' have used the 'century's greatest crisis' to expose Russia's media 'subservience'.  

Thus, could the BBC's chief political correspondent Nick Robinson preeningly tweet:
This is Russia Today/Putin view of Ukraine - troops greeted with flowers, kisses & selfies @RT_com
Reminded in one response: "and then we have the #bbc propaganda #samedifference", Robinson countered, with seeming incredulity: 
You really think that there is no difference between Russia Today propaganda & BBC?! Wonder how many Russians would agree?
What, indeed, might observant Russians, with long memories of Pravda output, really make of Robinson's slavish quips and indignant denial of BBC propaganda, or of Paddy O'Connell's indulgence of 'our retaliatory options', or John Simpson's facile 'analysis' of Putin's 'contrived style' and 'the difficult challenges for the West', or even the BBC's flagship Newsnight with its safe-hand presenters and 'prestige interviews' with people like John McCain and John Bolton?
Last night's edition (4 March) saw a studio guest list of Nancy Soderberg, former US ambassador to the UN, Malcom Rifkind, Foreign Secretary, and Dmitry Linnik from Voice of Russia discuss the same framing issue of 'the West's available options'.
The following segment had presenter Kirsty Wark ask right-wing commentator Anne Applebaum and Timothy Snyder of Yale University what they thought about the possibilities of sanctions, Russia's expulsion from the G8 and other such 'problems' for Europe and the wider West. Again, the guest choice and framing of discussion precluded any serious assessment of Nato's own militarist part in the conflict and its ongoing agenda.   
Wark preceded the piece with a brief re-showing of how RT presenter Abby Martin had ended her show with an open denunciation of both Russia's military intervention and all such aggressions. Martin had also lamented the dire overall media coverage of the conflict.
Evasively, Wark framed Martin's statement as implied evidence of 'even a once-dependable Russian media now undermining Putin', with no thought offered on how state media like the BBC itself might compare as a source of free and independent comment. Like the West's own aggressions, another awkward issue neatly circumvented. 
The real question is could Wark, Robinson or any of their craven colleagues ever have the courage or independent mind to do on the BBC what Martin did on RT?
Whatever lies behind Abby Martin's words, and much of the liberal media's ready denunciation of her, there's no seeming chance of the BBC ever reflecting on its own journalistic output or propaganda function.


John Hilley said...

Thanks for the following comments from rehor and brooks, posted at the Media Lens message board.


[rehor, 5 March 2014]

Thanks John.

Just a couple of other recent instances:

1) Last night I listened to Sir Christopher Meyer and Edward Lucas (Economist journalist, author and arguably the most rabid Putinophobe in the west) on BBC Radio 4's tea time news slot. Startlingly, they were given their own 5+ minute segment to dole out their 'expert', deeply partial views. No BBC anchor to question them on these views - they had their own spot, uninterrupted, each reinforcing the other.

2) Into the realm of the surreal now - in the first ten minutes of last week's Guardian Politics Podcast ( Michael White begs to differ a bit from Luke Harding's 'Kiev revolution - Crimea coup' thesis by offering some historical context and an attempt at an objective reading of events. Harding - exasperated, agitated, probably surprised - splutters back that White 'sounds like Vladimir Putin'. And that's pretty much that. White - not a renowned radical - attempts to understand the situation and gets laughed off as sounding like Putin!

Fair play, though, to the Guardian for running this - actually from a Ukrainian:

[brooks, 6 March 2014]

really excellent piece, John. Its no easy task to patiently peel back all the layers of hypocrisy and stupidity in the coverage of the Ukraine crisis, but you've done it brilliantly here. i thought this was such a telling quote from the Independent editorial:

Not just Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin, but other potential rivals like China, have surely gained the sense that this White House will not react as forcefully as others in the past, and that they can act with relative impunity.

Disobedience must be punished!! Our underlings must cower before us!! really incredible. Just for some comparison with the Canadian media, this is veteran Globe and Mail foreign correspondent Mark Mackinnon:

US President Barrack Obama - to whom many are looking to rein in Russia as the crisis in the Ukraine continues to escalate dangerously - famously looks to healers such as Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln for inspiration, leaders who sought to bridge worlds and smooth differences.
Mr Putin's politics are of a very different origin....

He goes on to describe Putin's "personal idol", some lowlife KGB agent known as "the Butcher of Budapest" who urged Khrushchev to massacre thousands of protesters in Hungary in 1956. So in the west's corner, the idealistic heir of Martin Luther the Ruskies', the canny disciple of the Butcher of Budapest. Is it any wonder we are at such a disadvantage? It's Virtue against Vice. You couldn't make it's a medieval morality play, or pro-wrestling posing as serious journalism. And that Huff Po piece on Abby Martin was unintelligible.

Anyway, thanks for a really great piece of writing.


BeautifulSakura said...

A Brilliant Work John.

The hypocrisy is just Surreal.

And pretty frightening when you think about it, how it's so controlled ( Re the Public ) Wars and destruction based on Lies and Hypnotics.

John Hilley said...

Thanks BS.

Yes, not just rank hypocrisy, but, as with Nick Robinson's 'would you prefer RT?' line, a dutiful presumption of the West's 'benign' engagement.

We have two power blocs vying for control and self interest, yet, while Russia's actions are depicted as 'so 19th century' aggressive, US/Nato invasions and mass murder are hailed as 'so 21st century' liberal intervention.