Journalists are not approaching claims with proper scrutiny
“Do not invade Kiev,” reads a headline in the Telegraph, quoting the statements to the media of a Russian prisoner of war captured by Ukraine. “Putin humiliated,” proclaims the Daily Express, “As captured bomber pilot says ‘we have already lost this war’.” “Captured Russian pilot says he was ordered to hit civilian pilots,” adds Newsweek.
Now, it is possible that the captured Russian pilot was telling the truth. There is a reason, though, that the Geneva Conventions state that prisoners of war must “not [be] exposed to public curiosity”. It is because normalising the deployment of prisoners as tools of propaganda encourages the use of torture.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
Did the Ukrainians torture this man? I hope not. But it is very possible. After all, does it seem likely that a high-ranking member of the Russian air force would suddenly, voluntarily, decide that the war is lost and that his superiors should be brought to justice “for this genocide of Ukrainians”? Possible, but highly unlikely.
To be fair, the Telegraph mentions that the Russian airman might have been intimidated, and Newsweek makes a vague reference to “ethical issues”. But the articles are framed as if he made startling and profound revelations. This is dangerous. Turning prisoners of war into propaganda tools is immoral in itself but it also sets a troubling precedent. For one thing, if this kind of technique is accepted, who is to say that it will not be wielded against our own troops?
I am not neutral when it comes to the war in Ukraine, and I do not expect journalists to be neutral. It is an aggressive war based on preposterous, arrogant premises and I hope that Putin’s efforts fail. Still, one can be honest without being impartial. The job of the media is ultimately to inform a nation’s public. Journalists should not massage the facts and spin narratives to make them more favourable to the Ukrainians.
We have seen various cases in which Western journalists have not approached Ukrainian claims with any scrutiny. There were the breathless reports on the Ukrainian grandma who was being trained to use an AK-47, which seemed a bit embarrassing when it was revealed that the soldier training her was sporting imagery popularised by the Wehrmacht. There was also the mythical “Ghost of Kiev”, on whom British tabloids are still cheerfully reporting.
Doubtless, the Russians have their own disinformation. By no means am I suggesting that the Ukrainians are exceptionally guilty when it comes to propaganda. Indeed, British people can hardly blame them for bending the truth in an attempt to draw their allies deeper into the conflict. We did exactly the same in World War Two.
But our media should not collaborate in those attempts. British citizens have a right to know what is happening in Ukraine so as, if nothing else, to judge the value of British involvement. Giving us that honest and thorough perspective will sometimes mean disputing Ukrainian accounts (the Ukrainians, after all, are pushing for greater and exceptionally dangerous Western involvement). That does not mean we do not support the Ukrainians, emotionally and materially. It means that we have our own interests as well.