Western media should not repeat Ukrainian propaganda
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.
Thank you for writing this.
And may I say, once again, how disgusting it is that we are tearing up our fundamental protections of free speech by banning Russian state media.
I know they are telling lies. But so are Western media. I don’t need the state to decide which lies I am entitled to listen to.
I read about 1/10 (if that…) of all the guff that is being written on this topic as I just don’t know how reliable what I am reading is. I wonder why that is and I wonder if I am alone in thinking like this.
I am guessing you have a good nose for bovine manure. And there sure is a lot of fertiliser coming out of the media these days.
You are not alone! My great uncle, who ran a printing press at the “Stars and Stripes” news organization during WWII said, “The only thing you should believe in our newspaper is the date and even that you should double check.”
Enjoyed Hydra, thanks.
I’m glad, Martin! Thanks for letting me know.
Not to mention the cancellation of Dostoyevsky and other great Russian artists because they are Russian; just weird
Interesting read… and the reddit thread
The jingoistic tone of much reporting is starting to become dangerous. MPs are being seriously pressured over the issue of a no-fly zone. Boris Johnson was asked by a journalist (BBC I think) “when are you going to listen to Pres Zelensky and introduce a NFZ to save Ukrainian lives?”.
We may just virtue signal our way into a nuclear war at this rate.
Most damage is being done using missiles, shells and mortars so a NFZ would largely be pointless.
Also, I heard the other day about how “the authoritarian pro Russian government which was ousted by a popular uprising” in Ukraine in 2014.
A mob stormed the parliament building and physically overthrew the democratically elected government, occupying the building until a new government was appointed (not democratically, just one they liked).
The west fell over themselves to recognise this new government. I’m not sure that the same would have happened if the mob storming and occupying the Capitol a couple of years ago had succeeded in appointing Trump (or the QAnon shamen?) as president and forcing Biden to flee the country.
That is a very slanted account of the euro-Maidan events. I wonder if some of the pro-Putin voices on here will get their position straight: Ukraine is an appallingly corrupt country which we should not support – OR a rightful (if very very corrupt) government was overthrown. No one forced Yanukovich to flee the country then, rather similar to James 2nd fleeing Britain in 1688. Ukraine has free elections; Russia very much does not, and has not for decades. And its government regularly assassinates journalists and opposition politicians.
I wonder if there will ever be a time when some of you guys are going to start supporting your own, and other free (albeit imperfect) countries, rather than those of our tyrannical adversaries? If you want to be parochial about it, Zelensky hasn’t as far as I am aware poisoned British citizens in their own country. Churchillian – very much not!
Not dissimilar to the “when are you going to lockdown harder’ lobbying from the BBC
Nicola Sturgeon’s contortions are amazing!
She opposes nuclear weapons and wants Trident subs out of Faslane.
She also wants a no-fly zone imposed over Ukraine. That means shooting down Russian planes and using anti-radiation missiles to take out their radar stations.
So, disarm, then start a war with Russia.
There is a portion of the anti-elite Right and indeed the Left which seems to have been totally discombobulated by this war, which completely fails to fit into their anti-western narratives. I share a lot of their critique of western governments, but it need not be accompanied by endless naivety towards various adversary states, be they Islamist, Communist or right wing nationalist. The ‘hero’ Trump has for example made himself look a complete idiot through praising Putin.
There is a BIG, BIG difference between the media having a strong angle – they rarely tell outright lies in the West – and allowing enemy state propaganda to be broadcast unchecked, albeit often assisted by a whole lot of western ‘useful idiots’. Freedom of speech was not provided as far as I am aware to the Nazi state. Let us be clear, the Russians and Chinese ban or heavily censor to meaninglessness any western news media in their own societies.
Well said. There is a type of derangement going around, that if you don’t get onboard with every bit of gossip and rumour that favours Ukraine in some way, then you are a Russian bot or Putin apologist. It’s mad!
There are many others:
If you question whether or not to take a jab, you are an “antivaxxer”.
If you believe in fiscal responsibility, you want to throw grandma over a cliff.
If you think the police are needed, you are a racist.
If you are proud of being an American, you are a racist.
If you believe on being punctual, or demand that 2+2=4, you are a racist.
If you believe that God created man and woman, you are homophobic.
If you question whether it makes sense to have entire neighborhoods controlled by Muslims and police are not allowed to enter, you are Islamophobic.
If you believe that immigration laws should be enforced, you are a racist.
If you believe that providing a simple form of identification in order to vote is reasonable, you are a racist.
If you believe that the color of one’s skin is not the issue, but rather the character of the person is what matters, you are a racist.
If you believe that men cannot get pregnant, you are transphobic.
If you believe men should not be allowed to bed down in women’s shelters, you are transphobic.
If you disagree with the prevailing narrative crafted by elites, you should be cancelled.
If you believe in canceling state laws during an election, or in censoring other people’s speech, you are fighting for democracy.
Agreed, except for ‘American’, I am British/Welsh.
Our media ceased to be an objective source of factual reporting many years ago.
In the interest of not starting another Covid thread, I’ll stick to extensive rioting being “mainly peaceful” as the most obvious recent example.
Editorial lines require a side to be taken … and then propagated.
And we do have the additional incentive, these days, of online outlets, which merely require one to click on the bait in order to get paid.
Brilliant. Finally some rationality in this madness. If I were to believe what the BBC says, I could be excused for thinking that all Ukrainians are painfully middle-class, highly educated, pretty young women.
We need to remember that Ukraine is one of the most corrupt countries in the world and anybody who thinks Zalensky is some kind of noble freedom fighter is a complete fantasist. Yes, it is painfully clear that the world would have been better off if somebody disincentivized Putin years ago, but just because Putin is a monster, it does not make the Ukrainian mafia saints and I would never expect their actions to reflect that.
That is a difficult argument to set out clearly and I admit that I approached your article with some hostility. You did it very well, congratulations. Alas “in war the first casualty is truth”; both sides will sell themselves as best they can to their own advantage, that is unavoidable. But journalists have a moral duty to snuffle what truths they can and present them.
Like you I hope the Ukrainians will somehow prevail, and not have to dissemble too much to do so
Well said, Ben. I’ve been meaning to say something like this myself, elsewhere.
And what if Russia decides to ‘retaliate’ by putting out its own propaganda videos of POWs? Would we assume those soldiers had been tortured? Probably yes, and probably correctly. I don’t know how POWs are treated by Russia, but we shouldn’t be making things any worse for them.
As it’s very unlikely that POWs in Ukraine are simply allowed to visit TV studios, these films must be being produced by the military, and the media ought to be sceptical of everything the government claim, unless they want to become propagandists rather than journalists.
‘The first casualty of war is the truth’. Hiram Johnson.
Terrible war propaganda in U.S., Ukraine and Russia, etc. I don’t agree with this writer that Russia’s pretext for the war in Ukraine is preposterous. Nato expansion has been surrounding Russia against many expert warnings for 25 years. No one listens. If Russia had the abiltiy to move military bases to the borders of the United States whether in Mexico or Cuba. The U.S. would declare a special military operation like it did in Cuba 1964. Gobachev and later Yeltsin said Nato expansion Eastward was not accceptable to their national security interests. Later Putin reiterated this in 2004 and 2007. Russia once an ally with the U.S. in world war 2 has been blantantly mistreated and hacked by the U.S. since 1950. Blatant U.S. political meddling in Ukraine 2013 and 2014 to support an ouster of duly elected Yanukovych. Assistant Secretary of State Nuland and U.S. ambassador to Ukraine leaked conversation trying to pick U.S. puppets for replacements.
As the French President repeated at every meeting during WW1. ‘Gentlemen the Boche are 50km from Paris. ‘. Gentlemen, Ukraine did not invade Russia.
Absolutely. THIS is the whole point! Propaganda versus journalistic “purity” – I get it, we all should get the truth. But the overarching truth is that Russia invaded an innocent, sovereign nation, is slaughtering innocent women and children and threatening to use nuclear weapons if the West makes a move to stop it. THIS should be heralded loud, often and far and wide.
Lol. You don’t go far enough
The author probably believes in unicorns.
But don’t the few examples that the author cites rather show that most of the news we are receiving is based on fact?
It’s certainly true that quite often television news is anecdotal. By its very nature it cannot give us a statistically significant sample of the entire picture. Indeed, that wont be possible until books and scholarly studies are written long after the conflict. Even then someone will always charge them with bias.
War is one of the most uncertain, contingent phenomenon in human affairs. What we are receiving now is probably about as good as it will ever get during a conflict.
And quite a bit better than Perviy Kanal in Moscow.
Reading the article before commenting often helps.
Join the discussion
To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.
Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.Subscribe