Sir Tony Brenton
Sir Tony Brenton is a former British diplomat who served as ambassador to Russia from 2004-2008
Many column inches have been devoted to analysing biased Russian media reports of the Ukraine crisis, but is coverage in the west as objective as it should be?
New East network expert panel
Tony Brenton: western media should do better
In war, it is said, truth is the first casualty. That has certainly been the case with the conflict in Ukraine.
The star for mendacity goes to Russian TV. This is not the entire Russian press – there are opposition newspapers and the relatively free internet which regularly challenge Russian official narratives. But more than 90% of Russians get their news from their unrelentingly propagandist state TV channels.
These channels have painted a monolithic and fictitious picture of Ukraine threatened by fascist hordes. The downing of flight MH17 brought a wall of assertions – implausible but believed by more than 80% of Russians, according to a recent survey – of Kiev’s guilt. Sadly, despite a lifetime of being lied to by their authorities, Russians still accept what their government tells them.
The western media however are not guilt free. Almost routinely they have downplayed the Russian side of the story, however persuasive.
The western media however are not guilt free. Almost routinely they have downplayed the Russian side of the story, however persuasive. Yanukovych was a rotten President of Ukraine but, unlike the demonstrators, he was democratically elected. The people of Crimea welcomed their reincorporation into Russia, however illegal the process.
The insurrection in eastern Ukraine has real local roots, whatever assistance the Russians may have given. And the difficulties of inspecting the MH17 crash site stem as much from the ongoing Ukrainian military offensive as from obstacles put up by the rebels.
The British press has been particularly ready to shoot from the hip (the Sun proclaimed "Putin’s Missile” brought down MH17 well ahead of evidence that it was a missile, or linked to Russia). The sad spectacle of huge press outrage when pro-Russian secessionists seized a US journalist, followed by silence when the Ukrainians seized a pro-Russian British journalist, underlines the inconsistency.
Editors can claim, correctly, that Russian official lying justifies aiming off. But, as the "false photos” affair showed, the Ukrainians are no better. Far too often Russia has become a pantomime villain getting nothing but catcalls.
All of this has real world consequences. The confrontational course the UK government in particular has taken on the Ukraine issue has undoubtedly been eased by ministers knowing they are playing to a largely anti-Russian press. In countries (notably France and Germany) where the press line has been less strident, so has the political reaction been.
Things may be getting better. Indiscriminate Ukrainian bombardment of civilian areas in Donetsk and Luhansk has attracted sharp questioning, notably by the BBC. The western lurch down the blind alley of economic sanctions has given rise to some surprisingly sceptical comment (even in the Financial Times, a consistent advocate of sanctions). But a core part of the west’s claim that our system is superior to Putin’s is that our free press is better than Russia’s state suffocated media environment. That has been true through this crisis, but not as true as it should have been.