Australian media and the Ukraine crisis

Jul 30, 2022
Ukraine Flag waves over a map of the region
Image: Pixabay

Readers of Guardian Australia will have been startled over recent weeks by repeated calls in its columns for all-out war between Nato and Russia. These are the handiwork of Simon Tisdall, until recently the paper’s International Editor. Just a fortnight ago he urged “using Nato’s overwhelming power to decisively turn the military tide” – the latest of five separate occasions on which he has made the same argument.

In none of these jeremiads does Tisdall explain how such a response would avoid escalation into a nuclear holocaust. And indeed, Guardian editors seem blithely unconcerned by such possibilities – handing over space on their pages without requiring him to spell out the implications of his proposed policy shift.

Excessive and bizarre as such bellicosity may seem, it fits with the way Australian journalism has generally reported the crisis. Media effects can be divided between agenda-setting (what to think about) and framing – how we think about it. Ukraine now has been relegated to the inside pages, but while it was accorded a position of prominence in the news, it was typically presented in simplistic black-and-white terms.

The communications scholar, Robert Entman, identified the most important aspects of framing as “moral evaluation, problem definition, causal interpretation and treatment recommendation”. If the ‘problem’ is defined solely as the behaviour of one party to a conflict, then the ‘treatment’ is to do something to them. That appears logical, inevitable and desirable.

These general framing categories are further developed in the Peace Journalism model. The mainstream of reporting about conflict is, generally, War Journalism – not merely the reporting of war, but representing it in such a way as to render us cognitively primed for further violence. Peace Journalism is devised a remedial strategy.

So, in War Journalism, the causes of conflict (and, therefore, exits from it) are located entirely in the arena: in the present and near future, in the place where armed hostilities are occurring. It presents just two aggregated parties, contesting the single goal of victory. Whereas Peace Journalism seeks and reports causes of the conflict anywhere, across a broader conflict formation, taking into account the actions and interests of many parties, over a longer timescale. And it uses these as clues for how the violence could be ended.

A minimum standard for competent journalism, capable of serving the Australian public, should be to draw to our attention (to “make salient”, in Entman’s terms) not just the shocking sequence of recent events, but key aspects of the process that led up to them.

Nato through the Cold War was ‘purely defensive’, prohibited from acting as an alliance except on the territory of member countries. That changed with Operation Allied Force, directed at Russia’s Slav brothers, the Serbs, in the Kosovo crisis of 1999. The new rule was then used to enable Nato to deploy as the lead agency in ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan – a praetorian state, from Moscow’s perspective.

That came after Europe in the 1990s enjoyed the benefits of a peace dividend from the fall of the Soviet Union. Before long, however, US arms manufacturers set to work on pushing for Nato’s eastward expansion, despite promises to the contrary by western leaders including Francois Mitterand, Hans-Dietrich Genscher and James Baker. Under heavy lobbying pressure, the US Congress in 1996 agreed to establish a multi-billion-dollar fund to allow the Pentagon (aka taxpayers) to guarantee loans for ‘defence’ exports to enable cash-strapped new members Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic to bring their militaries up to standard. Russia, in its moment of weakness, was rapidly encircled by hostile forces.

So there are reasons for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. It should not be excused or justified – but it must be understood and explained, and here the public should be able to rely on media reporting to remind us of these important antecedents. Instead, if the reasons for someone’s actions in conflict remain hidden, they appear unreasonable. It therefore feels futile to reason (negotiate) with them – leaving the use of force as the only remaining recourse. Hence the Tisdall take.

What are journalists to do, then, when their usual sources speak either in one voice, or not at all? Russian ambassador Alexey Pavlovsky appeared on ABC Radio National Breakfast on July 7, to be interviewed by Hamish Macdonald. After some initial sparring, over whether the “special military operation” should instead be called a war, or an invasion, the presenter told him: “You’re welcome to express your view, but if you make things up, you’ll be challenged”.

Fair enough – how we long for journalists in public service media to give us the unvarnished facts, even (or especially) when inexpedient to powerful vested interests. Instead, controversial topics tend to be placed on a see-saw, with every story reported in the same format: “On-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand-in-the-end-only-time-will-tell”. I know it well from spending most of my own journalistic career in the BBC. So we have had to endure the false equivalence accorded, down the years, to evidence-averse drivel from climate science-denying fossil fuel industry flacks, Brexit zealots, Zionist apologists and many more.

One of the most oft-cited pieces of journalism research is W Lance Bennett’s “indexing model”, which predicts the extent of disagreement in news reporting as being closely tied to the degree of elite discord. If there’s any suggestion that someone, somewhere, on the government or opposition benches may purport to take issue with a statement of fact (especially if it overlaps with the preoccupations of, say, wealthy industries or the Murdoch press), then the hard-wired instinct of ABC journalists will be to disguise it, instead, as a point of view, requiring to be balanced against another. For Macdonald on this occasion to ignore such a recourse testifies to the depth of elite consensus over Ukraine.

It is, then, to alternative media that we must turn, to enable us to peer round the edges of this consensus and to disinter some of the reasons for the conflict and the actions of parties both directly and indirectly involved.

Such media differ in their avowedly teleological ethical stance. To take two examples – Pearls and Irritations itself is committed to “peace with justice”; Green Left Weekly is affiliated with the Socialist Alliance political grouping. Whereas traditional media tend more to the deontological, or ethic of duty, encapsulated by New York Times founder Adolph S Ochs: “report without fear or favour”.

But it is for their old-fashioned journalistic standards that we should prize these independent outlets in the present conjuncture. These include diversity of sourcing and diversity of perspectives. GLW Europe Correspondent Dick Nichols reported on dissent within Russia, as soldiers sent into harm’s way tended to be drawn disproportionately from ethnic minorities. He quoted Leonid Vasyukevich, MP for the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) in the far-eastern territory of Primorye, who read a declaration in the regional parliament on May 27, which ended: “We demand the immediate withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine”. Would the affair end up, Nichols speculated, being seen as “Putin’s Vietnam”?

In a later dispatch, he quoted a range of views from Spanish, Swedish and Finnish political parties following the Nato summit in Madrid, which was invariably written up in corporate media as a “triumph”. Most telling was the Podemos MP, Gerardo Pisarello, who attacked the “warmongering zeal” on display, and restored to our mental map the self-seeking priorities of parties to the conflict across a broader formation, far away from the arena of hostilities. “This summit was basically organised to reinforce the strategic priorities of the US, which are not Ukraine, not Europe, but above all weakening China”.

One of the points Ambassador Pavlovsky made in his interview on RN Breakfast was that the agenda of the US and allies makes them less keen on reaching agreement than Ukrainians themselves: “When Ukraine released a document undertaking not to join Nato, not to host military bases on their territory, Boris Johnson the next day said Ukraine should not be in a rush to sign an agreement, and increased the supply of weapons”.

Pearls and Irritations distinguished itself as the only Australian media to report on the peace initiative by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, which argued that: “Grim realities of ongoing battle, with neither side likely to win a decisive military victory, should push both to the negotiating table”. It drew attention to the availability of peace plans, including from Italy, comprising four points:

  1. A ceasefire;
  2. Ukraine’s neutrality;
  3. Ongoing negotiations over Crimea and Donbas; and
  4. Multilateral negotiations within the OSCE and between Russia and NATO on regional security arrangements.

There are, in short, well-attested calls for peace and ways to work towards it, both within Russia and outside. Peace Journalism should continue to push for them to be followed up, along with other appeals from civil society such as the call from Russia’s own human rights groups for the UN to appoint a special rapporteur on the crackdown now underway.

Long experience from a range of conflicts strongly suggests that such small beginnings are the first resources for making and – in time – building peace. Once media have drawn them to our attention, the challenge is to keep them in view, reach out to them, connect and support them. Only then will the momentum tilt away from violence and towards agreement.

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