When it comes to Ukraine, Australia’s media is one-eyed

May 20, 2024
Flag of Ukraine and Russia painted on a brick wall.

It is curious that though the Russia-Ukraine conflict is now in its third year, Australian audiences have been only given one side of the picture: that of Ukraine and its Western backers.

The commercial outlets, no doubt, have their reasons for acting like Pravda would in Russia and toeing the line of the Australian government which is firmly on the Ukrainian side. But what makes the lack of balance all the more puzzling is that the ABC has been doing the same thing.

There are no lack of erudite and learned voices which can provide a more rounded view of the conflict than we get from the periodic appearances of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy or members of his government and a conga line of Western “analysts”, all of whom spout the “Ukraine good, Russia bad” line.

One analyst from the other side who provides a more balanced picture has been conspicuous by his absence. Professor John Mearsheimer is an academic from the University of Chicago and one who brings the best traits of journalism to his public speaking. He does not form a conclusion and then search for facts to support his stance; nay, he looks at all the facts and then draws a conclusion which s dictated by them.

Mearsheimer has given talks in many Western countries on the Ukraine conflict, a good number of which are on YouTube; one particular talk given eight years ago and titled Why is Ukraine the West’s Fault? has been seen more than 29 million times.

Mearsheimer has also been quizzed by Asian TV journalists, including journalists from both India and China. He describes himself as a realist and, thus, his conclusions may not be pleasing to those who take sides in these conflict.

Mearsheimer visited Australia after the conflict began and spoke at the Centre for Independent Studies. But he has never been invited to appear on any Australian TV channel or been interviewed by any Australian mainstream newspaper.

The Australian media has been a cheer squad for Zelenskyy. In March 2022, soon after the conflict began, the National Press Club scheduled both acting Ukrainian ambassador Volodymyr Shalkivskyi and Russian envoy Alexey Pavlovsky to speak at the club. Such addresses by politicians and others are a regular feature at the club and each talk is followed by a Q and A which is educative.

But on March 14, it emerged that the Russian envoy’s talk had been cancelled. The Ukrainian ambassador had given his talk on March 10 and Pavlovsky was scheduled to appear the following day. It must be noted here that the current conflict began on February 24.

To try and justify this cancellation, the NPC issued a statement, claiming that the invitations to both diplomats were issued “at a different stage in the conflict in Ukraine before allegations of war crimes and bombing of civilian targets”.

It sought cover under the mantle of freedom, declaiming: “The club stands by its principles of encouraging free speech and promoting a balanced national discussion of the big issues of the day and reserves the right to revisit this decision at a later date.” That later date is yet to arrive.

Another justification, if one can call it that, was: “In addition, the National Press Club is a vigorous champion of media freedom and strongly condemns the media censorship in Russia. Under new laws in Russia both local and international journalists face charges of high treason and 15-20 year jail terms for reporting the facts. This situation should not be tolerated and has no place in a democratic society.”

NPC director David Crowe, the chief political correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age and an individual who can be accurately described as being somewhat self-righteous, issued a tweet in which he said: “We have decided at the National Press Club to withdraw an invitation to speak for the Russian ambassador. The invasion and its atrocities change everything. He can call a press conference at any time. But a national platform for a 30-minute speech? No.”

The correct way for a journalists’ forum to handle this situation was to go ahead with Pavlovsky’s speech and then rain questions on him and hold his feet to the fire. But the NPC preferred censorship, something its members often rail against when they talk of countries like North Korea.

The ABC was no better. The 7.30 program invited Pavlovsky for an interview on March 20, 2023, but he was never allowed to speak at any length, with interviewer Sarah Ferguson constantly interrupting him and frequently referring to what he said as “propaganda”. This was most unbecoming of a journalist; again, Ferguson should have allowed Pavlovsky to have his say and pointed out where his statements were incorrect. There are classy ways in which to hold someone’s feet to the fire rather than shouting her or him down.

The current Ukrainian ambassador, Vasyl Myroshnychenko, appears to regard the Australian media as his own proprietary arena. When the ABC ran a Four Corners episode titled Ukraine’s War: The Other Side on April 8, which clashed with the Ukrainian view of the war, Myroshnychenko was furious and threatened to complain to the ABC. He described it as “pro-Putin and pro-violence propaganda”, labelling the program the “journalistic equivalent of a bowl of vomit”.

The ABC, Myroshnychenko raved, should be “ashamed” of itself for putting to air “such total garbage”.

“It unquestioningly repeated and aired countless blatant lies, historical distortions, racist claims and propaganda narratives emanating from the Kremlin,” he claimed.

The ABC’s reaction illustrated what a media organisation should do in the face of such unbalanced comments. “Ukraine’s War: The Other Side is a challenging but legitimate documentary, made by reputable journalist Sean Langan and first aired last month on the UK’s ITV, that offers a rare insight into the lives of Russian soldiers during the war,” it said.

“It adds to our understanding of this tragic conflict and shows the full, horrific impact of the war. The reporter challenges the Russian soldiers and civilians featured in the film about their beliefs and opinions.

“The documentary is being seen internationally and is considered an important contribution to the reporting of the war. We believe Australian audiences also have the right to watch it and make up their own minds.”

It’s just a bit funny that this thought – that Australians should also see a different side of this conflict – is occurring to the ABC only now.

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