The “Professorial President”and the “Small, Strutting Hard Man”

Exactly what is happening in Ukraine is not easy to disentangle from corporate news media reports. The current crisis began last November when the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, withdrew from a cooperation agreement with the European Union to forge closer ties with Russia. As Peter Oborne notes:

Up to that point, the West had concealed any distaste for Yanukovych. Thereafter, we [sic] started to ally ourselves with the protesters against his regime.

These included ‘a group of violent and unpleasant Right-wing parties’. Three months of violent protests followed in Kiev. On February 22, Yanukovych suddenly fled Kiev and the pro-Western opposition took power. Peter Schwarz and David North write that:

The United States and Germany instigated the crisis in Ukraine, installing a right-wing nationalist regime completely subservient to Washington and NATO, with the intention of provoking a confrontation with Russia. […] American warplanes have been dispatched to the Baltics and US warships have entered the Black Sea.

Within days of the coup, troops loyal to Russia took control of Crimea, the peninsula in the south of Ukraine. Later, on March 6, the Crimean parliament asked Moscow to become part of Russia, which it had been in the past (Crimea was transferred from Russia to Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, in 1954).

The motives and actions of the various factions involved, and the rapidity of developments, make ‘the story’ difficult to follow; certainly as presented by the ‘mainstream’ media. But one unchanging and reliable factor is that BBC News sticks to a propaganda framework which reflects the values and priorities of the UK government and wider Western power.

For example, there was repeated headline coverage given to the deceptive rhetoric of Foreign Secretary William Hague:

We have to recognise the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of Ukraine has been violated, and this cannot be a way to conduct international affairs.

Or, even more galling, US Secretary of State John Kerry:

You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext.

But when it came to purported ‘analysis’ by senior BBC correspondents, such as Bridget Kendall and John Simpson, nobody made any reference to the West’s invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya. Not a single BBC journalist, as far as we know, pointed out the hypocrisy displayed by Hague and Kerry. And not even just hypocrisy; but something bordering on contempt for public memory and understanding of recent historical events.

For BBC News to be a prime mover in this sham tells us much that we need to know about the BBC’s propaganda role.

“Bare-Chested Thuggery”

It is worth recalling Bridget Kendall’s ‘impartial’ assessment of the Iraq war when she looked back on the third anniversary of the invasion:

There’s still bitter disagreement over invading Iraq. Was it justified or a disastrous miscalculation? (BBC News at Six, March 20, 2006)

That is indicative of what passes for ‘balanced’ BBC journalism. Kendall’s skewed formulation blanked out the view of many informed people, including former UN General Secretary Kofi Annan, international lawyers and much of the public, that the Iraq war was an illegal war of aggression, not merely a ‘disastrous miscalculation’.

Another salutary reminder of the BBC’s default power-friendly mode is to recall the way the broadcaster reported the conflict between Russia and Georgia in 2008. It was encapsulated by this introduction by Emily Maitlis to an edition of Newsnight:

Hello, good evening. The Russians are calling it [a] “peace enforcement operation”. It’s the kind of Newspeak that would make George Orwell proud.  (BBC2, August 11, 2008)

That may well have been fair comment. But has this kind of sceptical description ever been heard whenever the BBC relays US-UK propaganda about the ‘peace enforcement operation’ in Afghanistan or Iraq, or anywhere else? Surely no BBC journalist would be bold enough to declare such propagandistic claims ‘the kind of Newspeak that would make George Orwell proud.’

Last week on Newsnight, Maitlis once again demonstrated that her intuitive grip of the required propaganda role has not loosened. Chairing a discussion on Ukraine with the former Kremlin adviser Alexander Nekrassov and Liberal Democrat Sir Menzies Campbell, she leaned forward and challenged Nekrassov:

So there is no moral authority with Putin’s actions. It looks like bare-chested thuggery, doesn’t it?

But when has Maitlis ever challenged a former White House adviser along similar lines?

So there is no moral authority with Obama’s actions. It looks like bare-chested thuggery, doesn’t it?

Whatever is going on in Ukraine, it is mandatory for BBC News to portray Russia largely as a threatening, dangerous power in a manner that the broadcaster does not do with the UK, the United States or NATO. Russia is presented as inflexible, adopting an aggressive stance towards the peaceful, reasonable, conciliatory West. Thus, on BBC News at One, presenter Sophie Raworth in the studio turned to world affairs correspondent Richard Galpin in Moscow:

No sign of Moscow relenting and no sign of the bullish language coming from Moscow softening in any way. (BBC1, March 3, 2014)

BBC political editor Nick Robinson was not to be outdone. He mocked the ‘Russia Today/Putin view of Ukraine – troops greeted with flowers, kisses & selfies’. But he was challenged by followers on Twitter, including Bally Singh, a Labour councillor in Coventry, who noted:  “and then we have the #bbc propaganda #samedifference”.

Robinson was, predictably, incredulous that anyone would compare the state-run BBC with state-run Russian media. But the parallels are persistent and longstanding. Ironically, in a piece titled ‘Inconvenient truths: Mainstream media’s mistakes on Ukraine’, RT was able to land a direct blow on BBC News and, in particular, on Nick Robinson’s reporting (at 2:44).

Robinson’s incredulity intensified when we challenged him over his piece titled, in Cold War fashion, ‘Russia – punish or dialogue?’ Sticking to the usual pro-Western power perspective, Robinson posed the loaded question:

What is the right balance between moves to punish Russia and deter her from further aggression and those to de-escalate the crisis in Ukraine and encourage dialogue?

We challenged him via Twitter:

Imagine this title from rebel without a pause @bbcnickrobinson “US-UK – punish or dialogue?” http://tinyurl.com/oupcv8q Wait, sorry, that’s “us”

and we followed up by asking him:

Nick, “what is the right balance between moves to punish” US-UK and deter them “from further aggression after” Iraq/Libya?

Robinson’s response was evasive:

Do you prefer Russia Today’s coverage?

We answered:

Does it really have to be a choice? Can we not aspire beyond the filtered, power-friendly propaganda we see on BBC and RT?

The BBC’s political editor did not answer our question.

John Simpson, the grandly titled BBC world affairs editor, delivered his own peach of a propaganda performance when he told News at Ten viewers:

In Moscow today, President Putin, who rarely does anything without a purpose behind it, was making a deliberate show of being relaxed and easy when he gave a press conference. (BBC News at Ten, March 4, 2014)

Those wily Russians! How dare they always have some “purpose behind” whatever they say and do! Such deviousness, and so unlike ‘our’ beloved leaders in the West.

Mark Mardell, the BBC’s Washington-based North America editor, played his part in defying the definition of ‘impartiality’ when he proclaimed:

Putin and Obama are such different characters.

One is a small, strutting hard man with a passion to re-create an old empire, the other the professorial president – concerned not to repeat the mistakes that happen when America behaves like an empire – ever-hesitant to use the massive brute force his country can muster.

Ah yes, the “mistakes that happen” when America struts around the globe!

Can Mardell really be trying to sell the myth that the US tries to do good around the world, but just keeps on making ‘mistakes’? Is that how to explain the long, tragic list of US wars, bombings and coups since 1945? (See here and here.)

Would a senior BBC editor, like Mardell, ever describe a US president or UK prime minister as a “strutting hard man”?

We tweeted Mardell, asking him:

When did you, when would you ever, describe a US president, or a UK prime minister, as a “small, strutting hard man”?

How many wars and ‘interventions’ would be required before doing so? How many bombs dropped? How many drone attacks? How many war crimes committed? How many war crimes overlooked when committed by ‘our’ allies, notably Israel? How many wedding parties obliterated, civilians blown to pieces, homes destroyed and hearts broken?

Mardell ignored our tweet but he responded to a challenge from journalist and activist Ian Sinclair, and described us as “the people’s Soviet of East Acton”. (Mardell, email to Ian Sinclair, March 5, 2014). An intriguing comment that recalled BBC colleague John Sweeney’s caricature of us as “two moonlighting clerks from the White Fish Authority”. (Sweeney, letter to New Statesman, September 22, 2003).

The “Conspiracy Theory” Phone Call: Let’s Pretend It Never Happened

Later last week, a phone discussion was leaked in which Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton discussed the recent Ukrainian protests. According to Paet, people on both sides of the conflict – protesters and police – were killed by snipers hired by leaders of the opposition rather than, as reported at the time, snipers on the government side. Estonia’s foreign ministry has confirmed that the recorded telephone call is authentic.

RT suggested that the revelations were a “game-changer”. But not for the corporate media in the West where, instead of headline news coverage, analysis and follow-up investigations, there has been scant mention. The BBC even buried the revelations inside an online piece about something else, titled ‘Top diplomats seek Ukraine solution in Paris talks’. When we conducted an online search on March 10, fully five days after the revelations had appeared, that single article was still the only mention anywhere on the BBC News website.

The Guardian did report the story of the leaked phone call, but pitched it dismissively as a ‘conspiracy theory’. As ever, crimes committed by the ‘good guys’ – by definition, us or ‘our’ allies – are to be downplayed or ignored. A search of the Lexis newspaper database on March 10 showed that there have been only seven mentions of the leaked phone call in the British national press or their websites. By comparison, prior to this leak, there were around 250 reports that mentioned snipers, with many articles directly attributing the killings to the then pro-Russian Ukrainian government. The contrast is stark, and entirely consistent with the usual propaganda performance of the corporate media. Note that we are not saying that the evidence is 100 per cent unequivocal. Our point is that it is the job of the media to highlight the story and investigate the evidence. But the almost total lack of coverage is telling.

An online Channel 4 News piece reported the leaked phone call in an article, but it also highlighted ‘worrying signs that Russia and Russian media are deploying underhand tactics in order to boost the propaganda in Crimea and wider Ukraine.’ Again, it is par for the course to highlight ‘underhand tactics’ and propaganda campaigns conducted by official enemies. But when it comes to Western propaganda campaigns justifying mass slaughter, devastation in places like the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Western support for Israel’s crimes in the occupied Palestinian territories, even the ‘best’ media like Channel 4 News tend to shuffle their feet and emit embarrassed noises, or simply look the other way. Because, quite simply, ‘we’ don’t do propaganda; only ‘our’ enemies do that.

The general content and tenor of C4 news coverage of Russia and Ukraine were summed up in an email by Ed Murray. Ed is a Media Lens reader who regularly fires off emails to the leading lights of C4 News. They rarely, if ever, deign to respond to him. This one was sent to news presenter Cathy Newman (March 2, 2014):

‘Ms Newman,

‘In tonight’s “Snowmail, concerning Obama’s “order” that Putin should not intervene in the Ukraine, you say:

‘”That the Russian president has directly flouted that order suggests to some that western divisions and paralysis over Syria have now emboldened Putin over Ukraine.”

‘The nonchalance with which you talk about the US giving out orders to other sovereign countries and the implied belligerence of Russia in flouting these orders reveals a lot about the attitude of our msm [mainstream media] hacks and the revelation is one of pro-Americanism and demonisation of “official enemies”.

‘Who’d have thunk it?

‘If I may offer a a more accurate translation of your paragraph:

‘”Putin isn’t the lapdog of America and “some” like arms peddler Sir Malcolm Rifkind and James Jeffrey, deputy national security adviser to George Bush and close associate of war criminals Colin Powell and John Negroponte hate him even more because he stymied the US and Nato in their salivating desire to bomb the crap out of Syria.”

‘Time you started informing your viewers and stopped treating them with contempt as you foist upon them an endless line of hypocritical, deceptive, neocon warmongerers who should be in jail, not spreading their lies on Channel 4 News.

‘Try asking yourself and your guests just what right has the USA, that constant flouter of international law, frequent fomentor of coups against democratically elected governments and instigator of the supreme war crime in Iraq the moral authority to tell anyone, let alone a sovereign country, what to do?

‘Ed Murray.’

Channel 4 News did have one welcome exception to its ‘mainstream’ news coverage on Ukraine when it published a blog piece by its correspondent Alex Thomson. He noted that much of the media coverage of the protests in Kiev had been ‘completely one-sided’, adding:

Vladimir Putin is an easy bogeyman. He is everything we want a “Big Bad Russian” to be. In his shirt-removing, animal hunting absurdity he is too easy to pigeon-hole. […] for now “big bad Russia”, “big nasty Putin” and “poor heroic Ukraine” looks a little too simplistic to me.

But such a refreshingly realistic perspective appeared to be too dangerous for the ‘pinko-liberal’ Jon Snow-fronted C4 news as broadcast on television. Perhaps Thomson is tolerated on the C4 News team so long as he doesn’t become too pushy, and instead restricts his hardest-hitting journalism to the blog.

Other dark, dingy corners of the internet harbouring the few further examples of well-rewarded journalists expressing dissent included the Mail Online, of all places. Peter Hitchens noted:

What continues to strike me about this whole row is the inability of most people to view Russia as a country, or Russians as people. Russia is portrayed as a bogeyman, and its people as either oppressed or as tools of a new Hitler.

Hitchens added:

I still hope this will end without tears or blood, but the overblown, piously shocked rhetoric of western politicians and media is making that much harder.

And indeed the danger of violent conflict tragically remains high. Chris Marsden notes today that:

Washington spent the weekend ramping up pressure on its allies to intensify the provocations and threats against Russia over Ukraine.

Marsden adds some of the vital context that is so lacking in ‘mainstream’ news coverage:

The US has spent the past two decades seeking to eliminate Ukraine as a strategic buffer between Russia and the West, sponsoring the “Orange Revolution” in 2004 in an ultimately abortive attempt to install a wholly pro-Western government. Washington and its allies have tried to do the same in other former Soviet states by integrating them into the structures of NATO and the European Union, encouraging Georgia, in particular, and former Soviet republics in Central Asia to take the path of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Washington has been funnelling money into the region for years and has now opened the taps all the way. According to an admission in December by Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland, the US had invested “over $5 billion” to “ensure a secure and prosperous and democratic Ukraine”.

Nuland is the US official who infamously said in a leaked phone call last month: ‘Fuck the EU’, letting slip the US’s intention to interfere in Ukrainian domestic affairs. As Patrick O’Connor observed:

The Obama administration’s rhetoric about “democracy” and the Ukrainian people’s right to determine their own future is a charade, concocted for public consumption. Behind the scenes, government officials speak frankly with one another about the real agenda—advancing Washington’s geo-strategic and economic interests in Eastern Europe by installing pro-US and anti-Russian puppet figures in the Ukrainian capital.

By contrast, as we noted at the start, BBC News continues to portray Obama as a ‘professorial president’ with decent intentions, striving to export democracy, good governance and freedom around the world. The huge chasm between image and reality is an appalling media deception perpetrated on the public which is paying for it out of its own pocket, as well as in terms of the awful consequences of this cynical propaganda.

Media Lens is a UK-based media watchdog group headed by David Edwards and David Cromwell. The second Media Lens book, Newspeak: In the 21st Century by David Edwards and David Cromwell, was published in 2009 by Pluto Press. Read other articles by Media Lens, or visit Media Lens's website.