Forgetting To Remember: News Coverage of the Russo-Ukrainian War

WATCHING THE NEWS coverage of the Russo-Ukrainian War is a struggle. The entire Western news media, our own included, have hurled themselves into the fray on the side of “the brave Ukrainians”. There is nothing in the news coverage that encourages us to contrast and compare the events we are witnessing now, with remarkably similar events a great many of us have witnessed in the recent past. There’s nothing that encourages detachment, reflection or the exercise of sober judgement. As the war unfolds, our news bulletins have come to resemble George Orwell’s “Five Minute Hate” from Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The thing to bear in mind as you watch the news coverage is that it is the product of a whole team of journalists and technicians. They are the people who decide what is shown and how it is edited. They are the people who write the autocue script for the news anchor/s to read in front of the cameras.

What you are watching is a carefully constructed narrative which, in its essentials, does not change from broadcast to broadcast. We are supplied with a cast of heroes and villains to cheer on and condemn. An occasional nod in the direction of fairness and balance may be inserted, but any serious challenge to the narrative will be contradicted more or less immediately. Nothing is permitted to blunt the emotional impact of the coverage. The journalism to which we are nightly subjected is not intended to supply information, it is intended to be affective – that is to say it is aimed almost exclusively at arousing our feelings.

Pause here and think about that for a minute or two. At war with Ukraine is a nation in possession of more nuclear devices than any other nation on the planet. With each passing day the Western news media’s portrayal of the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, grows increasingly lurid. He has become a devil-like caricature: someone who is clearly either mad or bad – probably both.

The people responsible for our nightly news bulletins do nothing to dispel this characterisation, indeed, they reinforce it. No one anywhere appears to have asked themselves: “Is it wise to go on demonising Vladimir Putin? Is it prudent to promote the imposition of an ever-increasing number of crippling sanctions upon Putin, his supporters and his people? If he truly is as mad and bad as the Western media is suggesting, might such tactics not cause him to lash out with his nuclear weapons?

Take, for example, the massacre of civilians at Bucha. Right across the West, Putin is being branded a war criminal, and calls are growing for him to be put on trial in the manner of Goering and Hess at the end of World War II.

Except that nobody knows what happened in Bucha – apart from the fact that many civilians lost their lives. There has been no independent investigation; no collection of evidence and eye-witness testimony, no patient piecing together of a timeline. The forensic work simply hasn’t been done.

The world simply does not know if the killings were the result of a deliberate policy, formulated by Russian commanders, at the behest of Putin; or, whether they were the awful consequence of terrified and panicky conscript soldiers who had seen dozens of their comrades killed and wounded as their armoured column was blown to pieces by the Ukrainian armed forces – fellow Slavs who, they’d been assured, were their friends and compatriots.

Inasmuch as he ordered the invasion of Ukraine, Putin is culpable. Without his order, the terrible events of the past few weeks would not have happened. In that sense, the Russian President does indeed have blood on his hands. But to hold him guilty of a war crime: without evidence, without witnesses, without a trial; isn’t that asking for trouble?

What incentive is the West giving Putin to negotiate a peace settlement? What is it doing to reduce the chances of the Russian Bear, backed into a corner, from lashing out with his thermos-nuclear claws?

Moreover, as John Minto so rightly points out in his latest post, if Putin is a war criminal, then so are the men who launched the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003. As anyone who has watched the disgusting video, released to the world by Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange, of the crew of an American Apache attack-helicopter opening fire on a group of unarmed Iraqi civilians and journalists in Baghdad, on July 12, 2007, surely understands, there are no “goody” countries and “baddy” countries. The United States is no less guilty than the Russian Federation of plotting and waging “aggressive war” on a fellow member of the United Nations.

But, as John writes:

“There were no sanctions against the US, UK and Australia, there were no US soldiers, military leaders or politicians held to account. There were no arms sent to help the Iraqis facing overwhelming odds in their fight against the US and its allies. There were no moves to charge George Bush (US President), Tony Blair (UK Prime Minister) or John Howard (Australian Prime Minister) for war crimes before the International Criminal Court.” [In fact, the USA refuses to accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court! – C.T.]

As our nightly news bulletins are put together over the course of the day there is scant evidence that anybody on the “team” is raising these sorts of objections, or demanding at least some effort be made to place what is happening in Ukraine in its historical context. While it is true that many younger journalists would only have been children in 2003, that is certainly not true of their senior colleagues. As experienced journalists they should all have vivid memories of the Iraq War and its many crimes.

What that means is that, in putting together their coverage of the Russo-Ukrainian War, New Zealand broadcasters and publishers are either unconsciously, or deliberately, suppressing all recollection of the events that have shaped the last thirty years.

One almost hopes they are doing so deliberately: that, at least, would suggest they believe in something – no matter how bereft it might be of historical understanding and/or moral purpose. The alternative explanation: that the past has simply dropped out of their day-to-day consciousness, and that they receive the Ukraine “story” ready-made from “sources” they see no need to interrogate or challenge; is much, much scarier.

It was the Czech novelist, Milan Kundera, who said it best:

“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”

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