Ukraine: West won media war almost but at cost of credibility later


There are many tragedies being concurrently played out in Ukraine but the one for which the West will pay the price for a long time is the collapse of the credibility of the western media.

In his gripping history of war journalism, The First Casualty, Phillip Knightley provides an impressive catalogue to prove Aeschylus’ dictum: when wars breaks out, the first casualty is the truth.

The “untruth” did not always have to be brazen. Ernie Pyle became a legendary war correspondent writing human interest stories about the ordinary American soldiers during the Second World War. Ed Murrow also covered the war, but the crowning glory of his career was as a CBS News presenter. He fought the system single handedly and demolished Senator Joseph McCarthy for his Communist witch hunt. These writers, anchors, presenters remained journalists outside the Pentagon system.

The few wars that India fought with Pakistan produced a crop of war correspondents notably Barkha Dutt, during Kargil. She too was circumscribed by the Aeschylus principle – be part of the war effort. The editor of The Statesman cancelled my assignment to cover the Bangladesh war for a simple reason: I would be mistaken for a Punjabi from Pakistan and killed by the Mukti Vahini. It is another matter that Peter Hazlehurst of The Times, London had let the cat out: “the battle cry of the Mukti Vahini was “Sat Sri Akal”.

The Vietnam War produced a crop of antiwar reporters. Walter Cronkite’s live coverage of the war gave fillip to the anti-war movement in the US. I have left out some of my favourites: James Cameron, for instance.

The complete dismantling of media ethics is a post Soviet phenomenon, when neo cons flanking George W Bush began to dream up the American century warranting Rupert Murdoch’s all pervasive invasion of the media. A great variety of newspapers began to publish editorials which looked translated versions of some master copy.

Part of the preparation for the American century was the setting up of a global media for which operation Desert Storm was the first trial run. Of all the wars the US fought since the Soviet collapse, Desert Storm, executed by George Bush Senior, was the only one with a clear outcome. It pulverized Saddam Hussain, after luring him into Kuwait. Regime change was not the purpose of this expedition. There were four principal aims of Desert Storm:

(a) With the Soviet Union gone the previous year, Arab regimes which had been on the other side of the Cold War were put on notice.

(b) NATO, created to cope with the Soviet threat, was still required to keep world order even after the Soviet Union.

(c) Even though a reunited Germany was a much more powerful entity now, it would not be promoted in the West’s power hierarchy.

(d) In other words, the Anglo-American combine retained undiminished control on the world order, exactly as it had since 1945. In Ukraine, this is very much in the bargain.

Victory over communism was never sold as the success of democracy, human rights, freedom of thought; it was primarily a victory of market forces, unfettered capitalism. Towards this end the global media was brought into play. From the terrace of Baghdad’s Al Rasheed hotel, Peter Arnett of the CNN, brought the war into our drawing rooms. A new era in journalism had begun. One telecast divided the world into two sets of audiences: A triumphant West and the Muslim world defeated, humiliated once more.

A world thus divided was custom made to replace the Soviet threat with Islamophobia. This became the glue for western cohesion. Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Boeing were all joyous with endless wars, particularly post 9/11. This was bonanza time.

Something akin to the wild West had opened up in the media during the hunt for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. I shall never tire of repeating the image of a gun wielding Geraldo Rivera of Fox News doing a piece-to-camera that would leave all war correspondents beating their breasts for the loss of ratings to Fox.

“Come Osama, I will settle with you”, said the journalist flourishing his weapon.

Desert Storm and Afghanistan were, both, highly telegenic events. Never in history had the world seen such spectacular fire power. And what fire power. I shall always remember the fright with which I looked out of my 14th floor, Al Mansour Hotel window. Sounds were terrifying, at immeasurable decibel levels. They were like a giant rattle amplified a million times.

A range of scripts were kept in readiness for the new global media: it would be required for the colour revolution as in Ukraine in November 2004. Protests in the maiden would be blown up by the media. Television would create the impression of a nation in grip of a revolution. The effort has continued to be refined until the latest proxy war the West is fighting with Putin, with the bravery of Ukrainians as fodder. It is breathtaking media management. We are supposed to believe that Lviv and Mariupol and a series of cities are under relentless Russian bombing. Yet the determined western media persons pop up miraculously for the mandated piece to camera. A besieged Volodymyr Zelensky in army casuals, exhorts his people every evening. Not just that, from a country bombed to smithereens (we are told), he demonstrates a high level of media savvy: he has addressed every European parliament. Is he in a war zone or is he where President Biden met members of his cabinet – Warsaw? It would be a malicious rumour to float: that the war hero is in an American embassy which has been transformed into a TV studio. From here the war can be fought until Putin is on his knees. Wait for the dust to settle as it is likely to soon. A treasure trove of truths will rattle down the cupboard.

The western media will pick up the thread where it left it before the war and resume.

(Saeed Naqvi is a senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)

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Photo Courtesy: Volodymyr Zelensky’s Twitter Feed