My weekly Guardian column is here:
Reading the global and Australian media recently, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Russian president Vladimir Putin is a dangerous demagogue who threatens the security of the world after his country’s involvement in Ukraine and Crimea. How many times have we seen those infamous shirtless photographs of Putin looking menacing and comical? Are we tired yet of journalists and commentators pontificating on a so-called “new cold war”?
Australia’s most popular news website, news.com.au, published a long article last week – pushed as the lead story of the hour – that was the perfect distillation of this disturbing yet predictable trend. It opened with a cute piece of comedy: “We know he loves to strut around shirtless, pose shamelessly for Kremlin PR photographs and invade former Soviet republics.” What a monster! What a brute!
Over many words, peppered with Buzzfeed-style images, the piece reminded readers that Putin was a former member of the KGB who carefully crafts his “macho” image and loves to “butterfly swim through chilly lakes”. Readers would have discovered almost nothing about Putin and Russian attitudes towards global affairs, but such stories would presumably please the White House, which is desperate to frame Putin as the archetypal enemy of the 21st century. Such a message grows from the belief that “our” political and business leaders should be treated with far more respect than non-western figures ripe for one-dimensional portrayals.
After all, it’s far easier to smugly ridicule Putin and his friends while believing our own media is far more inquisitive of power. The evidence for this, however, is in short supply. Too often, the issue of US “prestige” is reflected in comments by journalists who are alleged to be independent from the state department line. And when was the last time a self-described serious outlet mocked Barack Obama, Tony Abbott or David Cameron for their choice of clothing?
Of course, nobody can doubt the brutality of Putin’s Russia. From state-sponsored homophobia – US writer Jeff Sharlet’s recent shocking essay in GQ magazine revealed the desperation of being gay in the nation – to anti-democratic measures against non-violent dissent, Putin has constructed an authoritarian state that tolerates little opposition. This should all be loudly condemned and challenged, and there can be no excuses for any of it. But Washington, with a record of flagrantly breaching international law over Iraq, Afghanistan, drones, extraordinary rendition and torture, might be hypocritical when denouncing potential Russian breaches of law.
The media coverage in Australia (and much of the world) over Ukraine has also too often ignored that state’s historically close ties to Russia. While there is a younger Ukrainian population today who craves greater integration with Europe and its more liberal ways, the idea that pro-Moscow attitudes are only held by older generations is false. We should also always question the focus of media coverage around high profile and reporter-friendly events, protests or even riots. Astute journalists who reported around the Arab Spring should know that the main story is often far away from the image-friendly masses in squares, however undeniably vital they are to capture.
Even more glaringly, the possible role of neo-conservative doctrine within the State Department in undermining a democratically elected (if thuggish) government has been absent from local coverage. Only a minority of journalists have seriously examined the possible financial reasons for Russia and western meddling in Ukraine, with the local currency diving against the US dollar in the last months. “This is jolly good news only for disaster capitalism vultures”, wrote the astute Pepe Escobar in Asia Times. Hear anything about this in the mainstream media? No, me neither (though I’m happy to be corrected).
The Australian newspaper, fond of talking tough over war and peace and instructing our leaders to invade and occupy other nations when America comes asking, praised Australian prime minister Tony Abbott for “taking the right approach” and chastising Russia. “The west needs a fundamental reappraisal of relations with the Kremlin”, boomed the paper.
One of the more revealing attributes of western media chest-beating has been the outrage over the RT (formerly Russia Today) TV station, a Russian-government outlet. When two anchors condemned Moscow’s moves in Ukraine and Crimea, both women were praised as truth-tellers. RT, of course, offers a Kremlin-backed narrative, and we can judge it accordingly, but the criticism of the channel in the west presumes that our media is so much freer and open when analysing war. How quickly we forget the ways in which CNN, as just one corporate example, makes editorial decisions which could be questioned when considered in light of their sponsorship model.
The people of Ukraine and Crimea are suffering and face years of uncertainty over their fate. An accountable and fearless media class would investigate the reality of both American and Russian meddling in nations that directly benefit their strategic and financial positions.