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UK media approaching ‘mea culpa’ moment on Russia

Bryan MacDonald is a journalist, writer, broadcaster and teacher. He wrote for Irish Independent and Daily Mail. He has also frequently appeared on RTE and Newstalk in Ireland as well as RT.

Published time: August 11, 2014 11:27
A Ukrainian serviceman sits on a military armoured vehicle near Donetsk August 9, 2014. (Reuters/Valentyn Ogirenko)

One of the more intriguing and appealing features of Catholicism is confession. This basically means that, in the eyes of Rome, any error or crime, no matter how profound, can be exorcised once a believer receives absolution from a priest.

The media has something similar, except it’s known as ‘mea culpa’ culture. Essentially, it allows them to print and broadcast any amount of utter codswallop and then later hold their hands up and admit: “We got it wrong.” A good example of this phenomenon is the case of The New York Times and Saddam Hussein’s non-existent “weapons of mass destruction.”

From around the summer of 2002 to the same time in 2003, the Big Apples’ paper-of-record gave the impression that the late Iraqi leader possessed a frightening arsenal of the stuff. Indeed, readers could have deduced that he had micro chemical weapons in his pockets, such was the torrent of disinformation. Of course, it later transpired that he didn’t have any WMD, anywhere, micro or otherwise. He also had nothing to do with the September 2001 attacks on New York despite the fact that 70 percent of Americans were so fooled by their media's mendacity that they believed he did.

This was, obviously, extremely dangerous nonsense because the NYT is perceived as a trusted organ of truth and its whoppers greatly assisted President George W Bush’s efforts to lead the USA to war on a completely false pretext. Sadly, the repercussions of that conflict are being felt again today as the unfortunate country slides into a horrible civil war, and President Obama dithers in the way only he can.

In July 2004, the NYT published a groveling apology and later parted ways with the reporter responsible. This was bit late for Saddam, who was by then in the custody of Iraq's new rulers, and also for the hundreds of thousands who suffered violent deaths in the illegal war.

Russia has been suffering from similar vilification and falsity in much of the Western mainstream press since the US and EU ignited a needless civil war in Ukraine. I’ve already covered in a previous dispatch how the UK media managed to charge, try and sentence President Putin within hours of the appalling MH17 disaster - “Putin’s missile” as the internationally little-known court of ‘The Sun’ in London adjudicated. Never mind that there was no evidence. In fact, nearly a month on and there’s still not a shred of proof connecting the rebels to the tragedy - much less the Kremlin. But don’t hold your breath waiting for a UK paper to lead with “Obama’s missile” splash when reporting on atrocities in Gaza - despite the fact that we know the USA arms Israel.

The language used in Ukraine is telling. Let’s just think about the term ‘pro-Russian separatists’, which is almost uniformly used to describe the rebels in eastern Ukraine. Given that they already held a referendum declaring themselves independent from Ukraine, and Moscow didn’t dive in to annex the territory, what exactly makes them ‘pro-Russian?’ Would ‘anti-Kiev rebels’ or ‘East Ukraine separatists’ not be more apt? Does the same Western media call the forces fighting the Syrian government ‘Pro-Saudi rebels’ or did they call the Croatian separatists in 1990s Yugoslavia ‘pro-German separatists?’ (Germany was the primary backer of Croat independence). No, they don’t and they didn’t. So why ‘pro-Russian separatists?’

When the media gets it wrong, they usually wait a few years (or even decades) before issuing the ‘mea culpa’, but it seems the UK media this week is beginning to realize that it backed the wrong horse in Ukraine and is in early apology mode. Let’s be very clear here - the three newspapers which form UK political opinion on external affairs are the The Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph and The (Sunday and daily) Times. The Sun plays a huge role domestically, but not on extraneous matters as the red-top doesn't prioritize foreign coverage.

A polyclinic damaged during shelling of Donetsk by the Ukrainian military. (RIA Novosti)

This weekend, The Telegraph (which is effectively the ruling Tory party’s in-house journal) admitted that the EU paid protestors at the Maidan rallies. This clashes with a previously widely-held UK media viewpoint that Russia was paying protestors on the other side of Ukraine’s divide. I have to admit, I sputtered into my cornflakes when I first read it but I can clearly see where this new stance is headed. The ‘mea culpa’ is beginning to form a head of steam in double-quick time.

"Scarcely reported here have been the billions of dollars and euros the West has been more or less secretly pouring into Ukraine to promote the cause: not just to prop up its bankrupt government and banking system, but to fund scores of bogus “pro-European” groups making up what the EU calls “civil society”.

“One of my readers heard from a Ukrainian woman working in Britain that her husband back home earns €200 a month as an electrician, but is paid another €200 a month, from a German bank, to join demonstrations such as the one last March when hundreds of thousands – many doubtless entirely sincere – turned out in Kiev to chant ‘Europe, Europe’ at Baroness Ashton, the EU’s visiting ‘foreign minister’,” wrote columnist Christopher Booker.

Booker went on to quote the author Richard North who has reported that the EU’s own ‘financial transparency’ website proves that 496 million euros has been given to these ‘pro-European’ groups, who have been presented by a generally pliant Western media as harmless NGO’s driven by people-power.

Meanwhile, over at The Daily Mail, the respected Peter Hitchens has also been drawing from North’s research, writing about “how astonishing the amounts the EU have given to Ukraine are.”

He continues: “Rebuilding schools and nurseries and providing school buses, all helpfully emblazoned with EU stars, paying for doctors and then rebuilding agricultural storage plants - it’s amazing that any one person could be found to vote against closer partnership with the EU after that.”

Of course, certain elements of the UK media are extremely anti-EU and it could plausibly suit them to disparage the Brussels’ monolith whatever the reason. However, I detect a trend as the stridently pro-Kiev rhetoric of the early Ukrainian civil-war is suddenly tempered by a realization that a large amount of apologies will one day be due.

It’s not just in the UK; the leading German business newspaper, Handelsblatt, also broke ranks at the weekend with the chief editor, Gabor Steingart, launching a stunning attack on NATO/EU policy in Ukraine under the headline “Der Irrweg des Westens/The aberration of the West”.

Regarding Russia being used as a bogeyman by the NATO press, he cautions: “Even the idea that economic pressure and political isolation would bring Russia to its knees was not really thought all the way through. Even if we could succeed: what good would Russia be on its knees?

“How can you want to live together in the European house with a humiliated people whose elected leadership is treated like a pariah and whose citizens you might have to support in the coming winter?”

Emphasizing that the current escalation harms German interests, Steingart continues, “There are no recorded cases in which countries under sanction apologized for their behavior and were obedient ever after. On the contrary: collective movements start in support of the sanctioned, as is the case today in Russia.

“The country was hardly ever more unified behind their president than now. This could almost lead you to think that the rabble-rousers of the West are on the payroll of the Russian secret service,” he adds.

I don’t think that the ‘rabble-rousers’ are Russian agents. Nor do I believe they are American or British proxies. They are merely media operators looking for a ‘bad guy’ and, in the absence of Bin Laden and Saddam, Russia seems to fit the bill right now.

Amid all this lunacy, there is also the re-emergence of aged ‘Cold Warriors’ who last had a day in the sun when the Soviet Union was coughing its dying breaths. After years of being ignored, they are back in (temporary) vogue and determined to make their voices heard, no matter how humungous a time-warp they are stuck in. Indeed, 86-year-old Zbigniew Brzezinski, last seen arming the mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the 1980's, has re-appeared like a scarier version of The Simpson's Mr Burns. His Afghan policy was so successful that it created Al Qaeda so what could possibly go wrong by following his advice on Russia?

Below them, there is a younger generation of ‘Russia experts’ who largely chose Russian or Slavic topics in their academic years, and have been lifelong non-entities as the region became a fringe topic in a West obsessed with problems in the Islamic world.

As a consequence of an abrupt (probably fleeting) interest in Ukraine, they have been brought in from the ether and are determined to milk the moment they’ve spent their adult lives building up to. Previously niche authors, published on obscure websites, suddenly find themselves called on to write big-time magazine cover stories demonizing Putin to fit the new ‘bogeyman’ narrative and they are delirious with the acclaim.

Others who, until recently, could not command the attention of a few drunks at a Washington or London bar for their Russian rantings are overcome with joy at being invited on CNN/Sky News/NBC etc. to discuss their favorite topic. Basically, they are all partying like it is 1989. One has even taken to re-tweeting messages calling him a 'rock-star' for his devotion to baloney – I have met a good few rock stars in my time and none of them droned on about Russian politics, I can assure you. If they had, they would have been bores, not rock stars and rock stars are, generally, far from boring, except maybe Bono.

However, last orders at their little shindig seems to be approaching as Western popular media edges towards its ‘mea culpa moment’ and editors realize that backing the wrong horse, no matter how generous the odds, has only ever made the punters poorer.

“And the whole damn place goes crazy twice
and it’s once for the devil and once for Christ
but the boss don’t like these dizzy heights
we’re busted in the blinding lights, busted in the blinding lights
of closing time.”

Leonard Cohen - Closing Time.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.