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My 2017 book, Western Mainstream Media and the Ukraine Crisis: A Study in Conflict Propaganda (Routledge), chronicles the absurdly one-sided tunnel vision of Western mainstream media reporting on the 2014 “Euromaidan” coup d’etat in Kiev. This toppled a duly elected, democratic regime (albeit doubtlessly corrupt — we are talking about Ukraine), one that was scheduled to present itself, again, to due electoral process within only months, and forcibly replaced it with one that was deeply unpopular with most people in eastern Ukraine as well as with a good many in western Ukraine. The administrations of the ensuing coup regime and its successors under Presidents Poroshenko and Zelenskiy, were far more corrupt, incompetent, and undemocratic (as in intimidation of the press, press closures, persecution, and assassination of dissidents, etc.), than their predecessor. They could claim “legitimacy” only by banning major political parties that opposed them. They were unduly compliant with the fascist militia that had provided the muscle behind the 2014 street demonstrations and that had fired on and killed dozens of protestors in an effort to smear Yanukovych’s security forces. They even absorbed some of these, such as the Azov battalion, into the army.

All this happened, we are told by Western mainstream media (WMM), because the people of Ukraine yearned to be members of the EU and of NATO. The majority at the time were not in favor of NATO membership, rightly regarding it as a threat to their security. There was genuine disappointment among Euromaidan protestors that duly elected President Yanukovych who at one time was moving towards acceptance of an EU package of economic aid was, in my view, rightly advised to go with a competing Russian package which had far fewer strings and would have been more respectful of Ukrainian sovereignty than the neoliberal agenda of the EU leadership would have tolerated.

The 2014 coup leaders were aided and endorsed by the USA which invested $5 billion in regime-change shenanigans while another $5 billion was provided by intervener-extraordinaire, George Soros. Xenophobic in spoken comments and legislative intent towards Russian language, culture, and media, the coup quickly sparked counter-protests, as in Odessa, that were put down in massacres perpetrated by fascists. The situation so terrified the largely pro-Russian population of Crimea that they almost immediately held and passed a referendum in favor of secession from Kiev. They had never shown much happiness with being part of an independent Ukraine in the first place, but this was foisted on them in the turmoil of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Crimeans passed a second referendum that agreed to a request for annexation by Russia. WMM claims that the referenda were somehow catapulted by Russian “little green men” are propaganda. Russia had perfectly legal internationally-acknowledged entitlement to use of the Black Sea port of Sevastopol and to maintenance of many thousands of troops in its defense. All valid polls have since indicated a high level of popular support for transition of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukrainian to Russian control, with the notable exception of an element of the mainly Islamic Tatar minority. In similar fashion, the pro-Russian or Russian language speakers in the oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk were so spooked by the new Kiev regime that almost immediately they declared themselves people’s republics. They made no formal request to be annexed by Russia, nor did Russia encourage such a development, knowing that the majority aspiration in the Donbass was for greater autonomy within the absurdly centralized political structure of Ukraine (given the distinctive cultural differences between West and East), an autonomy that was promised them by the international Minsk agreements of 2014-2015 but never honored by Kiev.

The 2014 coup seemed of less-than-shattering significance for global security at the time when compared with western backed jihad in Syria, the recent western destruction of Libya and the continuing western occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. One might indeed have marveled at the sheer intensity of WMM conformity to a single narrative of Euromaidan, even more cravenly uniform than the narrative of conflict with the Soviet Union at so many points throughout the Cold War from 1947 to 1991 but, yes, reminiscent of Western fury at Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979-1989. The West had found this latter event so morally repugnant that without apparent embarrassment it staged its own invasion of the country in 2001 (staying on two decades in place of Russia’s one, before departing in disgrace in 2021) on grounds not much less tenuous than those of Russia in 1979.

Tenuous, why? Because the West had at that time (late fall of 2001) conducted no public investigation into the causes of 9/11. There were plenty of assertions but no evidence. When Taliban leaders asked for evidence of Osama Bin Laden’s culpability they were ignored. The perpetrators of 9/11 were mainly Saudi. There was a tenuous and brittle relationship between Al Qaeda and the ruling Taliban. The Taliban would very likely have fallen anyway, without any kind of outside intervention. Taliban leadership (which a few years earlier had talked amicably about oil and gas transit deals with the Clinton administration) was largely the creation of US-ally Pakistan and its notorious intelligence service (ISI), challenged as always by their perceived need to manage the Pashtun people who straddled the British-imposed Durand Line between western Pakistan and eastern and southern Afghanistan. The USA’s impulse to punish an entire nation for what, at best, were the actions of a small group of radicalized Arab visitors was hardly a proportionate response, but it was a relatively cheap, highly visible action against a pathetically under-armed adversary.

As any reasonably smart follower of world affairs well knows, there is a long list of unanswered questions and doubts about 9/11 that we can only begin to unpack by means of a much more disciplined, impartial, and international inquiry, than any so far conducted (there have been two: the 9/11 Commission of 2004, and a prior Congressional study that reported in December 2002), of a kind that the USA seems utterly incapable. Whatever official inquiries there have been into 9/11 are riddled with problems. The facts that (1) the alleged major perpetrator, Osama Bin Laden (whose evidence was clearly too dangerous for the USA to want anyone to hear it), was murdered in a shadowy assault in Pakistan; (2) the evidence of a second major alleged culprit, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) was the product of 183 water-boarding sessions administered in a single month and presumably of other atrocities in his two decades of incarceration in Guantanamo; (3) and after twenty one years, no leading perpetrator has been “brought to justice,” as they say, in a military let alone civilian court, is an outrage greater than some of the worst outrages of even medieval times.

None of this has every really bothered WMM. Their indifference is a story much older than the “war on terror,” but follows on a succession of extraordinary lapses and failures in the period 2001-2021 that has finally brought home to many media scholars, such as myself, that the so-called political economy of media and propaganda, ably outlined by Herman and Chomsky in 1989, badly needed updating and retuning with respect not simply to the multiple ways in which intelligence services manipulate media owners and journalists (already evident in three 1970s Senate and Congressional hearings on CIA uses and abuses of media), but also to a much broader understanding of the propaganda apparatuses and their techniques at the disposal of all governments in the digital age, including the supposed “democracies” of the Western world.

In the current phase of the crisis that I began writing about in my 2017 book, it is more than abundantly clear that WMM are capable of only one point of view, not that of truth, but of the neoliberal orthodoxy spouted and protected by Washington — not so much for the preservation of capitalism nor of democracy, but in the interests of US hegemony as outlined in the Wolfowitz doctrine of 1992 and the Bush doctrine of 2002. These commit the USA to world dominance, and they grant US leaders the right to preemptive warfare against any emerging rival power or alliance. Not so strangely, perhaps, WMM seem reluctant to attach any significance to this.

But it is amazing, isn’t it, that the presumptions of a right to global hegemony are so self-righteously emblazoned in the heart of the US ruling class that its members think nothing not only of commissioning studies of and publicizing their future war plans, but also boasting the pretexts they could enlist to justify the wars that they would start or (they hope) provoke others into starting, all with a view to regime-change in alignment with Western interests. This was the case with the RAND corporation’s publication of its 2019 report on “Extending Russia” (meaning, crippling Russia) which showed how the West would use Ukraine for this very purpose. 2019 was the year Zelenskiy came to power in Ukraine, laughingly based on an electoral promise to achieve peace with Russia. Had he been serious, and less easily cowered by the threats of Ukraine’s fascists, he could easily have done this simply by talking with Russia about removing Ukrainian roadblocks to implementation of the Minsk agreements.

My own and others’ in-depth and published studies of Western interventions in Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Ukraine, to name but a few, have led me unreservedly to the conclusion that in coverage of conflicts and, in particular, conflicts that lie close to the center of Washington hegemony (in whose service the deep states of its bigger lapdogs such as UK, NATO and the EU, Australia and New Zealand etc. appear chained to an almost inexplicable degree), mainstream media are suffused with propaganda, half-truths and lies. This is because these media are not independent and “free.” Never forget to consider whose freedom is at stake when we are talking about freedom of a corporatized, oligopolistic press system integral to the centers of political, financial, and cultural power. They are subject, in all manner of direct and indirect ways, to the pleasure of their respective national deep states. There are contributory alternative explanations (e.g. news “churnelling,” and the economic challenges that media confront in the digital age), and there are areas of news which are less compromised because less existentially important to the survival of the ruling class. But the subterranean influences of the intelligence agencies are among the most important factors to take into account in this context. As time has passed, more evidence has come to light as to how they exercise the influence they do.

It is through atrocity propaganda that Western propagandists and their lapdog WMM most succeed in enraging and, therefore, hooking the support of their pathetically under-informed and confused masses. Many of the most disturbing atrocities that Western media attribute to Russia in the present conflict (and of course they almost never report on Ukrainian atrocities against Russia such as, as I write in mid-June 2022, the indiscriminate Ukrainian shelling of Donetsk civilian populations) are speculative and/or fake.

To any disinterested observer it is clear there exist all kinds of evidentiary problems with the allegations of Russian atrocities, so many of them sourced to Ukrainian authorities, as in Bucha, for example, where bodies lying in streets were rather more likely to have been bodies of supposed “collaborators,” murdered by Ukrainian security forces. Or that satellite photos of alleged mass graves of murdered Ukrainians near Mariupol were more likely photos of a normal graveyard where one investigative journalist could find no local reports of recent, unusual activity. Or that in some cases of shelled public buildings whose destruction should have caused large numbers of casualties it transpired they had been vacated in advance. Or that hospitals that had been attacked were being used by Ukrainian forces. Or that apparently pitiless Russian obstruction of the flight of civilians from encircled towns through humanitarian corridors was the result of entrenched Ukrainian forces using civilians as body shields. Or that Russian troops had committed mass rapes, a claim from a senior Ukrainian authority who was later dismissed by the Ukrainian RADA (I note that provisional Amnesty and UN evidence suggests Russian culpability, but both organizations have been compromised by partisan sources in comparable circumstances in the past). Or that two hundred bodies were found in a basement in Mariupol, even though the only evidence was the say-so of a displaced mayor who had already fled the city: how would he know and why assume, even if true, that the perpetrators were Russian?

This is not to say that atrocities do not happen in war. Sadly, they do, and it would be more than surprising if they did not happen in Ukraine, committed by both or by all sides. But even when there is evidence of such atrocities in the case of Russian forces there is no evidence that these are the result of top-down decisions made at the very highest levels. I should make an exception for the very act of Russia’s invasion, but my own reading of the evidence is that the invasion was provoked. It was provoked by five things in particular: (1) previous, massive and frequent eastward expansion of NATO in contravention of assurances given by Washington to Soviet President Gorbachev who, in return, had conceded German reunification; (2) NATO negligence in failing to meaningfully engage with strong, periodic, Russian representations of concern and warnings about NATO expansion; (3) aggressive annual NATO war games along Russia’s borders in partnership with East European nations including Ukraine; (4) NATO’s apparent lack of interest in the continuing failure to implement the Minsk accords; (5) Ukraine’s 8-year war against the people’s republics of the Donbass, at a total cost of 14,000 lives; and (6) considerable escalation of Ukrainian artillery attacks against the people’s republics in the weeks prior to Russia’s invasion, as confirmed by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Russia could have had no reasonable doubt that Western powers sought the disintegration of the current Russian regime and of the Russian federation for the purposes of achieving far more privileged access to Russian wealth and resources and using the destruction of Russia as a major stepping-stone towards equivalent aggression towards China. If a party knows that another party intends to destroy it, the moral case against pre-emptive defense is moot.

Top-down atrocities against civilian populations are common in Western wars. As is in evidence almost any time that Israel takes totally disproportionate action against the peoples of the Gaza strip for crude rocket attacks in retaliation for Israeli occupation that at worst take few lives and cause little damage. Most recently, in 2021, Israel killed up to 192 Palestinian civilians and injured hundreds more over 11 days of intense fighting. 290 were killed in 2018 and many more in previous atrocities. US and NATO forces have raked entire cities at close quarters in Iraq (think Baghdad, Fallujah), Syria (think Raqqa), Kosovo, Libya and Somalia, all without accountability or sanction. Lies are easy to invent, especially in war and especially if media can get away with simply reporting assertions that are made by interested parties, such as “Ukrainian authorities” that nobody bothers or has the courage to verify for themselves. In the fog of war, who expects anything else but lies, and yet, with headlines dripping with moral indignation emblazoned across the prestige media and on the lips of popular news-show personalities, lies are too willingly and irresponsibly believed. Western mainstream media are clearly not friends of a properly informed citizenry.

(Featured Image: “Another control room” by Loozrboy is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.)

Author

  • Oliver Boyd-Barrett is Professor Emeritus (Journalism and Public Relations) from Bowling Green State University, Ohio and (Communication) from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. His first book, The International News Agencies, was published by Constable/Sage in 1980, and its French sister, Le Traffic des Nouvelles (with Michael Palmer) by Alain Moreau, in 1981. Since 2000 he has focused on issues of war and propaganda. Recent titles include Hollywood and the CIA (Routledge), Media Imperialism (Sage), Western Mainstream Media and the Ukraine Crisis (Routledge), Russiagate and Propaganda (Routledge), Media Imperialism: Continuity and Change (Rowman and Littlefield)(with Tanner Mirrlees), Conflict Propaganda in Syria (Routledge). Two current projects deal with Russiagate: Aftermath of a Hoax (Palgrave), and Afghanistan: Aftermath of Imperial Occupation (provisional).