Features Australia

Comical Ali gets the last laugh

Western mainstream media is a joke

28 May 2022

9:00 AM

28 May 2022

9:00 AM

In the past few years the Western mainstream media has exhibited signs of operating in a parallel universe of its own make-believe reality. One symptom of this is the rent-free space in their heads occupied by Donald Trump. They were so discombobulated by his 2016 victory that they spent the next four years trying to bring him down by all means possible, fair or foul. Exhibit A in the sins of commission is the Russia collusion hoax, which may yet see a denouement of sorts with the John Durham investigation and indictments. Exhibit B in the sins of omission is their silence on the Hunter Biden laptop story on the eve of the 2020 election in a successful effort to protect Joe Biden. The result is a drip-by-drip erosion of media credibility and trust, as documented in the Rasmussen poll discussed last week in these pages by James Allan. With 80 per cent of Americans believing ‘fake news’ is a serious problem and 58 per cent that the media are ‘truly the enemy of the people’, Houston, we have a problem.

In 2002 Tom Regan warned in the Christian Science Monitor, ‘When contemplating war, beware of babies in incubators’, referring to the story of 15-year-old ‘Nayirah’. In October 1990, she told the US Congress she had witnessed babies being taken from incubators by occupying Iraqi soldiers, in a Kuwaiti hospital where she worked as a volunteer nurse, and left on the floor to die. After the liberation of Kuwait, on 15 March the (US) ABC’s John Martin proved the story false and on 6 January 1992, the New York Times outed Nayirah (her real name) as the daughter of Kuwait’s ambassador.

By background, interests and habit, my daily news coverage spans many different sites from several countries. The differences in their reporting on Ukraine has been educational and brings to mind the old saw about a Roman reporter’s account after witnessing Jesus walking on water: ‘Jesus can’t swim’. Wars are grim events that take a terrible toll on lives and wellbeing. Often they give rise to black humour – if I’m still permitted to say this – as a coping mechanism. Occasionally they produce unintentional humour. In the annals of wartime humour and TV coverage of wars, one name that has earned eternal fame is ‘Comical Ali’, also known as ‘Baghdad Bob’. During the 2003 war, Iraq’s Information Minister Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf provided light comic relief in the daily news bulletins with bombastic claims that were increasingly detached from the visual reality being beamed live on screens. Even as US tanks rolled into Baghdad, he insisted that US troops were being destroyed and faced imminent defeat. A compilation of his greatest hits can be found on YouTube.

His Western equivalents today would have us believe that Vladimir Putin – hitherto commonly described as a strategic genius – is sick, heavily medicated, mad and fed falsehoods by frightened sycophants, while Joe Biden is mentally and physically fit and in full command of his faculties and policy. Their one-eyed framing of the war depicts Russia as bad, the West as good; Putin as evil, if not Hitler and Stalin reincarnated, and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky as a superhero, a latter-day Churchill. Almost all coverage falls into one of three categories: the heroism and valour of Ukrainians; a Russian column, tank or ship destroyed; and Russian atrocities. Although all true, this is not the whole truth. There is a Russian side to the story, and it is wrong in principle and risky in practice to pretend otherwise.

On 16 May, for example, the headline story on the BBC’s coverage of the war was ‘Ukraine troops reach Russian border near Kharkiv – Governor’. The story it referenced can be found online. But India’s online daily The Print ran a front page story saying ‘Russia captures villages east of Izyum, surrounds trapped Ukrainian soldiers in Mariupol’. That was just the teaser for the blockbuster of the coverage of next day’s news concerning the fall of the strategic port city of Mariupol in southern Ukraine that had been under siege since 2 March. On 19 May, the Voice of America reported Russia’s defence ministry as saying a total of 1,730 Ukrainian soldiers had surrendered at the Azovstal steel plant, the last holdout in the beleaguered city. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it was registering them as prisoners of war. This created cognitive dissonance with the one-dimensional framing of Ukrainian successes and Russian defeats. The fall of Mariupol and the surrender and capture of Ukrainian fighters on the 17th was reported using words taken from Kyiv’s talking points as a successful evacuation. To discover the true state of affairs, readers had to go beyond the headlines, actually peruse the text of the story and even then often read between the lines. The story was headlined thus by the BBC: ‘Mariupol: Hundreds of besieged Ukrainian soldiers evacuated’, only for the report to inform readers that the fighters had been ‘evacuated’ to the Russian-held towns of Novoazovsk and Olenivka. The Washington Post took the same angle in its headline: ‘Ukraine ends bloody battle for Mariupol; Azovstal fighters evacuated’ to Russian-controlled destinations. The Guardian’s headline was ‘Hundreds of Ukrainian troops evacuated from Mariupol steelworks after 82-day assault’. It too then gave the details of where they had been ‘evacuated’ to and added a statement from the Ukrainian military that ‘the soldiers defending the steel plant had “performed their combat task” and now the main goal was to save the lives of personnel’. That was also the cue for the CNN headline: ‘The battle for Mariupol nears end as Ukraine declares “combat mission” over’ and The New York Times was the same: ‘Azovstal steelworks evacuated as Ukraine ends combat mission in Mariupol’. This was followed by an unexpected editorial on 19 May on the ‘extraordinary costs and serious dangers’ of the escalating conflict in which ‘a negotiated peace may require Ukraine to make some hard decisions’.

Indeed it may. Wars are complex issues with blame shared among all sides, albeit not equally distributed. They are unpredictable humanitarian tragedies and can lead to perverse outcomes including, in this case, the likely growth in Nato’s land borders with Russia with Finland’s and Sweden’s accession. In a proxy war between the world’s two biggest nuclear powers, a dispassionate analysis of the course, costs, risks, victories and setbacks is imperative. Instead we are once again infantilised and spoon-fed propaganda. Russians may not have much choice but surely we of the free world deserve better.

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