Between imaginary threats and hysteria: How Russia dominates Western headlines

Russia’s actions, both imaginary and real, recently became front page news, as the western MSM reported on Vladimir Putin’s plans to nuke Europe or about Russian warships in the English Channel. One UK magazine even dedicated an entire issue to Putin.

However, the Spectator, a British conservative weekly with a total circulation of about 71,700 copies, did not just engage in a Russia-bashing exercise so characteristic of the UK tabloids lately, when it came out with a cover featuring the Russian president.

The cover of the magazine, one of the oldest continuously published magazines in English, plays on an iconic Soviet WWII poster, but instead of Mother Russia calling on its sons to go to arms against the Nazi invaders it features the Russian president apparently leading an army of broadcasting dishes headed by RT at a media offensive. “Putin vs the world: He's winning, in propaganda and on the ground,” the cover proclaims.

The issue itself contains two long articles that that partly contradict each other. A piece by Paul Wood elaborates on a usual western Russophobic fear – the possibility of Russia invading the Baltic States and plunging the continent into a war. It thoroughly describes fears of the Baltic States as well as those of Sweden, Norway and Poland concerning potential “Russian threat.”

The article refers to a number of sources ranging from Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite’s statements, in which she called Russian Iskander missiles deployment in Kaliningrad region an “open demonstration of power and aggression against not [just] the Baltic states but against European capitals.”

Though in fact, the Russian missiles were deployed to the Kaliningrad region as part of an exercise that came as a response to the NATO drills across the border.

Then it goes on to describe what it calls “a future history novel” called 2017: War with Russia by a retired British general, Richard Shirreff and mentions a study by the Rand Corporation, which says that “a Russian invasion of Estonia and-Latvia would be complete in as little as 36 hours.”

The article is also constantly interspersed with horror stories about the “old KGB headquarters in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius” and claims that “one-third of [Lithuania’s] population killed or deported to Siberia during the-Soviet occupation.”

It is West that ‘worries,’ not Russia

However, the second article, a piece by Rod Liddle, demonstrates a rare example of common sense as its author asks what would happen if western politicians go too far and actually imagine a perceived Russian threat.

“Today, when some deranged Tory MP clambers to his feet and demands we start shooting down Russian jets, it is evident to everyone that he is not joking, merely idiotic and dangerous. But it is a gung-ho idiocy which is catching. Every day sees a ratcheting up of the rhetoric against Russia,” Liddle says, adding that “it is our side that worries me, not theirs,” referring to the UK and Russia.

The article goes on to reveal western hypocrisy as it draws attention to the fact that the West is fiercely criticizing Russia for its actions in Syria but now plans to do pretty much the same thing in the Iraqi city of Mosul.

“What we have done in the name of dippy, well-meaning, liberal evangelism has cost far more lives than can be laid at the door of the Russkies and Vladimir Putin,” Liddle wrote, referring to the actions of the US and its allies in the Middle East, ranging from 2003 invasion to Iraq to bombings of Libya in 2011.

Western hypocrisy also spreads to the media sphere, the author of the article says, as he mentions a recent scandal with NatWest bank that chose to stop rendering services to RT UK due to apparent British government involvement to silence a dissenting media outlet.

“There is indeed direct government involvement. We try to harass and hopefully close down a broadcaster because it is putting out stuff with which our government disagrees,” he said, stressing that “the problem, then, is not that they are spreading misinformation, but that Russia Today is spreading truthful information which the UK government finds extremely unhelpful.”

Mass hysteria

The balanced approach The Spectator demonstrated in its coverage of Russia is something new to the western MSM, which usually prefers to just hysterically scream about Putin and how he and Russia threaten the entire world.

Putin has virtually replaced Mike Pence as Donald Trump’s running mate in the US presidential election, if you believe Hillary Clinton’s campaign. On Monday, the Clinton camp released a video explaining that.

A recent tour of duty performed by a Russian naval group also provoked an excessively nervous reaction in the West as several European countries prepared to intercept the group “if necessary” while the British daily The Sun came with a headline “THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING: Vladimir Putin’s nuclear warships pictured steaming towards the English Channel as Royal Navy prepares to scramble fleet.”

Meanwhile, Reuters assumed that Russia “deployed all of the Northern fleet and much of the Baltic fleet in the largest surface deployment since the end of the Cold War,” even though the group included only a part of the Russian Northern Fleet.

Even stranger, the Daily Star reported that Putin is apparently preparing to nuke Europe based on rumors claiming that Russian officials and their families living abroad have been “urgently recalled” home in anticipation of “World War III.”

The BBC went even further and aired a TV show demonstrating a vision of the future compiled by “western strategists” in which Russia invades Latvia and then launches a nuclear strike on the UK.

The ongoing hysteria about Putin stirs up readers’ interest in Russia and makes it “a good selling subject” for the western media, Freddy Gray, The Spectator deputy editor, told RT, adding that the West’s overreaction to any Russia’s action is based on “some deep psychic need for an enemy, which Putin is filling very neatly for us at the moment.”

Meanwhile, the chairman of Britain's oldest conservative think-tank, the Bow Group, Ben Harris-Quinney, warned that the biased coverage of Russia in the Western media can have dangerous consequences.

“The idea of World War III does sell newspapers and magazines. And is often the topic of Hollywood films,” he said.

However, he noticed that “something has changed in the last year of two, in which I would describe as a sleepwalk towards war or, certainly, conflict with Russia, which can be a very dangerous side effect of this sort of coverage.”

“The question is how do we row back from this position? How do we engage with Russia in a way that isn’t fuelling aggression?”

‘Russia can be blamed for every evil’

Ellis Cashmore, a sociology professor at Aston University, Birmingham, told RT that while he believes “hysteria” is a term too strong, Russia has indeed become a universal scapegoat in the MSM narrative.

“It’s a growing sense that Russia can be blamed for almost every evil in the world at the moment. There has been this cultural shift practically since Ukraine,” Cashmore noted. He added that Russia-bashing has continued through the Rio Olympics and spread to coverage of the conflict in Syria. 

Cashmore says he experienced implications from a biased attitude toward Russia first-hand when he, as a media analyst and an independent commentator, said that Russia was “unfairly dealt with” in the build-up to Rio Olympics and Paralympics.

“My e-mail and Twitter accounts were full of accusations that I was in a pay of Putin, I was Putin’s mouthpiece, I was in love with Russia,” Cashmore said. “This is what independent comment gets you.” 

In practice, there is no such thing as total neutrality and independence in media, Cashmore argues.

“Neutrality is impossible, it’s a Holy Grail, simply a myth. There cannot be an independent, objective, neutral position from which any media organization operates from. Any news organization is always affected by its position, history, its geographical center, the views and opinions of its owners as well as its contributors, commentators and journalists.”