Time for the western media to send real journalists to Russia & Ukraine

Bryan MacDonald
Bryan MacDonald is an Irish journalist, who is based in Russia
A woman walks amidst the debris of a damaged residential building, which according to locals was caused by recent shelling, in Donetsk, Ukraine August 2, 2015. © Alexander Ermochenko
The media’s use of young, inexperienced freelancers in Ukraine has long been a disaster waiting to happen. Last weekend’s obviously fabricated “dirty bomb” nonsense is further proof.

I’ve said it dozens of times. I’ll now repeat it. The western media needs to send qualified, experienced journalists to cover Russia and Ukraine. Especially at this particular moment, when civil war rages in the latter and the former is experiencing significant economic and foreign policy challenges.

The practice of using unskilled, amateur hacks in the region, no matter how noble their intentions, is unfair to readers and viewers. It’s also unjust to the wannabe journalists themselves. As non-staff members (many don’t even have contracts) they lack the usual protections afforded to media professionals on foreign postings. Many working in Eastern Ukraine have only rudimentary Russian-language skills and are unable to afford competent translators and security.

Newsdesks back home will always demand coverage be tailored to certain tastes. However, staff status supplies a safety blanket that empowers them to resist some of the more ludicrous suggestions - particularly those that may endanger them. Freelancers and short-term contract workers don’t have such luxuries. The former are usually paid by the article or appearance, which forces them to desperately hustle to be published. It sometimes encourages them to make up or exaggerate stories.

Decline in standards

Since Ukraine’s Maidan protests kicked off over a year and a half ago now, the western media has dipped in and out of events. Around the time of the 2014 Kiev coup and later following the MH17 disaster, most credible outlets did send competent reporters from their headquarters.

During these periods, coverage improved immeasurably. Sadly, the rest of the time they’ve used local stringers or inexperienced hacks who emerged from the Moscow and Kiev expat press. The standard of these publications is, frankly, laughable. Indeed, they’d compare most unfavorably to many local freesheet rags in the British Isles, let alone paid-for newspapers.

There are exceptions, notably the BBC, which, to be fair, has humongous resources. Indeed, the Beeb even sent their renowned foreign correspondent Fergal Keane to Donbass for an extended period. Nevertheless, the rest of the UK and American media has left the A-team at home. Instead, we are treated to the best efforts of low-paid beat hacks, many of whom are learning on the job.

Veterans of the late Soviet period and the Yeltsin years, a time when giants of journalism walked Moscow’s streets are, privately, aghast. Following a recent RT op-ed when I questioned the quality of contemporary reportage, I was amazed by how many former Moscow correspondents contacted me.

“Newspapers have no money for translators and drivers and the like. There’s a very small pool of people who can speak Russian and write reasonably well in English,” mused one former British great. An American legend observed: “They are now using the type of guys (sic) we used to use for illness and holiday cover to actually run the bureau. It’s mind-bogglingly silly. Russia is a delicate posting.”

Members of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) walk past an armoured personnel carrier (APC) of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic forces outside the village of Novolaspa in Donetsk region, Ukraine, July 19, 2015. © Alexander Ermochenko

The menace of unreality

Indeed it is. Yet, right now, Ukraine is even more sensitive. An inaccurate report from the country’s eastern war zone could cost lives or raise tensions. Or both. In February, a hoax report in the Washington Free Beacon encouraged US senators to urge the White House to act swiftly to counter a “Russian invasion” of Ukraine. There was a problem. The photographic evidence was years old and predated the Ukraine crisis. It later emerged that the photos had been supplied to Republican Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma by a Ukrainian “delegation” to the US capital.

A US senator from an earlier age, Hiram Warren Johnson, is credited as first observing that “the first casualty when war comes is truth.” During the Ukrainian civil war, Johnson’s theory has been proven countless times, by both sides. Far too often, the western media accepts Ukrainian misinformation as genuine. From estimates of hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers inside the country to, obviously inaccurate, death toll numbers. The Russian press is equally guilty of parroting hyperbolic statements from the rebel side. An infamous example was the allegation that a 10-year-old child had been crucified in Slavyansk last year.

While the various reports of Russian “invasions” can be laughed off, like this hilarious Daily Beast propaganda effort, sometimes the deliberate manipulation of facts is far more sinister. Incidentally, as an example of media negligence on Russia, the Daily Beast employs a “Russia expert” who has never lived in the country and can’t speak the language. Do the outlet’s management even countenance how insulting this is to their readers?

This weekend, in the pages of The Times of London and Newsweek, we saw exactly what happens when media concerns use greenhorn stringers in sensitive situations. Instead of sending an experienced staffer to Ukraine, both have recently collaborated with Maxim Tucker. Tucker, a former Amnesty International activist, who doesn’t hide his pro-Maidan credentials, published the same story in both. The Times version was headlined, “Ukraine rebels ‘building dirty bomb’ with Russian scientists.” Meanwhile, Newsweek went for “Ukraine Says Pro-Russia Rebels Are Building a Dirty Bomb.”

Incendiary stuff. If true, it could feasibly ignite a major diplomatic, perhaps even military, stand-off. Luckily, the story is fiction. This is blindingly obvious to anyone with even a minute comprehension of the region. Newsweek and The Times have embarrassed themselves. At the same time, Tucker has exposed himself as being seriously out his depth. Even his hack-pack colleagues are distancing themselves from this nonsense. Tucker, either knowingly or unwittingly, has fallen hook, line and sinker for Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) disinformation. Unsophisticated misinformation at that. In fact, typically Soviet in its execution, going for the big lie.

Allow me to explain why Tucker’s two, almost identical, pieces are total rubbish. Tucker himself, along with most western hacks in Ukraine, asserts that Russia is backing the east Ukrainian rebels. If this were true, why would the rebels need to “research” dirty bombs? Russia, currently uniquely, can send people into space - such a device would be child’s play to its scientists. Or is Tucker contradicting himself and now alleging that Russia is not arming the insurgents?

There are a few more blatantly obvious holes in the supposition. Tucker writes: "The SBU said it was not clear from those conversations whether the specialists were employees of the Russian state or private individuals. The transcripts of these conversations could not be provided." Why could the transcripts not be provided? It’s abundantly clear that Tucker’s sole source is the SBU, an organization not noted for fealty to the truth.

Local residents look through a hole in a damaged multi-storey building, which according to locals was caused by recent shelling, in Avdiivka in Donetsk region, Ukraine, July 18, 2015. © Maksim Levin

Social media war

"The dossier includes three documents, written in Russian, that appear to be military orders from DPR leaders to subordinate commanders at the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry for Emergency Situations, and the Donetsk chemical factory. They were allegedly downloaded with hundreds of others when SBU agents took control of a rebel email address in the first week of July."

Is Tucker seriously saying that the rebels discussed bombs by email? Why not VKontakte (Russia’s version of Facebook) or Twitter? In fact, if they were that stupid, perhaps they posted a few postcards on the topic too?

Tucker also claims: “The OSCE is believed to have raised the issue with the Kremlin at talks in Minsk on July 21, and is expected to bring in its own specialist to examine the bunker at the plant.” He doesn’t say who believes the OSCE has done this.

However, the biggest sign this article is a piece of low-grade fiction is contained in what Tucker omits. He fails to explain how the SBU believes the rebels would deliver the “bomb.” The Ukrainian rebels have no air force. Hence, the only feasible route would be by truck. If so, how would the vehicle bypass Ukraine’s line of control?

I am sure that Tucker is aware that in 2010 the US paid for the installation of Radiation Portal Monitors at all Ukrainian border posts to prevent the smuggling of radioactive material. As a result, the only places the rebels could use a “dirty bomb” are either inside Donbass or inside Russia. Unless their leadership has completely lost its marbles, this would make no sense.

Newsweek and The Times are among dozens of respectable media outlets who need to send proper, qualified journalists to Russia and Ukraine. Cutting corners insults their readers. Journalism is a serious craft. It mustn’t be left to amateurs, no matter how well intentioned their efforts.

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