The journalists who went off to Ukraine as Vladimir Putin sent in his army expected at worst to find themselves under bombardment, at best to be reporting under Russian censorship within days. Few thought they would be broadcasting live in the weeks that followed, let alone anchoring news programmes with all the sang-froid of those safe at home.
They are not safe. This war might grind on for months. Many thousands of civilians and soldiers have been killed and maimed. Several journalists have died. That reporters operate with such efficiency is a tribute to their professionalism, to technology and to the skills of the logistics, production and protection teams around them. It helps too that the Ukrainian government understands the power of its story and wants the world to hear it.
Aside from the human and financial cost, the war raises questions for media. Why do they devote so much more attention to the victims of a European conflict than to those caught up in Afghanistan, Syria or Yemen? How do they find out what is truly going on? Should they be neutral observers in a war on which most of the world has taken one side?
It’s true that the media seem keener on Ukraine refugees than on most. Accusations of an underlying racism continue to vex the industry. The relatives of recent black murder victims in the UK have made telling points about the lack of coverage of their cases. Complaints often come from journalists themselves, when they have failed to interest a newsdesk in an investigation or to persuade employers to send them to conflicts in which the UK has no obvious role. The traditional explanation is that it is down to the readers, listeners and viewers, who are said to be uninterested in such matters, but the evidence tends to be at an anecdotal level only. At the very least, observers who leapt to make the point that this war was more shocking because it happened in “civilised” Europe and affected “people like us” might have paused to consider the impact of their words.
What is actually going on? For all the media activity, we really don’t know. Reporters are getting to a few places in a big country. We are broadly abreast of a narrative of unexpected resistance by Ukraine and Russia becoming bogged down, except for areas of the south east. Can Ukraine win? Will Russia force submission? The view varies from day to day. We have estimates of Russian deaths, but little on Ukrainian numbers. Many vignettes communicate the horror, none gives us the bigger picture.
This is not to accuse the media of failing, but to acknowledge how confused things are. Right up to President Putin’s May Day parade, we were told by “experts” that he would declare that the “special operation” had become a war. He did not. Columns of Russian tanks are about to move in on cities. We hear no more about them. We’re on the eve of decisive battles. They seem not to happen. And while we suspect Russian propaganda, we should acknowledge that Ukraine is good at it. In the first days of the war, we believed that the brave defenders of Snake Island had been killed by the Russian navy. Until it was revealed that they hadn’t.
As to whether the media have abandoned neutrality, perhaps their coverage inevitably reflects the origins of the war. Much of the world has turned on Russia. Good and evil have been identified. The media are living with the Ukrainians and dependent on them for help. They see civilian bodies and injured children. They witness the destruction of cities. It is unfair to accuse them of losing all sight of objectivity: they explored whether an expanding Nato was responsible for provoking Russia, reported the killing by Ukraine forces of surrendering Russian soldiers, and have been cautious before presenting video evidence purporting to show Russian military failure.
No such restraint has come from the UK government, which has embraced this war as its own. The prime minister has invoked the spirit of Winston Churchill, a man never far from the hearts of our popular press. The foreign secretary and the defence secretary have sought to outgun each other with military rhetoric. As the war goes on and the deaths increase, we hope the media will not allow themselves to become part of Boris Johnson’s war effort.