The Russian attack on Ukraine and the Western propaganda system
by Ian Sinclair
14 March 2022
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has confirmed the criminal barbarity of the Russian government and the leadership of its armed forces.
On 8 March Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said two million people had fled Ukraine since the Russian attack on 24 February. The same day the World Health Organisation reported attacks on hospitals, ambulances and other healthcare facilities had surged, and the International Committee of the Red Cross described the conditions in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol as “apocalyptic”. On 10 March the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights verified a total of 564 civilian deaths, with close to 1,000 injured.
In addition to this horror, the crisis has also highlighted the extraordinary power and influence of the mainstream media. In particular, it has proven the continuing relevance of Edward Herman’s and Noam Chomsky’s analysis in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent: A Political Economy of the Mass Media. “A propaganda system will consistently portray people abused in enemy states as worthy victims, whereas those treated with equal or greater severity by its own government or clients will be unworthy”, the argue. “The evidence of worth may be read from the extent and character of attention and indignation.”
Following this framing, the Ukrainians under Russian attack are, rightly, considered worthy victims. For example, as of 11 March, the Guardian has devoted no less than 13 pages in the news section of each day’s newspaper to the crisis since Russia’s invasion (not counting the extensive coverage in the Finance, Sports and G2 sections of the paper, and the many op-ed columns and editorials devoted to the topic). Media watchdog Media Lens has highlighted a similar level of coverage on the BBC News website, noting the first 26 stories on the BBC News’s home page on 27 February were devoted to the Russian attack on Ukraine.
As well as focussing on the military situation, the Guardian has provided extensive coverage of the refugee crisis and civilians living under Russian bombardment, focussing on personal, often heart-breaking stories. It has published powerful front page images of people injured in Russian airstrikes and covered debates in parliament about how many Ukrainian refugees the UK should take in. The ongoing protests in Russia against the invasion have also been reported, while columnists and reporters have shown understandable outrage and indignation about Russia’s attack. There have also been reports on moves to get the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court to address Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
All this coverage has led to an extraordinary – and very welcome – show of solidarity and support for Ukrainians in the face of Russian aggression. The UK and other nations have delivered significant amounts of arms to the Ukrainian forces, aid has been sent to assist refugees, protests have been held across the country, and many corporations, under public pressure, have stopped doing business with or in Russia.
However, as Herman and Chomsky intimate, we should not forget the people considered unworthy victims by the media propaganda system. These tend to be non-white people in the Global South who are on the business end of Western military and corporate power, either directly or indirectly through the West’s clients.
For example, since 2016 the United Nations has repeatedly described Yemen as “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world”. 377,000 people have been killed, either directly through violence or indirectly through hunger and disease, since Saudi Arabia’s military intervention began in March 2015, according to the United Nations. In March 2021 Save The Children estimated that over the past three years almost one in four civilian casualties in Yemen were children. In 2019 the World Health Organisation reported an estimated 24.4 million Yemenis –roughly 80 percent of Yemen’s total population – needed humanitarian assistance to survive.
By supporting the Saudi intervention, both diplomatically and militarily, the UK and US bear significant responsibility for the continuation of the carnage in Yemen. However, as per Herman and Chomsky’s analysis, apart from a few honourable exceptions, the UK media has largely ignored the slaughter in Yemen.
Take the Guardian, which is generally viewed as the most anti-establishment mainstream newspaper. It has published some in-depth, on the ground reporting from Iona Craig and Bethan McKernan. However, all too often the Guardian’s news reports on Yemen are buried deep inside the paper. On 20 February 2021 a report with the frightening headline Yemen At Risk Of World’s Worst Famine In Decades was published on page 28, while a tiny report titled Cholera: Yemen On Course For Catastrophe appeared on page 27 of the 29 July 2020 edition of the paper.
Sometimes this media’s laser-like focus on worthy victims becomes too much to take. For example, on 10 March the first two headlines during the BBC Today Programme 8 am news were the Ukrainian president saying a Russian attack on maternity hospital was a war crime, and that Russia had been accused of deploying powerful vacuum bombs in Ukraine. All of which is important news, of course.
However, in 2019 The Yemeni Archive, a Danish-based database project tracking human rights violations in the war, stated the Saudi-led coalition was allegedly responsible for 72 attacks on medical facilities in Yemen, while Action on Armed Violence confirms the US has previously dropped vacuum bombs – AKA thermobaric weapons, which take oxygen from the air around them to create an explosion with a more deadly blast wave – in both Afghanistan and Iraq. I don’t have a time machine but I’m willing to bet none of the Saudi and US actions made it into a BBC News headline at the time.
One conclusion seems inescapable: if the war in Yemen received the level and quality of media coverage Ukraine has had for just a couple of days the UK would be forced to end its support for Saudi Arabia. This would mean the end of the Saudi bombardment of Yemen as they wouldn’t have the crucial UK logistical support they need to continue their air war, as one BAE employee explained to Channel 4’s Dispatches in 2019.
In case it is not already clear, I am not arguing the media shouldn’t focus on the atrocities Russia is committing in Ukraine. I am arguing the media should also be focusing on the atrocities the UK is helping Saudi Arabia commit in Yemen.
Indeed, a case can be made that the media have a responsibility to focus more on Yemen than Ukraine. The humanitarian crisis in Yemen has been fuelled by the UK, the home country of the UK media, and the vast majority of its journalists and audience. It is where we pay our taxes and have the greatest opportunity to impact government policy. And while stopping the Russian government’s attack on Ukraine will be a very difficult task, ending the Saudi attack on Yemen is comparatively simple: the UK just needs to stop providing support to Saudi Arabia.
So, yes, of course we should all show solidarity and support for Ukrainians under Russian attack. But at the same time we would do well to understand, as Herman and Chomsky argue, that the media coverage of the conflict “is evidence of an extremely effective propaganda system.”
Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.