One-side reporting in the Guardian

And so it goes on. This is Shaun Walker in the Guardian at it again.

And again – the basics of journalism require an objective detachment. A journalist takes a step back and makes sure that the whole picture emerges from his reporting. In wartime we understand and accept that journalists are going to produce a constant stream of propaganda – talking up our victories, demonizing the enemy, producing an entirely one-sided narrative. But when this happens in peacetime what it means is that ‘journalists’ are trying to create the conditions for war. This is the precise opposite of what journalism should do. Responsible and professional journalism should try to present both sides – even if the other side is a geopolitical opponent – and so inform people and hopefully contribute to balanced opinion-forming and decision making.

It might be said that I am hoping for too much from journalists. That the kind of objectivity I am talking about is the provenance of academics. The depressing thing about the current discourse on Russia in the UK is that they are all at it; 90% of academics and almost all journalists see it as their role not to tell the truth about what may be happening but to help build up a narrative.

In this story Shaun Walker reports on some work by something called ‘Forensic Architecture’. The ‘research’ apparently shows that Russian armour took part in the 2014 conflict in Donbass, Ukraine – a claim repeatedly denied by the militias of the DNR and the Kremlin. The ‘research’ has been produced now because some volunteers from the Ukrainian volunteer battalions which took part in the Donbass conflict are taking a case to the European Court of Human Rights.

Walker provides a link in his article to a website (which he calls rather grandiosely a “publically viewable online platform”, perhaps copying directly from the press release he has been given) run by ‘Forensic Architecture’ where they publish their report. For this writer at least access is intermittent to this website. (My requests are timing out at the first step suggesting a possible use of a protective layer defending against requests from Russia).

Walker doesn’t say who “Forensic Architecture” are. But a quick Internet Search shows that this is a group of academics based at London University. “Forensic” may be quite kind to them. In this case at any rate the “research” is, once again, based on You Tube videos. Walker tries to dress it up: “Forensic Architecture used machine learning to sift through the footage”. But, it turns out, that all the machine learning (software which has a learning capacity built into it) did was help pre-identify videos which contained images of tanks. No magic. The claim then depends on claims that the videos show a certain model of tank which was not exported by Russia to Ukraine. (That may be the case but it would help if Walker backed this claim up with a source). Hence the videos prove that the Russian army was involved.

But all this “forensic evidence” fails because the sources can’t be verified. Who put the videos on YouTube? Can they prove it was not Ukrainian intelligence? How can the researchers be so certain that they show a battlefield in this war? You can’t; these are social media videos. (Even if Google collaborated in the project an IP address alone would not prove who uploaded a video or that it was of any particular battle). Furthermore; the “Forensic Architecture” project was funded by the “European Human Rights Advocacy Centre” which acknowledges it was set up by the European Commission to support people bringing cases to the European Court of Human Rights (not itself an EU body). [1] At the least then this is not “research” as Walker presents it but one side in a legal case preparing its materials.

The militias in the DNR have commented on Shaun Walker’s piece. (He didn’t ask for a comment for some reason even though that would be normal journalistic practice). They have (again) refuted the claims and claimed that all the armour used was captured from the fleeing Ukrainian army. [2]

For what it is worth this writer thinks it highly likely that for at least a period of time the militias received material support from Russia. I think this because there was a point in the battle when fortunes of the militias appeared to undergo a sudden reversal which could perhaps only be explained by an injection of a strong fighting force.

However; the point here is not about what happened but about what constitutes good journalism. Fair, balanced reporting. Even if the other side is Russian speaking and linked to Russia in some way. And that is what is missing at the moment.

Notes

  1. http://ehrac.org.uk/about-our-work/
  2. https://life.ru/t/%D0%BD%D0%BE%D0%B2%D0%BE%D1%81%D1%82%D0%B8/1236751/v_dnr_otvietili_na_rassliedovaniie_guardian_o_rossiiskikh_tankakh_pod_ilovaiskom
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Author: justinwyllie

EFL Teacher and Photographer