I spend a lot of time on this blog criticising the propaganda role of liberal media, including my former newspaper the Guardian. Media critics like Noam Chomsky and Ed Herman have called it “brainwashing under freedom”. Because of a long filtering process before they reach positions of influence, journalists working for the corporate media in free societies replicate many of the failings of journalists working for media in repressive and closed societies. There are differences. The propaganda in free societies is more subtle and insidious; the journalists are more likely to believe what they write; and a degree of pluralism is allowed, even while plausible and important voices are ignored or ridiculed. But propaganda it still is.
I highlight this long and prominent article in the Guardian on Putin’s handling of Crimea and Ukraine because it is a master-class in brainwashing under freedom. The paper’s Moscow correspondent, Shaun Walker, is presumably well-acquainted with Russian society. He has full access to Russian media propaganda, so he knows full well Russia’s side of the argument. And he has acres of space in which to set out all the various viewpoints. And yet, he never manages to give a proper hearing to Russia’s side of the argument.
Even from a casual reading of a few dissident writers on Crimea, I know that Russian leaders have made two important points: one about western hypocrisy over Crimea, and the other about the threat posed to Russian interests by Nato (read: US) expansionism. So how does Walker deal with these two arguments in his long article?
One cannot quite say he entirely ignores them, but he certainly does not present the case either. If you search the article, you will not find a mention of the terms “Nato”, “expansion” or “Iraq”. But Walker does not regard himself as a paid propagandist, so he subtly alludes to these positions without ever directly dealing with them. For if he did, we, the reader, might realise how significant or persuasive some of Putin’s arguments are. At the same time, he exploits these allusions, not to highlight issues that would reflect badly on the US and its lapdog supporters but to further undermine Putin’s credibility.
Here’s how he handles the first issue:
As well as merely reacting to events in Ukraine, there was also a sense that the Crimea situation is a culmination of many years of grievances with what Putin sees as an unfair international system. “They say we are violating norms of international law … It’s a good thing that they at least remember that there exists such a thing as international law – better late than never,” said Putin last week, to an ovation from the hall. “They have come to believe in their exclusivity and exceptionalism, that they can decide the destinies of the world, that only they can ever be right.”
What the world heard from Putin last week was not new in its thrust, but never has he spoken at such length and with such open contempt for the current international order. “I talked with his speechwriters and they said that he himself dictated the main points of the speech; it’s his own deeply held position,” says Yevgeny Minchenko, a political analyst close to the Kremlin.
Viewed through the spectrum of this discontent, Russia’s actions in Crimea are essentially a petulant riposte to the west: we think you break international law all the time, so we will too.
See how Walker did that. Putin is making the self-serving but entirely valid point that the west has no right to get on a high horse about Crimea after its various illegal attacks on and interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and elsewhere. But of course Walker does not mention those examples, which would have allowed the reader to understand Putin’s point. Instead, Putin’s argument is presented as a “grievance”, “open contempt for the current international order”, “discontent”, and a “petulant riposte to the west”. Putin’s own words are twisted through the distracting context Walker places around them, which is designed to suggest Putin’s megalomania and his deluded worldview.
Here’s how Walker deals with the second point:
Feeding into this irritation is also a deep-seated sense of injustice and unfair victimisation from the west that has long been a feature of Russian political thinking.
Is Walker going to mention Nato expansionism? No, this is his introduction to Putin’s petty fury at being snubbed by the west over his Olympics venture at Sochi.
Let’s try again:
Despite the staunch support for the move in Russia’s parliament, it is clear the decision to seize Crimea was taken by a very small circle of people. Russian newspapers reported that all their government sources had been taken completely by surprise by the move.
The president now takes counsel from an ever-shrinking coterie of trusted aides. Most of them have a KGB background like the president and see nefarious western plots everywhere.
Not quite there yet. This just reinforces our sense of Putin’s delusions and paranoia, without mentioning that small matter of Nato building military bases right up to Russia’s borders. Is Walker going to find time to mention that? But now he brings in “Michael McFaul, who was US ambassador to Russia until last month” – that is, a paid propagandist for the US state department.
McFaul, a professional academic who works on Russia, describes Putin’s worldview as “paranoid”. The Russian president genuinely believes that the US is attempting to destabilise Russia, he says: “Putin assigns us all kinds of agency in Russia and across the world that we simply don’t have.”
Okay, Walker missed his chance then but he still has time. Maybe he will now cite this key Russian argument in his final summation. Here goes:
The events of recent months have also solidified the hold of “Eurasianism” on the imaginations of Russia’s top lawmakers. This ideology envisions Russia’s re-emergence as a conservative world power in direct opposition to the geopolitical hegemony and liberal values of the west. The ideology was largely developed by Alexander Dugin, the son of a KGB officer who has become the wide-eyed prophet predicting a “Russian spring”, as he called his recent plan for Russia’s domination of Europe via Ukraine.
If you blinked you may have missed it. Did you see a reference to “geopolitical hegemony and liberal values of the west”? Was that Walker’s effort to reference Nato expansionism? But if it was, look how he framed it. That view is described as an “ideology”, known menacingly as “Eurasianism”, and obviously a devious one because it was developed by the “son of a KGB officer” who also happens to be a “wide-eyed prophet” and has a lot of influence on Russian MPs’ “imaginations”.
So the problem here is not that Russia is getting boxed in by an aggressive Nato policy on its doorstep; no, according to Walker, it is that Putin and a coterie of former KGB thugs want an expansionist Russia to take over Europe, using Ukraine as the launchpad.
It is not just that Walker’s conclusions happen to coincide exactly with those of western governments. It is that even in his position working for a supposedly top-flight liberal media outlet he cannot bring himself to give a clear-eyed account of the more plausible Russian arguments, ones that would highlight the hypocrisy and malevolence of our own western governments.
Brainwashing under freedom indeed.