Jonathan Cook: the Blog from Nazareth - www.jonathan-cook.net

My reply to Guardian’s Shaun Walker

Dear Shaun,

I wanted to bring my readers’ attention to your response to my critique of your recent article in the Guardian headlined “Ukraine and Crimea: what is Putin thinking?”. Given that you commented late, and only on Facebook, most of those who read the critique probably never saw your reply. I am therefore posting it in full at the bottom of this page.

First, let me say how much I appreciate your taking the time to respond. I know most journalists avoid engaging with critics, especially if the criticism is directed at the practice of journalism itself. This is ground few journalists seem to feel comfortable on – a revealing commentary in itself on how rarely we as journalists think about what we do or why we do it.

It is also for that reason that I understand your reluctance to hang around for another round – or as you put it, you “don’t intend to get into a polemic”.

But I do want to address the points you raise in your response because they seem to be fairly standard ones when journalists are confronted with criticism. And more importantly, I want to highlight the criticisms you failed to address. Evasion is one useful tactic for those on weak ground.

Your first point is that you think you do not need to explain or clarify what Putin was referring to when he said:

“They [the west] 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. 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.”

I criticised you for not making it clear that Putin was making a valid, if self-serving argument that the west had no right lecture Russia about international law after its illegal invasions of and interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

This is your argument:

Are you seriously suggesting that the average even moderately informed reader (which I assume the majority of my readers to be) would not read the line about the west breaking international law all the time over the past decade and not understand that this is about the cases you mention? This is an article about Crimea, not a PhD thesis.”

Well, let’s put aside all the basics of journalism, in which it was drilled into us that we should never make assumptions about our readers’ knowledge and that it is our job to make explicit things that are only implicit in the text, especially in quotes.

Let’s also set aside the issue of whether the Guardian employs you only to write for a small coterie of what you describe elsewhere as “Guardian readers”. Presumably, you think the Guardian has no interest in winning over new and young readers whose knowledge of international affairs may only be beginning.

Even ignoring these considerations, Putin’s specific meaning is not so clear as not to need clarification. He’s talking about western hypocrisy regarding international law, and we need to have some decisive examples to help us understand how he thinks that hypocrisy is manifested.

More importantly, your readers’ chance of understanding his meaning has been clouded by your analytical intervention. Strangely, you allow yourself space to expand on his motives but not on his meaning. Unfortunately, in quoting me you cut short my next criticism, where I noted:

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.

So how are your Guardian readers supposed to make sense of Putin’s point if you are apparently incapable of doing so yourself? Putin’s riposte, if it relates to Iraq, for example, is far from “petulant”. And how, if he is pointing out western hypocrisy, is he showing “open contempt for the current international order” – unless by that you mean an order in which the US gets to dictate terms to everyone else?

In short, I am not expecting a PhD, but I am expecting you to follow the job description you are supposed to believe in of being fair and balanced, and to provide an answer to the question posed in the article’s headline: “What is Putin thinking?”.

The other criticism I made is that you ignored quite possibly the biggest concern Moscow has, which is that it is being boxed in by Nato military bases on all sides. Whether or not the paranoia that development elicits in Moscow is justified, it is clearly part of “what Putin is thinking”.

Sadly, your response to this second point is a non-response. You state:

It’s extraordinary that you think your own views on the causes are more valid than the views of the numerous people close to the Kremlin I spoke to. The anger about Sochi was huge and significant and I believe played a large part in the “straw that broke the camel’s back” effect here.

I think you’ll find most people will think your argument here is extraordinary. You really want to sell us the idea that Russia’s actions in Crimea are more about the fact that Putin was snubbed at Sochi than Moscow’s geo-strategic concerns about Nato!

Also, your mock indignation does you no credit. I am sure you spoke to many people in preparing the story; but I’m afraid I’ve been in this game a long time too and that kind of wool-pulling doesn’t work with me. The question is not how many people you spoke to but whom you selected for your interviews and which parts of what they told you selected to report. If you want to argue that no one in the Kremlin is concerned about Nato expansion, please state that baldly. Then we can assess how credible a Moscow correspondent you really are.

Thirdly, you set up a strawman, claiming that I objected to your quoting Michael McFaul, the US ambassador to Russia until last month. No, I did not. I simply pointed out that as we read through your piece we came to a series of opportunities you had to raise the issue of Russian fears about Nato expansion. Instead all those opportunities were missed.

Remember it was you who was commissioned to write a piece entitled “What is Putin thinking?” I, like many others, wanted an answer. McFaul was never likely to be someone who would provide it.

Finally, you repeat the exercise with “Eurasianism”, again missing my point that it is not about the unsavoury ideology of some ex-KGB thugs, fringe or not, but about your repeated efforts to raise any issue but probably the most pertinent one to the Kremlin: fears about Nato expansionism.

In my view, this is the most important concern driving Putin’s thinking. But I am quite ready to concede I may be wrong. What I cannot concede is that in a long article promising an answer to the question “What is Putin thinking?” there is no mention at all of Nato expansionist policies.

Your failure to address that very clear point in my critique is probably the most eloquent answer I am likely to get.

Again, many thanks for taking the time to reply. I hope you will do so again. If you do, I will again publish your response in full.

Best wishes, Jonathan

Shaun Walker’s response:

I have no desire to get into a long polemic, but it does seem you have wilfully misinterpreted the article. A few remarks:

1. [quoting me] 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.

– Are you seriously suggesting that the average even moderately informed reader (which I assume the majority of my readers to be) would not read the line about the west breaking international law all the time over the past decade and not understand that this is about the cases you mention? This is an article about Crimea, not a PhD thesis, I would assume that for the average reader of the Guardian, it’s adequate to (repeatedly) mention the feeling that the west breaks international law and assume people would know what you’re referring to (and, given that they’re guardian readers, quite possibly sympathise).

2. [quoting me] 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.

– It’s extraordinary that you think your own views on the causes are more valid than the views of the numerous people close to the Kremlin I spoke to. The anger about Sochi was huge and significant and I believe played a large part in the “straw that broke the camel’s back” effect here.

3. [quoting me] 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

– Yes, and who is clearly labelled as such, and is one voice of western policy making balanced against four voices of people Kremlin-linked or dealing with the Russian position.

4. [quoting me] 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.

– Well it is a fringe ideology developed by some fairly unusual and unsavoury people, yes. And, as is clearly mentioned, it’s not about “putin and a coterie of KGB thugs” coming up with the ideology, it’s about – as is clearly labelled – exigencies bringing the Kremlin decision makers closer to an ideology that was previously considered fringe in Russia. 

I’m very open to critique of my pieces and unfortunately the exigencies of daily writing mean sometimes things get left out – reading back, there really ought to have been a reference to Kosovo, which is a key reason for things unfolding as they did. And I’m sure there’s lots of other ways the piece could be improved. But I find your critique to be merely an attempt to deliberately misinterpret or twist the gist of the piece.

As I say, don’t intend to get into a polemic so shall sign off here, but just wanted to respond to a few points. Cheers.

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