Europe

Keep Calm and Carry On: Ukraine needs a good relationship with the Western media more than ever

You can’t do right for doing wrong‘, as the old saying goes. Then there’s also ‘no good deed goes unpunished‘. 

I had the first-hand experience with this only last week in truly bizarre circumstances; indeed, it was one of those situations which, was so unusual, that you almost have to pinch yourself and ask if it’s actually happening. 

My regular readers will know that although my favorite targets of derision are rampant Islamism and Putin’s Kremlin, the EU and NATO come in for a close second. NATO has been a particular punching bag for me, since it is my firm belief that it needs to find its courage and stand up to Moscow, give membership to both Georgia and Ukraine, and take a firm hand with an increasingly authoritarian Turkey. 

You’ll agree, then, that any accusation that I support Putin’s Russia or would peddle a Kremlin-backed narrative is nothing short of ridiculous. Indeed, when I mentioned the very idea to some Georgian friends, they laughed it to scorn. 

Yet that is exactly what I was recently accused of. For several weeks, I – along with a colleague – had been attempting to secure an interview with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine through one of his team. Ultimately, and disappointingly, our request was denied. I couldn’t fathom why; after all, it was to be for The Spectator, and the UK is hardly a hotbed of anti-Ukrainian sentiment. 

Somebody whose opinions I trust in these matters had his own ideas. “They don’t want Zelensky talking openly,” he told me. “He’ll embarrass himself. The fact is, the man doesn’t really know what he’s doing. He’s just an actor.” 

Well, I didn’t think that was very fair and resolved to keep an open mind. After all, I like to think of myself as a friend of Ukraine, and not just because I have friends from that country: any examination of my published work for any newspaper and magazine for whom I’ve written will lead you to come away with the impression of ‘Ah, here’s a chap who loves that flag of gold and blue’. And so I do. Why, I even have a Ukrainian flag on my Facebook profile picture, you know – and have done for years. 

Ultimately, some compromise was reached of sending our topics – if not the questions themselves – in advance before the interview. It wasn’t ideal, since it gives the interviewee too much room to manoeuvre and think too much about the harder matters, but it would do. 

With the sudden worrying numbers of Russian troops on the borders and the resumption of violent clashes, our emails over an interview with the President went unanswered – well, they were busy and fair enough.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. EPA-EFE//TOMS KALNINS

In the meantime, I agreed with my Spectator editors that I would write an article on the conflict that would then serve as a companion piece for the interview to follow. Splendid idea, I thought: after all, British readers are not going to be either the most informed or interested group in a distant war in a country they know little about. 

I wrote the piece, which I promised to send to Zelensky’s aide on publication – it would be nice, I imagined if I could give them some first-hand proof that while I am obligated to report the facts as they are, I am more than happy to show Ukraine in a good light: after all, they are entirely in the moral and political right, so it’s hardly as though facts need to be twisted or lies told. 

I sent off the published article to Zelenky’s aide. What happened next was as shocking as if I’d been kicked in a man’s most sensitive area. 

In a series of furious voice messages, I was accused of peddling a pro-Russian narrative in the article. I was stunned. What on earth gave them that impression? 

I asked if they had read the whole thing. They admitted that they had not, but in the first paragraph the Ukrainian conflict was referred to as ‘Ukraine’s ongoing civil war’. This resulted in minutes of angry voice messages being sent my way, effectively accusing me of knowing nothing. 

To begin with, I explained, I had not written those words in the original draft – I even showed a screenshot of my initial text before it had been changed by my editors, in which I had written ‘Ukraine’s war with Russia’. However, for ease of explaining matters to a British audience who know little about the conflict, it was a decision by my editors to change it to ‘civil war’; as they said, separatist Ukrainians in the east are fighting against their western counterparts, which makes this war fall under the definition in the English language. 

The Ukrainian embassy in London complained to The Spectator, not only about my own piece, but also because of one written by noted Russia expert, Mark Galeotti, that was published a day after mine. They objected to his description of the conflict being ‘neither civil war nor straightforward foreign intervention’. 

Now, there are a few matters here that I should make abundantly clear, while being fair to all parties.

I understand why the Ukrainian government is on a hair-trigger. Their situation is something like that of the British after Dunkirk – the enemy is at the gates and there is no help on the way. They are having to consider the prospect of a protracted war in which victory is in no way guaranteed. 

But I would ask that they consider what motivated my editors. At the moment, the British public is concerned with Boris Johnson’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the national economy, and whether or not they’ll be allowed to go on holiday to other countries at the end of next month. If they are particularly political, they’ll be talking about the David Cameron scandal or slamming Keir Starmer.

The job of the editors, therefore, is to make the readership care about something they won’t normally find interesting – even with the provocative title of ‘Is Russia about to invade Ukraine?’ (which I personally didn’t care for), one of the first comments was that the topic was ‘boring’. 

Still, I personally felt that my description of ‘Ukraine’s war with Russia’ in the first draft was the best description, but at the same time, I understood the position of the editors, who said that this gives off the impression that Russian tanks are already on their way to Kyiv – which they aren’t (well, not yet anyway, and I hope they don’t get anywhere close). I admit that ‘civil war’ also isn’t an entirely accurate description, since it suggests that half of the country is pitted against the other, which – again – it isn’t. I was more perplexed by the reaction to Mr. Galeotti’s words, though: ‘neither civil war nor foreign straightforward intervention’ seems entirely fair to me. 

None of this reasoning seemed to mollify the aide, however, who continued to rage. I was even shown Facebook pages of outraged Ukrainians who were sharing the article, and even received messages from some – they were, however, very polite and outlined their points in a measured and calm manner; my friend Neil Hauer was far less fortunate with his honest reporting on the recent Nagorno-Karabakh War, which resulted in him receiving hate mail from both Armenians and Azerbaijanis in equal measure. A great pity, since his work really was objective and excellent. 

The aide asked if I would change it. I explained that it wasn’t up to me, but to my editors – as a journalist, as soon as your editors have your work in their hands it isn’t really your work anymore. I said I would ask, though, although I don’t particularly like acquiescing to requests when they are demanded in a rude and unnecessarily aggressive manner, I hadn’t written ‘civil war’ in the first draft anyway, so would be fine with it being changed. 

Yet still, the aide would not calm down. “They need to make a change,” Zelesnky’s people said. And here we start to tread on risky terrain. ‘Need to’ when talking to the free media isn’t a phrase that I – nor my editors – relished. It is, in fact, quite authoritarian: indeed, I would go so far as to say that it’s exactly the sort of thing Ukraine’s enemies in the Kremlin would do. 

As the aide continued to repeat their statement that what was happening in Ukraine was not a civil war, the demand was: “How can it be a civil war when there are foreign forces there? When has that ever happened?”

This, I thought, was a particularly silly thing to say – but where to start? The American War of Independence, which was won with French help; the English Civil War, with Welshmen, Scots and Frenchmen fighting; the Angolan Civil War, with Soviet (including Ukrainians serving in the Soviet Armed Forces) and South African involvement; the Russian Civil War, which saw America, Britain and France supporting the Whites against the Reds; the Korean War, which saw the UN go to war on the side of South Korea; the Vietnam War, despite being remembered for the US’ contribution, was in fact between North and South Vietnam that also included military contingents from Australia, New Zealand and Thailand; the Greek Civil War; and, perhaps most infamously of all, the Spanish Civil War, which saw tens-of-thousands of foreign volunteers from half a dozen countries on one side and the Nazi war machine, along with 50,000 troops from Mussolini’s Fascist Italy, on the other.

A company of American volunteers from the anti-Fascist Lincoln Battalion during the 1937 Battle of Jarama, outside of Madrid. Upwards of 60,000 foreign fighters volunteered to fight on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War. WIKIPEDIA

Foreign intervention has accompanied practically every civil war in the history of the species.

At this point, though, I was feeling rather low. As I’ve said – and as you probably already know – I’ve always supported Ukraine, and it was deeply disappointing to be accused of propagating a pro-Russian line. In an attempt to calm the aide and convince her that I was not the enemy she seemed to think I was, I said that as a resident and patriot of Georgia, I could never support Putin. My friends and family have suffered just as much (if not more) as their Ukrainian counterparts. “We are better than Georgia,” came the reply. 

Here is where I feel I am obligated to give some advice. 

If I were the spokesperson for the Ukrainian president, I would want to be – just a little – more measured in my responses and reactions to events. If senior Ukrainian government officials are brought to the point of hysteria by a single phrase in a British magazine, which I didn’t write, I can’t help but wonder how on earth they’re going to lead the fight in a war against Russia. 

To begin with, I’d like to think that I would read the entirety of an article before reacting to it. I’m sure I would also consider that since Western media coverage is exactly what Ukraine needs at the moment, I would attempt to keep the papers on-side and try and see their point of view. After all, which is better – no coverage at all, or an article that includes one phrase that didn’t pass Ukrainian government approval?

The Spectator‘s influence is not to be despised. The former editor is the current British Prime Minister, while the political editor’s wife is the Downing Street spokeswoman. It is, in short, one of the most well-connected publications around. 

I would also consider being more careful in my utterances. ‘We are better than an ally’ is not a happy thing to say to a journalist, especially when that ally is currently trying to build diplomatic bridges (Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili announced this week that the country will repair its relationship with Ukraine after a spat over Mikheil Saakashvili).

Then I might think that trying to dictate to a foreign publication what it should print is just a little too close to something that Putin might do (the Ukrainian embassy in London, however, were gracious and polite in their complaint). 

After this, I would reflect that Zelensky and his team are facing tougher challenges than a few words in a British magazine, that there is a war to fight and approval ratings which took a nasty hit just a few months ago, and perhaps I should save my energy for some of that. 

I shall finish with the comments of my friend Vadim, who escaped his home city of Donetsk when fighting began in 2014 and now lives with his wife in Kyiv – this, I think, makes his views more valid than most. I asked him for his opinion of Zelensky, and it is, I rather think, illuminating:

“We voted against him and will do it again. Poroshenko, while not perfect, was infinitely better as a president. An entertainer belongs on the stage, not in the presidential office. So far, he has done nothing to protect Ukraine from Russia’s military aggression. He even cut the funding of the army. The man even claimed to have seen the desire for peace in Putin’s eyes. He won because of pure populism, and populism alone.”

Deary me. And all of this for a phrase I didn’t even write. Well, there’s not much else I can do – except perhaps drive around Kyiv in a Lada, blasting Shaggy’s ‘It Wasn’t Me’ at full volume out the windows. 

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