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Press: Brave journalists try to make sense of this war  

18 March 2022


A FRIEND sent me an old Punch cartoon from the Second World War last week. In it, a respectable middle-aged man is pounding the breakfast table in a paroxysm of fury while his wife tells him gently: “Calm yourself, dear. Even Hitler can’t be both dregs and scum.”

Much the same feelings of rage and impotence are now descending on many of us as the obscene daily carnage visited on Ukraine by Vladimir Putin is graphically and continuously conveyed in the age of a social media that the population mercifully lacked during the Second World War.

Religious news is being squeezed even more than usual from newspapers and social-media sites. True, in Northern Ireland, political leaders were apologising for the Roman Catholic Church’s decades-long mistreatment of children in its care, but that’s very old news — even the report on the scandal is five years’ old. So, this column is bound to be about Ukraine and what the Russian leadership insists must be called “special military operations” on pain of imprisonment. And what the rest of us call war.

The Pope, on Sunday, pleaded with President Putin “in the name of God” to stop the massacre, but unfortunately the man in the Kremlin is more likely to be listening to Archbishop Kirill, the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, safely embedded with the regime — the icon once pictured wearing a £20,000 Breguet watch — who has reassured Russians that the Ukrainians are evil.

Really, it is a war of aggression against an independent and peaceful country, launched almost entirely at the behest of one man: “Mad Vlad”, as The Sun has taken to calling him. Morally, the case is clear: it is not a just war. Moreover, “our boys”, as the tabloids would undoubtedly call them if British troops were taking an active part, are not involved; so directly the casualties are not ours.

THOSE in direct peril are our boys and girls, too — the journalists on the ground covering the story and trying to make sense out of the senselessness. Since journalists are so often maligned — and quite often justly — it is only fair to point out their bravery and integrity in trying to discern what is going on around them and give it what coherence they can. Reporters such as The Guardian’s Luke Harding and The Times’s Anthony Loyd have been outstanding.

Loyd and the photographer Jack Hill were in Kharkiv, and chronicled the effect of Russian missiles on an apartment block. Hill’s photograph of one of the residents, Yelena Bolyachenko, whose face was shredded by flying glass, showed graphically the pitilessness of Putin’s war. Yelena had stayed with her 86-year-old mother, who is blind and bedridden, and one of her neighbours, Marina Shmakova, selflessly waited behind to look after the old woman in the family’s wrecked flat while her daughter was taken to hospital.

But the defining image of the war so far was taken by The New York Times’s Lynsey Addario, who was present when the Russians started mortaring a road where civilians were fleeing and caught an entire family in the blast: a mother, teenage son, young daughter, and family friend.

Her photograph shows their bloodied bodies lying in the gutter, backpacks and a suitcase near by, while Ukrainian medics try unavailingly to give treatment. Addario said: “This was outrageous. We have Putin saying they are not targeting civilians and I was there. I witnessed it. We need people to see what is happening. The propaganda he is saying is just not true.”

That, of course, is the last thing that Putin wants his people to see. In allied countries in Latin America and Asia, too, there have been outbreaks of whataboutery journalism, such as the Chinese academic Wang Shuo, who, in the state-run Global Times, blamed the United States’ “strategic selfishness” for the crisis. But would 75 per cent of Russians still support Putin if they had seen pictures of fellow Slavs dead in the street? As Simon Armitage, the Poet Laureate, wrote in a poem last week: “False news is news With the pity Edited out.”

THE purpose of independent journalism, never comfortable, has never been clearer. Even as I was writing this article came news that an American journalist, Brent Renaud, had been killed. How many more, perhaps by the time you read this?

In Britain, there are the usual debates in times of conflict: the left-wingers blaming Western aggression have largely fallen silent, even in my old paper The Guardian. Instead — and it must be unwelcome to the Government — the focus has been on the incompetence of its refugee immigration scheme, with its heartless bureaucratic hurdles. Even normally loyal papers that are especially hostile to immigration have noticed, although clearly Boris Johnson and Priti Patel were slow to spot the changing tide. As Andrew Marr wrote in The New Statesman, “Misjudging the national mood, tin-eared ministers are leaving behind their party’s better instincts — including those of the local associations and church members who stuff envelopes and keep communities going.”

Stephen Bates is a former religious affairs correspondent of The Guardian.

Andrew Brown is away.

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