Writing about the nature of war and the media, political journalist George Monbiot said this: “News is about spectacle and there is no greater spectacle than war, the media love spectacle and so they love war.” But looking at coverage of Ukraine, it’s clear that the media love some wars more than others.
The Russian-Ukraine conflict has dominated headlines like no other war in recent memory, with unrelenting coverage since the invasion. The sheer amount of content, and especially the way in which it has been reported, has led to accusations of bias in Western media. This bias at best draws attention to Western hypocrisy, and at worst is very revealing of the racism deeply entrenched in our media.
Reports from the frontlines are quick to point out that this is not like the other wars around the world. When talking about the Ukrainian capital, A CBS correspondent said “[Kyiv] isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan…[it’ s]…relatively civilized, relatively European”.
The British press shared this sentiment with their American counterparts, with an ITV journalist reporting from Poland saying: “Now the unthinkable has happened to them. And this is not a developing, third world nation. This is Europe!”. Meanwhile, writing in the Telegraph, Daniel Hannan explained: “They seem so like us. That is what makes it so shocking.” Even worse, in a BBC interview, a Ukrainian politician spoke of his emotion at seeing “European people with blue eyes and blond hair being killed.” All the while, the BBC correspondent listened intently and made no attempt to correct or question his comments.
This narrative that war is something that only exists in those far off places, is particularly bizarre given that it was just over 20 years ago since the Yugoslav wars in Eastern Europe ended, making it in living memory for every one of these reporters. Looking at the facts, it’s hard to explain this kind of dissonance with anything but outright prejudice.
And this racial bias has not been lost on journalists around the world. As the foreign press association in Africa declared, “The idea that war is a thing that happens in lands outside of the West is beyond myopic. It is a gross misrepresentation of the entirety of human history.”
Similarly, the Middle Eastern journalists’ association pointed out the double standard of the Western reaction to war in Europe compared to the Middle East. And they are not the only ones. Many are asking, where is this outrage at the other wars around the world?
There are no shortage of conflicts but, not only do these not receive any outrage, they barely get any attention at all. Gone virtually unnoticed is the conflict in Ethiopia that has been raging since 2020, and has left thousands dead and millions displaced. In the same week that Russia invaded Ukraine, Saudi Arabia carried out dozens of strikes on Yemen; Israel launched a wave of deadly missile attacks against Syria; and the United States restarted its bombing campaign in Somalia. All conflicts deserve attention, but even the worst of injustices are not given even a hundredth of Ukraine’s coverage.
A study conducted by MintPress News analysed American media coverage and found that between the week of the 21st and the 27th of February, Fox News, The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and MSNBC ran almost 1,300 separate stories on the Ukraine invasion. Only two stories were run on the Syria attack, one on Somalia, and none at all on the Saudi-led coalition war on Yemen. (full article can be found here)
The British media tells a similar story. A quick scan of the BBC shows that, since the escalation of the war in February, just four articles have been published on Yemen compared to 60 on Ukraine in March alone.
From these 4 articles on Yemen, we can clearly see a difference between the way the two are presented. Take a look at this article about Yemen and how it presents a clinical overview of the war, with the emphasis on maps of occupied territory compared to statistics about the “human cost”. Then look at articles about the Ukrainian war, here, here and here. All intimate, human stories that show the personal cost of living through conflict. Looking at this contrast, it’s not surprising that we hear British people voicing their concerns for the suffering of Ukrainian people and not for others, regardless of race.
Unfortunately, the reality is that Yemen is suffering just as much. The death toll has now reached around 377,000, while 17.4 million( most of them children) now require urgent food assistance in a conflict the UN described as the greatest humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century.
Clearly, Yemen is deserving of more than a hundredth of Ukraine’s coverage, so how do we explain the disparity?
In their 1988 book, Manufacturing Consent, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky identified the two factors that influence the quantity and quality of a conflict’s media coverage.
1) Who is the perpetrator?
2) Who is the victim?
Looking at the reporting, the apparent novelty of the victims being white and from a European country (even though it is not as unique as they claim) is definitely a source of interest to the media, but there is another reason that they are so fascinated.
In their book, Herman and Chomsky studied two genocides that happened concurrently-one in Cambodia, one in Indonesia. They noticed that the first became worldwide news, whilst the latter received little attention by major American outlets. The explanation: the US supported the Indonesian Genocide.
Herman and Chomsky found that if there are political advantages to be gained by highlighting a conflict or crime, then it would undoubtedly receive more media attention and sympathy. Looking at Ukraine, we can clearly see the same thing play out. The fact that the perpetrator is Russia is actually more important to the media bias.
In the other cases, the British media has no political reason to highlight the conflict. In fact, they benefit from doing the opposite. For example, both Israel and Saudi Arabia are some of the biggest buyers in the UK arms trade, and this makes Britain complicit in their acts of conflict to some. Since the war in Yemen began, Britain has licenced £7 billion worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia, becoming one of their leading suppliers, and playing an instrumental role in their war machine.
Interestingly, there was a time when Putin was not viewed as an enemy of the west. The US and Britain had little issue with his handling of the Cheyenne war in 2000, despite the fact that the Human Rights Watch were vocal about the atrocities committed by the Russian army. Reflecting on the media reaction to that conflict, we can see that the British media did express some concerns about human rights but not nearly to the extent that we see in Ukraine now.
This hypocrisy is not brought up to defend or to excuse the atrocities committed by Russia. How can you defend their brutal shelling of Mariupol that targeted schools and hospitals, or justify a conflict that, every day, makes refugees of 75,000 children? Their vicious war against the Ukrainian people deserves all the condemnation it gets and more, but as we have seen in the inspiring response to Ukraine, what the media decides to cover (or not cover) really does affect the victims.
In 2017, 64% of people In the UK opposed arms exports to Saudi Arabia, with 70% saying they should not sell arms to human rights abusers. Five years later and the situation is much worse yet there is little conversation around it. There is no doubt that if the media covered the barbaric bombing of civilian targets in Yemen the way they do for Ukraine, it would not be politically possible for the government to continue to provide weapons that fuel Saudi war crimes.
Just as it was important to highlight Russia’s disinformation campaign, it’s important to recognise the bias in our own media. Because, like in Russia, Western media’s commitment to truth is quick to take a backseat to political opportunism. Regardless of whether you want to call it disinformation or media bias, there is already a word for politically motivated media manipulation and that’s propaganda.