Russia and the Media makes a convincing case that a Cold War mentality in the Western media supports further militarisation and forestalls solutions, finds Michael Bailey

Greg McLaughlin, Russia and the Media: The Makings of a New Cold War (Pluto Press 2020), 224pp.

Following the Bolshevik Revolution and five years of civil war, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was formed in 1922. Initially composed of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Transcaucasia, the Soviet Union greatly expanded in the aftermath of World War II and the creation of the Eastern Bloc. From 1956 until its dissolution in 1991, the USSR consisted of fifteen republics, covered an area of 8.6 million square miles that bordered sixteen countries and had a population of around 291 million. Though the country’s economy had stagnated by the 1980s, and while it never came close to matching the economic strength of the United States, it nevertheless laid claim to being the world’s second largest economy for most of the Cold War era. And Stalinism and state corruption notwithstanding, the Soviet system of central planning remains a compelling socio-economic experiment.

Geopolitical tensions between the two superpowers resulted in a forty-odd-year US-Soviet arms race. At the height of the Cold War, it was generally accepted that the combined military forces of the Warsaw Pact were larger in terms of the number of personnel and weaponry, whereas the US and Nato had vastly superior military technology. Both sides had enough weapons of mass destruction to destroy each other, if not the world, several times over, which gave rise to movements such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), the Committee of 100 and the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp. But though the threat of nuclear warfare was a constant worry for politicians and citizens alike, mutual assured destruction prevented either bloc militarily attacking the other.

Certainly, there were several crises and proxy wars such as Korea, Hungary, Cuba, Berlin, Czechoslovakia, Dhofar (south Oman), Bolivia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Afghanistan, Poland, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Grenada, among others, which resulted in many millions of casualties and deaths. The Cold War also saw both the US and Soviet Union bankroll false-front cultural organisations in their efforts to win the ideological battle for hearts and minds. The anti-communist Congress for Cultural Freedom and the pro-Soviet World Peace Council are two of the more obvious examples. Intrigue and paranoia about espionage and betrayal were additionally fuelled by numerous screen and fictional portrayals of spy rings and double agents. The West was especially adept at propaganda and psychological warfare; in fact, the ‘Red Scare’ was one of the defining phenomena of the twentieth century.

The rest, according to the likes of Francis Fukuyama, is history. Or is it? Published in 2020, Greg McLaughlin’s Russia and the Media is a prescient reminder that, despite a softening of political rivalries during the late 1980s and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Cold War did not go away. On the contrary, in the three decades since Mikhail Gorbachev famously announced his resignation in a live televised broadcast and the white, blue and red tricolour replaced the Soviet Flag over the Kremlin, there have been repeated skirmishes and incidents involving the old superpowers. Indeed, Russia-Euro-Atlantic diplomatic relations have seemingly reached a new post-Cold-War low in recent weeks, a situation not helped by the media’s constant sabre rattling over Ukraine.

Apart from a chapter that examines the West’s historic relationship with the former Soviet Union from the 1917 Bolshevik revolution through to the Gorbachev-Yeltsin era of glasnost and perestroika, McLaughlin focuses mainly on the UK and US press coverage of Vladimir Putin’s twenty-odd year period in office as president of Russia. And though critical of Putin’s leadership and those occasions when Russia was its ‘own worst enemy’ (p.15), equally, McLaughlin demonstrates how the West’s media continue to propagandise the old Cold War enemy image and anti-Russian sentiment. In doing so, Russia and the Media offers a much-needed interpretative framework for better understanding what is a very complex history, the present crisis and a newly resurgent Russia.

Putin at War

So who is Putin? And why are the Western media so obsessed with the personality of one man (as opposed to a national polity)? A former KGB officer, the Russian leader first came to prominence when he was appointed Prime Minister by Boris Yeltsin in 1999. Soon afterwards, he replaced Yeltsin as President amid the rise of Russian nationalism, political corruption, lawless oligarchs, unfettered capitalism and offshore banking. McLaughlin reminds us that, at the beginning, Western leaders enthusiastically welcomed Putin as the new face of Russian liberal reforms and post-Cold War diplomacy. But the relationship quickly soured following the Second Chechen War and the ferocious siege of its capital, Grozny, by Russian forces, which was widely seen as a cynical attempt to manufacture a national crisis that would cement Putin’s popularity among the Russian electorate.

Thereafter, Western politicians and journalists frequently portrayed Putin as shadowy, colourless, authoritarian, calculating, heartless, macho, cold eyed, a thug, a narcissist, a mystery, a secret policeman, a war monger, a global menace, Russia’s new strongman, or even as Ivan the Terrible and Rasputin. But McLaughlin, rightly, contends that Russia adopted the same military tactics that Nato had used a year previously during the Kosovo conflict. He also suggests that, just as Nato had defended its aerial bombing of Yugoslavia as a humanitarian intervention, similarly, Russia justified the second invasion of Chechnya as a fight against terrorism and radical Islam. In other words, although two wrongs don’t make a right, Putin was simply copying Nato warspeak.

McLaughlin advances a similar line of argument apropos the 2008 Russo-Georgian War and the 2014 Crimean crisis. Again, much of the press coverage framed both these conflicts as ‘Putin versus the West’ despite the ‘West’s decades-long push against Russia’s “near abroad”, its regional sphere of influence and its buffer against foreign encirclement’ (p.137). That the conflict in Georgia coincided with the controversial election of Dmitry Medvedev as the new Russian president, amid suspicions that Putin was still ruling behind the scenes (who Medvedev had appointed as his prime minister, a constitutionally subordinate office), further complicated matters. And though regarded with scepticism in the West, Russia’s annexation of Crimea was similarly complex insofar as a 2014 referendum returned a 95.5% vote in favour of a return to Russian control.

Interestingly, McLaughlin suggests that media reportage of Russia’s 2015 intervention in Syria was an anomaly insofar as Western condemnation was not so straightforward, as a US-led coalition had already entered the conflict in support of the Syrian opposition forces. And though Russia has a longstanding naval interest in the Syrian city of Tartus, equally, it has been a loyal political ally of Syria since the 1950s, so its support for President Bashar al-Assad against Islamic militia and jihadists seemed reasonable to the outside world. Some journalists went as far as to say that Russia’s involvement might even obviate another Libya or Iraq, whilst others begrudgingly acknowledged that Putin had outmanoeuvred the US as the dominant international player in the Middle East.

Democracy Hacked

One of McLaughlin’s main insights is that both Russia and the US have struggled to find a new raison d’être over the last thirty years. As well as losing ground to China, whose economic power and military-industry complex have grown considerably, neither country has exactly triumphed over the other. For a time, it looked as if the US and its allies had won the war of values and that political liberalism was the only game in town. However, the events of 9/11 and the subsequent war against terror, the financial crisis of 2008 and the politics of austerity, the rise of nationalist governments and right-wing populism, and the emergence of digital misinformation and post-truth politics, have seriously undermined the neoliberal international order.

Of these issues, McLaughlin looks at how the UK and US press reacted to the election of Donald Trump as the US president in 2016 and his dealings with Putin. Unlike Bill Clinton, George Bush and Barack Obama, whose presidencies were defined by their containment of Putin’s Russia (albeit to varying degrees of success), Trump was seen by liberal and conservative media alike as at best, naive, at worst treasonous, for kowtowing to Putin’s nationalistic ambitions. Whereas previous Presidents had actively pursued Nato expansionism into Central and Eastern Europe, Trump repeatedly stated that he thought the US should withdraw from the north Atlantic alliance and leave the other 27 member-states to fund their own defence treaty.

It’s in this context that McLaughlin carefully examines the two-fold allegation that the Russian government had damaging ‘kompromat’ on Trump and that several members of Trump’s administration had knowingly colluded with Russian officials. While neither could provide concrete evidence, both the so-called Steele dossier and a Special Counsel inquiry concluded that Russian intelligence had obtained and leaked confidential emails that were damaging to Hilary Clinton’s campaign as the Democrat presidential candidate. And Russian troll farms allegedly created thousands of fake social-media accounts that promoted disinformation about the leaked emails and micro-targeted swing voters with political messaging.

Closer to home, the Guardian and Observer newspapers were similarly incredulous about Trump’s possible connections with the Kremlin. Several editorials and articles expressed concerns that Trump was effectively abandoning Europe, which would help strengthen Russia’s hegemony in the former Soviet republics. McLaughlin also notes how the newspapers’ coverage of US-Russia relations often interlinked with their reporting on Brexit. The Guardian’s foreign correspondent, Luke Harding, and the Observer’s feature writer, Carole Cadwalladr, have frequently alleged that Russia interfered in both the 2016 EU referendum and US presidential election: ‘…what is happening in America and what is happening in Britain are entwined. Brexit and Trump are entwined. The Trump administration’s links to Russia and Britain are entwined.’ Apparently, all roads lead to Moscow.

Tinker, Tailor, Journalist, Spy

While McLaughlin capably elucidates all of the above-mentioned, surprisingly, Russia and the Media contains very little analysis of independent media reportage as a possible corrective to the worst instances of Russophobia. Both Cadwalladr and Harding are cases in point. In a heated 2017 interview with Aaron Mate on The Real News Network, Harding was called to task over Russiagate, viz the still unproven allegation that Putin had colluded with Trump to defeat Clinton. Barely a year later, he was reproached for a debunked article that falsely claimed that Julian Assange had met with Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, in the Ecuador Embassy. Glenn Greenwald went as far as to suggest that the Guardian story was symptomatic of the newspaper’s ‘institutionally blinding contempt for Assange’. Even the Washington Post thought that ‘the Guardian’s bombshell looks as though it could be a dud’. And though not himself a supporter of Trump, former British diplomat, Craig Murray, has repeatedly argued that Harding is a MI6 mouthpiece.

Likewise, since exposing the Cambridge Analytica scandal, for which she was awarded the Orwell Prize for Journalism, Cadwalladr was among several UK journalists, academics and military personnel who were named as ‘clusters of influence’ in a series of leaked files that revealed the inner workings of Integrity Initiative, a covert Foreign Office-funded intelligence operation. Journalists and politicians were quick to defend the project on the grounds that its primary purpose was to combat global ‘disinformation and malign influence’. However, it soon emerged that the organisation was also involved in framing spurious news about the then leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, via its Twitter account, prompting some Labour MPs to ask embarrassing questions in the House of Commons.

Cadwalladr’s credibility was further undermined after a three-year investigation into data analytics for political purposes by the UK Information Commissioner’s Office found that, ‘beyond some initial enquiries’ made by Cambridge Analytica (and its parent company, Strategic Communication Laboratories) in relation to UKIP data in the early stages of the referendum process’, the data company was ‘not involved in the EU referendum campaign in the UK’. Moreover, though the regulator did fine Facebook £500,000 for not doing enough to safeguard its users from their data being harvested, and the two main pro-Brexit campaign groups for unlawful marketing and sending out unsolicited emails in the run-up to the EU referendum, it concluded that there was no evidence of Russian involvement.

To add insult to injury, while containing numerous inferences such as ‘the preponderance of pro-Brexit or anti-EU stories on RT and Sputnik, and the use of bots and trolls, as evidence of Russian attempts to influence the process’, ultimately, the long-awaited 2020 UK Russia Report of the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee conceded that the ‘impact of any such attempts would be difficult – if not impossible – to assess, and we have not sought to do so’. Despite not finding any corroborating evidence of the Kremlin ‘influencing a UK democratic process’, the report still called for more powers for MI5 ‘to defend the UK against agents of a hostile foreign power such as Russia’. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the expert external witnesses included the neoconservative columnist, Anne Applebaum, Head of the controversial Institute for Statecraft (parent company for the aforementioned Integrity Initiative), Christopher Donnelly, opportunistic financier, William Browder, and former MI6 officer, Trump dossier author and Cadwalladr associate, Christopher Steele.

In a like fashion, McLaughlin could have said more about the various disclosures surrounding the media’s ties to UK and US military-intelligence, such as another batch of leaked documents that revealed Reuters’ and the BBC’s involvement in covert UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office programs aimed at fostering regime change in Russia and weakening the state’s influence across Eastern Europe and Central Asia by promoting pro-NATO narratives. Indeed, related unclassified documents show that the British government secretly funded Reuters throughout the 1960s and 1970s to disseminate anti-Soviet propaganda on behalf of MI6 in the Middle East and Latin America. And there are growing concerns that, post-Snowden at least, the Guardian has been successfully ‘neutralised’ by the security state, which might explain its treacherous betrayal of Assange. In short, there seem to be plenty of indications that old Cold War habits in the media have not gone away.

An Old Song or the Makings of a New Cold War?

Which brings us back to the present crisis over Ukraine. Not unlike Neal Ascherson’s recent observation that ‘Moscow’s obsessive wish to paralyse and subjugate the space between Russia and western Europe’ started with Peter the Great 300 years ago, Russia and the Media concludes by likening the past twenty-odd years to the Great Power games of the nineteenth century. Russia might no longer have ‘an ideology to export’ or ‘the reach of the old Soviet Union’ (p.182) but the wounded bear still half-remembers itself as an imperial power and, for the first time in a long time, senses an opportunity for reasserting its authority as an international player. Already, politicians and commentators are predicting a paradigm shift, an end to the post-Cold-War era of globalisation, a new international financial map, even a modern version of the 1945 Yalta agreement.

Whether Putin’s invasion of Ukraine inaugurates a new Cold War rhetoric and realpolitik remains to be seen. What is clear is that there are already noticeable similarities to much of the above-mentioned in terms of the media’s one-dimensional representations of the conflict and calculated mis-readings of Russia’s intentions. Already, several independent journalists have published insightful articles and interviews in recent weeks that question inter alia the media’s hawkish view leading up to the conflict, its usual demonisation of Putin as ‘madman’, ‘psychopath’ and ‘megalomaniac’, the universal blaming of Russia as the sole aggressor while glossing over Nato’s creeping expansionism, the moral hypocrisy and double standards over war crimes committed by Western forces in the Middle East, London’s opportunistic attitude towards Russia’s ‘gangster capitalism’ and the cancelling of all things Russian.

Former Guardian journalist, Jonathan Cook, has also noted that anyone who dares to question the media’s hegemonic narrative is dismissed as peddling trivial ‘whataboutery’ or being labelled a ‘Putin apologist’, no matter how sophisticated or cautious their analysis may be. For example, though it condemns Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the Stop the War Coalition was thrust under the media spotlight after the Labour whip demanded that eleven MPs withdraw their names from a public statement criticising Nato. But the Coalition’s convenor, Lindsey German, rightly argues that promoting peace doesn’t make someone a ‘fifth columnist’ acting against the ‘national interest’. Additionally, while there is a long history of witch-hunts opposed to anti-war groups of all types, as McLaughlin reminds us (pp.20-4), this has been particularly so in the case of East-West relations.

Again, to say all this is not to defend Russia’s war of aggression, the killing of innocent Ukraine civilians, the mindless bombing of a maternity hospital, the Kremlin’s own use of propaganda, and so on. Rather, and to come back to Russia and the Media’s perceptive line of argument, it is to ask the question: is there an alternative to the media’s explanations, one that offers ‘a more critical and nuanced perspective on this long-running, problematic relationship?’ (p.5). Only then might we begin to see through the fog of war, to puzzle through what are genuinely difficult issues and to move from knee-jerk reaction to a lasting solution. Meanwhile, we could do far worse than to reject hysterical polemics, to demand the withdrawal of Russian forces, neutrality for Ukraine, opening borders for refugees, and to continue denouncing militarism of any kind.

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