Tuesday 4 March 2014

Chicken Kiev, the BBC and Russia

My goodness, last night's Newsnight was quite something. 

Especially remarkable was the tone it adopted over the Russia-Ukraine conflict - particularly during Emily Maitlis's interview with the newly-appointed Ukrainian interim economic minister, Pavlo Sheremeta.

Mr Sheremeta (who seems a reasonable sort of chap, unaffiliated to any party) told her that the only way forward is for Ukraine to remain calm, try to understand Russia's objections, and de-escalate the conflict through purely peaceful means. 

Again and again, in response, Emily asked Mr Sheremeta about why Ukrainian forces have failed to respond so far. ("So Russia is ON your military bases. Do you call THAT negotiation?", "How far will you let Russia go before YOU take action?", "Let me just clarify then. It sounds from what you're saying, like you are ruling out any kind of military response to what is going on there now. Is that right?").

What was peculiar though was her use of an incredulous tone of voice whilst putting those questions to Mr Sheremeta. 

That incredulous tone felt completely misjudged to me. 

And it was more than just incredulous. It sounded almost gung-ho, as if Emily Matlis were Mrs Doyle from Father Ted saying "Go on, go on, go on, go on..." to the reluctant Ukrainian government minister. (We can only be grateful that she didn't start going, "bawk, bawk, bawk, bawk, bawk", and flapping her arms around like a chicken.)

This wasn't very responsible interviewing, in my opinion. 

And that wasn't Emily Maitlis's only dogged pursuit of an angle in this section of last night' Newsnight. 

Emily was also keen to pursue the story of the accidental breach of security outside Downing Street yesterday, when a document was glimpsed (by eagle-eyed cameramen) showing that Britain rules out military action and tough financial sanctions against Russia. 

She pursued it with both Mark Urban and Senator John McCain, and in the case of Senator McCain, seemed very clearly to be fishing for criticism of the British government. ("How do you respond then to Western powers who will rule out military engagement or, indeed, tough financial sanctions?", "Tonight we saw documents from the UK government, inadvertently, showing they were not for now supporting trade sanctions or closing the financial centre to Russians. Is that the right approach?").

Senator McCain described himself as "disappointed".

Let's move on.

Senator McCain (unlike the always level-headed Mark Urban) is gung-ho for action against Russia, and the other guest who was due to appear on the programme, John Bolton, takes a very similar line to Mr McCain on the present situation...

...so it was probably a good thing then that Mr Bolton bolted just before the interview began (due to a prior engagement), or we would have heard the same views twice.

John Bolton has long been one of Newsnight's go-to men. He's their 'robust U.S. right-winger of choice'. 

His near-presence took me back to the days of the Iraq War, when he'd play the part of the 'bad guy' in Newsnight discussion after Newsnight discussion, set against the BBC's 'good guy', Sir Ming Campbell. 

Sir Ming used to be on the BBC so often during the Iraq War that it's long been rumoured that he used to have his own bed in the Newsnight studio. (Clare Short was said to have used the same bed too - though not at the same time.) 

As there's war afoot, Sir Ming was Newsnight's natural first choice for a British guest. The call duly went in. Had Mr Bolton stayed put, they would have both been reunited. Which would have been super.

Naturally, Sir Ming doesn't like Putin one bit, but he was up against Newsnight's 'robust Russian right-winger of choice', Alexander Nekrassov - and Mr Nekrassov (a former Yeltsin advisor) has (from what I've seen of him) become more and more pro-Putin as time passes. 

And he's becoming something of a fixture on Newsnight too. (Being a keen tweeter himself, he'll doubtless appreciate the fact that the liberal Twitterati seem to have a collective nervous breakdown every time he appears).

There's no prizes for guessing who Emily Maitlis went after here. And strongly too.

Yes, Alexander Nekrassov got all of the disapproving challenges while Sir Ming was allowed to do his thing in piece (with one half-hearted devil's advocate question being asked, for 'balance'.)

Bad, bad Russia! - that sums up the tenor of Emily's questioning here.

Which leads me to reflect...(and please tell me if you think I'm talking nonsense!)...

People like me, thirty years ago, would often accuse elements at the BBC of being 'soft' on the Soviet Union - a 'softness' that stood in sharp contrast to the corporation's strenuous questioning of U.S. foreign policy back then. Some of us felt that the possible cause of that display of 'understanding' towards our enemy in the Cold War might have had its roots in the BBC's left-wing bias.

Nowadays, things could hardly be more different. It's as if the world has spun around 180 degrees. 

Now it's Russian spokesmen who are grilled by BBC interviewers and U.S. politicians (at least since the Obama administration came to power) who get the easier ride.

This tendency seems to have become a full-blown bias in the last few years. 

Whether it be over gay rights, or Greenpeace, or Pussy Riot, or its policy towards Syria, the BBC seems to have become openly hostile to the Russian government in a way which would have been unthinkable in the days of the old U.S.S.R.

I remember - and I now regret not blogging about it - a remarkable Newsnight debate last year based around Stephen Fry's calls for a boycott of the Sochi Olympics over Russia's new anti-gay laws. 

There were four guests - three anti-Putin and one pro-Putin. Kirsty Wark gave just one of them a hard time: the pro-Putin guest, our friend Alexander Nekrassov. So much so, that the debate became 'four against one', and it was perfectly clear where Kirsty's sympathies lay.

And, at around the same time, I recall both Paddy O'Connell and Eddie Mair giving Russian spokesmen a real going-over (Paddy hotly, Eddie icily) over the same issue - gay rights. (Alas, neither interview is available to 'listen again' now). 

There's, of course, a good case to be made that BBC interviewers should give pro-Putin spokesmen a severe grilling, especially over issues of human rights and - above all - if Russia is invading another country, IF those interviewers keep their own emotions and biases from becoming too evident during the interview [if we're sticking to the BBC's own take on 'impartiality', that is], but it does strike me as interesting that there really does seem to be a strong emotional bias against Putin's Russia on display at the BBC at the moment. 'Putinism' seems to offend them.

Do you agree?

Putin's calculating claim to be the leader of world conservatism last year, his outwitting of Obama over war in Syria (a war most people dreaded), his utter lack of political correctness, his machismo, his heavy-handedness with Greenpeace, all these things (and many more) seem to be winning him hordes of admirers (or half-admirers) across the right-leaning ends of the webosphere.

Whenever I read the comments at The Telegraph, The Spectator, The Daily Mail, Biased BBC, etc, I'm struck by the sheer width (if not depth) of such support for the Russian leader. (There are, of course, plenty of exceptions too).

That being the case, it's hardly surprising to find the largely left-leaning (or, at the very least, firmly non-right-leaning) BBC recoiling in horror at Putin and everything he stands for (or pretends to stand for).

The current crisis in Ukraine is raising tensions across the right-leaning webosphere though. Some are aghast that so many right-wing commenters are actively backing Putin's military intervention in Ukraine. (And something similar seems to be going on on the Left too.)

At this point I should tell you where I stand [as, on the blogosphere, everyone must have an opinon] but, frankly, I'm all over the place on this. The world is becoming a very confusing place.

A few years back, I was appalled at Putin's canny filleting of Georgia and its nice pro-Western president. Then it transpired that my black and white views were probably misguided. That nice president turned out to be corrupt and authoritarian and unpopular (albeit full of redeeming contradictions too), and maybe the people in the break-away regions (who Putin so cleverly exploited) did have some legitimate grievances at the way the Georgians had treated them after all.

That taught me a lesson.

Today's situation in Ukraine has parallels. It's 'shades of grey' all the way, and I feel deeply conflicted about it.

On the one hand, it's a case of Ukrainians (many right-leaning) crying out for democracy and probity in public office against a corrupt post-Soviet (former) president with a strong air of stupidity, venality and brutality about him, who imprisoned opposition leaders and grew increasing undemocratic, then rising up against him and being killed (in some numbers) by brutal state security forces, before eventually triumphing.

It's like 1989 all over again (and I loved 1989).

The Russian invasion is, therefore, a case of The Empire Striking Back, and Putin's claims that the new government is 'fascist' and anti-Semitic are clearly a calculated exaggeration.

Plus, and probably not incidentally, 'Russians invading places' is a concept I've spent decades holding to be, self-evidently, 'a bad thing', and the former KGB-man obviously also has a keen interest in permanently securing Russia's naval base in Crimea (especially given the closing of his 'Syria option') and keeping Ukraine tied into his energy policy.

On the other hand, those far-right, anti-Semites who spearheaded the violence against the Yanukovych government, and forced it out, do exist.

Despite Edward Lucas of The Economist's suggestion (can't remember where I read it) that such elements might be a Putin false flag, I've seen that Gabriel Gatehouse (BBC) report showing that such people really do exist (in some numbers) and I've followed Harry's Place (like Sue) enough to know that the nationalist Svoboda party does contain anti-Semites, and it now holds four government seats (including the defence ministry). I'm not comfortable with that. Svoboda (like Hungary's Jobbik) isn't just a Russian false flag. Such people exist, and there are more and more of them around.

Plus the new government did rise up against a democratically-elected government and then immediately passed (without any democratic mandate) a law restricting the use of the Russian language. Putin (and his people) might well regard that in an unfavourable light.

Shades of grey everywhere, eh? (And probably more than fifty of them).

tl;dr too, eh?

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