Belfast Telegraph

Good and bad of journalism in aftermath of air tragedy

By Paul Connolly

Journalists' principles were on display again this week: some good, some bad. On the plus side, a Russia Today reporter based in London resigned in protest at the station's coverage of the crash of flight MH17 in Ukraine.

Sara Firth had worked there for five years. She described the Malaysia Airlines flight crash coverage as "the straw that broke the camel's back for me" and resigned at the beginning of the week.

Having previously stated that facts are sacred – as they should be for all reporters – I don't think Sara had any choice. But she finally took the honourable option. Most people won't know Russia Today, a satellite channel known as RT. It's a Russian-Government-funded station that offers a Moscow-centric view of the world.

In principle, there's nothing wrong with that. The Western media offers a Western-centric view of the world, too. News outlets generally reflect the lives and interests of their readers/viewers.

But in certain sensitive areas RT often appears unduly sympathetic to the Kremlin's world and domestic view, rather than undertaking serious, independent journalism.

The crisis in Ukraine is a critical case in point. There is much about Russia's suspicious behaviour in Crimea and eastern Ukraine that deserves investigation; a treasure trove of stories awaits (a lesson the US media learned when it failed to properly question the build-up to war in Iraq).

But that's not in the DNA of RT. It tends, despite a decent amount of gloss, to reflect the Kremlin's line at times of crisis. This reflects the partial subjugation of the most influential Russian media to Putin's will, often by advertising appointments to key media positions.

This cannot happen in a vacuum: the sad truth is that the general Russian public is completely in agreement with the Putin narrative of past and present and concurs with the most jingoistic of coverage. When you have access to nothing else, what else will you believe? Control works (in the short-term, anyway).

The result is a supine media running a toxic mix of nationalistic propaganda. As an exaggerated example, note this week the promotion of the bonkers theory that MH17 was in fact a "ghost jet" stuffed with dead bodies and crashed into rebel-held areas to discredit the separatists and Russia.

As "evidence", there was an "absence of blood on the corpses", apparently. Reminds me of the old Northern Ireland ploy of when people are presented with a fact that might be inconvenient they respond, not with an empirical answer, but with a question: "Are you really telling me that ... ? Is it a coincidence that...?" Or the lazy old "What about...?".

I'm not for a second saying all Russian journalism is like this. There are many everyday slogging reporters and also courageous dissidents. But in key foreign issues, and on questions of domestic dissent, agreement on the Kremlin line is unusually common.

Doubtless RT will defend its reputation. But why then does its funding model accept Government cash? Russia is a vast country with a large hinterland and area of influence. There is surely room for funding for an independent international channel.

So, well done, Sarah Firth for resigning. But, given the years of questions about RT's partiality, what took you so long?

Not that all is perfect in the garden of Western reporting, by the way.

UK hacks couldn't believe their eyes when a Sky News reporter rummaged through items in an MH17 victim's suitcase during a live broadcast.

Sky apologised after its reporter Colin Brazier lifted a toiletry bag and keys from a suitcase.

He did immediately appear to realise what he'd done, saying: "We shouldn't really be doing this, I suppose."

That's right, Colin. You were damned wrong to do it. Have a bit of respect. @BelTelReaderEd

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