Agenda: The BBC and Ukraine: the case for uncomfortable honesty

·3-min read
Members of Ukraine’s Azov National Brigade
Members of Ukraine’s Azov National Brigade

By George Fergusson

I AM a fan of the BBC and lament the attacks on it from across the political spectrum. I am a particular fan of its reporting from Ukraine, which has been vivid, full and brave, as has much of the media. But, holding the BBC to higher standards, as I tend to, there is something wrong with its uncritical approach to Ukraine itself. That does Ukraine and its heroic stand no favours.

The facts by themselves make an overwhelming case for Ukraine’s cause. But supporting, or not supporting, Ukraine should not be the BBC’s business. And failing to highlight Ukraine’s failings, when they occur, not only weakens the BBC’s standing as an impartial observer: it also reduces the chances of Ukraine emerging from its Russian-inflicted torment as the place of high standards and good government that Ukrainians deserve.

For instance, the BBC – and others – have shown Ukrainian filming of Russian PoWs in television interviews. That is clearly in breach of the relevant Geneva Conventions – and the BBC has pointed this out when the Russians have done it. The arrest of a prominent Ukrainian oligarch, with a notorious pro-Russian stance, was perhaps understandable. But declaring that his arrest was justifiable because he was found wearing military uniform, so could be a PoW – and then both filming him in humiliating circumstances and proposing that he be part of a swap arrangement – breaches a whole range of international laws. I have seen the reports – but no criticism.

The BBC has also failed to explain the seed of truth about de-Nazification which Russian propaganda has grown cynically and absurdly. It is sadly true that several neo-Nazi militias, formed when Russia attacked eastern Ukraine in 2014, were absorbed as small private armies, with substantial autonomy, into the formal Ukrainian armed forces: the Sich Brigade, for example, and the better-known Azov Battalion. They are alarming entities. They don’t look good under scrutiny. They are passionately loyal to their concept of Ukraine and, as the Azov Battalion has shown, have the astonishing bravery of real zealots. Hiding this from us does not help us understand what is going on. It makes it even more difficult to understand why so many Russians believe the wildly contorted accounts they get fed by their media. It may in the end make us the more shocked and puzzled if these units eventually behave in ways that are uncomfortable, from the fierce criticisms they have begun to make of their own government to the possibility of serious abuses of human rights.

This doesn’t diminish the appalling conduct of Russian forces in places like Bucha, or their whole indefensible war. Nor is it to challenge the clear justice of Ukraine’s cause and the skill and courage which they have brought to it. But to be helpful friends, we need to have an honest picture of them. And it is a particular responsibility of the BBC, with its skills and reach, to give us that picture.

George Fergusson is a retired senior diplomat

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