In his authoritative history of war correspondents, The First Casualty, journalist and historian, the late Philip Knightley, identified a dilemma that has long confronted journalists reporting conflict: whose side are they on? Knightley warns that the “aims of the military and the media are irreconcilable”. Soldiers want to win wars and hide the consequences of their actions from the world. Journalists want to depict the horror and write a “first draft of history”.
In Ukraine, this dilemma is diluted, at least for correspondents reporting about Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine for audiences in western democracies. Correspondents reporting for US, UK and EU-based broadcasters and newspapers know they are on the side of truth. The absence of Nato troops from the battlefield, the technology at their disposal and the Ukrainian government’s need for support give these 21st-century war correspondents an advantage over their predecessors.
Whether for radio, television, web or print, western correspondents in Ukraine can file instantly via satellite internet. Their words and pictures are not subject to direct censorship. They and their employers have access to images shared by Ukrainian soldiers and civilians. Some theorists refer to the latter as “citizen journalists”, but they may be better described as eyewitnesses. Journalists have always cherished eyewitness testimony and these days the ubiquity of mobile telephones with internet access means such testimony comes supported by evidence. All of which means that concealment of war crimes is exceptionally difficult – as the images of dead civilians on the streets of Bucha have demonstrated to chilling effect.
The resulting torrent of journalism delivers an unprecedented deluge of news from the frontlines. Correspondents covering the second world war, Vietnam, the Falklands and the Gulf War had neither the technology nor the freedom their modern counterparts enjoy. Today’s journalists must contend with a barrage of propaganda from the Ukrainian side – but, to be fair, the narrative of the war so far has played into the hands of Ukraine. Russian forces are bombarding Ukrainian towns and cities. Russian soldiers have killed civilians in cold blood. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was based on lies.
The ubiquity of eyewitness evidence, reinforced by access to reliable journalism even provoked protests against the war in some Russian cities before repression by Russia’s federal security service and police was reinforced by restricted access to the internet.
The response of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, to such journalism reveals the threat it poses. He has closed independent media outlets, blocked access to social networks such as Facebook and Twitter and introduced stiff jail sentences for anyone convicted of sharing what he cynically describes as “fake news”. The frontline correspondents are wise to note that neither side’s casualty figures are independently verifiable, but we know Ukrainian civilians are dying and that Russian tactics are brutal.
A new freedom exists in war reporting, and it is apparent to all who consume mainstream journalism. Reports from the conflict are putting western political leaders under increasing pressure. In the absence of Nato forces and the military censors they would bring with them, ministers in the liberal democracies have less power to control the news agenda than their predecessors possessed during the first and second world wars, the Falklands or the Gulf War. The consequences of non-intervention are vivid. Pressure to do more to help the government and armed forces of Volodymyr Zelensky is mounting and will continue to grow as the fighting continues.
Truth will out
Of course, the technologies that can share truth can also distribute lies. This is certainly happening, and not only in Russia. But the risk of being caught lying is high. Already, evidence exists that pictures taken in other, older conflicts have been deployed to mislead public opinion.
In the first week of the war, an image purporting to show Ukrainian troops “facing off” with Russian soldiers at an airbase was widely viewed on social media. In fact, it was eight-year-old footage shot during the Russian the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Misleading pictures have also been culled from the Syrian conflict and from video games. For careful detective work we must thank organisations such as Bellingcat the “citizen investigative journalist collective” and additional unprecedented use of open-source intelligence by journalists, researchers and amateurs who use open and freely available information to cast new light on the war.
But on the whole, citizens of liberal democracies can know more about the war in Ukraine than they have known about any previous conflict. The risk of reporting war is still high – as the deaths of journalists such as Fox News’ Oleksandra Kushynova and Pierre Zakrzewski on March 14 in the village of Horenka north of Kyiv demonstrate. But the balance has changed and evidence for which previous generations have had to await the release of military records and diligent work by historians is now almost instantly available to news consumers.
For perspective, imagine how the British withdrawal from Dunkirk in 1940 might have been depicted if it had been reported live from the beaches. Images of dead bodies floating face down in the sea would have made a much darker impression than Winston Churchill’s “miracle of deliverance” speech was intended to convey. Live pictures from Dresden during the RAF bombing raids in February 1945, or the nuclear strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki later that year, might have elicited considerable sympathy for German and Japanese civilians.
Whether such reactions would have been wiser than those that prevailed at the time is not the point here. The fact is that either side’s ability to manipulate or hide the truth is being overwhelmed by the development of new techniques for verifying facts and uncovering falsehoods. That, and the speed with which this verified information can reach its audiences, means that journalism can speak truth to power with renewed vigour. Today’s war correspondents can aspire to offer a more complete first draft of history.
Tim Luckhurst has received research funding from from News UK and Ireland Ltd. He is a member of the Society of Editors and the Free Speech Union. His forthcoming work is a book for Bloomsbury Academic - Reporting the Second World War: Newspapers and the Public in Wartime Britain.