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Diary: The BBC and Ukraine: The Case of Uncomfortable Honesty


I AM a fan of the BBC and I deplore the attacks on it from across the political spectrum. I’m a particular fan of his reporting on Ukraine, which has been lively, comprehensive and courageous, just like most media. But, in holding the BBC to higher standards, as I tend to do, there is something wrong with its uncritical approach to Ukraine itself. This does a disservice to Ukraine and its heroic stance.

The facts themselves are an overwhelming argument for Ukraine’s cause. But supporting or not supporting Ukraine shouldn’t be the BBC’s business. And failing to highlight Ukraine’s failings, when they occur, not only weakens the BBC’s reputation as an impartial observer, but also reduces the chances that Ukraine will emerge from the torment inflicted by Russia. as a place of high standards and good government that Ukrainians deserve.

For example, the BBC – and others – have shown Ukrainian footage of Russian POWs in television interviews. This clearly breaches the relevant Geneva Conventions – and the BBC pointed this out when the Russians did 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 a military uniform, so could be a POW – and then filming him in humiliating circumstances and proposing that he be part of a swap deal – violates a whole host of international laws. I’ve seen the reports – but no reviews.

Nor has the BBC explained the seed of truth about denazification that Russian propaganda cynically and absurdly cultivated. It is unfortunately 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 official 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 conception of the Ukraine and, as the Azov Battalion showed, have the amazing bravery of true fanatics. Hiding this from us does not help us understand what is going on. It is even more difficult to understand why so many Russians believe the wildly distorted accounts they receive from their media. It could ultimately make us even more shocked and bewildered if these units end up behaving in uncomfortable ways, from the fierce criticism they began leveling at their own government to the possibility of serious human rights abuses. .

This in no way diminishes the appalling conduct of Russian forces in places like Bucha, nor their entire indefensible war. Nor is it to challenge the obvious justice of Ukraine’s cause and the skill and courage it brought to it. But to be helpful friends, we need to have an honest picture of them. And it’s a particular responsibility of the BBC, with its skills and reach, to give us that image.

George Fergusson is a retired senior diplomat