The BBC is a fine institution, widely and rightly acclaimed for its impartial news service among other things. However, on Crimea it has been consistently out-reported by ITV, Sky and Channel 4 (as well as a range of non-UK channels) – because the BBC does not understand the issue and has not invested in enough quality journalism to put that deficiency right.
Yesterday’s reporting of the referendum in Crimea was a fine example of how the BBC has comprehensively missed the point. Its reporter was reasonable enough on the facts, but her analysis was shockingly inept. Essentially, she reported:
- the referendum has taken place and been deemed “illegal” by other countries;
- the referendum was boycotted by some groups unhappy at the absence of a “status quo” option;
- Russia will probably be content with Crimea because it will be an economic drain, so it won’t be going for East Ukraine and certainly not for “Lithuania” because it’s in the EU and NATO.
Aside from the last (which we’ll come to), these are not unreasonable points in themselves. But they completely miss the big picture. Partly, perhaps, this is because of the BBC’s pledge of impartiality – “Other countries say it’s illegal, Russia says it’s legal, so we’ll let the viewers make their minds up”; and partly it is a failure of analysis (a growing and widespread problem).
The referendum is illegal; that is not something to be left to the viewer, that is a matter of fact. More than that, it is a very important matter of fact, for reasons well beyond mere sovereignty.
Rarely reported but fundamental to this case is the 1994 Budapest memorandum. This wasn’t just a quick chat between a few powers pledging to accept Ukraine’s sovereignty. It was an agreement that Ukraine would give up all the nuclear weapons on its territory in return for protection of its sovereignty and territorial integrity by the three original nuclear powers (the United States, Russia as successor to the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom).
Put another way, it was agreed in return for Ukraine giving up the ultimate defence system, that it constituted a single sovereign unit (incorporating Crimea). No part of its can unilaterally secede – and if it does, all three signatories are bound to protect it.
What has happened is that one of those powers, far from protecting Ukraine, has mounted a subtle invasion of part of its territory, and thus blatantly breached the agreement. Let’s note this again: Ukraine gave up nuclear weapons in return for Russia’s protection of its sovereignty – and Russia is now the very country breaching those terms!
The consequences of this do not bear thinking about. How is one to defuse the situation in South Asia, where both India and Pakistan now have nuclear weapons? How is one to defuse the situation in North Korea? How is one, most of all, to defuse the situation in the Middle East, where Israel (ahem) already has and Iran soon will have nuclear weapons? Remember, as of March 2014, “You don’t need nuclear weapons, we’ll protect you” isn’t worth the paper it’s written on…
Even leaving aside the Big Picture, there are some more details about the Small Picture any journalist on the ground at the location should have picked up.
For example, of Sevastopol’s 385,462 residents, an astonishing 474,137 managed to vote for Russia. The basic rigging of the referendum should have been first item! (Even this is before noting Sevastopol’s special status outside Ukraine’s autonomous Crimea area; there was no reason for Sevastopol to vote on any Crimea issue at all, in other words.)
Even all of this is to leave quite aside the point that the Tatars in Crimea are now completely vulnerable to the hated Russians, of whom their recent experience is one of forced deportation.
As for the last bullet point, the reporter’s answer is laughable. Here are a few bullet points of my own:
- Putin couldn’t give a stuff about economic drains, he is all about himself and he will simply blame Western sanctions for any economic misfortunes;
- Russia didn’t stop in Georgia so it’s hardly going to stop now – eastern Ukraine is indeed on the list (we know this because it has already sent people in); and
- he won’t bother with Lithuania because it has the smallest “Russian” population of all the Baltic states, but he has already waged cyber-war on Estonia and stated an interest in goings-on in Latvia.
The underlying notion, stated by the BBC Reporter, that Putin isn’t really behind events in Crimea is just shockingly ludicrous. What is more, the order of events is unbelievably obvious:
- he was already in possession of a chunk of Moldova his troops were supposed to leave in 1997 (the West did nothing);
- he maintained possession of a chunk of Georgia by force in 2008 (the West did nothing);
- he has now taken a chunk of Ukraine by tricks and force in 2014 (the West did nothing);
- he may as well now take more chunks of Ukraine (the West has proved it will do nothing);
- so why not the Baltics next, exactly? Because they’re members of NATO? You mean the military alliance headed by the two countries other than Russia which signed up to protect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and then did nothing about it?
Putin may well opt not to recognise Crimea as part of Russia, but as sovereign in its own right, at least initially. Why does no one mention this? It is what he or his predecessors did in Moldova (Transnistria) and Georgia (South Ossetia and Abkhazia) – frozen states under Russian domination which the West pretends are integral to their home country (and thus pretends not to need to bother with). It suits all sides.
This is pretty basic stuff, yet what the BBC reported flew directly in the face of it – one can only assume the Reporter had forgotten Georgia and knew nothing of Moldova?
It was a poor report from an organisation which has never properly got up to speed on the issue because it functioned only with reporters, not journalists. ITV’s James Mates and the entire Channel 4 crew, on the other hand, have been busy on the ground finding things out (and also, very effectively, using social media as well as broadcasts). Frankly, we would be better informed by googling stuff ourselves than from the BBC updates! The BBC needs to cut a few senior executive wages and invest in proper journalists.
Of course, another part of the problem is the BBC isn’t impartial. It has an innate bias towards professional, civilised, liberal people. Small wonder it comprehensively misses the point when it comes to dealing with Vladimir Putin…