Western media and yesterday’s plebiscite in Crimea

17 March 2014

By John Crowfoot

It has been disconcerting to follow Western media coverage of Sunday’s referendum over Crimea’s future. And today the oddities continued. 

France 24 informed its readers that 95% of those who voted were in favour of Crimea becoming part of Russia. As Golos, the Russian election-monitoring NGO, commented there were no independent observers, either during the vote or the subsequent count. So it is possible but not confirmed that 95% were in favour. What cannot be true is the second assertion, repeated unthinkingly by France 24, that there was “an 83% turnout”! 

Over the past few weeks the mainstream TV news broadcasters in the UK and further afield (BBC, Sky News, Al Jazeera) have informed viewers: one, that ethnic Russians currently make up 58% of the peninsula’s population; and, two, that the remaining substantial minority of Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars were opposed to a change in status and likely to boycott the vote en masse. So where does an “83% turnout” claim come from? From the same source, I suspect, as today’s declaration that the conduct of the vote “met international standards”. 

Yesterday Sky's Katie Stallard gave a brief, excellent report abut the unease felt by elderly Tatars on seeing uniformed and armed men everywhere in Crimea: it reminded them, she explained, of 18 May 1944 when they were roused by Soviet soldiers, allowed to take nothing with them, and deported en masse to Uzbekistan and other distant locations for the next forty years. After Stalin’s “ethnic cleansing” of 1944, which emptied the Crimea first of Tatars, and then of Greeks, Bulgarians and Armenians, and imported settlers to take their place, the region indeed became predominantly Russian ( they were 71% of the population, according to the 1959 census). Unlike other deported nations the Crimean Tatars were not allowed back until the 1980s. 

This is the heart of the modern story of Crimea and its continuing relevance will be proved, I believe, over coming months as the Tatars, the most unified force in the Crimea, display the determination they showed from the late 1950s onwards, in the struggle to regain their homeland. This time, their revered leader Mustafa Djemilev has warned, younger Tatars are likely to be less stoic about any threat to their present existence and future and not always observe the non-violence of their parents’ generation. 

Yet Sky News also produced some oddities of its own. On Saturday public feeling against the Russian President’s Crimean venture, against the abrupt closure of major internet news websites, and in support of Ukraine’s independence, resulted in the largest demonstration in the Russian capital since 2012. The average age of the protestors, moreover, was higher than that of the mass youthful demonstrations in 2011-2012. Someone at Sky, entrusted with making snappy short captions for this protest numbering between 30 and 50,000 and the much smaller, obviously regimented (uniformed!) demonstration in favour of Crimea’s annexation, decided that the best way to distinguish them would be to call the first “Anti Russia” (!) and the latter “Pro Russia” (!!) Amazing but true. 

I await with interest a reply from Sky News as to why it concurred in such graphic fashion with the views of Russia’s National Leader and suggested that the much larger protest was made up of “traitors”. 

It has been the BBC, however, that has earned the dubious distinction of providing the most uncritical, Kremlin-friendly news items and reports about this sensitive subject. 

I thought Tim Wilcox, the news presenter, had misspoken when he referred in one BBC News broadcast to the Crimea’s “reunification” with Russia. But no, later that night the tickertape of news items scrolling across the bottom of the BBC 24 screen used exactly the same word “reunification”. This is not only a loaded term, it is quite misleading. When Crimea formed part of Russia both they and the Ukraine were all Soviet Socialist Republics within the USSR. The administrative, not to mention economic and logistical, integration of Crimea into today’s Russian Federation is quite a different matter. 

I thought at first a relatively young BBC reporter Christian Fraser was finding himself a little out of his depth. “Everyone I talk to here is excited by the prospect of Crimea joining Russia,” he said at one moment. Had he tried talking to the Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar residents of the peninsula? I asked in my first complaint to the BBC. And if they were reluctant to express their views to him, wasn’t he failing in his job as an objective reporter, capable of gaining people’s confidence and critical of what he was being told? The next day, however, veteran BBC journalist Ben Brown arrived. He also seemed swept up by the “mood of the majority”. He added an interesting twist to descriptions of the situation, referring to “the minority” in Crimea but the “large Russian population” in such eastern regions as Kharkov, Donetsk and Zaporozhe. Why, I asked (in a second complaint), not refer to the “large population” of Ukrainians in Crimea and talk about the “minority” Russian population in the eastern regions of Ukraine? 

These are all loaded terms – reunification, minority, large population – and it is not plausible that they were being carelessly used. After all the BBC Russian Service, over the same period, has produced impeccable, informed and informative reports, illustrating every side of this complex and sensitive subject (one report, for instance, cited polls establishing a 15% support level in Kharkov for closer ties with Russia – barely a majority even among the “large Russian population”). Perhaps the BBC in its wisdom decided to offer a more Russia-friendly view, to balance the uncompromising talk by William Hague? Perhaps the BBC wanted to challenge the persuasive and rather more detailed narrative about Crimea on CBS and other mainstream US TV channels? 

Whatever the truth, I think someone somewhere in the labyrinthine corridors of the British Broadcasting Service owes us all an explanation. The work done by the BBC Russian Service reconciles me to the annual and obligatory levy of the broadcasting licence. For those dependent on what has been on offer in English, and who feel as disappointed (shocked even) as I do by the poor quality of reporting about events in Crimea and Ukraine, and, even more, by their dubious interpretation by the BBC’s editors and correspondents, I would suggest you ask for your money back …