Rebecca McQuillan: Ukraine shows ‘mainstream media’ have never mattered more than they do now

CLIVE Myrie’s smart coat was missing on Tuesday night. Presenting the BBC News At Ten from a mattress-strewn bunker, he wore a fleece and an unmistakeable air of sadness.

Myrie’s humanity and calm amid the unfolding horror in Ukraine has garnered widespread admiration, and rightly so.

But, as he’s been at pains to point out, there are so many others risking their safety to tell the story of Ukraine, both from the BBC and beyond. They include his redoubtable colleagues Lyse Doucet, Orla Guerin, Sarah Rainsford, and Moscow editor Steve Rosenberg, the latter facing a different sort of discomfort reporting from inside Russia, not to mention legions of journalists from ITN, Channel 4, Sky, and newspapers from the UK and beyond.

This is the widely derided “MSM” – the mainstream media – showing how much we need them.

According to the Ukrainian military, 1000 foreign journalists have been in Ukraine in the last week, in addition to many home journalists, there to bear witness to the horrifying reality of Russia’s “special operation” and in so doing, expose the carefully constructed lies of the Russian government.

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This includes the lie that civilians have not been targeted.

ITN delivered a devastating report on Tuesday from a Mariupol hospital, as a doctor and his team frantically tried to resuscitate a six-year-old girl, willing her to start breathing. As the appalling scene unfolded, one heartbroken doctor swore furiously at Putin and another broke down in tears. The wee girl could not be revived – a tragedy beyond words.

This is the reality of Putin’s war.

Interviewed by his BBC colleague Christian Fraser, Clive Myrie was asked how he and his crew made the decision to go to Kyiv, putting themselves at risk. He said: “No one forces us to come here… We wanted to tell the story of this war accurately and fairly.”

He added: “There is so much crap out there that is misinformation, propaganda, nonsense.

You’re trying to be truthful to this story, you’re trying to represent the people who are having to cower down here, you want to represent them fairly.”

And that’s it; that’s why good journalism matters. In this war, waged by a murderous dictator in information as well as ammunition, it’s the testimony of trusted journalists that the public relies on to know the truth.

But professional journalists who work to old-fashioned rules, and the organisations they work for, have been under sustained attack now for years.

As politics has become more divisive here in the UK and voters more disaffected, so abuse of individual journalists and sweeping condemnation of journalists as a group, has intensified. The motivation is often political, against perceived bias (such as the abuse of BBC political editor Laura Kuennsberg, accused of bias against Jeremy Corbyn), and has come from both left and right. Here in Scotland, Sarah Smith, now the BBC’s US editor, described last month how glad she was to be leaving the “bile, hatred and misogyny” of Scottish politics after being subjected to vitriolic abuse as Scotland editor.

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Some critics are genuinely angered at feeling their voices are not represented by journalists but others wish to discredit and silence those asking difficult questions.

Donald Trump’s branding of independent newspapers and broadcasters as the “fake news media” prompted laughter when he first took office in 2017 amid overblown claims about the size of his inauguration crowd, but so relentlessly did he hammer home the slur (he used it 2,000 times in four years) and so readily was it repeated on social media, that no one is laughing now.

Almost exactly a year ago, Clive Myrie gave a lecture in which he defended the BBC and media regulation, warning that deregulating would lead us down a dark road. He said: “Impartiality rules and strong regulation are the bulwark against the disaster of the American media jungle being replicated here, with its attendant detrimental effects on democracy,” pointing to a Reuters Institute survey showing the BBC was the most trusted news brand in the US, trust in American brands having been so badly battered.

Now it appears that the BBC is a trusted voice of this war among millions of Russians too. Figures released on Wednesday show that the weekly audience for the BBC’s Russian language site has tripled, from 3.1m last week to 10.7m. Could it be that Russian viewers fed a diet of Kremlin propaganda on state TV are seeking out a foreign broadcaster with a reputation for fairness and honesty? We can only imagine how horrified they must be at what they are learning from it.

Those on the populist right who routinely deride the “MSM” as craven agents of a corrupt elite, have a particular beef with the BBC being licence-fee funded. And the BBC should never be beyond criticism. But while free market ideologues despise it on principle, someone taking a balanced view would consider the huge benefits we get from having a licence-fee funded network subject to strict impartiality rules. A balanced view would notice that the BBC is the envy of many around the world. As we are seeing, people living far beyond the UK are turning to it in this time of war.

How misguided we would be to destroy it.

It’s not that reporters don’t make mistakes – of course they do and they always will. Sometimes an individual journalist will allow bias to show. But what is not justified is the disproportionate reaction such incidents provoke. Criticism of even minor perceived wrongdoing is often amplified to yelling pitch on social media, while the obvious good that journalists do, frequently passes with barely a mention.

The MPs’ expenses scandal, Dominic Cummings lockdown-breaking trip to Durham, the David Cameron Greensill scandal and the Downing Street parties, were all exposed by old-fashioned newspaper journalists doing their jobs – hardly the work of establishment stooges.

There has long been disaffection with a London press that over-represents the right. Then the phone-hacking scandal of 15 years ago, centring mainly on the behaviour of News International tabloids, dragged the behaviour of journalists in general into the spotlight. The scrutiny was much needed and well overdue.

But most journalists I’ve ever met were and are far removed from such behaviour, and operate by rules they do not always see replicated among their critics.

Reporters on trusted titles like The Herald, which eschews sensationalism, have it hammered home to them by rigorous news editors that they are not the story – the story is the story. You present the facts, you represent diverse views; you do not go beyond the facts. There is a clear line: if people want opinion, they’ll get it on the opinion pages, so the thinking goes. News pages are for news. It’s the job of reporters to strive to present the truth.

That’s what Myrie and all those other journalists are in Ukraine are doing.

They can’t prevent the tragedies, but they can honour the people of Ukraine and counter lies by representing reality. We should recognise how lucky we are to have them. Truth the first casualty of war? Not if Ukraine’s legion of journalists can help it.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.

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