In 2020, for my book Russia and the Media: The Makings of a New Cold War, I concluded that the western media have reported on Russia and Vladimir Putin as direct threats to western interests. It is notable however that they have paid much less attention to the West’s policy of increasing encirclement of Russia’s western borders with missile placements in Poland and the Czech Republic, and interference in conflicts on Russia’s ‘near abroad’, namely Georgia and Ukraine. The current crisis, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, has brought the focus back on the problem of the country’s position as a nuclear power, and its difficult relationship with the West.
Here, I will examine British and Irish TV and press reporting of the invasion in the first three days, of the darker side of the western response, particularly the treatment of non-Ukrainian refugees on the border with Poland, and of Putin’s decision to raise the alert levels of Russia’s nuclear arsenal.
‘Shades of 1945’
Russia began its invasion in the early hours of Thursday, 24 February. The world had been watching the military build-up for weeks, waiting for an operation that would be fast and brutally effective. The BBC’s 10 0’Clock News spoke of, ‘A huge military offensive by land, sea and air’, while for Channel Four News Kyiv was ‘braced and afraid’. On BBC Newsnight, Mark Urban remarked that, ‘we thought it might happen but its scale and speed was still breath taking’. Gabriel Gatehouse remarked that ‘Putin (had) crossed the Rubicon’, making this ‘the most dangerous moment in Europe since the Cold War.’
Perhaps Gatehouse had forgotten, or assumed the viewers had forgotten, the precedents in media reporting like this. When the Russians beat NATO forces in a race to occupy Pristina airport in Kosovo in 1999, the Times story was headlined, ‘Shades of 1945 in the Russians’ advance’. It reminded readers how the race between the Allies and the Soviets to enter Berlin at the end of the Second World War ‘marked the start of the Cold War that lasted half a century’. This kind of ideological carbon dating is in fact a fundamental feature of western, international news reporting from its beginnings in the mid-19th century, providing readers with the markers with which to orientate themselves when caught up in tricky propaganda thickets.
Of the newspapers the next morning, seven of the eight sampled featured the front page photograph of a woman in Kharkiv, injured in one of Russia’s first bombings. The headlines all spoke to the image:
‘A dark day for Europe’ – Times
‘Putin To Seize Capital In Day – Day Evil Was Unleashed On Innocents’ – Daily Mail
‘The world gasped in horror yesterday as ‘bloodstained’ aggressor Putin launched terrifying, full-scale invasion. Redrawing Map Of Europe In Blood’ – Daily Express
‘Putin Invades’ – Guardian
The Sun led simply with the headline over the photograph: ‘Her Blood On Our Hands’. The Mirror constructed something more dramatic with a full front page montage featuring photographs of the woman and Vladimir Putin: ‘Her Blood…His Hands’. The Star’s version was a take on the theme song of the British television sitcom, Dad’s Army, ‘Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Putin’; complete with a Putin head shot, roughly coloured in black to represent Hitler’s hair style and moustache.
On Friday, the first day of press coverage, the newspapers were united across political leanings in their judgement of what the invasion meant for Ukraine and for relations with Russia. The Times said that Putin, ‘The New Tsar’, and Russia, would have to ‘pay a heavy price for its invasion’, while NATO would need ‘to protect all its members from further aggression’. For the Daily Mail, the invasion was ‘a monstrous act of war’ and it argued that ‘Britain has a solemn duty to offer (Ukraine) our steel and succour’. The Guardian viewed the crisis as ‘a disaster for Ukraine, and a bleak new beginning for all.’ And the Daily Mirror said that the West had failed ‘to halt further land grabs by a tyrant who has turned the Cold War into a scorching conflict’.
In Ireland, the Irish Times warned that ‘future generations will not forgive Europe’s leaders if they fail to stand against (Putin) – and in solidarity with Ukraine – at this dark hour’. Indeed, its columnist, Stephen Collins, denigrated politicians calling for a negotiated end to the conflict and urged the government to review the country’s long, historic principle of neutrality ‘Ireland must decide where it stands on Russia aggression’.
The next day, the Daily Mail’s ‘War In Europe Special’ edition could not resist but lend the coverage a Brexit angle: a report on Donald Tusk’s criticism of the EU’s half-hearted sanctions against Russia: ‘You’ve Disgraced Yourselves – that’s the verdict of one of their own as Tusk blasts bloc after oligarchs are spared sanctions on Gucci loafers’.
The flow of refugees from Ukraine in the first few days of war is, for the international media, one of the major tragedies of this conflict. The Daily Mail presented a two page collage of photographs showing refugees on different journeys and with different stories to tell, with the headline, ‘Long road to escape from hell’. ‘Kyiv is kaput’, was the Guardian’s headline quote from a refugee as ‘Thousands flee as Russian troops close in on capital.’ Correspondents for the popular news titles made much of their journeys with Ukrainan refugees who left by car and bus (Daily Mirror, Daily Mail) or by train (Guardian, Sun). Less well reported was the treatment of non-Ukrainian refugees at the border at Poland, by both Ukrainian and Polish border guards and officials. Noticeably, it was a few days before such stories appeared. The Guardian reported on the ‘Treatment of Africans trying to flee condemned’ (1 March) and how ‘People of colour fleeing to Poland are targeted by nationalists’ who were using social media to falsely accuse those refugees of violent crimes (3 March).
Putin – a psychological profile
There has been much coverage of Putin’s psychological disposition and how it might be driving his strategy. None of this is based on clinical, psychiatric evidence, but rather on speculation that conveniently declares the enemy leader as mad and incapable of rational negotiation. Throughout his career as President since 2000, Putin has been described in media reporting as ‘aggressive, brutal, a control freak, mad, paranoid’ and even as having ‘the moral backbone of an earthworm’. Now with the war in Ukraine, the Sun declared on its front page, on Monday 28 February, that ‘Mad Vlad Goes Nuclear’, while the Daily Star went further to tell us that ‘Bloody Vlad Really Has Lost the Plot. MADDER THAN A BOX OF FROGS. Kremlin crackpot in nuke threat’. A picture of Putin below was accompanied by one of Kermit the Frog, shouting: ‘You muppet!’
This has been a brief, critical overview of the opening salvoes in the British media’s war in Ukraine: full of impotent fury and a sense of powerlessness at the evil Putin is doing. Voices calling for an end of war are shouted down, ridiculed or, most commonly, totally ignored. And as Andy Beckett puts it in the Guardian, without those voices, ‘politics will be left to warmongers and their suppliers’ (4 March). One can only hope that the media’s hype and belligerence does not come to dominate the public discourse in Britain, or indeed in Ireland where there have been worrying statements from political leaders already. The actual war is a brutal conflict that needs to be stopped as soon as possible, and not talked up in editorial columns and broadcasting studios as a last stand between good and evil.
 The analysis includes TV news reporting of the invasion in the first three days, from Thursday 24th to Saturday 26th February and a sample of newspapers on Friday 25th and Saturday 26th. The TV news sample includes the 10 O’Clock news on BBC1, the News at Ten on ITV, Channel 4 News at 7pm and BBC2 Newsnight at 10.30pm. The newspapers include The Daily Telegraph, The Times, The Guardian, The Daily Mail, The Daily Express, The Daily Star and The Daily Mirror. The analysis also included the Irish Times, to see if it carried anything substantially different in tone and content from the British newspapers.
 Russia and The Media, Pluto Press, 2020; pp.96-97
 ibid; pp.187-190.
Greg McLaughlin is an Associate of the Centre for Media Research at Ulster University. He is the author of Russia and the Media: The Makings of a New Cold War and The War Correspondent. He is co-author with Stephen Baker of The Propaganda of Peace: The Role of Media and Culture in the Northern Ireland Peace Process and The British Media and Bloody Sunday.