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Artillery Row

Why can’t our media grow up?

We should be a lot more careful if war is at stake

It was alarming to look up from my dinner and see reports that a missile had struck Poland —  not least because I live there. An explosion was reported to have torn apart a peaceful evening on a farm in eastern Poland. 

At first I hoped that it had been the result of malfunctioning farm equipment. Soon, though, images of missile debris were released. There was something sickening about the scraps of torn metal — leering upwards — lying next to a humble tractor.

All kinds of morbid thoughts swim around your consciousness when something with such grave geopolitical implications occurs. I tried to think about the victims first. For them, and their friends and relatives, this was a horrendous tragedy regardless of who and what had caused it. Whatever took place, their loved ones are as dead.

By then, Twitter was aflame — broiling with a storm of claims, counter-claims, mutterings of doom and coal-black jokes, as it always is when news is breaking. 

An anonymous American official was reported to have said that a Russian missile had struck the farm. Now, anonymous testimony from an official from a nation which had not been struck by a missile should not have been considered proof of anything. It was a very plausible hypothesis given that Russian missiles had been falling on Ukraine all day. But it was unverified.

It was too late though. It had been accepted as fact. You can understand the average person hyperventilating about Russian missiles and world war. If they were not talking about it online they would be talking about it in their living rooms. What is striking in such moments, on the other hand, is the lack of restraint shown by people whose job is to know better.

“So Russia has now attacked a Nato country,” tweeted Clemens Wergin, Chief Correspondent for Die Welt. We did not know if it was a Russian missile. We did not know how it had ended up in Poland (whether, in other words, it had been aimed there or whether it was a horrible accident). But we all knew the potential implications of Russia attacking a NATO country. Mr Wergins knew them well. So, how could he be so childish as to jump the gun?

Russia denied being behind the attack. Zelensky, on the other hand, issued a statement saying, “This is a Russian missile attack on collective security! This is a very significant escalation. We must act.” “Article 5,” tweeted Ukrainian MP Lesia Vasylenko, referencing the NATO principle which holds that if one NATO member is attacked all the others will come to its defence.

Evidence of Russian guilt had still yet to emerge. The Polish authorities, and the NATO authorities, had no clear conclusions. Elements of the British media, though, had seen enough — apparently believing that they somehow knew better. “RUSSIAN BOMBS HIT POLAND,” the Mirror screamed on its front page. “Russian missile strikes Poland,” blared the Telegraph. These were not instant reactions being thoughtlessly tweeted. These were the results of high-level editorial decisions. Millions of Britons will have seen them today.

Time, though, has not favoured these front pages. The Telegraph is now reporting that American intelligence believes that the explosion was caused by a Ukrainian missile that had been meant to intercept Russian attacks. OSINT analysts studying pictures of the debris have similar suspicions.

Tellingly, instead of blaming Russia for the explosion, European politicians are blaming Russia for the fact that the explosion was a possibility — for, in other words, invading Ukraine to begin with. Ukraine “is having to defend its homeland against an illegal and barbaric set of strikes by Russia,” said Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. 

We should maintain the right to be sceptical

This is absolutely true. If Tom shoots a gun at Dick who then shoots back and hits Harry, Tom should not escape blame. He set those events in motion. But if it was a Ukrainian missile there are still valid questions to be asked about their anti-missile strategies — and about their knee-jerk attempt to encourage further NATO intervention in the conflict. Of course, we can understand their desire for support. We would seek it wherever we could if we were fighting for our nation’s life as well. But we should maintain the right to be sceptical.

Who knows? Maybe it was a Russian missile. Authoritative conclusions have yet to be drawn and perhaps preliminary assessments were mistaken. I would be a hypocrite if I claimed to know what happened.

But even if that is the case it will not legitimise the rush to declare what took place in the absence of reliable knowledge. The only cost to keeping quiet before the facts are known, in such circumstances, is that you might not get as much attention as you would have done if your reaction had preempted them. That is no excuse at the best of times — and certainly not when you are spreading inflammatory claims with millions of lives at stake. To be sure, NATO is not going to declare war because of what Clemens Wergin tweets and the Mirror puts on its front page. I have no desire to be hysterical about hysteria. But history teaches us that it can spread out of control with unintended consequences. How can our media remain so immature?

If Poland was attacked, as I dearly hope it won’t be, I like to think that I would volunteer to defend it. Few people would be more outraged and appalled than me. But until that day arrives we should keep our heads and seek a peaceful resolution to the war. Being careful and honest is the least we can do.

Rest in peace, again, to the victims. 

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