Last week’s release of the Dutch Safety Board’s final report on the downing of MH17 held no surprises.
While this essentially technical report had no brief to cast blame for the tragedy, no-one familiar with the evidence seriously doubts that MH17 was shot down by pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine using a Buk missile system supplied by Russia. Rebel commander Igor Strelkov actually tweeted the good news that his forces had shot down a Ukrainian Antonov military plane before realising the horrible truth and deleting the post.
Since then, to the distress of the bereaved in several countries, Vladimir Putin’s “political technology” – his government’s propaganda apparatus as deployed on platforms such as social media and international TV channel Russia Today – has been denying responsibility and blaming the deaths of those 298 innocent travellers on the Ukrainian “neofascists” and US imperialists.
There are, depressingly, many in the West who buy into the Russian state’s narrative on this story, or at least argue that it should be given credence in the name of objectivity and balance. The phrase “Russia denies” is heard frequently on the BBC and ABC, even when what is being denied is self-evidently true.
One of Putin’s media advisers, Gleb Pavlovzky, has said with pride that:
We [the Russians] live in a mythological era. We have gone back to the Ancient World where the distinction between myth and reality didn’t exist.
And this boldly postmodern approach to information management has not been unsuccessful in relation to Russia’s activities in eastern Ukraine.
Back in the UK recently, I couldn’t help but notice how many people recommended Russia Today as a credible alternative source to mainstream media coverage of foreign affairs. Even the former Scottish first minister and aspiring “father of the nation” Alex Salmond has, with no reference to the 70-plus journalists killed in Russia in Putin’s period as leader, appeared on Russia Today denouncing the “bias” of the BBC.
Russia’s approach to the media management of this incident contrasts dramatically with that which accompanied an earlier civilian airline shootdown – that of Korean Airlines Flight 007 in 1983. My 1986 PhD (published as Images of the Enemy in 1988) explored Western media coverage of the Soviet Union, and devoted an entire chapter to this case of what I characterised then as incompetent political communication by the Soviet regime.
Having mistaken KAL 007 for a US spy plane, a Soviet fighter shot it down over Kamchatka, killing all 269 passengers and crew. In those pre-digital days the Soviets, to their credit, accepted responsibility for firing the fatal shot, while blaming the CIA for recklessly putting the airliner in danger.
A uniformed, anonymous general fronted a media conference in which he showed the flight path of KAL 007 and that of a US military aircraft which had been flying closeby. The mistake was explicable, he argued, and the CIA were the real culprits.
Watching coverage of the KAL shootdown was a rising party leader by the name of Mikhail Gorbachev. He interpreted the stilted, robotic performance of the general as an example of what was wrong with Soviet-era political communication. As one Moscow correspondent at the time put it to me:
Say nothing, and if you have to say something, say as little as possible.
Notwithstanding the general’s account – later verified by US investigative journalists – then-US president Ronald Reagan, justifiably remembered as the Great Communicator, was successful in commanding the global news agenda with an “image of the enemy” as “terrorist” and “barbaric”. KAL 007 was proof, he argued, that the Soviet Union was an “Evil Empire”.
Gorbachev used KAL 007 in his promotion of “glasnost”, or openness – by which he meant official transparency in the communication of information, including bad news stories such as the shooting down of KAL 007. When he came to power in 1985 he transformed the Soviet approach to information management, and became, in Margaret Thatcher’s view, “a man we can do business with”.
KAL 007, in a very real sense, ended the Cold War of the 1980s by encouraging those in the party leadership who sought a more “user-friendly” approach to information management and governmental communication.
The aftermath of MH17 is more complex, less predictable. Russia is both weaker and stronger than the Soviet Union in 1983. Putin says and does what he likes, and no-one wishes to call his nuclear-tipped bluff.
We await the outcome of the criminal investigation now underway to determine who pulled the trigger on MH17 and why. Unlike the Soviets in 1983, Putin and his advisers have used the globalised public sphere and its digital channels to present a narrative in which Russia is a victim rather than a perpetrator.
Brazen denial of the obvious is Putin’s preferred communication strategy, until such time as he feels strong enough to simply admit to what everybody always knew was true.