Media Analysis

What the misreporting of the Ukraine famine in the 1930s tells us about the press today

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Seeing the film “Mr. Jones” set me reading several books on the Ukraine famine of 1932/33, the so-called Holodomor, that killed almost four million people.  The books were written by Anne Applebaum, Timothy Snyder and Dr. Margaret Siriol Colley, the niece of the real-life protagonist, Gareth Jones, who visited the Ukraine and revealed the famine. 

The deaths were the result of Stalin’s policies, notably the collectivization of agriculture, the destruction of the so-called kulak class of family farmers, the forced requisitioning of surplus grain to feed an expanding urban working-class population and for export, and the deliberate suppression of the autonomous Ukrainian identity, which Stalin irrationally saw as a door to foreign invasion.   He pursued these policies relentlessly, overriding all objections and in the knowledge of the consequences, so we may reasonably describe them as genocide.

The West’s reaction to Jones’s revelations reflects poorly on the 1930s mainstream media.  Fellow journalists and newspapers worked to discredit him, and his findings were hardly talked about for many years, only coming fully to light after the independence of Ukraine in 1989. 

Gareth Jones, legendary Welsh journalist who exposed Ukraine famine at age 27 and died in 1935 at age 30 in Mongolia. (Photo: WalesOnline)

There were various causes, including sympathy for the Soviet experiment among western journalists, intellectuals and left/liberal politicians.  This was the case with George Bernard Shaw, David Lloyd George (who had employed the young Jones after he graduated from Cambridge) and journalists Walter Duranty and Louis Fischer.  This was of course the decade when the Soviets were making spies of other Cambridge graduates like Kim Philby, Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess.

The Soviets ruthlessly manipulated foreign journalists, controlling their accreditation and ability to travel within the country, requiring them to obtain permission to file their articles and expelling those who did not comply.  The leading journalist resident in Moscow was the British-born New York Times correspondent and Pulitzer prize-winner, Walter Duranty.   In practice, he was a Soviet stooge who used his international prestige to rubbish the young Jones’s findings and play down the famine.  Worse still, the rest of the Moscow international press corps did a deal with the Soviet Censor that let Duranty’s untruthful version go unchallenged. 

Walter Duranty, New York Times reporter
Walter Duranty, New York Times reporter

In addition, the leading Western powers did not wish to make an issue of the famine.  President Roosevelt was most concerned with the problems of American workers caught up in the Great Depression, and welcomed closer relations with the Soviet Union.  The Soviets were seeking American recognition, and when they achieved this in November 1933, Duranty was fêted for his contribution.   Meanwhile, British and French Governments were beginning to see the Soviet Union as a potential counterweight to Nazi Germany. 

Misreporting in the 21st century

Taking the case of the UK, has journalism improved over the last 87 years? The 1930s were disconcerting and scary times, and a difficult call for those working in that profession.  WW1 and the Russian Revolution were recent events, while the Great Depression, mass unemployment and rising fascism hung over the present like a large cloud. 

In comparison, the sun has shone on journalists born after WW2.  They (and we) have enjoyed 75 years without world wars, with rising living standards and vastly improved education.  Surely journalists of the early 21st Century could do more to resist the manipulative realpolitik and resulting propaganda.  Two key examples suggest significant failure in this regard:

  • The Observer’s support for the invasion of Iraq based on evidence that linked the 9/11 bombers to the Iraqi regime, about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and links to Al Qaeda.
  • A tsunami of media stories about antisemitism in the Labour Party over the four years leading up to the December 2019 general election.

The Observer’s reports turned out to be disinformation from (mainly American) security services, Iraqi defectors and Tony Blair’s press secretary, Alastair Campbell (see Chapter 9 of Flat-Earth News, by Nick Davies, 2008).  Indeed, the newspaper was ignoring CIA reports that Saddam Hussein lacked weapons of mass destruction, and conveying skepticism about the defectors.   There can be no doubt that the support of a respected left-liberal newspaper made it easier for Tony Blair to join President Bush in the coalition of the willing.

The Observer eventually obtained and published a memo leaked by the Government Communications Headquarters official Katharine Gunn, showing there was a dirty tricks operation, to spy upon and blackmail members of the UN Security Council into authorizing the invasion.  However, this happened very late in the day, did not change the Observer’s editorial line and failed to stop the invasion on 20th March 2003.  Keira Knightley later portrayed Gunn’s role in the film Official Secrets.  

In the second case, a group of eight national newspapers published 5,497 articles about antisemitism in Labour between 15 June 2016 and 31 March 2019 (see here), while the Guardian alone published such 1,215 over a similar period, about one a day, according to data from the Factiva database.   Almost all these stories relied on anecdotal evidence from people attacking Labour, including the Jewish Board of Deputies that described the Labour Party as a cesspit of antisemitism, but ignored hard statistical evidence to the contrary, cited here and here.  To top it all, the entire mainstream media failed to review the book “Bad News for Labour” where five seasoned researchers investigated the topic in depth and reached very different conclusions.  

In this case, the mainstream media systematically failed to deal with evidence that did not fit the dominant narrative,  thereby exposing a deep flaw in Britain’s democracy.  This was worse than in the Holodomor case, where Jones managed to publish an initial clutch of articles before Duranty’s intervention could have its full chilling effect.

As in the Holodomor case, we see the same underlying factors diminishing the media as a force for good.  State actors worked to ensure events were reported as they wished, with the assistance of sympathisers with contemporary political doctrines; Zionism figures in the second case much as communism was a compelling cause in the 30s.  We again see what one might call weak flesh, i.e. Duranty-style journalists seeking personal advantage, and/or taking the path of least resistance. 

It is time we did better

As we saw in the Iraq case, journalistic errors come at a very high price, so there is a crying need for effective reform and regulation.  Both Labour and Liberal Democrats, and some conservative rebels like Kenneth Clarke, have steadfastly supported the regulatory reforms proposed by Justice Brian Leveson, which would enable the public to hold the press accountable for gross inaccuracies. 

This risks being forgotten with the current concern over Brexit, coronavirus and other topics, and in the face of the current Government’s parliamentary majority.  The news media are the very lungs of a healthy, environmentally-sensitive and peace-loving democracy, so we should treat its reform as a top priority, and make it a rallying point for those of the centre and the left who seek to  take this country forward within the next decade or two. 

P.S. I have slightly changed the article’s wording as regards the Observer’s actions immediately prior to the Iraq War, and the impact of the media narrative about the Labour Party on British democracy, but neither change affects the overall message and conclusions.  Thanks to Adam Waterhouse for his comments.

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Great piece.

What institutional changes would protect journalists from manipulation, punishment, and corruption by governments? I start from the premise that any journalist who reports openly, honestly, and competently about any manipulative regime will be denied further admission to the country concerned. It must therefore be standard practice that a journalist works in such a country for a limited period only, though long enough to develop contacts and expertise — say, four years. During this period he… Read more »

Humbert Wolfe’s epigram still applies.

You cannot hope to bribe or twist
(thank God!) the British journalist.
But, seeing what the man will do
unbribed, there’s no occasion to.

And the message of Waugh’s Scoop isn’t entirely outdated either.

It’s not just journalists and media outlets. It’s all of us, or many of us, who are part of the Coalition of the Willing – willing to believe what we want to be true. I am one who thought Barack Obama would be, shall we say, better than he was – a liberal Democrat. (By my lights, he is in fact a liberal Republican.) People have been saying now: Vote for Biden, but don’t forget… Read more »

Diolch(thanks) Jonathan for this very relevant piece, and it doesn’t appear that things have changed much at the NYT since the days of Duranty: Insightful comment from Stephen Shenfield. DaBakr “It’s difficult to conceive that the deliberate starvation of 4million Ukrainians (& others) by Stalin is comparable to opening of the blinds on some of labors leaders and backers” Regrettably you have completely missed the point, DaBakr. Irrespective of the degrees of horror represented… Read more »