Europeans can take pleasure in the rare phenomenon these days of diametrically opposed narratives on major international issues being laid out before them on the single most watched news channel. This is something friends in America can only envy. Where this will lead Europe in policy choices remains to be seen.
Competing narratives in the European airwaves: European Mainstream Media Changes its Line on Russia, Divided over Turkey
by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
On Sunday, 29 November, another semiannual EU-Turkish Summit was held in the European Council. However, the agenda was anything but routine. As expected, it ended in an agreement on extending 3 billion euros in EU financial aid to Turkey, as well as pledges to reactivate the country’s accession process for EU membership and early implementation of visa-free travel for Turks to the Schengen zone in exchange for Turkish measures to restrain and accommodate refugees from the Syria and the broader Middle East in settlements on its territory.
And on Sunday the programming on Europe’s most widely viewed news station, Euronews, carried a steady stream of commentary by area experts from various think tanks on the importance of the agenda, dealing as it did with issues that are top of mind throughout European society: the refugees pouring across the EU’s external border in unprecedented numbers, exceeding by far the facilities and resources for processing their arrival and ensuring their integration. The Angst of political leaders on the Continent was summed up in the widely quoted sound bite from the Dutch prime minister last week, who compared the influx of refugees to the waves of barbarians in the 5th century who overwhelmed the Roman Empire.
Besides halting the flow, the Turks were obligated to screen arriving migrants to ensure that jihadists are not in their midst, and could no longer use Turkey as a jumping off point for terrorist missions in Europe. Precisely this was mentioned by French President Francois Holland in the minute of air time Euronews gave him within their reporting on the summit.
We were treated as well to a lengthy interview with Council President Donald Tusk, plus featured coverage of the Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who had the contented look of a cat finishing his plate of warm milk.
However, this coverage and this event had an air of unreality considering the reportage which mainstream media in Europe, and Euronews in particular, have given to the underlying issues in the crisis of Russia-Turkish relations that developed this past week over the downing of a Russian bomber at the Syrian-Turkish border. In their response to what President Putin immediately called a ‘stab in the back’ from Ankara, the Kremlin set out in great detail its allegations that Turkey is a facilitator of terrorism through its large scale and illicit purchases of oil from fields in northern Syria controlled by the Islamic State, the key source of financing for the jihadists. The son and daughter of Erdogan himself were said to be implicated in these transactions along with corrupt Turkish officials. Moreover, the Turkoman enclave in northern Syria where Russian plane was brought down was identified as an essential part of the porous border Turkey has allowed to exist for passage of outside fighters joining the IS forces and their return to Europe. In this context, Russia presented Turkey as a major cause of the security and refugee issues Europe is facing rather than a prospective part of the solution.
Indeed, on Friday Euronews had two featured news stories in its hourly programming that turned very favorable attention to Russia and its take on Turkey. One was a segment showing Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his counterpart, the Syrian Foreign Minister at a news briefing in Moscow during which Turkey was accused of trying to take over territory in Northern Syria for the past five years, thereby pursuing its own selfish interests while fueling the Syrian civil war. Lavrov stressed the cynicism and duplicity of the Turkish position in the US-led coalition. The conference was by no means a major event, and it was a surprising editorial decision to give it such prominence in the programming. The other odd choice for a featured news segment was a video recording of mourners in the home town of the second Russian airman who died at the Syrian-Turkish border on Tuesday, a member of the helicopter crew searching for the downed navigator of the bomber. The distraught faces of his family and community attending his funeral were shown with all due respect for the depth of Russian feelings over the Turkish ‘stab in the back.’
In addition, the news of the day from Turkey, as developed by Euronews’ own reporters on the ground, gave its audience serious reasons to listen closely to the Russian narrative. These news items were devoted firstly to the killing of a Kurdish civil rights leader in what one eyewitness described as a political assassination. The second news item described the court actions being taken against two of Turkey’s most prominent print journalists from the daily Cumhuriyet: editor-in-chief Can Dundar, and senior editor of the paper in Ankara, Erdem Gul. The reason for their arrest speaks directly to Russian allegations about official Turkish connivance with the Islamic State jihadists. The journalists are charged with violation of state security over their expose of Turkish arms deliveries to Syrian opposition forces linked to terror. The case puts in question the whole logic of Europe’s pending rapprochement with Turkey at the very moment when the government’s authoritarian leanings and zealous crushing of journalistic independence are there for all to see. This makes a mockery of the EU’s values-driven foreign policy, the reasoning otherwise used to justify sanctions against Russia.
One can be sure that the remarkable newfound neutrality and seriousness in the treatment of Russian events has nothing whatsoever to do with Russia’s 15% ownership of Euronews capital. It dates back no further than the terrorist attacks in Paris on 13 November and President Francois Hollande’s decision shortly thereafter to create a ‘grand coalition’ including Russia to combat the Islamic State. That did not flick a switch at Euronews the next day. As we saw, the massive increase in Russian military action against the Islamic State forces in Syria on Friday, 20 November went virtually unreported in Euronews and other major media, which only presented images of Vladimir Putin speaking to his military staff from the new Command and Control Center in Moscow to congratulate them on the work that day. We did not see what Russian news showed for two days straight:a whole constellation of operations in which the Russian ‘White Swan’ strategic bombers from the very north of Russia on the Kola Peninsula flew a 16 hour mission around Europe, through the Straits of Gibraltar to the Mediterranean and on to Syria; the small submarines in the Med which fired cruise missiles to Syrian targets; the frigates in the Caspian which also fired cruise missiles to Syrian targets, and the greatly increased number of daily sorties which attacked more than 500 targets on the ground. The MSM also said nothing about the Russian decision to increase the number and kinds of aircraft it is now stationing at its air base near Latakia in Syria.
But the switch at Euronews was very obviously flicked in time for President Hollande’s visit to Moscow on Thursday, 26 November to agree on the terms of Russian-French military cooperation. In its coverage of the press conference which followed, Euronews gave equal time to the French and Russian presidents and chose the most important assertion from Putin’s statements for airing, his answer to a French journalist on why Assad’s remaining in power is not an impediment to combatting the Daesh, but is rather an essential precondition: as Putin explained, the Islamic State forces in Syria can only be defeated on the ground, and there is only one military force in existence today, the regular Syrian Army of President Assad. This very reasonable logic just happens to fly in the face of everything Washington, and official France as well, has been saying about the Syrian civil war.
Viewers in Europe can take pleasure in the rare phenomenon these days of diametrically opposed narratives on major international issues being laid out before them on the single most watched news channel. This is something American viewers can only envy at this moment. Where this will lead Europe in policy choices remains to be seen.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2015
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G. Doctorow is the European Coordinator, American Committee for East West Accord, Ltd. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future? (August 2015) is available in paperback and e-book from Amazon.com and affiliated websites. For donations to support the European activities of ACEWA, write to firstname.lastname@example.org