Ukraine And The Confusing Media Discourse

Many Italians are confused by polarized babble that condemns, condones or commends the Ukraine invasion. But what if there could be a more effective role for the media?

Ukraine war protest
People protesting in Milan, March 2022. Photo: Tommaso Ripani on Unsplash.

Many Italians are confused and opinion makers are not all helping them. How many layers of wars, treaties, outrage, agreements, lying and cheating need to be pulled back and how many decades, centuries even, of history need to be reread and explained to help us make sense of what’s happening in Ukraine right now? Would this peeling back give any real clarity to casual observers, to politicians with their own agenda, or even to informed analysts? Or is it a useless exercise in reinforcing entrenched ideas? Can bellowed opinions, like we are seeing Italian talk shows and highlighted in magazine headlines and on social media channels be at all helpful? Is the 24/7 spectacle of women, children and elderly dragging their suitcases from a blazing town or of men saying goodbye at train stations to a wife or mother as they stay behind to fight, not enough for all of us to say in unison “This cannot be right?”

No, when we touch on global issues things are never black or white. Even as the tanks roll in and the bombs are directed to strategic objectives, there are those who insist that it’s not all about might wanting to be right and that history will judge who among the main players bears most responsibility. The problem is the house that’s on fire right now is nearby and needs to be put out, whereas many prefer to go on to the next phase of finding out who, in their opinion, is to blame for starting it.

When Putin could do no wrong

A few prominent Italian politicians like Silvio Berlusconi, whose dream was to have Putin lecturing at his newly opened University, and Matteo Salvini, who got more than he bargained for from the mayor on his arrival in Przemysl in Poland, are trying to redefine their roles as apologists for Putin’s policy and his so-called ‘special operation’ in Ukraine. The ultra-right Mario Borghezio is, of course, adamant that Putin fell into a trap set by the big financial and economic world powers who have no interest in safeguarding the leader, Putin, and the great nation, Russia. This in Affari Borghezio doesn’t seem to see that the country he is so staunchly defending does not allow that same freedom of speech to its citizens. 

NATO — another point of disagreement

We saw opinion makers such as philosopher Diego Fusaro and journalist David Parenzo giving their take on the crisis as soon as the conflict broke, out with observations that are perhaps too hurriedly condensed by a headline in Il Giornale 26 February “The War? NATO’s fault.” Indeed, one of the topics that talk shows are dwelling on is the temerity of NATO wanting to reach Russia’s borders and therefore placing it as the cause and center of the problem. Article 5 of the organization founded in 1949 states that an attack on one member (of the 30 states that comprise NATO) is an attack on all. It’s worth underlining that 27 of these states are in Europe. For months, NATO tried to engage Russia in dialogue rather than confrontation while pushing to reinforce its own eastern flank (Ukraine) and offering aid to the small but strategically important EU member states Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. It’s also courting Finland, a non-NATO member of the EU block. 

Making sense of the unthinkable

More and more people now want to go beyond the shocking television images and look at why the bully in the school playground reacted as he did to the kid who, according to the bully, is getting all his mates to gang up on him. Before the bully lets that happen he will take the kid on. Which is what many Italian intellectuals are at pains to explain. Professor Alessandro Orsini of LUISS University was doing precisely this on a recent episode of a popular television program Piazzapulita. His observations on Ukraine caused a fuss. Orsini, director of the Observatory on International Security, has been discharged from his university which no longer wants the professor to intervene on TV because it risks damaging the university’s “value, heritage of knowledge and reputation.” The University stated that “LUISS considers it essential that, especially those who have responsibility for centers of excellence such as the Observatory on International Security, must scrupulously adhere to the scientific rigor of the facts and historical evidence, without leaving room for opinions of a personal nature that could invalidate value, patrimony of knowledge and reputation of the entire University.” Needless to say, opinions on Orsini’s stance are polarized.

Another example of the many opinions that caused outrage and warrented lengthy television debates appeared on ADNKronos: former Gladio (military secret service) boss General Paolo Inzerilli stated: “I’m with Putin, the problem of war is Zelensky. Everything that is happening now, therefore, is due to the fact that Russia, no longer the Soviet Union, is afraid and feels surrounded by hostile countries. And the president of Ukraine, Zelensky, in my opinion, makes a show of strength when in fact all that Russia has asked for is the official declaration of Ukraine’s non-entry into NATO and the demilitarization of the country. Well, they don’t seem like absurd requests to me, but Zelensky doesn’t want to know.” In other words, Inzerilli maintains, you don’t answer back to the boss.

So many ‘experts’ on social media

The discussion is very heated in SM land where pro- and anti-Putin lash out at each other, and the fervor sometimes reaches inexplicable levels of obscenity. Rather than enquire and learn, SM opinions often reflect the political leanings of those posting or the opinions of people the followers admire, such as the journalist and historian Paolo Mieli, the ex-Director of L’Espresso and frequent talk-show speaker Marco Damilano, and former editor-in-chief of the daily La Repubblica Ezio Mauro, to mention but a few. There are, of course, balanced SM opinions that readers appreciate. Suffice this example: Antonio Cannone, writer and journalist and author of aMalavita, recently posted on his Facebook page, “When this war ends (hopefully soon) it will leave a mark also on Italian politics. The parties and politicians who have cleared Putin’s name and those who continue to think that Italy will have to genuflect sine die to NATO and USA will pay a heavy price. We hope there may then be a profound reflection among all Italians!” Food for thought.

Russians divided by the conflict

The conflicting mindset of the Russians could be condensed in these episodes: a Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak is being investigated for wearing a national war symbol the letter Z on his leotard as he stood next to gold medal winner Illia Kovtun of Ukraine on the podium during the Apparatus World Cup in Doha in Qatar on March 7. The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) said it had opened disciplinary proceedings against Kuliak for his “shocking behavior.” The letter Z has become symbolic with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and has been seen painted on the side of tanks and military vehicles, as well as being worn by pro-war politicians. The Russians say it is used to distinguish their vehicles from enemy ones. Kuliak’s gesture, however, clashes with the tenacity on the faces of equally convinced Russian citizens facing down the police as they hold anti-war demonstrations knowing full well the consequences of such actions. 

Condemnation of the West

“The USA can no longer deceive the world” says Gian Franco Ferraris in one of his many recent articles on Ferraris also quotes the 96 year-old Russian political writer, Roj Medvedev, who says that “the majority of Russians agree with Putin but you westerns don’t like to admit it and, instead, you define Russia as a regime.”

The Chinese daily Global Times gets mentioned a lot among talk-show hosts and guests as it accuses the United States ofstanding on the pedestal of superiority trying to impose its own world vision wherever it is convenient… Washington can no longer ask the whole world to pay for the chaos they have created. The White House and its NATO allies should take responsibility for the current events in Ukraine.” So do other countries, such as India, Mexico, Turkey, and most South American states, who say that a position against Russia is “not in their interest or does not help resolve the crisis.” 

Does everybody agree on the new EU stand?

Disagreement on EU membership and expansion among Italian intellectuals always guarantees heated discussion. In a Huffington Post article on March 7, Elisabetta Gualmini says: “For a country that has left (Brexit), at least ten are pushing to enter the EU.” After President Zelensky’s desperate appeal to the Eurochamber to let Ukraine have access the European Union as soon as possible, Moldova and Georgia have signed the application to become candidate countries, adding to an already rather long list: Albania, Montenegro, Macedonia, Serbia, and, with a few more difficulties, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Turkey. And, of course, if and when a leader in Belarus should decide that their people can have a choice as to which neighbor to call a friend, maybe the lesson of Ukraine will help avoid a repeat of this nightmare.

Heated debate on how Putin is selling his cause at home

Putin believes his narrative, which may explain why the “Denazification of Ukraine” was an easy sell at home but less so abroad. The hostility propaganda against the ‘aggressive West’ has been successful and never waned. His populatity remains constant despite receiving and returning visits and smiling exchanges with representatives of countries he boldly tells his people are Russia’s enemies. He was convincing when he spoke of the Russian-Ukranian brotherhood, saying that much of the pro-Russian south-eastern Ukrarian population has been wanting to return under the protective wing of Mother Russia, free from the ‘brutality’ of the Ukranian regime that they were told didn’t have their interests at heart. Putin made a few wrong moves, however. He miscalculated the leadership capacity and the appeal of the Ukranian President and the tenacity of the people, and he underestimated the power of the media which is painting him as an arrogant aggressor. This may explain why Putin accuses Western media of bias and ordered that any more anti-Russian media coverage of fake news within the country be punishable by long jail sentences. 

Can Italy do anything?

So much to take in for people reading, listening and watching news coverage here in Italy. So much energy spent by those trying to get their point across to often headless or perplexed ears. But what if there could be a more effective role for the Italian media and for Italy’s many well-informed and tenacious journalists and writers? What if, instead of all the shouting and chest-thumping, all the old ways of defining affiliations, our media experts could provide an internationaly recognized television platform where adversaries could engage in mature, frank exchanges? What if a toned-down version of the typically Italian exhuberant discussion mode were offered at European level to those who are trying to resolve differences over, say for example, water use, cross border issues, and many other causes of tension?

Italy is a leader in innovative communication and mediation strategies management aimed at resolving differences and reaching agreement on thorny issues while there’s still time. Its excellent media facilities, the Italian savoir-faire and its trustworthy image would help provide this platform that would facilitate informal dialogue not with the aim of overstepping the existing official conflict resolution channels but of dealing with the preliminaries in a faster, more flexible and less binding manner. Italy could experiment novel approaches to frank media discussions within the EU that need not be feared or stage-managed, and that could bring results. The capacity to rethink one’s opinions and, more importantly, to share this rethinking is not a sign of weakness, but of respect and strength. And we mustn’t forget that innovation is what Italy has always excelled at.