CANBERRA – Opinion polls continue to document declining levels of trust in democratic institutions, including Australia’s. In a Roy Morgan research poll published in June, the professionals most trusted by Australians for their ethics and honesty are dominated by the health sector: nurses (94 percent), doctors (89 percent), pharmacists (84 percent) and dentists (79 percent). School teachers, engineers, police officers, judges and university professors are also highly trusted. But newspaper and TV journalists hold the trust of just 20 percent and 17 percent and parliamentarians of only 16 percent. At 37 percent, citizens have more faith in public servants than in their politician bosses. The proverbial car salesman comes last with just 4 percent trust.
A cross-national poll by the 2017 Trust Barometer by Edelman found that in half the 28 countries surveyed, most believe the entire system is no longer fit for purpose. They hold deep fears of globalization, immigration and value systems. Globally, trust in government declined over one year from 42 percent to 41 percent. In Australia it plummeted from 45 percent to 37 percent. Trust in media declined globally from 48 percent to 43 percent, and in Australia from 42 percent to 32 percent. Falls were recorded also in Japan (38 percent to 32 percent), Britain (36 percent to 32 percent), Germany (44 percent to 42 percent), and Canada (55 percent to 45 percent). It stayed at 47 percent in the U.S., meaning less than half Americans trust their media.
Trust in Australia’s media by citizens is barely better than Russians’ faith in their media (31 percent, down from 38 percent). By contrast China’s media is trusted by 65 percent (down from 73 percent) and Indonesia’s by 67 percent (up from 63 percent). If the mainstream Western media are so widely distrusted in their home countries, how much credibility do they have in foreign countries? Writing in these pages on July 10, Gregory Clark — a former Australian diplomat who once served in Moscow — noted that in contrast to the Cold War days, now he often looks to the Russian rather than the Western media for more balanced and accurate accounts of world events.
One clue to understanding the loss of trust in the professional integrity of the Western media is their unrelenting efforts to demonize Russian President Vladimir Putin. His largely successful efforts to reduce Russia’s national debt, combat Islamist terrorism years before the West woke up to the scale of the threat, restore national pride after years of Western humiliations, recover the spiritual and cultural identity of the Russian people, and transform Russia from an ex-Soviet wasteland into a power capable of standing up to defend core interests again, have been widely castigated in the Western press.
With a riff on President George W. Bush vis-a-vis Islamist terrorists, a recent article in one of India’s major dailies asked: “Why does the Western world hate Russia?” As I write this on the third anniversary of the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over Ukraine on July 17, 2014, the mainstream Western coverage of that incident could serve as Exhibit A in the case of deliberate bias.
We know the civilian airliner was brought down, killing 298 passengers and crew (including several Australians). We know with equal certainty that on July 3, 1988, Iran Air Flight 655 was shot down by the USS Vincennes — operating in Iranian waters — killing all 290 people on board. We do not know but can be fairly confident that in neither case did those who fired the fatal missiles believe their target was a civilian airliner on a regular commercial flight. In both cases they almost certainly thought they were firing at an enemy fighter aircraft or bomber.
We also know with a very high degree of confidence that MH17 was brought down by a Soviet-made and -supplied surface-to-air missile of a type that had been provided by Moscow to the Ukraine Army (before their 2014 rift) and very probably also to the anti-government Ukrainian rebels. Circumstantial evidence points strongly but not conclusively to MH17 being shot mistakenly by pro-Russian fighters. We do know that the deadly missile was not fired by Russian soldiers directly.
Moreover, we know that the airspace above Ukraine in that part of the country was an active conflict zone at the time, with some high altitude military planes having been shot down prior to the date of the ill-fated MH17. In terms of culpability, therefore, the organization responsible for deciding on whether to close air corridors for civilian planes in that theater, or keep them open, should be held to account. We also know that several major airlines had put people before profits and re-routed their flights to avoid that high risk air corridor. Malaysia Airlines was among the few that chose not to add to costs and continued to fly over the shortest route. Should not their senior executives also be held to account?
Compared to the organization responsible for monitoring the safety of air corridors in conflict zones and the airline executives who put profits before passenger and crew safety, the culpability of Moscow as the source of the missiles that shot down MH17 would appear to be of a lower order. Yet the West demanded consequences for Russia for the MH17 accident. But in 1988, the captain of the USS Vincennes was neither rebuked nor punished but awarded a medal. Fred Kaplan was defense correspondent of The Boston Globe at the time. After the MH17 tragedy, he described the Flight 655 tragedy as “one of the Pentagon’s most inexcusable disgraces.” In both cases, concluded Kaplan, the Russian and American governments told a series of lies to cover up their culpability and tried to pin the blame instead on the Ukrainian government and the Iranian pilot respectively.
How many Western media outlets referenced the Iran Air tragedy from 1988 while demanding justice of the Russians for the MH17 tragedy?
All such horrible mistakes should be promptly owned up to by those responsible, instead of the default mode of trying to cover it up through obfuscation and red herrings. And those responsible should be held accountable and punished, while nonetheless recognizing the critical difference between an act of terrorism and a ghastly mistake in the fog of war. The most urgent policy imperative in active conflict zones is efforts at de-escalation by all sides, not pouring petrol on the fire by arming the various groups competitively and inflaming nationalist passions and sectarian hatred. And the media should report and analyze events with unbiased objectivity and historical awareness that informs and educates readers, instead of becoming ideological partisans.
Ramesh Thakur is a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.