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War in Ukraine: why are shades of grey now unmentionable? 

The war in Ukraine is well and truly etched on the public consciousness. There is near universal agreement as to the cause of the war. There is near universal agreement that atrocities have been committed. Both jus ad bellum and jus in bello have been violated. The war in itself, the act of aggression that started it, is considered illegitimate, and the means by which it has been carried out in places like Bucha and Mariupol are illegitimate.

Yet, there are still some who do not accept the popular narrative. They seem to be the perpetually recalcitrant. In some respects they seem to come from a fairly tight-knit corner of society who just do not agree with whatever the line being pushed by the establishment, increasingly suspicious of the close alignment of facts from those considered to be the respectability.

For some, they are cranks. For others, conspiracy theorists. Sometimes, they can be an inconvenience, a slight or major embarrassment, depending on the thickness of your skin.

They simply do not believe what they are told. They seem not to believe the most obvious of facts placed in front of them. They are more than sceptical.

C.S. Lewis, speaking on the obstinacy of belief, the religious kind, elaborated on the difference but similarities between the scientific and religious belief and their relation to both authority and trust. Belief in the wider sense – in the news, in politicians – are dependent on authority and trust.

Religious believers have trust in the authority of the Church, trust of the authority that has been handed down through the ages, all the way back to Jesus, St. Paul. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Often religious belief, faith, is characterised as pure speculation, seated on a flying carpet, but this is a disservice to the reality. Faith is required as it would not be faith if absolute concrete proof existed for each believer.

No, the believer has faith in revelation, in Tradition and those that have seen and believed. The weight of evidence is what they go on. Those that do not believe, disregard what the believer finds convincing. They do not trust the authority that hands it down.

Yet, writing in Mere Christianity in 1943, Lewis hits on a contradiction:

“Do not be scared by the word authority. Believing things on authority only means believing them because you have been told them by someone you think is trustworthy. Ninety-nine per cent of the things you believe are believed on authority. I believe there is such a place as New York. I have not seen it myself. I could not prove by abstract reasoning that there must be such a place.

I believe it because reliable people have told me so. The ordinary man believes in the Solar System, atoms, evolution, and the circulation of the blood on authority — because the scientists say so. Every historical statement in the world is believed on authority. None of us has seen the Norman Conquest or the defeat of the Armada. None of us could prove them by pure logic as you prove a thing in mathematics. We believe them simply because people who did see them have left writings that tell us about them: in fact, on authority. A man who jibbed at authority in other things as some people do in religion would have to be content to know nothing all his life.”

When it comes to news, it is the same logic that is at play. In recent years, there are many who have had their trust broken in authority; in the establishment; in the news. Here in Ireland, in the UK, in the US and in others where previously it had held that, on average, the news was a trusted impartial observer.

Consider the various referenda in Ireland where the news media was able to control the narrative. Thejournal.ie factcheckers managed to declare as false that in the UK 1 in 5 babies are aborted as ‘unproven’ when the numbers were as clear as day. Repeatedly, one side was promoted and another disregarded.

Consider the CNN report that read “Fiery But Mostly Peaceful Protests After Police Shooting” from Kenosha in front of a building engulfed in flames. Can CNN be trusted as an authority if it willingly distorts the truth while blatantly undermining itself with its imagery?

Consider a recent RTÉ report from Belfast where the building of a charity was set on fire, where it was described as a ‘hate crime’ by Police, and repeated by RTÉ. RTÉ went one step further to call a previous arson attack on the Multicultural Centre as ‘racist’ although no one had been convicted. With no conviction, the motive is not so easily discerned. Plausible, yes; but fact, no. It could have been a disgruntled neighbour; a jilted former staffer; someone with a familial grudge. On the flipside, race and ethnicity are repeatedly and consistently left out of news reports as superfluous information when there is a crime committed.

This editorialising of news is a major part of the problem. Facts are presented with sugar on top. A slant is added that sows doubt in the veracity of the story.

Consider the contrasting reporting on Barack Obama as US president and that of Donald Trump. The Capitol Hill skirmish is still described as a coup and with no sense of irony that a small group of hillbillies could take over the most powerful government in the world.

Recent reviews of the news media performance during covid in Germany indicated that there was a major failure. Similarly in Denmark, one news outlet was willing to admit that it failed. In Ireland, no such introspection has been carried out but many are aware of how the media was in hock to the government and NPHET, catastrophising the situation and downplaying inconvenient truths, to the extent of supporting witch-hunts against individuals who undermined the accepted narrative.

Before this, there was the destruction of John Waters, Kevin Myers, George Hook, Neil Francis. There was only good versus evil in their cases. No room for context, for understanding, even for charity. They had to be destroyed.

The clamour to enact the dangerous ‘hate-crime’ legislation only goes to serve the point. Where is the vocal opposition seeking to protect free speech in the news? If they are there, they are not audible.

The same coincidental alignment of forces seems to arise all too frequently, where only black and white are allowed, and no shade of grey is to be countenanced. There is an ‘establishment’ perspective that has to be protected at all costs. There can only be one line and it has to be supported.

The point is not whether this line is right or wrong anymore; truthful or untruthful. The trust has been broken. A CSO Trust Survey from December 2021 highlights the loss in trust for the media.

More than four in 10 (42%) respondents Trust (6-10) the news media, five percentage points higher that the percentage (37%) that Don’t trust (0-4) the news media.

People trust other people – individuals – almost implicitly. But they trust the media almost as little as they do political parties. Why is this?

The media – not just in Ireland – is considered to be increasingly politicized; in some places – or at some times – it seems to be in lock-step with the government. Increasingly ideological, new reporting is less and less frequently considered to be impartial. People are sceptical of the news. They are sceptical of journalists and news media holding each other to account.

Social media challenges traditional mainstream media more and more. It breaks stories that the mainstream chose to ignore. People wonder why the mainstream chooses to downplay certain aspects of a story. Trust is lost. The authority of the news no longer exists.

We see this in Ukraine. We are expected to take on trust the news that is presented. We cannot go there ourselves. We cannot witness it. And in this way, we have to trust whoever is imparting the story to us. Or if we do not trust the unknown journalists, we have to trust their editors; their papers; or at least the journalistic eco-system – their ethics and the search for truth.  Increasingly journalists are confused as commentators; and news is increasingly commentary. Where trust is completely lost, alternative news carries sway.

As an example, President Zelenskey is portrayed as just a little bit too saintly. The more unrealistic a portrait is painted, the more the distrust in the persona presented. Some embrace the hero, others are not convinced.

Why ignore the news from just a few short years ago where authoritarian concerns in Ukraine were all too real? Ukraine was invaded – but is the story as black and white as it is made out to be, or are there shades of grey? Why is the grey not allowed to be mentioned? Why try to make out the role of NATO in prodding the bear is irrelevant? Instead of acknowledging this, the near-total denial of its relevance gives fuel to conspiracy theories that all is not as it seems.

Burying facts allows them to fester and grow rather than exposing them to the purifying sunlight of debate. Portraying those that question this as cranks and loons has the same effect.

It is this type of whitewashing that is at the centre of the erosion of trust. For many, objective news reporting no longer exists. The trust has been lost and the authority of the fourth estate has been corroded – and for some completely eroded.

“It’s a serious problem for the profession,” says Dr Rasmus Kleis Nielsen of the Reuters Institute, reported in the Guardian.

“The political legitimacy of institutions like the BBC and also the business models of newspapers depend on the idea that they offer something trustworthy. Healthy distrust can be a good thing but hardened cynicism is paralysing.”

Trust in media is needed for a functioning democracy and strong civil society. It is not just an issue for the newsmedia itself. If that trust is gone, society is in the type of trouble that we see now. Polarisation is ensuing and no one knows who can be relied upon to provide the facts.

It only gets worse when the broadsheets, the papers of record, the quality newspapers, who set themselves, apparently, a higher standard, hector the ‘people’ for no longer trusting their by-line. Trust cannot be demanded or compelled, it can only be earned.

When earned, authority is authoritative. When compelled, it is authoritarian.

The most tragic of all is, that when the boy does cry wolf, the previous tall tales mean that truth gets ignored when it was needed most.


David Reynolds


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