Britain should play an active role in helping Ukraine

 

One aspect of the Brexit process is establishing a role as a global player outside the EU. Ironically Britain might play a major, mutually beneficial role, for one country that is actually desperately trying to join the EU: Ukraine.

 

Ukraine has had a torrid time since the collapse of the USSR, whereas other central-eastern European countries have, with some difficultly, found their way into the European Union and the markets that membership affords. Ukraine has spent a large amount of its time being subject to a farcical process of predation, where previous big-whigs in the former communist party have been able to pillage the state of its major natural resources. They then use the political confusion, uncertainty and apathetic mismanagement of the state to ship these cheaply out of the country. Once out, they sell these Ukrainian assets at world-market prices, at the expense of the general populace. These oligarchs use the political puppets such as Yulia Tymoshencko, Viktor Yushchenko and the infamous Viktor Yanukoyvch to push the interests of different competing oligarchs. Ukraine’s problem is obvious: corruption. Corruption permeates the Ukrainian system. On the lowest levels policemen and doctors will demands bribes known as a “blat” in order to feed and support their families, and at the top, oligarchs will deliberately extract wealth from the state systems to line their own pockets. Ukraine has a history of corruption so embedded in the minds of the people that 65% of all Ukrainians believe that corruption is part of the culture. Corruption is as Ukrainian as horilka and borshch.

 

Although corruption is ingrained in the Ukrainian system, the Ukrainian people are some of the most politically active in the whole world. In 2004 we saw a general election dogged by corruption, voter intimidation and electoral fraud which resulted in Viktor Yanukoyvch claiming an illegitimate victory. Yet the people of Ukraine finally had had enough and marched on Maidan square in the tens of thousands, protesting there peacefully for months. The people of Ukraine had spoken and the polity listened. Sadly the desired constitutional changes never truly materialised as oligarchs moved to consolidate their power and in 2010 Yanukoyvch finally got his presidency. However, Yanukoyvch, a deeply-flawed figure from the East of Ukraine holding a strong affinity with Russia and a somewhat chequered past, took this predation too far isolating the oligarchs and drawing vast amounts of state money into the bank accounts of his own family and friends. He then went on to build himself a multi-million presidential mansion complete with his own personal zoo and hunting grounds. Once again, the people of Ukraine took to the Maidan, but this time things would not end peacefully. In 2014, Yanukoyvch ordered his police to use extreme force, including the use of sniper rifles, to disperse the crowd. This however merely strengthened the will of the people and after over 70 civilian deaths Yanukovych was forced to flee the country. For a time Ukraine was back in the hands of the people.

 

Since the so called “Euromaidan” protests, the populous has demanded that the government looks to increase ties with the European Union and distance itself from its often aggressive Russian neighbour. The Ukraine people believe in the goal of EU accession, and strive for it. The fact of the matter is though that accession doesn’t look to be coming any time soon. An Association Agreement has been made to give Ukraine greater economic ties but, especially with the rise of authoritarian unstable regimes in the EU itself, there is little appetite in the EU to make Ukraine a full-fledged member. This can be largely blamed on the poor institutional framework of Ukraine. The judiciary is not completely independent, and the oligarchs who benefit from the current arrangements push back at all times against meaningful reforms. Anti-corruption activists, such as Vitaliy Shabunin, have been subject to bizarre but damaging attacks. It has included the creation of a fake American news broadcast, circulated on social media that claimed irregularities in Shabunin’s finances had been found and broadcast by the fictional News24 in what the fake anchor assumed was some form of prank. The Ukrainian media enjoys relative freedom, but there is a supreme lack of trust in any political institutions.

 

So what is therefore the purpose of drawing attention to all this? Well, quite simply Ukraine and in particular, the Ukrainian people deserve better. After suffering at the hands of predation and corruption, Ukraine has a floundering economy and despite being one of the most agriculturally viable countries in all of Europe, it has long experienced poor economic growth. With Ukraine’s EU membership bid well and truly on hold Ukraine could really use some support to help attain western integration and the support of the IMF. Britain could play a vital role here. Ukraine is currently undergoing one of the largest judicial reforms in modern history and to create a higher likelihood of success Britain should offer its support. A form of “role-model” program will help to ensure the people of Ukraine that an external body, with an education, advisory and monitoring role will ensure that the reforms are appropriate and avoid the manipulation found in the past. Plus, crucially, Britain’s departure from the EU may actually provide greater room for manoeuvre when negotiating with Ukraine outside of EU regulations. Ukraine’s poor institutions need reforming, confidence needs to return to the people. And Britain claims it has ambitions to be a truly global country, what could be more global than becoming a world leader in international development? And forging an economic partnership in the process would be a clear example of Britain’s viability as a global player. Britain and Ukraine can benefit. Integration can be achieved. The passion of the Ukrainian people for a better future has never faltered, but if significant time passes with little progress the people may grow tired of waiting, and Russia, an ominous neighbour, would seize any opportunity to prevent European integration and halt EU expansion.

 

In 2014 over 70 protesters paid the ultimate price for their dream of the existence of a truly European Ukraine based on rule of law and freedom from corruption. Thousands more have died in the conflict with Russian-backed rebels to protect this dream. It is the duty not just of the Ukrainian polity, but of all of Europe to help Ukraine realise this dream, and it’s time for Britain to put its money where its mouth as a truly global nation.

We as consumers must hold the media to account

Last year I applied to volunteer at the annual Centre for London conference, a conference which aimed to bring together political thinkers, journalists and politicians for a day of debate on the future of London post-Brexit, as well as the potential effect of an incumbent Trump presidency.

As reward for participating and doing so free of pay I was able to watch and enjoy a number of speeches. One particular moment caught my imagination, David Milliband discussing with Sir Paul Collier how European cities should respond to the migrant crisis. When asked by a member of the audience what he thought of the influence of the right-wing media in this debate, David replied: “a politician should not criticise the media in the same way a seaman should not criticise the sea”, a quote believed to have been derived from Winston Churchill, although also attributed to notorious Enoch Powell. Though the media is a necessary part of political life, so do quotes such as this afford the established media a degree of liberty that is not deserved and also potentially dangerous?

The established media does not have to substantiate its claims. Claims are made consistently through National News Sources that depict a situation disproportionally or even outright false without being called upon for a significant amount of evidence. The Sun Newspaper was famously forced to admit an article stating one in five Muslims sympathised with Jihadists was significantly misleading with the poll framing ambiguous questions as sufficient evidence. The paper forced to accept it misled the public but this was the limit of repercussions and a story that had been presented in convenience stores and supermarkets nationwide was not obligated to give the same coverage to the fact it misled readers.

It is not merely the right-wing media who can be accused of misleading readers either, left-wing newspapers are just as entitled to make sweeping claims about the personalities and intentions of politicians on the basis of assumptions of their positions, often for example claiming the Conservative party want to privatise the NHS without necessarily producing examples of manifesto or policies pertaining to this. But the right-wing media do appear the most likely to print to the public without regard for how accurate or fair the claims are.

Furthermore, the media has an aggressive tendency to publicly shame individuals for reasons varying from their outspoken political beliefs, to just simply following the rule of law. For instance, Gary Lineker, ex-England international and Match of The Day. The Sun, wrongfully claimed Lineker was subject to widespread calls for resignation after he expressed his disdain for the racist nature of some right-wing papers coverage of the refugee crisis. The story, which was front-page news, was published in response to a sarcastic tweet from Lineker when a charity involved in the fostering of refugee children accused the paper of lying. The lie in question: that a picture posted, again on the front page of the paper, depicting an individual claiming to be a child refugee was a boy far too old to be a child refugee. The charity attempted to explain this by highlighting that it was not in fact a child refugee but an Arabic interpreter, but rather than using the next front page to verify their claims, they instead decided to attack Gary Lineker for being “jug-eared”.

This kind of journalism may seem to be a standard feature of tabloid journalism and the slander not immediately of serious moral concern. But then consider when the Daily Mail ran its infamous “enemies of the people” article. The article in question refers to the attempt by The Daily Mail and numerous other right-wing papers to publicly shame the judges responsible for declaring parliament must have a vote on whether or not the UK should leave the EU, attaining to the legal sovereignty of parliament. This refers not to an individual’s own political views but rather to them fulfilling their legal duty to apply the rule of law, and there is very little irony lost that the majority of the pro-Leave newspapers argued that it is this very sovereignty of law that we are trying to reclaim back from Europe.
The fear and the serious moral questions come when you consider what branding individuals “enemies of the people” truly means. In the run-up to the Brexit voting MP Jo Cox was tragically murdered for her political views concerning EU membership, the debate is clearly an emotionally charged one. Branding individuals in such a way is dangerous for the respective safety of the individuals involved. The lack of culpability of media outlets could be potentially career destroying or even potentially fatal, and yet our established media is allowed to express freely, and even when legal action is poised against the papers, there is still no restriction on what can be published in the future, merely financial reimbursement for the offended party.

But it is here that we reach the crux of the matter: freedom of press is essential in a functioning democracy. So, any limits and laws restricting the media are dangerous; countries that tend to regulate their national news are countries with an authoritarian ideology. So, what can be done to prevent the newspapers from publishing inaccurate articles, or articles that threaten the personal integrity and safety of individuals without undermining freedom of press? The answer almost definitely lies in the consumer. There needs to be a greater demand by the reader, who is a consumer of the product, to force newspapers to address their relationship with the truth. The law protects consumers from false advertising, the consumer protection from Unfair Trading Regulations prevents companies from misleading consumers via advertising. However, as the news is the product itself rather than the advertising of said product it is unclear that these regulations could be in anyway applicable.

The solution therefore has to come from the consumer. But this again hits a block when you consider that readers are consumers so they are likely to want to read what they want to hear, or at least to have their attention captured in a particular way. As of such, the established media appears entitled to mislead its consumers on the grounds that this is what the consumer is paying for. It is up to the reader to demand or seek better, but not a duty, hence, the media does not take moral responsibility. It is unclear whether it is possible at all to have an entirely honest and righteous media in an open and liberal society. We know the media should take moral responsibility but this cannot be imposed by law. The fact of the matter is we deserve better from our news. It is down to all of us to demand better, to refuse to succumb to “fake news” and gross misrepresentation, or risk living in the post-Truth world we appear to be falling into.