Arminka Helic: The BBC is our greatest weapon against Russian disinformation in the Balkans

25 Mar

Baroness Helic is a Conservative Life peer.

Alongside Russia’s war in Ukraine is a war on truth. Vladimir Putin prepared the ground for his invasion through the press and broadcasters. Russian state media and their proxies spun lies about the Ukrainian government being run by Nazis and drug addicts, and invented atrocities to blame on Ukraine.

As quick victory has eluded the Kremlin, Putin has doubled down. All independent media and reporting have been banned in Russia. Social media have been restricted. By suppressing information, the Russian government hopes to hide the horrific cost of its war – first and foremost from Russians.

Worryingly, it is not just Russia where the Kremlin’s lies are printed without question. The Russian state has actively worked to build its propaganda machine abroad. This has been true here in the UK: in the last decade, for example, Russian media such as RT and Sputnik spread lies about Russia’s activities in Syria.

It is most visible, though, in the Western Balkans.

Sputnik and RT have a significant presence in the region. Sputnik’s Serbian-language reports are provided free to local media, who – often desperately short of funding – reproduce them wholesale. Truth is squeezed out.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina – where Sputnik also has a large number of Facebook followers – the Russian agency has extensive connections with local media, who blindly publish its disinformation.

It is closely aligned with local secessionists, and readily attacks their political opponents as western puppets and threats. It works closely with the media channel ATV, controlled by the separatist leader Milorad Dodik, sanctioned by the United States in January. It portrays NATO as a threat, and Russia always as a friend.

In North Macedonia, NATO’s newest member, Sputnik continues to try to stir up the disputes and grievances which previously prevented membership, seizing on any opportunity to emphasise division with neighbouring Bulgaria. Despite having failed to prevent North Macedonia’s NATO entry, Russia still dreams of using the country to undermine the alliance – and hopes to block any moves towards EU membership.

The situation is even worse in Serbia, where the dominant government-controlled media echo the Kremlin’s propaganda. Read Serbian dailies, or watch the state news channel, and you would believe that the Ukrainian government are killing their own people. That they are Nazis, shooting civilians in the back – a claim which resonates in the Balkans, where Yugoslav identity was built in part on stories of resistance to Nazi atrocities in the Second World War.

Polling in Serbia shows strong support for Putin, and a belief that Russia is the main power Serbia should depend on for its security.

For a decade, the Kremlin has sought to sow division in the Balkans, and to exploit the region as a weak point within the heart of Europe and NATO, through which to cause division and instability.

While we give Putin’s propaganda free reign, he can succeed. If the dominant media narrative is of Russia as a friend and NATO as aggressive, of democracies as weak and autocracies as effective, there can be little hope for long-term stability and prosperous relationships.

These ideas and attitudes cannot be reversed overnight. But we do have a tool to challenge them: free and independent media, who report impartially, diligently, bravely. In Ukraine, journalists are on the frontlines to bring us news unfiltered by the Kremlin’s propaganda department. As Putin has sought to restrict the press and reporting in Russia, the BBC have been taking steps to ensure that truth can still be heard.

The BBC and its reporters are renowned around the world. But we have not been giving them the support they need. As too often, we have looked at a great national institution and found ways to criticise it, rather than to improve it.

Instead, we should value the role that BBC journalists fulfil in challenging propaganda through their fair and determined reporting. And we should recognise the part that they can play in defending against Putin’s war on the truth.

In the Balkans, I believe we should increase the funding for the World Service’s local language journalism, so that BBC reporting can compete with the distortions of Sputnik, RT and state-controlled media. Sputnik is able to propagate its disinformation through local media, in part because of consistent efforts to squeeze funding for the independent press.

To counter this, we should fund the expansion of existing BBC services in Serbia, and extend provision into Bosnia-Herzegovina and North Macedonia. We should support them to provide BBC bulletins and coverage to other broadcasters in the region, so that local media have a genuine choice. And we should resource the sort of innovative approaches now being adopted for Russia, where the BBC are taking to platforms like TikTok to reach audiences otherwise cut off.

We will not change minds immediately. But by ensuring that Russia’s voice is not the only one in the Balkans, and that the impartial, scrupulous reporting for which the BBC is renowned can be heard, we can expose RT and Sputnik for what they are. We can challenge the Kremlin’s narratives, and provide an alternative to their lies.

And we can offer a reminder to the citizens of the Balkans, that aggression and autocracy are not the best foundations for a society, but that prosperity is best served by a free press, respect for rights, and democracy.

How the EU must wish it had accepted May’s Chequers offer

9 Dec

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

Liam Fox was right. The former trade secretary has been much mocked for his remark that a trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history”. Two and a half years later, that deal has still not been done and, as I write, there is a real prospect that the talks will break down. Yet Fox’s reasoning was sound. The most difficult aspects of trade negotiations, in general, are the opening of markets and the recognition of each other’s standards. In this instance, neither issue arises. Britain and the EU already have access to each other’s markets and reciprocal standards. Every barrier would be a costly move away from the status quo. For once, the inertia bias pulls towards free trade.

So what is the problem? Why wasn’t a deal struck long ago? Well – and this is where Foxie was correct – it wasn’t because of differences over trade. The purely commercial aspects of the deal seem to have been agreed easily enough. The hold-up, as everyone knows, is over other matters, notably fisheries and what Brussels negotiators (and most British media) misleadingly call the “level playing field”.

Neither of these disputes is primarily economic. We keep being told that the fishing industry accounts for a tiny proportion of Britain’s GDP, but the same is true for the EU. More to the point, the only way in which EU trawlers would be wholly excluded from British waters is if there were no deal. A deal would mean a phased reduction in access for Continental vessels, but not a reduction to zero. Whatever the EU’s reasons for holding out on fisheries, concern for French skippers is plainly not one of them.

Similarly, when it comes to the level playing field, Brussels doesn’t truly fear that Britain will abolish the minimum wage, scrap its environmental rules or subsidise its industries with a view to hostile dumping. British social and employment standards are higher than the EU’s requirements, its green targets more ambitious and its levels of state aid lower.

No, in both cases, the issue is emotional rather than economic. Eurocrats are still affronted by the 2016 referendum result. A few explicitly want Britain to suffer, even if that means that the 27 suffer, too. Even those who, rationally, accept that the best way to maximise their own prosperity is to have a free and open trading relationship with their biggest market sometimes struggle, psychologically, to follow that logic all the way through. Hence all their snide remarks and passive-aggressive tweets.

Britain’s other trade talks – first with Japan, Australia and New Zealand, then with the United States, then with India, Mercosur and the Gulf states – have been premised on the idea that both sides want to maximise their prosperity. We recently agreed a deal with Switzerland which covers pretty much the same ground as the EU talks. Foxite in its simplicity, it largely involved the two sides agreeing to leave things as they were. Indeed, the main complicating factor was EU pressure on Switzerland not to agree to too much.

Why, then, do Brussels negotiators talk of “granting” tariff-free access as if trade were an act of kindness? Because, in truth, they have not come to terms with Brexit. The EU thinks of itself as a modern empire (see speeches by José Manuel Barroso, Guy Verhofstadt et al) and its attitude to Britain is that of a metropolitan power toward a renegade province. They find it hard to let go. They want some remaining emblems of suzerainty.

We British should understand. We have, from time to time, found ourselves in the EU’s shoes. When the bulk of Ireland broke away, for example, London struggled to reconcile itself to the notion that it there was now a truly independent country next door. It imposed all sorts of conditions on the new state, including an oath of allegiance to the Crown, the continuing use of three Irish ports and a guarantee that the Anglo-Irish Treaty would have legal precedence over measures adopted by the Irish parliament.

In truth, these measures were more decorative than functional. Ireland after 1921 was, in its essentials, an independent country; but another generation passed before it formally assumed the final attributes of sovereignty without British opposition.

Fisheries and the level playing field are, so to speak, the EU’s treaty ports and oath of allegiance – symbols that Britain is a semi-protectorate rather than with an equal sovereign power. While Eurocrats would no doubt phrase that sentence differently, the truth is that they see Britain as a rule-taking dependent, like Macedonia or Ukraine, rather than as a wholly independent nation.

The funny thing is that, when Theresa May offered them such a relationship at the 2018 Salzburg summit, they threw it back in her face. Perhaps, as reports suggested at the time, they were simply put off by her manner. Perhaps they were not prepared, on principle, to agree to anything proposed by the renegade province. Either way, they must now wish they had grabbed that deal.