Some lives are more valuable than others

According to Western media’s coverage of the Ukraine war.

A Ukrainian volunteer Oleksandr Osetynskyi, 44 holds a Ukrainian flag and directs refugees after fleeing from Ukraine and arriving at the border crossing in Medyka, Poland
A Ukrainian volunteer holds a Ukrainian flag and directs refugees after fleeing from Ukraine and arriving at the border crossing in Medyka, Poland, Monday, March 7, 2022. [Visar Kryeziu/AP Photo]

There can no longer be any doubt about this egregious fact: too many Western journalists sent to Ukraine to report on another disfiguring war believe that some lives are more valuable than others.

Their transparently racist coverage of Vladimir Putin’s ruthless invasion confirms that they deem the suffering and deaths of white Christians more distressing and worthier of the world’s focus and empathy than the suffering and deaths of war-ravaged Ethiopians, Somalis, Sudanese, Yemenis, Syrians, Afghans, Libyans, Iraqis, and, of course, Palestinians.

If the proprietors or editors of “major” Western TV networks and newspapers object to this indictment, then I challenge them to step up and contest the, by now ample and convincing, evidence.

I will wait.

These proprietors, editors, and a gaggle of agitated readers may say: “Ah, but Al Jazeera is guilty on this score, as well.”

It is true – an Al Jazeera host recently said some stupid things about what sets European casualties of war apart from Arab and North African casualties of war which rightly offended.

Al Jazeera quickly acknowledged the faux pas and issued a blunt and apologetic statement disavowing the host’s “irresponsible” remarks. But this one instance of insensitivity cannot diminish or negate the entrenched attitude that infects much – not all – of Western media: some lives are indeed more valuable than others.

I arrived at this callous conclusion not only as an observer of the appalling biases of Western media, but as a press card-carrying member of the same.

Throughout my career, I have worked at several “major” Western news organisations, including Canada’s so-called “national” newspaper of record, The Globe and Mail, and the country’s public broadcaster, the CBC.

At each of these waystations along the instructive way, I saw how a stubbornly monochromatic editorial staff shaped institution-wide editorial policies that, in effect, established who and what kind of “victims” warrant sympathy and attention and who and what kind of “victims” do not.

The necessary corollary to this is that when nations populated by white Europeans are invaded by Western powers, stories about tragedy, sacrifice, heroism and the horrors of war abound.

But when Muslim nations were invaded by Western powers, reporters went along for the giddy ride as “embedded” stenographers who trumpeted – with varying degrees of triumphalism and awe – the speed, agility and “firepower” of the occupying armies as they hurtled towards quagmire, defeat and retreat and hurting Iraqis and Afghans be damned.

Clearly, despite promising change, these shameful practices are as pervasive today as they were yesterday.

I have written about this disgraceful double standard in column after column long before it became apparent that besieged blond-haired, blue-eyed Ukrainians murdered by Russian thugs in uniforms were made martyrs by Western media, while besieged brown-eyed, olive-skinned Palestinians murdered by Israeli thugs in uniforms are regarded as cheap and disposable by the same Western media.

This is the overarching truth that has been on glaring display since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine began: the lives of white Europeans engulfed by war matter and the lives of everyone else outside that continent engulfed by war do not.

Even more contemptible is the common refrain among much of the Western media that when countless Arabs, Africans or South Asians are killed in war, their deaths are the acceptable byproduct of the West’s honourable designs to “liberate” them from the talons of one diabolical autocrat or another.

Meanwhile, in occupied Palestine, a succession of Western-backed Israeli governments has been encouraged to kill as many Palestinians as it wants to, whenever it wants to and for whatever reason it wants to.

And, on reliable cue, “major” Western news organisations will justify, if not applaud, the killing in recycled editorials and columns that defend “our” best pal in the combustible region since Israel faces an “existential threat” posed by “terrorists” who use football-playing and kite-flying children as “human shields”.

The sickening inference of these pat justifications is that victims are not considered victims at all, but, by virtue of their nationalities and religious beliefs, fanatics who have invited being evicted, jailed, maimed, killed, and traumatised invasion after invasion for generation after generation.

Western editors and reporters are always quick to deny or scoff at these facts. They are, however, plain to any discerning reader and viewer far from comfortable, myopic newsrooms in London and New York.

So, it is hardly surprising that a pretend journalist writing for the traditionally war-happy British broadsheet, The Telegraph, penned this xenophobic claptrap masquerading as “insight”.

“They seem so like us,” the pretend journalist wrote. “That is what makes it so shocking. War is no longer visited upon impoverished and remote populations. It can happen to anyone.”

Translation: When white, middle-class Europeans “like us” are scarred by war, it must be stopped. Now. When poor, distant, not “like us” people from anywhere else in the world are scarred by war – who cares?

In a refreshing bout of honesty, an NBC reporter ditched the palatable code phrases and admitted outright to viewers that Europeans were not like Syrians in all the ways that count in times of war.

“To put it bluntly, these are not refugees from Syria,” she said. “These are refugees from neighbouring Ukraine. I mean, that is, quite frankly, part of it. These are Christians. They’re White. They are very similar to people in Poland.”

I appreciate her frankness and bluntness given that it strips away the last veneer of deceit that all casualties of war are considered equal.

Still, the prize for the most candid expression of white, European exceptionalism goes to a CBS correspondent who had this to say about what distinguishes Muslims from Christians at war.

“This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades,” the prize winner said. “You know, this is a relatively civilised, relatively European – I have to choose those words carefully, too – city where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it’s going to happen.”

Remember, he chose his words “carefully” before telling a like-minded American audience that Ukrainians are “civilised” and, by extension, Iraqis and Afghans are uncivilised.


It is also astonishing to see Western media and foreign ministers catch the same express bus to the International Criminal Court at The Hague to demand that the bad guys be charged with war crimes while the good guys in Tel Aviv and beyond will always escape a similar fate and judgement.

Finally, I am old enough to remember when well-manicured Western cable news hosts set aside their ideological differences to join in what amounted to a near reverential celebration of “shock and awe” in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan by the good guys pursuing “regime change”.

These days, the cable news hosts have traded their trademark cheerleading for indignation and condemnation of the bad guys’ pursuit of “regime change” by way of a “barbaric” campaign of “shock and awe” against cowering innocents in Kyiv and Kharkiv.

You see, according to the Western press, the good guys do liberations and the bad guys do war crimes.

Helpful note to editors and reporters in Atlanta, Washington, DC, New York and London: Human suffering is human suffering – wherever and whenever it occurs.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.