Avatar photo

Bruce Bucknell

Former British Deputy High Commissioner Kolkata

Part of UK in Belarus

4th April 2014

Black-and-white or shades of grey?

Reporting and assessing events in other countries is one of a diplomat’s prime functions.  We need to know about events, and then explain them to our governments.

We have to explain complex events as briefly as possible and put them into a political and historical perspective.  Our political masters don’t have time to read detailed and learned explanations.  They usually want to know more about the consequences – how certain events might affect our interests, or whether we need to advise our fellow citizens about their safety abroad.

This is straightforward in countries that are similar to us, with whom we have good relations, or where there is more transparency of decision making.  It is less easy where decision making is opaque, or with countries with which are relations may not be so close.  We sometimes report on events which are the results of decisions for which we don’t know the causes, or the motivations of those involved.

I think nearly all of my colleagues – my fellow British ambassadors around the world, or my diplomatic colleagues here in Minsk – worry that we’ve interpreted events correctly, and that we’ve understood what’s happened.

Our reporting is something between the news produced by journalists, and studies produced by political scientists, historians and other academics.

Journalism inevitably focuses on what is news, and tends to simplify either to sell newspapers or to follow the editorial lines prescribed by the news outlet or government where the journalism is produced.  Academic studies can be produced months or years afterwards – long after events have happened when it is already too late to deal with the consequences.

Of course, the danger with simplifying events is that responses to them can also be simplistic.  While a simple or Manichean world view can be comforting, I don’t think it helps resolve complex problems in the world we live in.  I’m sometimes frustrated that foreign media coverage of Belarus is black and white – and doesn’t cover the complexity of the real situation.

I’m not directly responsible for reporting to my government on recent events in Ukraine.  But I have to understand reactions in Belarus and to make sense of the consequences of those events.  In this respect, three factors are playing on my mind.

The continuum of history

I’ve watched Russian televisions news and the propaganda emanating from Moscow about events in Ukraine.  I’ve listened to the description of “fascists”.  I’ve noted the references to Russia being ready to protect Russian speakers in other countries.

All these may appeal to ordinary Russians, and the nationalism that the state media are stirring up within Russia may increase popular support for the Russian government in the short term.  But they are having an equal and opposite effect in other parts of Europe and elsewhere.

Looking at history selectively is dangerous.  History is a continuum.  Events such as the Second World War didn’t happen spontaneously.  Before and after 1941-5 – when the peoples of the Soviet Union made terrible sacrifices – there were other events that other nations remember very well.

In Britain, we seem constantly to re-visit history, especially in this year of the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War.  The war that began in 1914 had major consequences for Europe and I don’t think you can have a good understanding of later events in the 20th century without having some idea of the consequences of that war.

In fact, the debate about the First World War in Britain has been at times quite heated and even involved our politicians about some of the myths associated with the war.  But the debate is healthy because it allows us to reassess the conventional wisdom or folk memory of that war.

The inter-connected world

The world is now much more inter-connected than ever.  This inter-connectedness covers many aspects – but it is the flow of information across borders that particularly interests me.

Digital media provide many sources of information about current events.  However, as digital media are open to anyone on line, they can be filled with unsubstantiated reports or prejudiced opinion.  In the cacophony of today’s information age, it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between fact and disinformation.  As with traditional media, I think the trick is to follow reliable sources.

Digital media allow us to read different opinions and interpretations of events.  This can be useful as other peoples’ perceptions of events, rather than the events themselves, can tell us more about possible reactions.  Following the news in Russian state media recently has taught me a lot about how the Russian state wants Russians to view their place in the world.

But in the information rich age we now live in, not everyone goes looking for different views or opinions.  There are so many sources of information and opinion that everyone can find something to support their world view or prejudice.

In this new world, the line between domestic and foreign information and news no longer exists.  The information about events in one country can be very quickly shared around the world.  That includes how that information is presented – in other words propaganda in one country can be quickly seen in another.

Zero sum game  

This is a particularly difficult phrase to translate into Russian:  игра с нулевой суммой is one I’ve come across.  The zero sum game has only two possible outcomes – it’s either one side or the other that gains.  The best way to describe the idea is:  “I win, you lose”.  Economists and psychologists use it a lot to understand and explain human behaviour.

The zero sum game suggests that there is only one choice, and no alternative outcomes.  It doesn’t allow for working together to find another way.

It is a maxim amongst Western experts that the zero sum mentality is still strong in this part of the world.  Perhaps this is due to Lenin, who said “кто не с нами, тот против нас”, a zero sum thought if ever there was one.

There are alternatives to the zero sum approach.  I’ve encountered lots of examples amongst ordinary Belarusians of altruism, and seen the “win-win” mentality in looking at business deals, negotiations and other interactions.  But I can see that the Russian government’s reaction to events in Kyiv suggests a zero sum mentality.

For me, I can only see the complexity of what happened in Kyiv – from the anger over corruption, the aspirations for a better life, the anger of the people against the security forces, and much, much more.  They don’t justify the black and white response of the Russian annexation of Crimea.

1 comment on “Black-and-white or shades of grey?

  1. Dear Bruce ,
    of course , I don ‘t know yr. “Political Masters” but it was interesting to read that they don ‘t want to know political details but these consequences – as in yr. report explained. Nevertheless :
    Most notable to me was to read that yr. diplomatic activities are also affecting other countries and not only Minsk/Belarussia. Sometimes neighbour-states but also nations of which the United Kingdom has good or not so friendly relations. Well, in re. of yr. ” sources” I can understand your more or less problems with journalists. For I do very well have this saying in my mind : ” Any news are good news”. Within this context I do agree to you that the above mentioned other “sources” are fitting much more to yr. work. Most notable to me was yr. chapter : Zero Sum Game. For I don ‘t like these “I win- you lose” phrase. Esp. the suggestion , that there is NO alternative. I ‘m convienced , that there ‘s in every situation an alternative possible. To the benefits of all. So this Zero Sum Game is really Black or white thinking.
    Best wishes and a relaxed weekend, liebe Grüßle, Ingo-Steven , Stuttgart

Comments are closed.

About Bruce Bucknell

Bruce was the British Deputy High Commissioner in Kolkata from 2016 to 2019. Previously he was Ambassador in Minsk from July 2012 to January 2016. Bruce grew up on a…

Bruce was the British Deputy High Commissioner in Kolkata from 2016 to 2019. Previously he was Ambassador in Minsk from July 2012 to January 2016.

Bruce grew up on a farm in southern England and enjoys walking in the countryside and visiting wild places.

He studied modern history at Durham University, and takes a keen interest in the history of the places he visits.

Bruce used to play cricket when he could see the ball. Now he enjoys watching cricket and many other sports in his spare time.

He has had a varied career in the Foreign Office. Between his postings to Amman (1988-91), Milan (1995-9) and Madrid (2003-7), he has spent much of his career in London mostly dealing with Europe and Africa.

He is married with two grown up sons.