Brendan Clifford: How Media Attribute Responsibility – The MH17 Disaster Coverage as Telling Example

For more information about the "Exploring Geopolitics, Geoeconomics and Geostrategy" Summer School, please click here

ExploringGeopolitics_TheWayISeeIt_LogoBrendan Clifford, Cambridge University (Bachelor student in History, next academic year Master student in International Relations).

“The way I see it…
is that the way in which media report on an event always reflects a particular geopolitical perspective.”

Editor’s note


Brendan Clifford

This piece is based on a presentation the author gave during the Geopolitics Summer School at Maastricht University in July 2014. Going through all the information available shortly after the MH17 disaster, the author did not take a position in the debate on the responsibility for the tragic loss of so many human lives.
Instead of claiming to know the truth himself, the author examines how a newspaper implicitly attributed responsibility for the disaster to specific actors. The analysis focuses on various representations and representational techniques that were used to support one specific perspective on the disaster.
The author is aware that his work is a form of situated knowledge, assuming that “there is no singular reading of a text, but that each reader will engage differently with it depending upon political outlook, education, and a multitude of other positionings.” (Sharp, 2000, p. 45).


The Daily Mail Online is the most popular news website in the world. It receives approximately 45m unique visitors every month. For millions of people, especially in Britain, it is their first choice for news. The website’s (and print newspaper’s) middle-brow, right-wing populism combined with gossip columns, fashion, horoscopes and so on make it a potent force in shaping opinion.
When MH17 was shot down, millions of people first learnt of the event through the Daily Mail online’s story. This gave the writers and editors power to mould public perception of the disaster, which must have impacted upon the political perception of the even, as public sentiment became known.

The headline

Clifford_Brendan_HeadlineWe will focus first on the headline, which is the most important part of any story. The Daily Mail’s article is very long and many people will have looked only at the first few dozen words and come away with a certain perception formed, consciously or not. Therefore responsibility ascribed, tacitly or directly, in the headline, is very important.
It is a masterful demonstration of suggesting responsibility while appearing objective. The first word, of the first sentence of the first rendition of the story millions will have seen is “Putin”. He is immediately connected with the disaster. He is also described as “not denying” that the trigger was pulled by “Russian separatists”. This immediately undermines his blaming of Ukraine for the disaster.
How can he be blaming Ukraine if he won’t deny (and so, to those suspicious of Putin, seems to admit) that Russians shot it down? In one single sentence Putin is intimately tied to events. His suggestion that the Ukrainians bear responsibility is sandwiched between his name as the very first word of the story and his almost tacit admission that the perpetrators were Russian, thus undermining it effortlessly.
The McCain quote is also cunningly used to suggest Putin’s responsibility. McCain’s full quote, buried half way down the story (where many readers will fail to reach, or could easily miss if scanning the article), is “'[t]o leap to conclusions could be very embarrassing… But if it is the result of either separatist or Russian actions mistakenly believing this was a Ukrainian war plane, I think there’s going to be hell to pay and there should be’.” The “hell to pay” McCain is demanding in the full quote is hypothetical and to be demanded only after a full investigation to avoid the embarrassment of leaping to conclusions. In the headline, however, it seems that a hawkish Republican American is making demands of the Russian leader. To many readers this would seem further proof that Putin is somehow responsible; why else would McCain be so angry and so direct?

The photographs

The use of photographs is another technique utilised effectively by the Mail Online. Some photos are used to put the readers in a certain mood while reading; there are dozens of photos of wreckage and fire.

These pictures show the destruction perpetrated. Were a reader to scroll through the article the dominant impression is burnt grey metal and ash and orange flame, with occasional, jarring and garish images of grieving relatives.

Having tacitly started to ascribed blame to the Russians in the headline, the Mail Online now seeks to get the reader’s blood up. The Mail also uses photos to emphasise the likelihood of Russian responsibility. In photos of Russians and pro-Russian militias, their paramilitary-ness is emphasised.

The caption of the photo on the left begins “Assault rifles in hand…”. The men are not uniformly or smartly dressed. They do not look like a conventional army, bound by rules of war (particularly the obligation not to kill civilians), as they stand where many civilians were killed.


This amazing photograph seems to say so much about the pro-Russian separatists. In the caption Alexander Borodai is called “the self-proclaimed Prime Minister of the pro-Russian separatist ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’”. His lack of legitimacy is emphasised by suggesting he assumed the title of prime minister and that there was no popular support, turning what could be seen as a popular resistance into one man’s power-grab. He is surrounded by several scary-looking men. Two are in fatigues, but not uniform. One has a very non-military beard. As above, they look paramilitary, with none of the restrictions on behaviour applied to national armies.

Borodai himself, in his jacket and jeans, seems inappropriately dressed to visit a mass grave or to lead a new country. He looks illegitimate, though for all we know he rushed to the scene without pausing to put on a suit. He is spotlit, emerging from the darkness like he is in a Rembrandt painting. It is a striking photograph in the article, with such a violent contrast between light and dark. It would certainly take the eye if a reader were scrolling rapidly through the images. By settling on it for a second, because it is visually arresting, and by seeing Borodai looking more like a Mafioso than a freedom fighter, and reading the caption emphasising his lack of legitimacy, Borodai and the pro-Russian separatists seem even more guilty.

The Comments

The comments section shows that the headline and the photographs have driven people to conclude largely that the Russians and pro-Russian rebels, and Putin in particular, bear responsibility.

It is interesting that one commentator has decided the missile which brought down the plane was shoulder-fired when the article clearly states that it was not. This is at least one reader who has not read the article closely yet has still formed a strong opinion of Russian responsibility. Moreover, there are a few suggestions of Ukrainian responsibility but the overwhelming majority of accusations are aimed at Russia. The Daily Mail, while not directly accusing Putin, has still led many of its readers to ascribe responsibility to the Russians, all on the very limited evidence available between 17th and 20th July 2014.


Nowhere in the article does the Mail Online explicitly blame the Russians, Putin or the pro-Russian rebels for the terrible crime of shooting down flight MH17. This article was written when the wreckage was still hot and information was thin on the ground, though there was enough to form hypotheses (the article was amended on the 20th July, three days after the crash, and it is hard to tell what changes and fresh information was added). However the Mail definitely took a tacitly anti-Russian angle. Through its use of photographs and the very cleverly written and leading headline, as well as the text, which emphasises the suffering of the Ukrainians and the relatives of the people who were on board, while highlighting the dangerousness and illegitimacy of the Donetsk People’s Republic fighters, the Mail Online encouraged its millions of readers to ascribe blame confidently to Putin and his allies.

Sources [visited: 23 July 2014] [visited: 23 July 2014]
Sharp, Joanne (2000). Condensing the Cold War. Reader’s Digest and American Identity. Minnesota University Press.

Photo credits

AFP, Getty Images, Reuters

Comments are closed.