The Paladins news articles about Ukraine: a statement of ethical principles
We are pleased to observe that our news articles about Ukraine, published at www.the-paladins.com/blog, are becoming increasingly popular. We are grateful to our audiences, wherever they are from. At the same time, we are receiving a number of queries about our sources, our methods and our bias. So we thought we might set out some of the principles that guide us when we write, here.
In some cases we use primary sources, i.e. things we have personally seen or experienced. When we do this we will typically make it clear, e.g. by using the phrase 'this author ...'.
Although we have access to all sorts of sources that might in the business be called 'intelligence', we do not rely upon intelligence (i.e. an undisclosed person giving us their opinion) in making factual assertions about what has happened. That is because intelligence can be (very) unreliable. Even where multiple intelligence sources ostensibly corroborate one-another, it may turn out (and often does) that the various sources all have the same original source that is distributing a piece of information or misinformation. Unlike in a court of law, this cannot be tested by cross-examination. Therefore we do not use so-called 'raw intelligence' in what we write.
Our principal sources of facts are reliable secondary sources, e.g. newspapers and press releases, albeit with speculations, unguarded inferences and conscious or unconscious bias stripped out. In other words we try to use journalists as our eyes and ears, knowing however that journalists can be biased (often because their editor or audience is perceived as wanting that) or in some cases they may make things up.
Government press releases are very variable in their reliability. Generally, the less information a government press release provides, the more likely that what it does say is accurate. That is because people tend to take greater care in the preparation of shorter documents by referencing them to the evidence and known facts. The process of shortening a document tends to involve the removal of false or unreliable materials. Unnecessarily long documents or passages of text may indicate the insertion of fabricated detail to support a concocted story.
Every litigation lawyer knows this, and we are primarily a legal services organisation. Lawyers have solid experience of whether people are lying or making evidence up; we assess such things using forensic methods (cross-checking apparently irrelevant details), and it is something lawyers are good at because we are used to being lied to. It's part of the job.
Moreover because the forensic details lawyers focus upon are irrelevant, it is hard or even impossible to prepare for them all in advance without veering into excessive verbiage in the giving of details. This fundamental issue - that it is easy to tell the truth briefly but extremely difficult to lie briefly, without being caught out - is what makes common law lawyers so exceptionally good at divining the truth.
We are cautious when presented with conspiracy theories, including assertions of false flag operations. Most violent actions in military theatre are not false flag. Most of the time, armies do not go round blowing themselves up. They will only do this if they think there is a substantial tactical or strategic benefit, usually in the realm of public relations.
In this conflict, there is an asymmetry in public relations. Russians don't care about public relations at all, which is why they are so bad at it, issuing sparse clipped press releases rarely of much use in understanding what really happened. By contrast Ukrainian government is heavily reliant on public relations, because Ukraine cannot fight this war without foreign financial and military aid and she will only continue to receive those if she maintains high public relations output. One must always bear this in mind in assessing the relative reliabilities of Russian and Ukrainian sources.
Both sides are capable of lying blatantly. As Senator Hiram Warren-Johnson notably observed in 1918 of events in World War One, the first casualty when war comes is truth. Uncorroborated figures are a particular feature of the current war, because there is so massive a media presence in theatre to suck them all up.. Calculating deaths or casualties is difficult, and the temptation is just to manufacture them. At some point however a regular army has to inform the relatives of soldiers' deaths; at that point figures become more reliable. Russia and Ukraine are both civilised European countries in the sense of having functional bureaucracies in which people have ID cards and such things; and at some stage they will update their community registers of births and deaths. That is also a good point at which to make realistic assessments of deaths attributable to war; but not before.
Remember also that it is typical for 1 per cent or more of a country's population to die each year; if they did not, we would all be living to over 100. Hence in Ukraine's case there may be an underlying natural (non-war death rate of 440,000 a year or 37,000 people a month. By any measure, the number of people dying in the war in Ukraine is far less than those dying of 'natural causes'. Crunching the statistics to work out how many people actually died as a result of wartime activities is generally something that can only be undertaken after the war is over.
The PALADINS take no moral positions on the respective actions of the parties or the grounds for initiation of this war, save in specific op-eds in which case it will be made clear. There are several reasons why not. Far too many others are interweaving factual narratives with moral condemnations or exhortations. We prefer not to do that; where one does, it encourages bias. If one has a preconceived moral opinion about an event, one is more likely to prefer a factual version of events that reflects one's moral view.
We will give an example. This author was asked by several people whether he thought the recent attack on Pridnestrovia (Transniestr) was a Russian false flag operation, because for better or for worse he is considered an expert in Pridnestrovian affairs. Those with an anti-Russian predisposition wanted him to reach that conclusion. The fact however is that this author has no unique insight into who pressed what trigger; he wasn't there. The fact that he knows Pridnestrovia well does not mean he is more likely to know who pulled the trigger on a military device. All he could do was weigh the evidence, just like anyone else. Our conclusions are in a separate article about the attack on Pridnestrovia. We have tried to be as objective as possible.
As Winston Churchill observed, history is written by the victors. No doubt the history of the war in Ukraine will follow this unerring principle. Indeed both sides may ultimately claim victory and write their own histories; this is common enough in civil confkixts. In the midst of war we are drowned out by the deafening screeches of moral condemnation, allegation and counter-allegation. We at The PALADINS try our best to tune these illiberal frequencies out. We aim to pursue a neutral factual analysis based upon the best materials available to us. We think it is best if the moral judgements, including where appropriate war crimes prosecutions, come later.
We are here to serve.
Very truly yours,