This week my class on ‘Irrationality and Foreign Policy Decision Making’ will be looking at the media. In an ideal world, the media would ensure that the public was properly informed and would hold governments to account for their mistakes. This would ensure better public policy. In reality, as Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky conclude in their classic study Manufacturing Consent, the mass media are often ‘effective and powerful ideological institutions that carry out a system-supportive propaganda function.’
It is worth bearing this in mind when considering a report published this month on the state of the media in Russia by the neoconservative Henry Jackson Society in the UK. Written by Russian journalist Vasiliy Gratov and entitled Putin, Maria Ivanovna from Ivanovo and Ukrainians on the Telly, its message is in line with the general complaint that Vladimir Putin has destroyed a free press in Russia. ‘Russia’s media’, writes Gratov, ‘seem back at a place they escaped from in the late 1980s: the doorway of a censor whose permission to publish is mandatory’. He concludes that the principles of media control introduced by Putin’s government ‘are nothing less than an outright rejection of democracy. Exploiting manipulation of the news media, powerful officials (and the president himself), “manage” audiences and voters, forcing them to accept a fake news agenda as genuine.’
Yet, as Herman and Chomsky’s analysis suggests, this is hardly an exclusively Russian phenomenon. In his book Flat Earth News, Nick Davies of The Guardian cites research by former U.S. Air Force officer Sam Gardiner into news stories concerning the invasion of Iraq:
He logged stories about the Iraqis using children to fight US forces (he found this was untrue); Iraqi troops waving white flags and then attacking US troops when they stepped out to talk to them (almost certainly untrue); Iraqis wearing US uniforms to commit atrocities which would be blamed on the Americans (untrue); Iraqis ambushing US marines on the road to Baghdad (he found the marines had been attacked repeatedly by a US plane); Iraqis shooting prisoners of war (claimed personally by both George Bush and Tony Blair, later said by Downing Street to ‘lack absolute evidence’) … In each of these cases, Gardiner tracked back and found that the falsehood had been fed into the media by ‘official sources’ of one kind or another.
Herman, Chomsky, and Davies list a number of causes of this phenomenon, including: concentration of media ownership in a few hands; economic pressures which have reduced the number of real journalists; increasing necessity to produce news rapidly; and a resultant over-reliance on government press releases. This allows state leaders to set an agenda, after which journalists will generally follow it, without challenging the basic narrative. Rather than holding political elites to account, the mass media become in effect a willing accomplice.
Gratov’s description of the relationship between the Russian state and media fits this model. First, he says, in the 1990s, media owners sought subsidies from the state, in return for which they provided political support to Yeltsin’s government. This created ‘a deliberate intermixing of journalists with the political and economic elite.’ Second, the post-Soviet mass media were from an early stage ‘controlled by a small number of industrial finance groups.’ The owners of these groups are closely linked to the Kremlin, which exercises control informally through the personal relations between the politicians and the media moguls. This ensures a form of voluntary compliance of the media in spreading the state’s message.
It is interesting that although Gratov claims that Russia has returned to the censorship of communist times, he admits that the problem isn’t that Russian journalists are being censored but rather that they ‘in practice acquiesce in the conditions proposed for their existence … [and that] not a few not only give their consent to the manipulator-state, but try to outbid it, offering creative elaboration of the concepts of official Putinism’. Speaking of alleged distortions in Russian coverage of the war in Ukraine, Gratov writes that:
We should not imagine that these distortions are improvised by a team in the Presidential Administration, seconded to manage the news on Channel One or Russian TV and Radio. … A distinguishing feature of the New Censorship is that it encourages journalists (the word should probably be in quotes) not only to serve up the news agenda they are handed by the Kremlin, but also to creatively embellish it.
In other words, nobody is making Russian journalists report what they do – they elect to do so themselves, as unwitting participants in the system of government manipulation. This is not so very different from the critique of the Western media made by Herman, Chomsky, and Davies. Likewise, the parallels between concentrated media ownership and an overly close relationship with the state in the West and Russia are obvious.
In addition, Gratov divides the Russian media into three types: those outlets and publications which are ‘foes’ of the Kremlin; those which are ‘friends’; and those somewhere in the middle. As far as the first of these are concerned, ‘From the outset of the 2000s … there was no point in asking foes to do the Kremlin any favours, or to ask them to refrain from doing something. With then, as with the Western media, there was either a brisk, business-like relationship or no relationship at all.’ This is quite an admission, for what it says is that the government leaves opposition media alone. It doesn’t censor them, or otherwise try to influence them. They are free to publish what they like. This is not at all a ‘restoration of the Soviet system’, as Gratov describes it.
Clearly the relationship between the state and the media in Russia leaves a lot to be desired. There is a lack of genuine accountability, and the state is able to shape the news agenda in its favour. But it isn’t obvious from Gratov’s report or from any other analysis that the dynamics are that different from those in the West.