In his book The Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia British journalist Angus Roxburgh details the time he spent working as a public relations consultant for the Russian government. The problem he confronted, he writes, is that the Russians felt that negative fallout from any type of bad news, or bad behaviour, could be avoided if the news was given the appropriate media spin. He kept telling them that if they insisted on doing x or y, it would look bad regardless of how it was spun, while they insisted that as a PR guy it was up to him to make it look good nevertheless. In essence, Roxburgh says, the Russians never understood that if you put lipstick on a pig, everyone will still see that it’s a pig.
It’s a fair enough point, and I couldn’t help thinking of it when reading news this past week of a big dump of leaked documents showing how the British government has been spending millions of pounds on supporting anti-Kremlin journalists, media organizations, youtubers and other influencers both in Russia and its near abroad (especially the Baltic states).
The leaked documents consist of instructions from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to companies wanting to bid for contracts to supervise the media campaign, as well as various bids drawn up by companies hoping to win the contracts. You can find some of the details in an article by Kit Klarenburg on RT as well as on the Moon of Alabama blog.
The latter goes out of its way to portray this as a campaign of British subversion targeted against Russia. Strictly speaking, nothing in the documents says that. Rather, the FCO couches its language in terms of training journalists, overcoming disinformation, improving the quality of reporting, raising journalistic ethics, and so on. Who can argue with any of that? On the surface, it’s all fine and dandy, though perhaps a bit patronising, as there’s an underlying assumption that Russians are incapable of high quality, ethically sound reporting, whereas the UK (home of the Sun, the Daily Express, and the like) knows all about that sort of thing and can teach those poor benighted Russians how to do things properly.
Dig a bit deeper, though, and it’s clear that something is not quite as innocent as the FCO would like to make it out. Particularly striking was a statement that British funds have been used to set up a network of Russian youtubers while also helping them avoid having to register themselves as ‘foreign agents’, as required by Russian law. It’s hard to see how the Brits will be able to explain that to the Russians as not constituting interference in domestic affairs and aiding and abetting people to break the law.
Likewise, it’s difficult to say how one can describe positively the news that the FCO-funded Zink Network has been working with the Latvia-based Meduza and other media outlets, holding “weekly mentoring sessions with specialists from the outlets”, “adjusting their editorial and commercial strategy accordingly” and creating “common framings of issues.” It will be interesting to see how Meduza from now on rebuffs the accusation that it’s acting as an arm of the British government (I imagine that it just won’t bother trying).
I’m not going to go into all the details – you can read them yourselves, if you want. Instead, I feel it useful to mention a couple of points which these documents raised in my mind.
The first is that what I’ve called elsewhere the ‘disinformation industry’ (i.e. the industry devoted to combatting alleged Russian disinformation) is big business. There’s millions of pounds to be made in this. And nobody’s going to get any of that money by playing down the Russian threat.
The second is that it is all utterly pointless, even counterproductive. This sort of thing has a tendency to become public knowledge – as it now has – and when it does, it looks bad. In the process, it taints all and every anti-government source of information in Russia as the agent of hostile foreign states, even when they’re not. In this way, schemes like this actually end up playing into the hands of the Kremlin, justifying its claims that Russia is under attack from the West.
Perhaps that wouldn’t matter if somehow this great media campaign convinced huge numbers of people to change their view of the world. But I don’t see any evidence that it does. One of the leaked documents has the following to say about the Baltic states:
“Especially amongst 40+ populations there is a lower level of trust in both the domestic and international media amongst Russian-speaking populations. There is the strong perception that the Baltic states’ Russian TV and radio programmes favour a Baltic perspective rather than reflect the Russian minority’s perspectives. There is also a degree of mistrust in the authorities especially around citizenship and language.“
Returning to Mr Roxburgh, the correct solution to this, it seems to me, would be to address the policies that cause the mistrust, and also to start reflecting the Russians’ perspectives in your programming. But that’s not what the FCO plan wants to do. It assumes that the current policies and perspectives are fine; they just need some decent PR to sell them better. So, keep on churning out the same old line, just train some people to do it more professionally.
In short, paint some lipstick on the pig. But as the quote above shows, the reason Russians are listening to the message isn’t because the pig is ugly, but because it’s a pig. Making it a nicely painted British pig isn’t going to help in the slightest.