Having said in my last post that you shouldn’t disbelieve everything that the press tells you about Russia, I find myself returning once again to examples of bad reporting, as these seem to be rather more prevalent than the good variety. Bad journalism, though, is not all the same. It takes different forms, and some examples from this week and last prove the point.
First off is report by the BBC’s Russian correspondent Steve Rosenberg that came out yesterday, which you can watch on the BBC website. Rosenberg travelled to the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk supposedly to find answers to the question ‘In what direction is Russia heading?’, Krasnoyarsk being chosen because it’s geographically more or less slap bang in the middle of Russia.
As I note in an analysis of the report published today by RT (which you can read here), it’s not very good. Having travelled 4,000 kilometres to Krasnoyarsk, Rosenberg tells us absolutely nothing about the city itself, but limits himself to interviewing three people who tell him a bunch of things he could just as easily have heard if he’d stayed in Moscow. The whole piece is then framed, start and finish, by a statement that “Russia is heading towards a big catastrophe.” Ah yes, Russia is doomed! How many times have we heard that one?
Frankly, I can’t imagine why Rosenberg bothered going to Krasnoyarsk to do this. Having travelled that far, he could have made an effort to explore the city and tell us how things are there. But none of it. It was just another excuse to tell us that Russia is going down the plughole.
This then is one type of bad reporting: it consists of focusing on selling a given narrative rather than trying to understand and explain the object under study.
This type isn’t untrue, it’s just not very interested in anything that doesn’t fit the chosen story. The second type, by contrast, bends the truth to fit the narrative.
I deal with an example of this in another article for RT, published a few days ago, that you can find here. The case in question is an accusation published by the New York Times that Russian intelligence paid the Taliban in Afghanistan to kill American soldiers. As I note in my article, the US government has been back-peddling from this claim, as well it might, given the weakness of the supporting evidence. However, as I also point out, the evidence was always weak, which makes you wonder why the New York Times chose to publish the story in the first place. The answer, I suggest, is that it suited the Times’ political objective at the time, which was to undermine then US president Donald Trump.
The third type of bad journalism is somewhat similar, in that it has a similar disregard for factual accuracy, but is slightly different in that it’s not pursuing its own political objectives but is acting as spokesman for somebody else’s political campaign, repeating the campaign’s claims as if gospel truth while not bothering to verify them.
An example is recent coverage of Russian oppositionist Alexei Navalny. Last week the Western press contained numerous stories to the effect that Navalny was on the verge of death. Navalny was ‘close to death’, said CNN. He was ‘dying in prison’ and ‘would die in a matter of days’, said ABC News. And so on.
The source for this claim was Navalny’s press secretary and others close to him. The Western media repeated the assertion without questioning its veracity. But was it true? Apparently not. It seems that even Navalny himself has expressed some amusement at the idea that he’s on the verge of death. And let’s face it, how could his team have known his condition when they don’t have access to him?
That doesn’t mean that he’s a well man. He’s been taken to a prison hospital, which suggests that he’s not in perfect health. But dying? Discussing the subject, Navalny ally Anastasiia Vasilieva rather shot herself in the foot with a couple of tweets, the first of which proclaimed ‘They wouldn’t allow us doctors to visit the dying Alexei Navalny’, and the second of which protested against ‘Taking a healthy person to a hospital … where all the patients have tuberculous.’ ‘Dying’ one minute, a ‘healthy person’ the next. Whatever.
The Western press, however, continues to promote whatever version of the Navalny story that Navalny’s headquarters sees fit to tell them. Today (21 April) protests are taking place across Russia in Navalny’s support. The jailed oppositionist’s team claimed in advance that 400,000 had signed up to take part, which would make these the largest protests ever in post-Soviet Russia. Journalists lined up to repeat this claim. ‘Tomorrow, Navalny supporters will stage possibly Russia’s biggest ever protests’, tweeted Financial Times correspondent, Max Seddon.
So did they? Seems not. As poor old Max had to admit today, ‘turnout is way down’ compared with the last Navalny protests in January. Reports indicate that even in the best performing locations, only about 1/4 of those who said they would come to the protests did, and in other locations the number was as little as 1/10. If we say that that averages out at about 1/7, then we can estimate a national turnout of a maximum of 50-60,000 people, maybe a lot fewer (I’ll wait for others to confirm the true amount – Seddon reckons about 10,000 in Moscow). That’s not a tiny number, for sure, but hardly the largest protest in Russian history (that record belongs to protests in February 2005 against social reform, when about 250,000 Russians came out onto the streets).
So why was Seddon telling us just yesterday that this protest might be the ‘biggest ever’? Wouldn’t a well-informed observer have known that that was extremely unlikely? Well, it seems to me that the problem, as with the ‘Navalny is dying’ story, is that too many journalists are, perhaps inadvertently, acting not as independent observers but as de facto PR personnel for the Russian opposition, rebroadcasting all its PR statements without properly confirming them. This isn’t as it should be.
Of course, not all journalism is bad, and the alternatives to the mainstream media are often even worse. One shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. The best advice I can give is to read as widely as possible and treat all sources with an open mind. Still, the examples above make something very clear – reporting on Russia leaves a lot to be desired.