Tag Archives: media

Autocracy and the media

Thinking a bit more about the recent report on the Kremlin’s alleged weaponizing of comedy, as well as other claims concerning ‘Russian propaganda’, what has struck me is how many people seem to assume that everything which happens in Russia is directed by the Kremlin. As it happens, in the past few weeks I’ve been doing a lot of reading about Russian conservatives in the last 50 years of the Russian Empire. One might imagine that in an autocratic country such as late Imperial Russia, the press was under the firm control of the state, that there was no independent ‘civil society’, and that conservative and patriotic groups took their orders from the central authorities. Yet this is not exactly how things were.

Take, for instance, the most prominent Russian journalist of the 1860s, 70s, and 80s, Mikhail Katkov. He was a fervent supporter of the autocracy and was given free rein to write what he pleased. But it would be a huge mistake to believe that the products of Katkov’s pen reflected the opinions of the Tsar and his bureaucracy. On the contrary, much of his work consisted of severe criticisms of Russia’s rulers for what Katkov considered their weak-willed policies and insufficiently aggressive defence of Russian interests. These writings sometimes infuriated Tsars Alexander II and III, but they permitted it in part because Katkov also railed against the Tsars’ revolutionary enemies, and in part because they knew that Katkov’s views were shared by a large portion of educated public opinion. On one occasion Alexander III was so angered by a Katkov article that he threatened to issue a public denunciation. But he was persuaded not to on the grounds, among other things, that the negative public reaction might cause a crash in the stock exchange.

Mikhail Katkov

Whether the labels ‘autocratic’ or ‘authoritarian’ really apply to modern Russia is a matter of debate, but those who believe that they do also appear to think that this means that the Russian media is entirely under the state’s direct control, and so everything that it prints or broadcasts represents the government’s wishes. Arkady Ostrovsky has pointed out in his study of the post-Soviet Russian media that its shift to patriotic themes from the late 1990s onwards responded to a clear public demand. Too many commentators choose to ignore this inconvenient fact. Some historians consider Mikhail Katkov an opportunist. He said what he said because it sold newspapers; but it sold newspapers because people supported it and wanted to read it. Much the same dynamic is probably true today.

Losing the propaganda war

The Western world, we are told, is subject to a steady stream of ‘Russian propaganda’. Perhaps this is true, but if so it is but a drop in the ocean of overall media content, the overwhelming majority of which is fiercely anti-Russian. Let us see what the English-language press had to say about Russia this week.

Atlantic magazine has just issued a new article entitled ‘Russia and the Threat to Liberal Democracy’. In this, author Larry Diamond explains how ‘Putin’s regime has been embarked for some years now on an opportunistic but sophisticated campaign to sabotage democracy’ and ‘We stand now at the most dangerous moment for liberal democracy since the end of World War II’.

‘CIA concludes Russia interfered to help Trump win election’, says The Guardian, citing the Washington Post and New York Times. Apparently, ‘A secret CIA assessment found that Russian operatives covertly interfered in the election campaign in an attempt to ensure the Republican candidate’s victory’, and ‘intelligence officials had a “high confidence” that Russia was involved in hacking related to the election’.

Building on this last story, the Guardian claims also that ‘Russian involvement in US vote raises fears for European elections.’  This follows a statement this week by the head of the British Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, Alex Younger, in which he ‘said cyber-attacks, propaganda and subversion from hostile states pose a “fundamental threat” to European democracies, including the UK. … Younger did not specifically name Russia but left no doubt that this was the target of his remarks.’ The Guardian says that, ‘there will be speculation that Younger was basing his statements, in part, on suspicions of Russian meddling in Britain’s Brexit referendum campaign. …  Any evidence of direct or indirect Russian interference in the British referendum campaign would be politically explosive.’

The Daily Express picks up on the alleged Russian threat to European elections. ‘RUSSIA TO DESTROY MERKEL’, its headline today reads in capital letters, with a subtitle saying ‘US official discovers intelligence of takedown plot.’  The article proceeds to tell us that, ‘RUSSIA has launched a cyber campaign to take down Angela Merkel and promote far-right groups in the upcoming German elections. … A US official familiar with the investigation says that Vladimir Putin will continue to wreak havoc.’

On a separate subject,  a report issued this week by Richard Maclaren on behalf of the World Anti-Doping Agency says that, ‘More than 1,000 Russians – including Olympic medallists – benefited from a state-sponsored doping programme between 2011 and 2015’. ‘It was a cover-up that evolved from uncontrolled chaos to an institutionalised and disciplined medal-winning conspiracy,’ claims McLaren.

As Syrian forces, with Russian help, recaptured most of Aleppo, Western politicians and the press lined up this week to accuse Russia and Syria of various atrocities. In a joint statement, the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, and Canada demanded a ceasefire in Aleppo and said: ‘We condemn the actions of the Syrian regime and its foreign backers, especially Russia, for their obstruction of humanitarian aid.’ The statement added ‘that hospitals and schools appeared to have been targeted “in an attempt to wear people down”.’ Western media outlets repeated claims of the ‘president of Aleppo city council’ that ‘Today 150,000 people are threatened with extermination’, and parsing Tacitus, MI6 chief Alex Younger complained that, ‘In Aleppo, Russia and the Syrian regime seek to make a desert and call it peace.’

Bear in mind that this is just one week’s stories. The consumers of Western media are subjected to similar output week after week. The oft-stated claim that ‘Russia is winning the information war’ is rather naïve. It is losing it badly.

Book review: The invention of Russia

‘Old fashioned nationalism in neo-Stalinist garb has become the most powerful force in Russian society,’ writes The Economist’s Arkady Ostrovsky in his new book The Invention of Russia: From Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War, adding that ‘In this book I have sought an answer to the question of how Russia got here.’

Ostrovsky’s answer is to blame ‘Russian propaganda’. This he does by means of a survey of the Russian media from the 1970s through to the current day. He focuses on those whom he regards as the key media figures who shaped modern Russia. As he says, ‘My main characters are not politicians or economists but those who generated the “meaning” of the country, who composed the storyline and broadcast it … ideologists, journalists editors, television executives: people in charge of the message and the media.’ Readers meet characters such as Gorbachev’s ideology chief Alexander Yakovlev; prominent newspaper editor Yegor Yakovlev and his son Vladimir, founder of Kommersant newspaper; television journalist Evgeny Kisilev; NTV general director Igor Malashenko; and Channel One TV chief Konstantin Ernst. The general story Ostrovsky describes is fairly well known, but the depictions of these characters are lively, and the book is an easy read and on occasion quite revealing.

Ostrovsky is very much a member of Russia’s liberal ‘creative classes’, as becomes clear at the start of the book, when he remarks that, ‘As a drama student in Moscow at the time [of the collapse of communism], I remember that feeling of hope. It was one of the happiest periods of my life. … For me, the shortages of food in the shops were fully compensated by this exhilarating new sense of possibility.’ Later he quotes Yegor Yakovlev saying, ‘Yegor’s heart swelled with pride and hope. “I am certain that Soviet workers value democracy over goods”.’ And later still, he claims that, ‘The people who sold bread and butter on the street [in the 1990s] did so not because they were broke but because they were allowed to trade.’ I can’t prove that Ostrovsky is wrong on that, but when I bought bread from little old ladies outside Moscow metro stations in the mid-90s, they looked pretty broke to me.

Running through Ostrovsky’s book is a strong sense of the superiority of Russia’s liberal intelligentsia over the bulk of Russia’s more primitive people. Eastern Ukrainian rebels, for instance, are described as a ‘ragtag army of thugs, opportunists and the unemployed.’ ‘Russian television’, says Ostrovsky, ‘exploited their weaknesses and lured them into a fight. … Russia’s “hybrid war” lifted them from their miserable, anonymous and hopeless existence.’

Rather than pandering to the masses’ basest instincts and trying to entertain them, Ostrovsky seems to feel that the media should be educating them in liberalism. Consequently, he treats liberal media bias far more forgivingly than bias in favour of the current Russian state. In the early stages of the book, Ostrovsky describes the efforts by liberal, pro-Western journalists who came of age in the 1960s to make communism more humane. Yegor Yakovlev, for instance, founded the magazine ‘Zhurnalist’ which ‘caught the attention of the urban intelligentsia who dreamed of the West, idealized it.’ He and other members of the 60s generation ‘came to vindicate their fathers’ ideas and uphold a purer version of socialism.’ Gorbachev then gave them an opportunity to advance their ideas. As Ostrovsky describes it, glasnost’ was not meant to destroy communism. Rather, ‘limited license [was] issued to a select few who could target the social groups that were most receptive to perestroika – students, young professionals and the urban intelligentsia.’ In short, glasnost’ was a plaything for the Soviet Union’s relatively small band of liberal intellectuals, who imagined that it was possible to build ‘communism with a human face’. As Ostrovsky points out, this belief was naïve, and it brought both communism and the Union tumbling down.

Moving forward in time, Ostrovsky then notes that ‘in the 1990s television and newspapers were in the hands of pro-Western liberals who set out to project a new reality by means of the media.’ The media elites exploited their position to discredit the opposition to President Boris Yeltsin in his fight against the Russian Supreme Soviet in 1993, and then again to ensure Yeltsin’s re-election in 1996. Ostrovsky notes that ‘Television played a crucial role in mobilizing people to support Yeltsin. It ran a relentless campaign. … There was no distance or etiquette between the Kremlin and the liberal journalists at the time.’ The head of NTV, Igor Malashenko, was actually a member of Yeltsin’s campaign team. When Yeltsin had a heart attack shortly before the election, Malashenko helped to cover it up. When it became necessary to finally put the extremely sick Yeltsin in front of the cameras, ‘The tape had to be heavily doctored, retouched and edited to make Yeltsin look less wooden and sick.’ When Yeltsin was filmed voting, ‘The two doctors in white coats behind him were edited out of the picture.’ Ostrovsky notes that, ‘Malashenko had a low opinion of the masses. Liberalism and democracy were not synonyms to him but antonyms.’

Ostrovsky does a good job in showing just how one-sided the Russian media was in the Yeltsin era. But he is very forgiving of this. He writes: ‘What gave Malashenko and his journalists confidence was the knowledge that they were on the right side of history. They were clever, skillful and Westernized. They held out the promise of a normal life that most people craved.’ ‘The Yeltsin coverage was clearly biased,’ says Ostrovsky, ‘Yet by the standards of Russian television in the late 2000s, it was an example of restraint and moderation.’ It lobbied ‘not just for Yeltsin per se but for a Yeltsin who would end the war in Chechnya, carry on with reforms and bring Russia closer to the West.’ The ends, it seems, justified the means.

The year after Yeltsin’s re-election, a bitter dispute broke out between oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky, owner of NTV, and the Russian government, after Gusinsky failed to win a privatization auction to buy shares in the communications firm Sviazinvest. Ostrovsky describes the ‘media war’ which then erupted as Gusinsky turned NTV against the government, while another oligarch, Boris Berezovsky, used Channel One, which he controlled, to attack Gusinsky. Russian television channels had by this stage clearly become pawns for oligarchic interests. Yet, having made that point very clear, Ostrovsky remarks that, ‘The idea that the national channel had been hijacked by Berezovsky and turned into a tool of personal influence was nonsense.’

With Putin’s arrival in 1999, things changed very rapidly. The state reasserted control over the media, and drove out the oligarchs. Putin defended his actions in a speech on 27 October 2000, saying, ‘During the revolutionary period of the 90s, two or three people managed somehow to get control of the national mass media. They turned these mass media into means of promoting their own influence. … Can one still talk of a free press?’ Ostrovsky views things very differently. He argues that the restoration of state control of the media was a turning point which allowed Putin to manipulate the Russian people in favour of aggressive, nationalistic policies designed to deflect attention from domestic failures. The media became little more than outlets of Kremlin propaganda, spreading a virulent anti-Western message. This reached its culmination in the wars in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria, which Ostrovsky describes in one-sided terms, saying for instance that, ‘The Ukrainian fascists were a phantom created by Russian television.  Even though nobody saw them in reality.’

Ostrovsky notes that some of those who worked for NTV in the 1990s, when the television station had a reputation for independence and critical commentary, have become among the most vigorous defenders of Putin’s policies. How is that Putin managed to get Russian journalists to change their attitude? Ostrovsky’s answer is careerism. ’ ‘Those who produce Russian propaganda … act not out of conviction but out of cynicism,’ he writes, saying also that, ‘The attraction of highly paid jobs, celebrity status and influence turned out to be stronger than the desire for free expression.’

Yet there are hints in Ostrovsky’s book that there is more to it than that. Charting the rise of Soviet nostalgia on Russian television in the 1990s, he makes it clear that this responded to a genuine public demand. Similarly, he cites journalist Oleg Dobrodeev saying, ‘public opinion was against NATO’s airstrikes [in Yugoslavia] and we had to reflect that change or be left behind.’ Discussing Channel One chief Konstantin Ernst, Ostrovsky writes, ‘Ernst mostly made his own decisions. “Nobody calls me and orders me to do anything”.’ All this suggests that the new tone of the Russian media is not the result of Kremlin manipulation but of changing social attitudes. Simply put, the media has adapted to the market, and finding that liberal ideas no longer sell has switched to alternatives that do. To return to Ostrovsky’s question ‘How did Russia get here?’, perhaps the answer is that Russians grew disenchanted with the pro-Western cause he holds so dear because their experiences with it were often negative, not because they were manipulated by ‘Russian propaganda’.

Why don’t people get it?

One of the most common responses I have had to my Ideacity talk last week is a question along the lines of: ‘Given the evidence that the world is less dangerous nowadays than in the past, why do so many people believe the opposite?’ It is a difficult question to answer, but below are three factors which I believe help to explain this phenomenon.

  1. Human psychology. Human beings do not reason like computers. Most of the time, they don’t collect all the evidence, compare it to various hypotheses, and then calculate which hypothesis best fits the facts. Rather they take short cuts (heuristics), such as reasoning by analogy, and they reason emotionally.                                     Take just one example, the so-called ‘availability heuristic’. Humans will tend to put more emphasis on events which are easily retrieved from memory and will consider that such events are more likely to recur than events which are less easily available. Terrorist attacks are vivid and readily retrieved from memory. We tend, therefore, to consider them far more common than they actually are. Car crashes, by contrast, are fairly routine and not generally well reported, and so we underestimate their danger. We end up fearing terrorism more than car crashes, despite the fact that we are many, many times more likely to die from the latter than the former.
  1. Interests. The tendency to exaggerate dangers is compounded by the fact that powerful groups within society have an interest in generating fear among the general population. Fear justifies those groups’ budgets and allows them to expand their power.             One has to be a little careful here, so as to avoid becoming a conspiracy theorist. The ‘Military Industrial Complex’ (the MIC), for instance, doesn’t exist in a concrete form: politicians, generals, spies, military industrialists, and think tankers, aren’t all sitting down in a secret conference room to work out how best to terrorize their fellow citizens and extort the maximum amount of resources from them. If the MIC were that organized, it would be much easier to counter. It is far more amorphous. But it is no less real for that. The benefits which the MIC derives from fearmongering are large and concentrated. By contrast, the costs are diffused, and thus the countervailing pressure is weak.
  1. The Media. As everybody knows, bad news sells. Stories of war, terrorism, and so on, are interesting in a way that stories about nothing very much happening are not. The media paints a distorted view of the world.                                                                                          There are other reasons why this is the case. Changes in the structure of the media mean that there are fewer and fewer professional journalists, while news agencies lack the resources to conduct in-depth research. Making matters worse, in the internet age, the need to produce news rapidly has led to less and less fact checking. Once a narrative has been established, media agencies flock to it and repeat it for fear of being left behind. Governments and other organizations can find it relatively simple to manipulate press coverage – as seen, for instance, by the ease with which the American government was able to get the press to spread uncritical stories about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

What can we do to counter this, people ask me. Sadly, I don’t know the answer. The factors above are very difficult to counteract precisely because they are so undeliberate. All one can do is keep telling the truth and hope that eventually people’s view of the world will catch up with reality.

Where is Vladimir Putin?

I gave a long interview yesterday to Corus 770 talk radio in Calgary about the ‘disappearance’ of Vladimir Putin and what it means (or doesn’t). You can listen to it here:


Under ‘Play Here’ press on 13 March and 10:00 pm, then drag the bar under the play and pause buttons to the 0730 minute mark, and listen away!