There’s a truck outside the Desmarais Building at the University of Ottawa, where I work, which has the words ‘Main Stream Media’ painted on its side, with a big red cross through them. The truck’s part of the so-called ‘Freedom Convoy’ that has been occupying much of our downtown for about three weeks now. I can’t say that I support it, and like most people I know I think it’s high time that the truckers drove off back to wherever it is they came from. But the truck I mentioned raises an important question – why the distrust of the ‘mainstream media’? If you want to know the answer, you have only to look at this week’s coverage of all things Russo-Ukrainian.Continue reading Mocking the Media
The big news from Italy this week is the seizure by Turin police of a massive arsenal of weapons held by a neo-Nazi group. Among the weapons was a stonking-big air-to-air missile. Reporting the story, the BBC links the neo-Nazis to ‘Russian-backed separatist forces’ in Ukraine, saying that:
The raids were part of an investigation into Italian far-right help for Russian-backed separatist forces in eastern Ukraine, local media said. … On 3 July a court in Genoa jailed three men who were found guilty of fighting alongside the Russian-backed separatists who control a large swathe of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
Watching the unfolding drama of Brexit and the fall out of the Mueller report in the United States, one can’t help but feel more than a little despairing about the state of Anglo-Saxon liberal democracy. For sure, I’m glad to live under such a system of government, but at the same time moments like this make one realize that it’s not all that it’s sometimes cracked up to be. Meanwhile, the Chinese go on from strength to strength. It’s enough to bring out one’s inner Pobedonostsev.
I refer, of course, to the late Tsarist-era Procurator of the Holy Synod, Konstantin Pobedonostsev, known generally as the arch reactionary of the reigns of Alexander III and Nicholas II. Pobedonostsev had a few choice words to say about liberal democracy and the free press. As a rule, historians use these words to indicate the negative role he had on Russian political development. But on days like today, some of what he said doesn’t look so unreasonable after all.
The problem with democracy, Pobedonostsev argued, was that although it claims to represent the ‘general will’, it fact it gives power not to the ‘people’ but to those minority groups which are best organized. ‘In theory,’ he wrote, ‘the elected candidate must be the favourite of the majority; in fact, he is the favorite of a minority, sometimes very small, but representing an organized force, while the majority, like sand, has no coherence, and is therefore incapable of resisting.’
This pretty much summarizes what Mancur Olson called the ‘logic of collective action’ and nowadays comes under the rubric of ‘public choice theory’ – the theory that government favours concentrated minority interests over diffused majority ones. There’s quite a lot of evidence to suggest that this is indeed what happens. Where the Procurator of the Holy Synod went wrong was in assuming that it only happens in democracies. In his imagination, an autocrat could stand above all this and represent the general will. But politics happens even within authoritarian states, and the results are often much the same. In fact the situation may even be worse in authoritarian states because the ‘general will’ has no alternative means of expression, such as a free press.
But Pobedonostsev was sceptical of the value of that too. Indeed he said some pretty harsh things about the ‘fourth estate’, remarking that:
The press is one of the falsest institutions of our time. … The healthy taste of the public is not to be relied upon. The great majority of readers … is ruled less by a few healthy instincts than by a base and despicable hankering for idle amusement; and the support of the people may be secured for any editor who provider for the satisfaction of these hankerings.
This, I think, is a fairly good description of the dynamics behind Russiagate. Anti-Trumpers were desperate for some salacious scandal which would discredit the US president, and so the editors of the American media gave it to them. And, from the editors’ point of view, it worked. The more they played the collusion card, the more their ratings went up. Take the example of the leading Russia propagandist MSNBC. As Vanity Fair reports:
The ratings don’t lie. Five or six years ago, MSNBC’s viewership was down, and the network was flailing. As with the rest of the news media, the Trump saga has given it a turbocharge. Indeed, MSNBC had its best ever year in 2018, wrapping up with about 1.1 million daily viewers on average, a 121 percent increase from the first quarter of 2016, according to the network. Compared to the first quarter of 2017, right before Mueller got to work, ratings are now up 43 percent, the network’s data shows. In other words, if Trump helped bring MSNBC back to life, Mueller cranked up the electricity running through its veins.
If democracy was really what its name implies, now that the collusion claim has been shown to be false, those who peddled it should be expected to pay a price. In reality, there’s little chance that those responsible for the deceit will be held to account. For as Pobedonostsev pointed out,
The journalist … derives his authority from no election, he receives support from no one. His newspaper becomes an authority in the State, and for this authority no endorsement is required. … How often have superficial and unscrupulous journalists paved the way for revolution, fomented irritation into enmity, and brought about desolate wars! … It is hard to imagine a despotism more irresponsible and violent than the despotism of printed words.
At this point, bearing in mind the free press’s culpability in ‘fomenting irritation in enmity’ via Russiagate (which has poisoned American minds against Russia) and in bringing ‘about desolate wars’ (such as the invasion of Iraq), one has to admit that Pobedonostsev was onto something. Of course, his solution – censorship – was hardly any better, and probably a whole lot worse. But the basic critique is on the nail. Too much of the Western press is all too ready to spread all sorts of toxic nonsense just to improve its ratings, and it is completely unaccountable. This can hardly be said to be the ‘rule of the people’.
Do I have a solution to this problem? No, I don’t. It could be that there isn’t one, that we just have to accept Churchill’s dictum that democracy is the worst form of government, apart from all the others. I’m sure that if I did have a solution it wouldn’t be Pobedonostev-style autocracy, any more than it would be communism, or any other authoritarian system. But if we are to find answers to problems, we first need to admit that we have them. And for that, my inner Pobedonostsev may actually have a useful role to play.
What do Josef Stalin and Paddington Bear have in common? Answer: The Russian Ministry of Culture has tried to ‘ban’ films about them – or at least that what recent headlines would have you believe. The truth is a bit more complex.
The Stalin story relates to a decision by the Ministry of Culture to withdraw a licence for the release of the movie Death of Stalin, pending further investigation. It is debatable whether this really constitutes a ban. Culture Minister Vladimir Mendinsky claims that viewers might consider the film ‘an insulting mockery of the entire Soviet past’, something which you might think was richly deserved. Given Mendinsky’s reasons for objecting to the film are political, an outright ban would be legally problematic since the Russian constitution prohibits censorship. This perhaps explains the ministry’s statement that is subjecting the film to further review rather than prohibiting it. Mendinsky says that it would be ‘extremely inappropriate for this picture to come out on the screens on the eve of the 75th anniversary of the historic victory in Stalingrad.’ This leaves open the possibility that the film may be given a licence once that anniversary is over in February.
Regardless of what happens, the Ministry of Culture’s action is quite indefensible. I haven’t seen the film as it hasn’t been released in Ottawa where I live (for commercial reasons, I imagine, not censorship). But I have read the graphic novel on which it’s based, and there’s no doubt that it does indeed mock the Soviet leadership at the time of Stalin’s death. It also distorts history in certain respects – e.g. portraying Soviet citizens being gunned down by soldiers during Stalin’s funeral. But mockery and bad history aren’t reasons for refusing to licence a film. It’s satire, for goodness sake. Writing in Vzgliad, Pyotr Akopov claims that it’s not for foreigners (Death of Stalin is a British film) to satirize Russia – only Russians can do that. This again is a pretty poor argument. Nobody is forcing anybody to watch this film. If you don’t like foreigners satirizing your country, just don’t go see it. Don’t ban it.
The Death of Stalin episode reveals a hyper-sensitive, paranoid, and authoritarian strain in Russia’s cultural elites (several film directors were among those who asked the Ministry not to licence the film). Is Russian identity and national pride really so fragile that the country can’t tolerate some mockery of Stalin’s Politburo (who, let’s face it, were hardly paragons of virtue)? I don’t think so. The Ministry should rethink its actions.
The Paddington case is different. In this instance, the Ministry of Culture attempted to postpone release of the movie Paddington 2. It has the right to do this with foreign films if it thinks that the timing of the release will adversely affect sales of tickets to Russian movies. Given Paddington 2’s success in Europe and North America, the Ministry obviously worried that it would attract viewers who might otherwise have gone to see something made in Russia – thus the decision. In the end, though, consumer outrage forced the Ministry to back down and a licence was released for the film to show from 20 January.
This was a clear instance of economic protectionism, completely unrelated to politics. Unlike the Stalin case, there was also no question of the film being forbidden. The plan was merely to postpone its release for a couple of weeks. It was a pretty dumb idea, but not as insidious as the case of Death of Stalin.
This, however, did not stop the British tabloid press from making some wild claims. The Sun led with the headline, ‘Russia wants to ban Paddington 2 because it’s too popular and considered Western propaganda.’ It followed up with the statement that the film was ‘deemed to be a threat to the Russian way of life,’ as well as with claims that Russia might soon ban McDonalds and KFC. None of this, of course, is true. There was no ‘ban’ of Paddington, the episode had nothing to do with the film being a ‘threat to the Russian way of life’, and the rumour about McDonalds and KFC is pure speculation and quite preposterous. The Sun finished off its article with a section about how the Soviet Union (in 1985 no less!!) had banned Western pop groups such as Village People. Quite what this has to do with modern Russia and Paddington wasn’t explained.
Other British tabloids joined in the feeding frenzy. ‘Russia tried to BAN Paddington 2 branding popular film Western PROPAGANDA,’ shouted the Daily Express, which went on to tell readers that ‘the Kremlin takes issue with the foreign values in the children’s film.’ The Daily Star, meanwhile, linked the affair to Russia’s leader with the headline, ‘Vladimir Putin in bid to ban Paddington film from Russian cinemas.’ There is, of course, no actual evidence to link Putin personally to any of this. Were such stories to appear in RT, they would no doubt soon be classified as ‘fake news.’
All of which goes to show that you shouldn’t put too much faith in either the Russian Ministry of Culture or the British press.
I’m disappointed. Crushed even. The European Values think tank has just produced a report entitled The Kremlin’s Platform for Useful Idiots in the West: An Overview of RT’s Editorial Strategy and Evidence of Impact. The report contains a spreadsheet with the names of 2327 ‘useful idiots’, that is to say people who have appeared on RT and, says the report, ‘either due to unawareness of RT’s political agenda, or indeed explicit support of it, lend their names and credibility to a pseudo-news network and proxy agent of the Kremlin.’ And what do you know? I’m not on the list! In fact, I’ve appeared on RT twice, once on their news section, and once on Crosstalk, but for some reason they don’t seem to have bothered analyzing the Crosstalk guest list, so I’ve slipped through the cracks. I’m not a ‘useful idiot’ after all, and have been deprived of the opportunity to express moral outrage at being publicly named and shamed.
So much for the methodology of the European Values think tank, a Czech-based organization which runs something called ‘Kremlin Watch’, described as ‘a strategic program … which aims to expose and confront instruments of Russian influence and disinformation operations focused against Western democracies.’ Let’s take a more detailed look at the report on the Kremlin’s useful idiots.
The report begins by saying ‘RT’s raison d’être is to denigrate the West at all costs and undermine public confidence in the viability of liberal democracy. On these grounds, RT categorically qualifies as a Kremlin disinformation outfit.’ This confuses a bunch of separate things. Yes, I think it’s probably fair to say that RT does denigrate the West reasonably often, but that doesn’t mean that denigration is its ‘raison d’être’; rather, it’s a tool for some other objective, namely convincing people that the Western narrative is incorrect, and so making them more amenable to a Russian narrative. Second, denigration of certain aspects of Western life and policy is categorically not the same as trying to ‘undermine public confidence in the viability of liberal democracy.’ Lots of political actors within the West criticize things about their societies. If they didn’t, they would hardly be democracies! Denigration is part of democratic discourse, not a way of destroying it. And third, none of the above means that RT is a ‘disinformation outfit.’ Denigrating the West and attacking liberal democracy, even if true, are again categorically not the same as disinformation, for the very simple reason that one can denigrate pretty well using the truth. Is it the case that RT has on occasion run stories which have turned out to be untrue. Yes. Is that true of Western media too? Yes. Are most RT stories untrue? As far as I am aware, nobody has ever produced any evidence to say that they are. To make the claim that RT is a source of disinformation, you need to do proper quantitative analysis of its output. This hasn’t been done, so the claim is not founded on proper research. Furthermore, while it may be that RT is selecting a certain segment of the truth, and not other segments, that’s bias, it’s not ‘disinformation.’
Next, the report says: ‘RT’s epistemology is rooted in the denial of the very possibility of objective, verifiable truth.’ Here, we’re into an interesting philosophical area. Personally, I think that there is an objective truth. Either I got up this morning and wrote this blog post, or I didn’t. However, our ability to know the truth is very limited. Facts are disputed, and what those facts mean is subject to multiple interpretations. We are also human beings, subject to a vast number of cognitive biases, which means that none of us is entirely objective. We can aspire to be so, but we will never achieve it. I’m a great fan of Richards J. Heuer’s book Psychology of Intelligence Analsysis, published by the CIA and available online. In this Heuer remarks:
Analysts do not achieve objective analysis by avoiding preconceptions; that would be ignorance or self-delusion. Objectivity is achieved by making basic assumptions and reasoning as explicit as possible so that they can be challenged by others and analysts can, themselves, examine their validity. … [one view is that] objectivity requires the analyst to suppress any personal opinions or preconceptions, so as to be guided only by the “facts” of the case. To think of analysis in this way overlooks the fact that information cannot speak for itself. The significance of information is always a joint function of the nature of the information and the context in which it is interpreted. The context is provided by the analyst in the form of a set of assumptions and expectations concerning human and organizational behavior. These preconceptions are critical determinants of which information is considered relevant and how it is interpreted. … The question is not whether one’s prior assumptions and expectations influence analysis, but only whether this influence is made explicit or remains implicit.
In other words, don’t kid yourself that you can be objective. You can’t. What matters is whether your biases are made explicit or are hidden. So, there’s absolutely nothing wrong in RT saying it isn’t objective. In fact, that’s a good thing, as it makes its biases open. By contrast, media outlets who pretend to be objective are deceiving their readers and viewers. Obviously, as with so many things, this is contestable. One can have a long and detailed debate about the validity of RT’s epistemology; but it’s not necessarily incorrect, and certainly not inherently anti-democratic or designed to disinform.
Next, the report claims that, ‘RT disguises the malicious objectives of this editorial strategy by claiming to uphold traditional liberal-democratic ideals like free speech, critical journalism, and independent thought.’ Note how the word ‘malicious’ is thrown in here. This is a value judgement placed in the middle of what claims to be a factual statement. Where is the ‘objectivity’ here? Besides that, there is something a little creepy about denouncing people because they claim to ‘uphold traditional liberal-democratic ideals’. If the report’s authors think this is false, then they need to provide a detailed analysis showing that that there is no ‘free speech, critical journalism, and independent thought’ on RT. Have they done this? Have they asked RT’s guests whether they are told what to say, or cut off if they say something wrong (the answer in my experience is no and no). Have they done a thorough analysis of all RT’s reports to see if there is any ‘critical journalism’ (actually, there’s a lot, and that’s what this report doesn’t like – RT’s journalism is too ‘critical’). And have they done a quantitative analysis proving that there’s no independent thought, that people on RT just parrot the identical line all the time? No they haven’t. Perhaps all these claims are true, but there is no solid data in the report to back it up.
In fact, the report reveals quite the opposite. It says that, ‘RT uses guest appearances by Western politicians, journalists and writers, academics, and other influential public personalities to boost its credibility.’ It then provides the name of 2,327 of these guests. But look who they include:
- Among American politicians, such well known Kremlin stooges as Dick Cheney, Wesley Clark, Jon Huntsman, Joe Lieberman, Michael Morrell, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Ryan, and James Woolsey.
- Among British politicians, such obvious Putin puppets as Margaret Beckett, David Blunkett, Martin Bell, Boris Johnson, David Owen, Jack Straw and John Prescott
- Among European and international politicians, Kofi Anan, Ehud Barak, Helen Clark, Dominique de Villepin, Mikhail Gorbachev, Hamid Karzai, Romano Prodi, Dima Rousseff, and a bunch of others who obvious only ever spout Kremlin talking points.
- Among journalists, a whole bunch of peoples whose names I don’t mostly recognize, but does include another well-known non-independent American Larry King, who actually hosts a show on RT
- And among academics/experts, the likes of Richard Dawkins, Alan Dershowitz, Daniel Drezner, Mark Galeotti, Nina Khrushcheva, Michael O’Hanlon, Daniel Pipes, Angela Stent, and Dmitry Trenin, who are well-known for their incapacity for independent thought and their inability to do anything other than read from their Kremlin cue cards.
Perhaps, as I said, all the accusations about RT could be justified if there was a proper, quantitative analysis of what is said on RT and by who, of how much of RT news is true and how much untrue, etc. In the absence of solid, quantitative, data, all the report is able to produce is a handful of anecdotes about allegedly biased reporting. But a handful of examples doesn’t really prove anything. And in the case of this report, its anecdotes aren’t even very good ones. For instance, it denounces RT’s coverage of the annexation of Crimea because, among other things, RT had the audacity to show pictures of Crimeans happily welcoming Russian troops. And it spends half a page defending the Ukrainian government’s language policies. Now it might well be that RT exaggerates the extent to which these threaten the use of the Russian language, but the report is equally biased in whitewashing the policies as if they aren’t discriminatory at all (which, as seen by recent legislation on language in the media and education, is not the case).
And here is a picture the report shows as evidence of RT’s ‘conspiratorial’ nature.
What precisely is wrong with this? Academic studies of the American media’s coverage of the issue of Iraqi WMD prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq have shown that the media overwhelmingly accepted the government’s claims that Iraq had WMD and posed a serious threat to US security. There was indeed ‘no second opinion’ in any large-scale sense. And look what happened! Wouldn’t it have been better if there had been more questioning?
According to the report, ‘Appearing on RT is not harmless, it enables and legitimates RT’s subversive agenda. … It is therefore impossible to appear on RT without being ultimately complicit in its efforts to undermine Western democracy and pollute the information space.’ So, in the name of democracy and free speech, we must tell people that they shouldn’t accept invitations to express their view, and we must publish lists of their names and call them ‘useful idiots’ in the hope of shaming them into silence. Does anybody else appreciate the irony?
Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny has been generating a lot of headlines recently, and was the subject of a long article last week in The Guardian by Shaun Walker. The Guardian regularly writes on the subject of Navalny. According to the search function of its website, there are 728 Guardian articles mentioning his name. The Guardian also lists 377 for the late Boris Nemtsov, and a massive 1,590 for oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. This contrasts with a mere 114 articles mentioning the leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, Gennady Zyuganov, and 163 mentioning Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia.
The Daily Telegraph is even more extreme, with 1,100 articles about Navalny, 554 about Khodorkovsky, and 287 about Nemtsov, compared with only 92 for Zhirinovsky, 85 for Zyuganov, and 51 for Kasyanov. The score for the Washington Post is Khodorkovsky – 341; Navalny – 272; Nemtsov – 205; Zhirinovsky – 59; Kasyanov – 56; and Zyuganov – 28. For the Globe and Mail: Khodorkovsky – 337; Kasyanov – 106; Nemtsov – 80; Zyuganov – 65; Zhirinovsky – 61; Navalny – 36; and for the Toronto Star, Nemtsov – 82; Navalny – 75; Khodorkosvky – 59; Zhirinovsky – 26; Kasyanov and Zyuganov – both 21.
The pattern is fairly clear: leaders of Russia’s ‘systemic’ opposition receive much less coverage in the Western media than members of the ‘liberal’ and ‘non-systemic’ opposition. The one exception I have been able to find is The New York Times which leads with 844 mentions of Khodorkovsky, but which has 499 of Zyuganov and 481 of Zhirinovsky, compared with 330 of Navalny and 166 of Kasyanov.
The outsized attention given to the non-systemic opposition gives an entirely false impression of its political significance. For the most part, the media gives Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky, who head substantial political parties which got about 13% of the vote in last year’s Duma election, less attention that Kasyanov and Nemtsov, whose PARNAS got less than 1%, and substantially less attention than Khodorkovsky, whose Open Russia organized demonstrations last week which attracted just a few hundred people (which didn’t prevent headlines such as ‘Thousands of Russians Present Letters of Protest in Demonstrations’).
As for Navalny, an opinion poll published by the Levada Centre today gives him almost imperceptible levels of popular support. According to the poll, if a presidential election were held this Sunday in Russia, 48% would vote for Vladimir Putin, 3% for both Zhirinovsky and Zyuganov, and just one percent for Navalny. Several other candidates would also get one percent, while 42% replied that they either don’t know or wouldn’t vote at all.
If you discount this last 42%, then the result of a Russian presidential election this week would be:
Putin – 83%; Zhirinovsky – 5%; Zyuganov – 4%; Navalny – 2%; Others – 6%.
That rather puts into perspective all the recent hype claiming that Navalny has fundamentally altered the Russian political dynamic. It also makes one wonder whether the media has its priorities right.
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.
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.
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.
Probably the most influential weekly political magazines in the United Kingdom are The Economist, The Spectator, and The New Statesman. All have published their latest editions in the last couple of days. Here are the results. Putin’s ‘winning in propaganda’ it says at the bottom of The Spectator’s cover. I think not.
‘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’.