New government. New presidential term. New media agenda?

(Sreda Magazine, Moscow, March 2004. Original version published in Russian. Click here to see)

By William Dunkerley

Last Spring a journalism student in Perm surprised me with his pointed question: “What can you say that is good about the Russian media?” I had been discussing with a group of university students some of the many serious challenges faced by the mass media. Perhaps he was wondering what kind of professional future lay ahead for him. “Opportunity for vast development,” was my answer. In Russia today, there is probably more opportunity for the growth and development of the media sector than in any other industrialized country.

For students just coming into the field, that circumstance offers much opportunity for the development of their own careers. For existing media professionals, there is a whole new world that potentially awaits them.

Meanwhile, as a new government is taking shape, and as a new presidential term is starting, it is worth examining whether there will be a supportive regulatory agenda that will promote positive development. Or will those young students in Perm be destined to join journalistic colleagues working in underpaid positions, sitting in dreary surroundings, writing untrustworthy drivel that is being paid for by a local oligarch or politician?

I was impressed by President Putin’s comments in February when he declared, “We should continue to build a full-fledged, capable civil society, inconceivable without genuinely free and responsible mass media.” With commentary like that, those students should feel truly inspired about their futures in journalism. But how will the President effectuate the change? Clearly there is a lot of work to be done. Indeed, he offered a plan, saying that “such freedom and responsibility require creation of an appropriate legal and economic basis, and it is the government’s job to create such a basis.”

It is especially encouraging that the President’s focus for media development starts with the creation of an appropriate media policy. Since the beginning of the Russian Federation, prevailing policy has allowed the media to be hijacked by those outside the media community who have been willing to make up for financial losses in return for the opportunity to color the news.

Actually, the Putin administration has already done quite a lot toward establishing the needed economic and regulatory foundation for a free and prosperous press. Legitimate advertising money is what’s needed for a media company to operate profitably, without ties to financial overlords who seek to distort the news. But until about two years ago, a collection of laws made it impossible for media companies to survive on advertising revenue. Thankfully, those laws have been changed. It is now possible for the money advertisers spend on advertising to be considered as a legal business expense. Before, such expenditures had to come out of profits. That discouraged the growth of advertising. Also, newspapers can now contain more than 40 percent advertising content without suffering a punitive tax disadvantage. These changes give rise to the possibility of completely overhauling a media company so that it will profit from serving the needs and interests of consumers instead of those of the self-serving financial overlords.

While those laws have been changed, and it is now possible for media companies to operate legally and profitably at the same time, there has not been any great movement from the status quo. The old corrupt system of media sponsorship and hidden advertising remains entrenched.

Evidence of public contempt for that approach to mass media is evidenced repeatedly in public opinion surveys. Most recently, in January, ROMIR conducted a national survey that found overwhelmingly, by a 76 percent majority, people believe that there should be censorship of the mass media. Only 10 percent of respondents said they trust the national and regional press.

Isn’t that a clear repudiation of the product of Russia’s mass media? Consumers are saying that they want the current media product taken off the market! It is unclear why they would want the government to step in to do that job. After all, if we were talking about some other kind of product, consumer behavior in the marketplace would take care of it. For instance, if a particular brand of beer were distasteful, consumers would simply choose another brand. And if the other brands also were distasteful, that circumstance would give rise to a market opportunity for a new company to produce a beer that is suited to consumer tastes.

Heretofore, it was not possible for a market inspired solution like that to unfold. That is because the former legal framework tied media outlets inextricably to their coercive sponsors and overlords. Now it is possible for a market-driven change. And, it seems to me that the President’s media regulatory agenda should focus on making the media entrepreneurs feel that they can realistically and safely leave behind the existing, corrupt system that funds the media, and make the paradigm shift to a consumer-responsive way of doing business.

With that in mind, let’s ponder some of the proposals that the Duma’s committee on information policy has under consideration.

One bill delineates the rights of owners of print-media outlets. Astonishingly, the existing law didn’t have the foresight to discuss the role of owners. Something like this is worth doing. But it is just tidying up an earlier mistake. It won’t move things toward that “paradigm shift.”

Another proposal will get the government out of the media business. That’s not a bad objective. But it’s not something that can be easily legislated. Of course, it is a problem that so many arms of government are in the media business. Isn’t, however, there little difference whether a governor, mayor, or minister is in direct legal control of a media outlet and able to order a distortion of the news, or if such party exerts control in an indirect way? I saw one instance wherein a governor provided support to a money-losing factory. That factory, which, incidentally, made no consumer products, in turn advertised heavily in a certain newspaper. The newspaper, for its part, was then obliged to publish positively distorted stories about the governor. How is this kind of indirect influence going to be legislated against?

A more realistic solution is to help media companies gain the courage to dump the corrupting sponsors and begin producing market-responsive media products. Consumers aren’t being fooled by the current situation. Just as they know when a brand of beer tastes bad, Russian media consumers can tell when a media product “tastes bad” too. Isn’t that why they’re calling for censorship to stop the current nonsense?

Let consumers choose media offerings that meet their needs. Let the old propaganda organs of politicians and oligarchs die or dwindle from consumer neglect.

There is a lot of resistance on the part of media owners to change, however. The current plight of media professionals may be unfulfilling and unrewarding . But, it does offer a modicum of security. And that breeds resistance to change.

The very act of not changing, however, predestines a continuation of the current deplorable conditions. These conditions oppress the current practitioners of journalism, and rob journalism students of aspirations for their futures. The current conditions challenge President Putin’s vision for a “genuinely free and responsible mass media.”

What’s the solution? It is for President Putin to put forth a new media policy:

It should offer protection to consumer-responsive media companies from existing media overlords who might attempt to stifle any honest news outlet through intimidation or other unfair or illegal means.

It should expose the ineffectualness of hidden advertising and sponsored distortions and find an effective and persuasive means of seriously discouraging it all.

It should break up monopolistic type structures such as Video International with its grip on broadcast advertising in order to allow for fair competition.

The current media situation serves no one well. It subjugates, underpays, and disrespects the media professionals. It disserves and annoys the consumers. By focusing on voters instead of consumers, it wastes advertisers’ money. And, it shows the politicians and oligarchs to be woefully desperate as they pay journalists to write distortions for audiences that recognize perfectly well that they are being cheated of reliable news.

For too long now, Russian media professionals have been tolerating the intolerable. It is time to bring to the fore their underlying intention to serve in a socially valuable role. It is time for them to enjoy the legal and economic basis for a free and responsible press that President Putin has promised. And it is time, high time, for them to hold the President accountable for fulfilling his promise. Media professionals are owed these things for themselves – and for the young journalism students who aspire to join them in the future.