Putin's Weapons of Mass Information Were Duds

(World Security Institute, Johnson's Russia List, December 29, 2006)

By William Dunkerley

Despite having influence over a considerable media empire, Russian President Vladimir Putin hasn’t been getting much good press lately. His culpability in the poisoning of reputed spy Alexander Litvinenko was the subject of an unrelenting media frenzy in late November. That came right on the heels of being blamed for the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya in October. And, while not of murderous proportion, the cutting of natural gas supplies to Ukraine in early 2006 was another incident over which Russia’s president was severely maligned. One headline asked, “Has Putin Gone Nuts?”

There’s hardly been a positive peep printed about him. Where was the Kremlin media conglomeration when it came time to offer countervailing facts to those explosive stories? What impact did all the Putin-friendly news outlets have on the seeming avalanche of bad news internationally?

Kremlin-controlled Gazprom Media owns NTV, the country’s leading TV network, and radio station Echo Moskvy. Its print holdings include Izvestia and several other publications. Not long ago it purchased Komsomolskaya Pravda, Russia’s most popular newspaper. What’s more, friends of Putin are starting to buy up other media outlets. In September it was Kommersant, and more recently REN-TV. And, for getting the word out to the external world, the administration has Russia TV and Russia Profile magazine.

With all that media horsepower, you’d think it would be easy to contain the kind of fact-deficit, rabid stories that have dogged the Putin administration. But, it hasn’t. In the aftermath of the Ukrainian-gas media debacle, Gazprom deputy CEO Medvedev attributed his company’s bad press to its own failure to get out its side of the story. It simply isn’t credible that within Gazprom’s own media labyrinth that nobody thought of the idea to explain the company’s position. What’s more plausible is that few observers were willing to believe what Gazprom’s media outlets had to say on the issue.

And that’s apparently been the case in the Politkovskaya and Litvinenko stories as well. The elaborate web of Kremlin influence over vast media properties has bought the administration nothing. There’s been quite an investment in the media business. But, there’s been no pay off. It’s been a dog of an investment, a real waste. In the final analysis, in terms of whatever impact the outlets in question may have had on predominant news stories, Putin’s weapons of mass information turned out to be duds.

It’s a pity that some of the best coverage in the early days of the Litvinenko story went unrecognized. It appeared in the administration’s own media outlets. Russia TV carried an excellent report by Peter Lavelle, and Russia Profile featured a right-to-the-point piece by Gerhard Mangott that sorted out the possible explanations. But, their stories had no legs. They offered a perspective, but, it had no perceptibly positive impact on the international press’ overwhelming assault upon Putin. Perhaps, if the administration’s outlets would be given a real budget to do rapid-response investigative journalism, they would be equipped to offer compelling facts that the international press couldn’t ignore. That might help to overcome the generally negative portrayal of the Russian media in the world press.

Overall, the existence of the growing Kremlin media group is having quite a negative effect. It fits right into the schema of the anti-Putin rhetoric. He’s accused of rolling back democracy and clamping down on press freedom. That notion gets easily reinforced with him out there still acquiring more media properties. You know, if one is accused of being a little Napoleon, it’s not smart to stand there striking a pose with your hand stuck in your shirt, a la the French emperor. But that’s the outward impression Putin gives with his growing menagerie of media minions.

It seems like President Putin has succumbed to the very malady that he bemoaned just years earlier. In his first term, Putin talked about those who were misappropriating the media. In 2000, he said, “Journalistic freedom has very quickly become a tasty morsel. Not only for politicians but for big financial groups, it has become a convenient tool for fights between clans and for illegal pressure on the authorities.” More recently he remarked, “We should continue to build a full-fledged, capable civil society, inconceivable without genuinely free and responsible mass media.”

Doesn’t that sound great? President Putin even backed up his words with action. His administration acted to reverse Yeltsin-instituted laws that precluded media company profitability, the ones that created the media’s financial subservience to politicians and oligarchs. Those regulatory changes under Putin represented a strong move in the direction of press freedom. As a result, Russia’s advertising market is now booming; for the first time media outlets are allowed to carry enough advertising content to achieve profitability; and, foreign media companies are even being seriously attracted to the market.

But instead of following those advances with a push for the media to embrace their new opportunities for freedom, Putin has become his own nemesis. He’s consuming the tasty morsel himself. Many observers believe that he’s assembled this cadre of media outlets to use the news as a weapon. What happened to the old Putin who championed media independence so clearly?

When the administration took over NTV, it was perfectly in line with Putin’s vision for a free and responsible press. After all, NTV and the other Gusinsky news offerings were hardly consumer-centric. Indeed, the vast majority of news outlets in the country were not. Reining in the worst offenders could be viewed as an attempt to bring order out of the chaos of the Yeltsin-era media milieu. But there’s no justification for today’s hog-wild gluttony of acquisitions.

The premise behind all this is truly preposterous. It matters not whether we’re talking about administration-controlled media, or those under the thumbs of oligarchs, governors, or mayors. The result is paid propaganda masquerading as news. I’ve yet to meet a Russian who can’t go through a newspaper or listen to a news broadcast, and identify all the stories that were bought and paid for. No one is being fooled. In fact, the populace is indignant over this situation. Consistently polls have shown that the people would rather have a return to media censorship to end the nonsense. The level of indignation even rises in response to an election season when the media are plum full of paid propaganda.

So, where’s the sense in this? The purveyors of phony news are essentially spending their money to lie to people who know that they are being lied to. There must be some sort of cognitive disconnect going on here with those propagandists.

Last June, World Association of Newspapers president Gavin O’Reilly called Putin to task on the issue of paid, phony news and the increasing Kremlin control of the press. What was the Russian president’s response? Putin could have taken credit for the legal reforms he made which were aimed at enabling press freedom to finally emerge. But, he blew the opportunity. Instead, he replied that “the state’s share in the Russian press market is decreasing all the time. This is easy to verify. The number of publications, meanwhile, is constantly on the increase.” That was such an obvious obfuscation by slight-of-hand. Of course, if Russia’s advertising boom is driving a marked increase in the number of publications, the percentage of state-controlled outlets would show a decrease ­ even if the state continues to make strategic acquisitions. There’s no rocket science in this. Here’s hoping that Putin will find the nincompoop who wrote that argument into his speech and give him a different job, one where he can do less harm.

In the meantime, if President Putin wants to control the damage being done to him, he needs to get the state out of the media business quickly. Its presence there is causing no gains and mega losses. The current state presence just doesn’t square with the ideal that Putin has put forth for a free and responsible Russian press.

And, if Mr. Putin is genuine in his aspirations for the mass media, he’ll act quickly to sell Gazprom-media to a non-politically aligned buyer, some company that will want to make its mark as a successful and profitable media company, not as a propagandist. When that becomes a reality, I think we’ll see other media companies start to mend their ways. Perhaps some future financially-independent media company will even gather the trust and investigative strength to debunk scurrilous accusations like those leveled against Putin -- and be believed!

(William Dunkerley (wd@publishinghelp.com) is a media business analyst and consultant based in New Britain, Connecticut. He has worked extensively in Russia and other post communist countries.)