Media in America and Russia

Inmates running the asylum — The firms bankruptcy is much more than the story of a partnership gone wrong

A FEW years back, at an international media conference, a Russian reporter … for the Kremlin-backed television station RT (formerly Russia Today) asked me whether I thought CNN was an American propaganda channel. Given the way CNN and other American networks had practically fallen over each other in their eagerness to cheer on the invasion of Iraq, the question had some merit. Also, the reporter was gorgeous, and her challenging expression suggested that if I answered «no», she would roll her eyes and end the conversation. So I said yes, you could say that CNN sometimes functions as an American propaganda channel, but not because of any direct influence by government officials on its editorial content. It’s just that Americans, reporters and viewers included, are naturally disposed to back their own government in international conflicts, and the network gives the public what it wants.

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Well, she retorted, how did I think things worked at Russian stations? It wasn’t as if she had to submit her stories to government censors. Obviously Russian reporters like herself had shared the Russian perspective on the war in Georgia. And yes, RT received government funding, but it wasn’t saying anything different than the privately-owned Russian media, which also largely backed the war. Of course the private owners of those media outlets had close ties to the Kremlin, but did I really think that Ted Turner, Rupert Murdoch and Michael Bloomberg did not have close ties to the Washington power structure? Aren’t American journalists sent to jail, too, for refusing to disclose their sources on stories that compromise the «war on terror»?

These arguments are sinister nonsense, but it can be hard to quickly explain why. Take Wednesday’s firing of the editor of the top Russian news website, for publishingan interview with a Ukrainian nationalist leader. The editor, Galina Timchenko, was fired not by the government but by the website’s private owner, Alexander Mamut. Mr Mamut is a billionaire financier who served as a top economic adviser in the Yeltsin administration; his company SUP Media also owns the blogging platform Livejournal. The company gave no official reason for Ms Timchenko’s dismissal, but it was understood as a response to an official warning from the government media regulator, Roskomandzor, over the interview with Ukrainian «right sector» leader Andrei Tarasenko. The government said it was concerned by «statements intended to awaken strife between nationalities.» (The alleged offending statements weren’t even in the article itself. Roskomandzor singled out a hyperlink to a different article, a 2008 interview with another Ukrainian nationalist, Dmitro Yarosh, who said the Georgian conflict showed that «our greatest external enemy is the Russian empire,» and called for its «liquidation».)

So, what’s wrong with a private media owner firing an editor accused of publishing offensive material? As for the material itself, doesn’t Britain’s 2006 Terrorism Act make it a criminal offence to publish «direct or indirect encouragement…of acts of terrorism»? Well, yes, and if the American or British governments decided to use these tools to crush all media criticism of government policy, they might be able to get pretty far. But first, they’d probably have to mount legal offensives against unruly media owners, punishing those who fail to toe the line with tax audits, asset seizures and anything else they can drum up to force them to sell. They’d want to place political operatives on the boards of the public broadcasters, and then on the boards of private media outfits as well. Politically controlled semi-public institutions could help out by buying media companies themselves. And, of course, you would need thorough control of the executive branch over the legislature, and over the judiciary, which otherwise might constitute powerful centres of resistance that could frustrate the media takeover. Ultimately, you might have a media landscape that looks like Russia’s, where all of the major TV stations are either directly state-owned or owned by government-controlled companies like Gazprom, and where even private media owners like Mr Mamut understand perfectly the terms on which the government allows them to survive.

None of this is actually possible, in either America or Britain. But it’s not because of any specific law …


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