The Guardian fights for media freedom in Russia

The Guardian frequently talks about the Kremlin media bubble in Russia. The idea is that the reason that 82% of Russians support Putin is not because he has caught the desires and ambitions of Russians and won their confidence by implementing polices they like, but because they are brainwashed by the Kremlin controlled media.

It is true that TV stations in Russia are largely owned by the state or by organisations which can be said to “have links to the state”. Press ownership is more diffuse. [1] In the Western media, including the Guardian, Russian state ownership of the media is often implicitly contrasted with the ‘free’ media in the West. (E.g. this headline which references “Russia’s state-owned media”). This is laughable. Media organisations in the West are owned by capital. A typical pattern for a Western newspaper or news organisation (e.g. The Daily Telegraph or Reuters) is that it is owned by a combination of a private wealthy family and investment capital, the latter controlled by city institutions. [2] Far from ‘free’ the Western press is owned by finance capital. Not surprisingly it acts in the interests of finance capital. The contrast between state-owned media as being ‘unfree’ and the finance capital owned media in the West being ‘free’ is a piece of propaganda told by the Western media. (The Guardian is an exception to this pattern of media ownership – being owned by a company whose constitution requires profits to be re-invested in journalism. [3] Its slavish devotion to the line of the US State Department is thus harder to explain).

Furthermore; anyone in Russia who is able to access the Internet (a high proportion of the population, – 70% according to this Russian university backed research project) can read, for example, The Guardian or the Daily Telegraph. They just have to use Google translate. But Russians can get Western propaganda even without doing this; the BBC (British state media) publishes content aimed at Russians, in Russian. Radio Free Europe – a propaganda project of the US State Department – broadcasts Russian language radio into Russia and publishes Web content in Russian. [4]

At any event, convinced perhaps that Russians really are starved of the ‘truth’, the Guardian is working hard at redressing the balance. Here is an article by Oleg Kashin, who is described by the Guardian as “one of Russia’s most prominent journalists”. That may be slightly generous – nonetheless Mr Kashin seems to have had a long career in professional journalism in Russia during which he has worked for a wide range of press outlets and published multiple articles critical of the authorities. [5] All of which gives the lie to the endless claims about the Kremlin controlled media bubble. Mr Kashin’s article in the Guardian is also published by the Guardian in Russian. It is as if the Guardian is making a heroic attempt to communicate with the brain-washed masses in Russia. They don’t really need to. The same article is in fact available in Russia on a Russian language (.ru) web site. This web site itself is affiliated with the state broadcaster RIA Novosti. [6] This is quite amusing. The Guardian is attempting to create a narrative about how it is making a stand for ‘freedom’ by publishing an article by a Russian journalist who is critical of the authorities – in Russian. But in reality the Russian authorities themselves publish the same article in Russian as part of a project to disseminate Western media in Russia. The Western media narrative about the Kremlin controlled media bubble is really a fiction. The narrative shows a failure to understand Russia or Russians and is insulting to Russians.

The article by Oleg Kashin is more interpretation than fact. It explains that Putin’s Syria policy is dictated by a desire to “raise the stakes” with the West and divert attention away from his “failed Ukraine policy”. That may be the case; though the article simply presents this as theory without any supporting argumentation or fact. With no offence to Mr Kashin this particular article then does not represent a particularly high standard of journalism. But, for the Guardian, this won’t matter. What matters is the narrative about media oppression in Russia and how the Guardian is doing something about it. This in turn reflects that rather strange preoccupation on the part of Western liberals about how Russia (another country) should be run.

Notes

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Media_freedom_in_Russia

2. http://thenewobserver.co.uk/the-free-press-in-the-west-8/

3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Guardian

4. http://www.rferl.org/p/5547.html

5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oleg_Kashin

6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/InoSMI

The standard of journalism – and why it matters

Here is a typical example of how the Guardian reports on Syria. Read article.

The basic theme is that the Assad regime and their accomplices the Russians are committing atrocities in Syria. They are solely responsible for the terrible humanitarian situation in the country. They are solely responsible for the break-down of the latest ceasefire.

This message is 100% in line with the message put out by the US State Department. No surprises there.

From a journalistic point of view the article is a travesty. There are lurid claims about Russian planes using phosphorus bombs and cluster munitions in civilian areas. (The claims about phosphorus bombs are not even articulated; are they allegedly using them for illumination, which is legal, or as a weapon, which is not? That this point is not even raised shows the level of gutter journalism we are at). The article focuses entirely on alleged civilian casualties. It is as if there were simply no anti-regime militants in the area at all. (In reality there is a fierce battle going on between anti-regime militants and the Syrian army for control of Aleppo). All of the information in the article comes from sources which are described simply as ‘activists’. (Apart from one reference to the UK based ‘Syrian Observatory for Human Rights’ which is a pro-opposition news desk run by a single individual – who, himself, says that he gets his information from ‘activists’ on the ground). [1] Possibly the article was put together simply by ‘journalists’ browsing the Twitter accounts of these ‘activists’. Naturally in a war each side emphasizes the civilian casualties they are suffering. It would be the role of an objective reporter to consider these accounts and balance them with other ones. You’d learn this on an entry level journalism course. But in this article nothing of the sort happens.

On the subject of balance; there is no attempt at all to mention the Russian point of view. For example; the Russians have repeatedly said that the problem on the ground is that the US backed ‘moderate opposition’ is mingling with the Al-Nusra jihadist group making it impossible not to hit the ‘moderate opposition’. The US acknowledges that this is a problem; it was a key part of the latest ceasefire deal. [2] At the same time the Russians have claimed that they have military intelligence which shows  that the ‘moderate opposition’ committed multiple violations of the ceasefire. [3]

The article is based on wild and untested claims by ‘activists’ and a sound-bite from US Secretary of State John Kerry. The Syrian government and Russian point of view is omitted. This is a kind of genocide. The Guardian trots out articles like this on a weekly basis. In a democracy it would be the role of journalism to provide a balanced picture and enable readers to make up their own minds. An informed democratic debate could, (so goes the theory), influence the politicians to take a different course. However; the Guardian, for one, has long since given up doing anything which could be called journalism. And in taking this course they align themselves with power rather than democracy. This creates a gap where a non-aligned media is desperately required.

Update

On the subject of phosphorus bombs. This is an article on RT about the US using phosphorus in Iraq. In contrast to the Guardian piece the claim is well-sourced, attributable and indeed credible – US army spokesmen. The distinction between using white phosphorus as a weapon (illegal) and for laying down a smokescreen (legal) is clearly explained. The article references other attributed sources of opinion. So; the Guardian produces an article trying to associate Russia with the use of phosphorus bombs in Syria – unattributed, vague, without explaining the actual legal situation. RT writes an article about the US using white phosphorous in Iraq – sources attributed and the legal position clearly explained. Who is producing propaganda and who is doing journalism?

Notes

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syrian_Observatory_for_Human_Rights

2. https://www.rt.com/news/358855-syria-ceasefire-plan-kerry-lavrov/ ; https://www.rt.com/news/359424-syria-deal-details-dispute/

3. https://www.rt.com/news/359424-syria-deal-details-dispute/

Poverty porn – why is there so much of it in the Guardian and is it justified?

This is a Guardian article about Ken Loach’s latest film – about the benefits system.

It is pure Guardian. A sort of bewailing about some sort of undefined injustice. Something is wrong. People deserve better. Someone, somewhere, is a bastard for allowing this to happen. Etc. But no critical analysis. Not a word questioning capitalism – which might conceivably have something to do with poverty. Just an indulgent wail ‘something is wrong’.

The review shares a characteristic with many of the articles on the Guardian about people in ‘poverty’. They are almost always (if not always) desperately short on facts. There is a benefits system in this country. People receive living allowances plus their rent paid. It may not be much but – look at the figures in this Guardian article. It is certainly more than enough to put 3 square meals on the table a day, albeit basic ones. If someone is going without meals to feed their kid how did that happen? This editor is quite willing to believe that that happens. From a journalistic point of view it would be very interesting to know how it happens. In detail; with facts and figures. That would be a good piece of journalism; a good story. But we never get that. These stories ostensibly take the side of the impoverished. But we never really get to grips with how people end up in these situations. As a result the stories provide material for ‘right-wing’ advocates of the personal responsibility theory of poverty. The people described in these stories must be feckless. Ironically, the Guardian provides endless fuel for the view it claims to be fighting against.

These over-dramatized, emotionally loaded stories invite us to feel both sympathy for the’victim’ and rage against the ‘powers that be’ at the same time. One subtext appears to be (a unifying theme) that more public money should be poured into the social security system. But the fact that the narrative is presented without the key facts suggests that it may just be a little bit phoney. Could it be that the real aim here is to manipulate the public and politicians into spending more public money on the benefits system? Who would benefit from that? One group of people who would obviously benefit from increased spending on social security is all those who work in the the benefits industry; all sorts of advisers and trainers in charities, and local authority officers of various kinds. A sector which perhaps forms a significant part of the Guardian’s readership?

The Guardian informs us, in a tone decrying how small it is, that weekly unemployment benefit for an adult in this county is £73.10. This works out at around £315.00 per month. In addition to this sum people with no other income or wealth are entitled to have all of their rent paid. (There are caps on the total amount payable but in most cases the sum available will pay for modest accommodation in full). For comparison the current average monthly salary, after tax, in Russia is approximately £370.00. [1] Out of which people will have to pay for their accommodation. True; the cost of living in Russia is cheaper. For everyday essentials the cost of living is quite a lot cheaper. But the differential is not so great for any items other than food and accommodation. (As a guide; a smart shirt may cost 2/3 of what it does in England. A digital camera only slightly less). The sum paid to an unemployed person in the UK which the Guardian is complaining about is only slightly less (a difference which vanishes when rent is taken into account) than a worker may earn in Russia. And Russia is by no means the poorest country on Earth.

This comparison exposes the narrative about ‘poverty’ in the UK. Could it be that the people making all this fuss about ‘poverty’ somehow have an interest in it continuing? Do they even help their clients’ to assume the posture of victim? Is the problem really the (not so) pitiful amounts paid in benefits or is it something else? People really are suffering. Yes. But is the answer really to pump more money into the state welfare system? If we had those missing facts from the poverty stories we might begin to be able to understand what the problem really is. But, frustratingly, the facts are missing.

We’re told (also by the Guardian and the liberal left to which it belongs) that we can improve ‘standards in education’ by pumping more public money into state schools. And we can improve ‘health’ by pumping more money into the NHS. But the last Labour government pumped billions into education [2] and after that the UK remained near to the bottom of educational standards amongst developed nations. [3] The same government also massively increased public spending on the NHS [2]. But is the population any more healthy?

The people who stand to benefit from ‘servicing’ the poor, unschooled and ill are always likely to talk up the need for their services. Typically these demands will be presented in moral terms. Nonetheless their words should be treated with skepticism.

Notes

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_European_countries_by_average_wage

2. http://www.ifs.org.uk/bns/bn92.pdf

3. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/oct/08/england-young-people-league-table-basic-skills-oecd

Telegraph tattle

Some of the headlines from today’s online version of the Daily Telegraph:

Prince George and Princess Charlotte are learning how to be farmers from the Duchess of Cambridge

What time and when does Strictly Come Dancing 2016 start? Plus, all you need to know about the celebrity line-up

Picture of ‘world’s most desirable face’ released – and it has Kate Middleton’s nose

Matisse’s early muses came from semi-pornographic magazines, Royal Academy to show
(the media/political classes love stories which denigrate geniuses)

This video of a cobra throwing up six eggs in India is not a pretty sight

 

Revealed: the Guardian’s perspective

This is a piece of break-through reporting from the Guardian. They ‘reveal’ that Iran has a program to train soldiers from Afghanistan to fight in Syria. In shocked and hushed tones the Guardian tells us that:

The Afghan fighters are often impoverished, religiously devout or ostracised from society, looking for money, social acceptance and a sense of purpose that they are unable to find at home.

This is all fine. (Except perhaps for the hyperbole).

But. Wait. Isn’t the US doing exactly the same sort of thing in Syria? The US has two programs to recruit and train fighters to overthrow the government of Syria. One is a covert CIA program based out of Jordan. [1] The other is the lavishly funded but not very successful programme running out of Turkey. [2]

This is typical of the Guardian’s propagandist ‘journalism’. Their reporting on Russia is similar. By focusing only what the other side (anyone outside the Western finance capital dominated sphere) does that looks questionable and then painting that in very dark tones they develop a narrative that says something like ‘We (the West) are beyond reproach. Everyone else is evil’.

 

Notes

1.  https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/lawmakers-move-to-curb-1-billion-cia-program-to-train-syrian-rebels/2015/06/12/b0f45a9e-1114-11e5-adec-e82f8395c032_story.html

2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syrian_Train_and_Equip_Program

When Safeguarding becomes Smearing – the Media and child abuse investigations

This is the Guardian article on the reports that pop-star Cliff Richard is not going to be charged for historic child sex offences.

Notice how the Guardian does not miss the opportunity to drag in a repeat of the (totally unproven) allegations. This appears to be how the Guardian is determined to report these cases. They did the same with another aging person against whom allegations were made and no charges pressed; see here for our report.

In today’s world of ahem ‘Safeguarding’ to be accused is to be guilty.

The real questions the newspapers should be asking are about what the police are doing. Here are some starters:

i. How can it have cost £800,000.00 to investigate a handful of claims? Given that there is (presumably, otherwise there would have been a court case, no forensic evidence) how much does it cost to interview say 10 people?  This is money that could be spent on, say, running 5 youth clubs for a year in deprived areas.

ii. How can these ‘investigations’ be permitted to drag on for months? Again; how long does it take to arrange and conduct a handful of interviews? – Part of the answer to this one of course is that the game is to put the aging pop-star / retired general / MP out to hang and then sit back and wait for anyone to phone in with an allegation. This is the process that takes time.

iii. Why, when it is found that there is no case to answer, do we always have the mealy-mouthed ‘insufficient evidence’ – which is deliberately worded to avoid admitting the innocence of the accused. (From a perspective of royal power of course all who are not on the side of royal power are guilty).

Expert analysis or crude regime-change info war?

This is a story in the Guardian about apparent links found in the ‘Panama papers’ between relatives and friends of two people who work in the Kremlin and offshore accounts.

The Panama papers recall is a leak of private information sponsored by extremely wealthy free-market financier George Soros [1] and, arguably, through its sponsorship of one of the pseudo-journalistic bodies involved by the US government [2]. It is not illegal to use an offshore bank account (unless specific laws in the user’s home country have been broken). In fact then there is very little to the story. This is why it has to be dressed up with smears and innuendo.

This article is no exception. The author starts off with a mention of the recent death (possibly a murder, the investigation in the US continues) of the former head of RT. There is no suggestion about why this is mentioned in this context. It isn’t clear if we are supposed to think that this was a Kremlin sponsored murder. If not – why is it mentioned at all? Then there is a story about how the son of someone who used to be the head of the Russian railways owns property in London despite his father being an ‘anti-Western idealogue’. (That probably means he criticized the West). That’s it in terms of pre-smears.

Then we get to the real meat of the story. The wife of the Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov managed some companies through an offshore structure. And the godfather of Putin’s daughter had some money in an offshore account. That’s it. Not exactly a steak.

The above is reported as:

While ordinary Russians were being instructed to tighten their belts in the ideological battle with the west, their rulers were employing Mossack Fonseca to infiltrate their money into enemy territory

This sentence contains so much that is false and erroneous it is difficult to know where to start. In fact the leaked documents do not show that the ‘rulers’ of Russia were using offshore accounts. In this report at any rate two friends or relatives of the ‘rulers’ were. And then – what ‘ideological battle with the West’? The author seems to be living in an imaginary world of his own making. Russia has been trying to form a partnership with the West for some time. For example; they seek Western capital to develop their oil industry. They have been seeking to work together on counter-terrorism and security more generally. Russia is a member of the WTO. They are signatories to the European Human Rights Convention. They have been modernizing their social infrastructure along Western lines. Yes; it has all gone sour over Crimea – but where is this ‘ideological battle’? (One suspects that by ‘ideological battle’, the author really means ‘they disagree with our view of how their country should be run’). And ‘enemy territory’? That is just silly. The author is mocking the ‘rulers’ of Russia for investing funds in ‘enemy territory’; but who created the recent wave of enmity? It was the US and EU who started sanctions and broke off various relations – such as PACE and some NATO forums, not Russia. This is childish in its lack of bearings in reality.

Then we have:

It is of course not a secret that Kremlin insiders run Russia for their own enrichment, but this barrage of revelations provides extraordinary levels of detail, and lays bare the nature of how Russia is governed in ways we have not seen before.

When we have phrases like ‘of course it is not a secret’ or (another typical phrase in this genre) ‘it is widely believed’ we know we are being fed narrative lines which are not being substantiated with fact-based reporting. Even a glance at the news from Russia shows a series of decisions being made from the (elected) leadership designed to develop Russian interests. To develop the economy and society. The picture of a basket-case third-world country run by a dictator creaming off the wealth of the nation and stashing it away in offshore accounts is phantasy projected onto reality. Again; anyone who follows the news (not just Russian media) can see that the leadership of Russia is working to develop the country. The British government for example promotes Russia as a suitable country for British firms to do business with:

Russia improved to 62nd in the World Bank ˜Ease of Doing Business” ranking in 2014. It’s making some headway in meeting President Putin’s target of reaching 20th position by 2018 after starting from the position of 122nd.

and

Russia has started major investment and modernisation programmes which will provide opportunities for UK firms. It is looking for foreign investment, expertise, technology and resources to help. [3]

This summary from the OECD also reflects the fact that the current leadership of Russia has been successfully developing and modernizing the economy:

The new fiscal rule has anchored budgetary policies, but there are loopholes due to the possibility of tapping into oil funds, providing guarantees and shifting unfunded spending obligations on regions. Increasing attention is being paid to public sector efficiency. The monetary policy framework benefits from the transition to inflation targeting and a flexible exchange rate regime, although the importance of administered and food prices in inflation increase transparency requirements. The banking sector is stable but a consumer credit boom poses risks.

and

The authorities seem to have become more energetic on fighting corruption and strengthening the legal protection of businesses. However, capital outflows and the low market valuation of Russian companies suggest that business is not yet fully convinced. Law enforcement appears to be uneven, whistleblower protection is weak, and civil society organisations and non‑aligned media face constraints. Red tape has been reduced, and recently adopted federal initiatives tackle many administrative barriers. There has been less progress on the regional level. Governance of state-owned enterprises has improved somewhat, but privatisation plans were recently downsized. Notwithstanding WTO accession in 2012, market opening is meeting resistance. Transport system bottlenecks pose barriers to more geographically balanced growth. [4]

We’ve quoted the full extract. It is of course a mixed picture. (Though the critical reader will be aware that the OECD is firmly behind privatization of state assets and a market-run economy and this necessarily influences their assessment).

At any event it is clear that the reality is as far from the image of Russian being run by ‘rulers’ for their own benefit as it could possibly be. The author of the Guardian piece is doing what so many Western based ‘Russia experts’ seem to do; they make a living out of embellishing a narrative about ‘Russian corruption’ and crooked leaders. That Russia is developing. That the facts are otherwise is simply ignored. After all there is a circuit on which these people can write these articles and books and it would be bad for the industry to tell the truth. We cannot tell whether the author of this article has looked and then decided to stick with his phantasy world anyway – or whether he never even bothered to look at the subject about which he is writing in the first place.

This Guardian article has the not unusual attribution at the top-left. In this case it is credited to something called the New East network. Recall at this point that the Guardian has started carrying content provided by amongst others the Bill Gates Foundation [5] and US government propaganda outlet – Radio Free Europe. [6] This appears in part to be another route by which interested parties can place content in the Guardian. The Guardian has a page describing their ‘New East network’.  What is striking is that so many of the ‘partners’ i.e. those who will be providing the content, are not journalists. They are partisan think-tanks and single-issue media groups. For example; take one partner ‘Caucasian Knot’. Briefly looking at their web site this appears to be a campaigning organisation devoted in particular to ‘human rights’ and defending journalists in the Caucuses. Who funds it? We are told no more than “The edition is funded from various charitable foundations“. – Why not tell us which? (Does that include “USAID”?) Caucasian Knot is registered with the Russian state media regulator. Presumably then they are allowed to do business and print the stories that they print. At the same time as the Guardian tells its readers about the “greater censorship of online publishing” in Russia  [7] they are teaming up with those ‘censored’ outlets to print – and re-print – their stories. Other members of the ‘New East network’ include the Carnegie Foundation – a US based foundation. Specifically the partner is the Moscow office of the Carnegie Foundation. Again; while telling stories about repression in Russia the Guardian reveals that Western NGOs and independent media can and do operate in Russia. At the very least the real picture is much more nuanced than the one-sided narrative line about ‘crackdowns’ and ‘censorship’.

There is nothing wrong with a media outlet reporting on stories produced by lobby groups. However; in ‘proper’ journalism what happens is that the journalist assesses the press release (for that is what it is) and reports on it, in context; such and such an organisation has claimed she might say. She might then fact-check the claims and report these results to her readers. She might also inform her readers about the allegiances of the organisation making the claims. The new form of ‘journalism’ which the Guardian is developing is to skip this step. Lobby groups of various kinds can simply place content directly in the Guardian. The Panama papers leak itself is an instance of placed content; the leak was helped by funding from wealthy financier George Soros, who has a track record of interfering in political processes. [8] The material in this stream of Guardian articles is presented as journalism. The only tell-tale sign for the reader who might otherwise take this at face value is a small attribution on the top-left of the page – an attribution which is easily missed. These are information products planted in the news with a specific aim of manipulating public opinion.

What we are looking at is sponsored ‘information products’. The target of these products is the current (elected and popular) Russian government with its belief that businesses of strategic importance should be in state hands. The likely aim is to replace this government with one run by the pro-Western liberal opposition in Russia. The pro-Western liberal opposition in Russia is a very minority interest – coming behind the actual opposition, which is the Communist party and the parliamentary socialist Fair Russia party, in elections. [9] Nonetheless the democratic preferences of Russians notwithstanding the aim is perhaps to finally achieve that longed-for goal of total acquisition by Western finance capital of all of Russia’s extractative industries. All of this will be done in the name of ‘human rights’ of course.

Notes

1. http://thenewobserver.co.uk/putting-it-on-putin/

2. https://www.rt.com/news/338683-wikileaks-usaid-putin-attack/

3. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/exporting-to-russia/doing-business-in-russia-russia-trade-and-export-guide

4. http://www.oecd.org/economy/economic-survey-russian-federation.htm

5. http://thenewobserver.co.uk/mock-concern-about-hiv-used-to-promote-the-us-corporate-world/

6. http://thenewobserver.co.uk/more-rfe-propaganda-on-the-guardian/

7. http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/dec/20/donald-trump-defends-vladimir-putin-endorsement

8. https://www.rt.com/news/264037-soros-ukraine-poroshenko-leak/

9. http://thenewobserver.co.uk/the-opposition-in-russia/