Feb 17, 2012

Putin, Russia and the West. BBC at it's best

The media loves to take sides, to create heroes and villains, to embellish, exaggerate, oversimplify and generally distort the truth. Of course, we all know that the press in nasty, autocratic places like Syria, China, Iran and Russia do this… but our press (or at least our broadsheets) are largely unbiased and objective aren’t they? And if the newspapers aren’t, then at least we can always rely on that bastion of truth, sitting serenely in an oasis of objectivity - our very own BBC. Can’t we? 
Even since the protest movement started I’ve been disappointed by the BBC’s coverage of Russia. Whether Daniel Sandford and Steve Rosenberg, their Russia correspondents don’t speak Russian and reality has been lost in translation, whether they’re stuck in a Moscow bubble or whether they are just seeing the world through West-tinted spectacles I don’t know, but the Russia they’ve portrayed is a far cry from the one I live in. From the outset they have not only seemed determined to portray the fair-election protesters as representative of the whole Russian people, they have also misrepresented the protesters themselves. I remember being shocked to read the headline on the BBC website “Russia protesters call on Putin to go” (December 24th). I’ve not heard anyone make that demand - the protesters have consistently stated their wish for a re-run of December’s parliamentary elections and the resignation of the election commissioner. No-one’s asking Putin to resign. They have chanted “Russia without Putin” and pledged not to give him “a single vote”.  But they’re also united in their desire to bring about change through fair elections, not a revolution led by the street, as in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. That’s why use of phrases like “Moscow Spring” (favoured by the Economist magazine) is also unhelpful. This is a very, very different situation. 
Having said all that, the documentary “Putin, Russia and the West”, recently screened on the BBC goes a long way towards making up for the failings of its correspondents. In four hour-long episodes it tells the story of Putin’s 12 years as Russia’s ‘natural leader’. Apart from some rare, unhelpful comments by the narrator, the documentary seems very objective as it searches for the truth behind some of the most important events of the last decade, including September 11th, American plans to increase nuclear defence in Eastern Europe, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the 2008 war in Georgia, the ‘reset’ in Russo-US relations when Obama became President and the Putin-Medvedev “tandem” government. Whenever possible, influential people on both ‘sides’ of events are interviewed, and the makers assembled an impressive cast list, including Condoleeza Rice (George and Colin Powell (US secretaries of State under Bush), Gerhard Schroder (former German chancellor), David Miliband (former UK foreign minister), Mikhail Saakachvili (President of Georgia), Leonid Kuchma and Victor Yushenko (former Presidents of Ukraine), Igor Ivanov and Sergei Lavrov (Russian foreign ministers) and a whole host of advisors, ambassadors and negotiators who were there when big decisions were made.
An indication of the documentaries’ overall objectivity is the way that non-objective people have responded online. The first episode, which concludes with the arrest and sentencing of Mikhail Khodorkovsky is attacked by Putin supporters, who deride it as typical Western propaganda because of the way Khodorkovsky is treated like a martyr. Many Russians think he got what he deserved. The third episode deals at length with the war in Georgia. Conventional wisdom in the West says that poor, innocent little Georgia was invaded and crushed by mighty, evil Russia. I even wrote an essay at university last year propagating that view. In reality, it was much more complicated and both sides were guilty of provoking the other. The documentary makes this very clear, which is why anti-Putin people accused the film-makers of pro-Putin bias. 
In a subsequent blog I’ll outline what I learned from the documentaries. But before you read that I’d go and watch them for yourselves (especially the fourth one, which brilliantly captures the complex Putin-Medvedev relationship). They’ll be on iplayer for another week or so. Otherwise, you can find them on youtube at …

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant commentary as ever Ben!!! One question though... have you ever thought to question what the "Western"/British media have reported to us about the way the press works in other autocratic states "Syria, China, Iran and Russia"... and, perhaps more importantly, the news and views that we have been getting from the "spring/uprisings" in Egypt, Tunisia & Libya?

    As someone who has spent significant amounts of time in both a "western" country and an "eastern european" one, I've always found it interesting that the news reports can differ quite substantially - even on reports from places like Libya or Egypt where neither set of media should really have a bias...

    Rather like your recent experiences with Russia, I've witnessed first hand some really odd reporting from seemingly reputable sources with regards to things going on in Serbia/former Yugoslav region. I understand that there is always room for bias and propaganda (from both sides) in reporting, but I've often been shocked at how some of the reports/facts are just plain wrong and even non-sensical to those in the know.

    Not to sound cynical/conspiracy theorist but it really has made me question the reports we get in the UK and how much of it can be trusted. If anything I think we've become overly complacent as a nation to believe what is told to us because we've always been told that "our press is open and free and the best in the world", to the point where we stop questioning anything.

    Is it really possible that one moment Gaddafi was one of the greatest leaders in Africa, providing brilliant government funded irrigation problems, highest levels of education/healthcare in that region - our leaders went to have pics taken with him as an ally and then... mere months later he is a tyrant, oppressing his own people, etc. etc.

    Is it also possible that the same thing keeps happening over and over again (see Saddam Hussein, Mubarak, etc. etc. - even Putin)? I've just become really sceptical of it all... but I don't know what the solution is...

    I've actually started watching the English version of Russia Today from time to time to get a different perspective to what I regularly hear (bbc, itv, etc.) and it's amazing how much difference there is...

    Anyway, didn't mean this to turn into such a monologue but the documentary on Putin and your blog post reminded me of something I've recently been pondering over and struggling with... what is the solution??? Who is correct??? Hmmmmmm.......