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 …