The new tsars of Russian TV
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Vremya, or Time, the 9pm news bulletin on Russia’s Channel One, celebrated its 40th anniversary in January with a gimmick. A split screen showed Yekaterina Andreyeva, its icily glamorous presenter, reading today’s news on one side, and a 1980s predecessor on the other. Andreyeva, it turns out, talks about twice as fast.
Russian TV news today is slick and pacy. It boasts all the virtual sets and throbbing theme tunes of its western counterparts. So why do Russians increasingly liken it to the stodgy, propagandistic news of Soviet times?
The answer is that propaganda today is slicker and more subtle than Soviet-era reports of record grain harvests, or of spiralling unemployment in the capitalist west. Under Vladimir Putin’s presidency, the three main national channels were brought back under direct or indirect state control. A chunk of their output is still either dubbed foreign imports or dramas and sitcoms inspired by western models. But in news and current affairs they have swung solidly behind a Kremlin-inspired narrative. That narrative maintains that Russia has recovered from the nightmare of the 1990s; it has problems but is trying to resolve them. And it is surrounded by enemies, above all by the US.
TV insiders say self-censorship by editors plays a part in the obeisance to the official line. But they admit the Kremlin has an important role. “Owners of the media in this country, government or private, are not ashamed of exercising their right, as they see it, to manage their media outlets, from the news point of view,” says Sergey Brilev, a leading anchor on the state-owned Rossiya channel.
Brilev says the choice of stories remains largely with TV news editors. “But as for the treatment of stories, after the disappearance of Alastair Campbell from Number 10 Downing Street,” he says, referring to the media chief of former UK prime minister Tony Blair, “the world champion of spin is the Kremlin.”
Three unwritten rules seem to apply to the editors’ approach. The first is to give only the Russian side of the story. When, for instance, Moscow cut off natural gas supplies to neighbouring Ukraine in a payment dispute in 2006, Ukrainian voices were barely heard.
Second, keep the opposition off the air. Critics broadly tolerated by the Kremlin – the communists and ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky – get some airtime, but the pro-democracy opposition, including former chess champion Garry Kasparov and a former prime minister, Mikhail Kas-yanov, are almost entirely absent. Even Grigory Yavlinsky, twice a presidential candidate from the liberal Yabloko party, complains he rarely gets on national TV, or is “edited to make me look stupid”.
Rule three: don’t criticise the president. Putin-era TV news developed the habit of showing him daily jabbing his finger at unfortunate ministers, regional governors or the occasional oligarch. The government may be a bunch of incompetents, it implied, but good Tsar Putin is looking after you.
How Russian TV will handle having two tsars – new president Dmitry Medvedev and Putin as prime minister – is one of the interesting questions posed by Russia’s new “tandemocracy”. For now, the news is devoting similar time to both men’s finger-wagging.
The approach extends into current affairs. TV in the 1990s featured heavy doses of opinion and frequently served the interests of the channels’ owners. The 1990s stars have been replaced by a new generation who, while talented journalists, are in the words of one TV executive “even more pro-government than the government”.
They include Mikhail Leontiev, a stubbly former newspaper man who has made a personal odyssey from liberal to Putinite true believer. Leontiev’s opinion slot, Odnako (However), is appended on an irregular basis onto Channel One’s Time bulletin. Favourite targets of his tirades are the pro-western leaderships of Ukraine and Georgia and, of course, the US. (“Russia is positioning itself as a counterweight to the total supremacy of America and, to a large degree, the only counterweight,” he told viewers late last year.)
More debonair, but no less hawkish in defending what he calls “Russia’s national interests as I see them”, is Alexei Pushkov. The one-time Gorbachev speechwriter combines presenting Postscriptum on the TV-Centre channel with lecturing at a prestigious Moscow foreign policy institute. An edition of Postscriptum that examined the return of tanks and missiles to Russia’s Victory Day parade on Red Square admitted this masked a deterioration in Russia’s military forces. But that weakening, Pushkov added, was particularly worrying since “little has changed in the military strategy of the main world power”.
Brilev, however, warns against seeing a retreat from some ideal of media freedom in the 1990s. Different channels then spouted competing views, he says, but were essentially mouthpieces for their oligarch owners. Russian political culture has not yet embraced the co-existence of competing ideas. “There is a culture of, ‘Here’s my opinion, forget about the rest,’” he says. “It survived tsarist times, communist times, and it survives today.”
Brilev adds that liberal opposition figures have occasionally turned down invitations to appear on his shows, apparently preferring to cultivate an image of persecuted outsiders. And he notes Russians have a choice absent in Soviet times, including some remaining free newspapers, and Russian internet news sites critical of the government.
Television continues to dominate, however. When a foreign reporter asked a class of third-year language students in a provincial city this month how many had internet access at home, virtually all raised their hands. Yet barely a quarter said websites were their main source of news; the rest said television. Asked if the US was Russia’s enemy, they nodded, chuckling at the naivety of the question. The message, it seems, is hitting home.
For earlier articles in this series on TV around the world, visit www.ft.com/tv
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