Vladimir Putin perfectly understood the power of the media that helped propel his famously unpopular predecessor Boris Yeltsin into power in 1996. So the first thing he did after assuming the presidency in 2000 was to force all the major TV channels – still the most powerful medium in the country – to submit to his will. Oligarch owners were either co-opted, jailed or exiled, and by 2006 most major Russian media were either directly or indirectly under Putin’s administration’s control.
Today, the three major Russian TV channels are either directly owned by the state, operating as state enterprises (Channel One and VGTRK, or All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company), or owned by a subsidiary of one of Russia’s largest oil and gas companies, Gazprom (NTV). So are two of Russia’s three major news agencies, Rossiya Segodnya and Tass. Later, larger independent online news outlets such as Lenta.ru were subjected to hostile takeovers by loyalist editorial teams picked by the Kremlin.
Members of Putin’s administration – today it’s his deputy chief of staff Alexey Gromov – control the political coverage and decide both what foreign and domestic policies are to be covered, and how and, more importantly, what is not to be covered. For example, Putin’s family is strictly off-limits, unless specifically instructed otherwise. This often leads to awkward moments, as when Putin casually dropped the bomb of his divorce on national TV while tactically cornered by a TV crew after an opera he went to see with his now ex-wife Lyudmila.
The editors-in-chief of all the major media in Russia attend regular “strategy meetings” with Putin’s staffers. It’s like Fight Club: no member will admit to its existence – but it’s fairly easy to deduce, given how coordinated the coverage is on the most watched TV shows across all three major news channels.
Putin and his loyal staffers take a keen interest in the foreign press. His administration subscribes to all the major Russian newspapers and magazines, including the few remaining independent ones (“independent” here is a bit of a misnomer: they are, of course, dependent on the state’s benevolence, which can change at any moment), and the most important foreign ones, both general interest, such as the Economist, and specialised, such as Jane’s Defence Weekly. These reports are digested by clerks and submitted to their superiors as daily bulletins.
These folders of foreign newspaper and magazine clippings – with bookmarks in red for negative coverage of Russia, yellow for neutral and green for positive – were a major source of anxiety for Putin’s office in mid-2000s. A sea of red or yellow, and Putin’s press managers were concerned about Russia’s international standing. There was a gap in communication between Russia’s top officials and the international press, they feared, not unreasonably, and one remedy they could think of was employing foreign public relations professionals to help fix it.
The strategy didn’t quite work out as intended, due to a fundamental lack of understanding of how the press operates outside of Russia. Angus Roxburgh, a former BBC correspondent who later was employed by Ketchum as a PR adviser to the Russian government, writes in his book The Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia, that his employers thought it was only a matter of greasing the right palms to get the coverage they wanted.
Tens of millions of dollars and a major mutual disappointment later, the Kremlin refused to renew the Ketchum contract in late 2014. Today, Putin and his press managers still seem to think that the world’s media works the same way as it does in Russia: subservient to corporate owners who are in turn controlled by governments. Hence the angry demands from Russia’s top officials that “the western media” – apparently a centrally controlled editorial conglomerate – cease their “Russophobic campaigning”.
In their minds, reporters working for state news outlets – which effectively are almost all news outlets in Russia – are public servants first and journalists second (if at all). In September 2013, at the height of a highly contested mayoral election campaign in Moscow, a state news agency RIA Novosti, later integrated into Rossiya Segodnya, tried to do some old-fashioned balanced reporting on all candidates. The problem was that one of those candidates (a solid favourite of the liberal-minded Muscovites who came second, almost forcing a runoff against the incumbent mayor appointed by Putin) was a firebrand opposition activist, Alexei Navalny, backed then blacklisted from the state media.
Even critical outlets end up promoting the Kremlin’s line by reporting what is essentially non-news
Whenever RIA would quote Navalny’s statements in its campaign news reports, as any normal news outlet would do when covering a political campaign, Putin’s deputy chief of staff Alexei Gromov would call the agency’s editor in chief, Svetlana Mironyuk, and chide her. A state news agency, Gromov said, must not work against the state’s own interests by promoting the opposition.
Today, the Russian state employs both hard and soft power to further its grip on the country’s media. New restrictive laws are passed with dispiriting predictability: foreign media franchise owners are forced out of their stakes in international brands such as Forbes or Esquire based in Russia, fines and other penalties are introduced for not covering controversial subjects such as terrorism and drug abuse in terms that “do not explicitly discourage the behaviour”. Independent outlets are threatened into self-censorship and choked of the things they need to survive – such as cable services or access to print shops – if they don’t comply.
Not all is universally grim, of course. Outside Moscow, there are brave news websites critically covering local affairs, to the chagrin of provincial governors. And new, highly specialised outlets are covering subjects such as charity work or courts and prisons in depth that the general interest media cannot afford.
Media in Russia exists not only under state pressure, but with the constraints of an industry that is facing the same challenges worldwide: the ever-accelerating race for more pageviews against the diminishing attention span of their audiences, dwindling budgets and ad revenues. And this in turn opens up more possibilities to manipulate coverage through more conventional means, such as access bias.
Every year in December Putin holds an annual press conference for domestic and international press. These are massively publicised, tightly choreographed affairs attended by hundreds of reporters, from small regional outlets to international media conglomerates. No matter what your editorial line on Putin is, you are compelled to cover these news conferences in order to not lose out on web traffic – although there is precious little “news” to cover. No major policy announcements are made at these events, and Putin has a whole bag of rhetorical tricks to evade and deflect critical inquiries, using loyalist media asking softball questions to appear an omniscient and wise ruler.
Putin’s office has become expert at manipulating the agenda. Bits of trivial information are spoonfed to reporters through “informed sources familiar with the matter” – and even critical outlets end up promoting the Kremlin’s line by reporting what is essentially non-news.
There are, of course, many lessons to be learned and many parallels to draw with the current fraught relationship between Donald Trump and the US media. But it’s important to keep in mind that Putin has amassed far more power than Trump can possibly hope to during his time in power. However, one thing is clear: both in the US and in Russia, the media are often distracted with outrage over absurd behaviour and nonsensical public statements while ignoring what those in power want to be ignored.