January 22, 2003
By Yulia Latynina
Boris Jordan did not carry the mantle that he snatched off the back of Vladimir Gusinsky for very long. He was purged from Gazprom-Media after President Vladimir Putin uttered the phrase -- following the Dubrovka hostage siege -- about a certain national television channel making money "on the blood of its fellow citizens."
There was talk of Jordan's sacking immediately after the president's comments in November. In response, Jordan launched a PR campaign to let everyone know just what a good manager he was. And it is true that last year NTV for the first time turned a profit -- to the tune of $14 million. Although this was after the advertising market grew by 40 percent, and Gazprom unexpectedly spent $64 million on advertising.
It turns out that Gazprom is the second biggest spender on advertising in Russia, and yet it doesn't even figure in the top 12 Russian advertisers as measured by airtime, etc. It is strange that the gas monopoly feels the need for such an expensive campaign -- maybe it is experiencing serious competition and problems selling its gas in central Russia. It is pretty obvious that the advertisements are a form of subsidy for NTV (let's hope it is only that, and not a kick-back scheme for Gazprom managers to boot). Thus the bewilderment caused by Jordan waxing lyrical about his extraordinary success, and the surprise at the promises of Alexander Dybal, his replacement, to conduct an audit of NTV. It's a dangerous business to audit a balance sheet that your bosses have peppered with explosives.
Jordan's firing is proof that television is the one branch of the economy that the president intends to control personally. In all other spheres, the president won't get personally involved. Oligarchs can scrap for control of enterprises, buy judges, shuffle ministers, etc. But if a national television channel has the temerity to lip-read one of Putin's conversations in the Kremlin, that's l?se-majest? -- an offense against the dignity of the tsar himself.
Television is capable of a lot. If there is a more or less favorable economic situation in the country, television can ensure high ratings for the president.
The problem, of course, is in the word "favorable." What if world oil prices collapse? What if we are hit by another freezing cold spell, exacerbated by the degradation of municipal services? What if there is a succession of major terrorist attacks?
Economists have something called the Laffer curve. It shows that if you raise tax rates, at a certain point the total amount of taxes collected starts to fall, as high taxes encourage evasion. The Laffer curve can also be applied to television. If you increase the dosage of lies, at a certain point people's trust in what they are watching starts to drop off. Television is a make-up artist, not a surgeon. It can hide wrinkles, but can't cure a severe case of obesity.
Jordan was running one of the freest Russian channels not because he was a great fan of freedom of speech, but because he is a businessman and understands that only independent television can be commercially profitable.
However, unfortunately you cannot be parachuted into a television channel with the authorities' help and remain independent. The Kremlin gave Jordan NTV on a platter; you cannot turn around to someone who gives you such a gift, insult them and read their lips.
Jordan had no right to betray the Kremlin with free speech.
Gusinsky's expulsion was the first personal project of the Putin administration. Jordan's firing, of course, is little more than the stroke of a pen -- but, all the same, made by the president's own hand.
The hunt for Gusinsky made headlines for a whole year. Jordan's sacking has made the news for a few days.
It is hard to feel sorry for Jordan that Gusinsky's mantle has been taken away from him. The real tragedy is that the mantle will almost certainly now fall into much more dubious hands.
Yulia Latynina is author and host of "Yest Mneniye" on TVS.