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#15 - JRL 9311 - JRL Home
From: "Martin Smith" <martin.smith@wbceurope.com>
Subject: JRL 9308: further answers to your question on Russia and the western media
Date: Fri, 2 Dec 2005

Dear David

You invited comments (JRL 9308) on the proposition that “Western journalists are too harsh on Russia”. May I make two simple points in response?

First, it is unhelpful to speak about “Western journalists” as if they constitute a homogeneous entity for the purpose of answering the question. They do not. It is true that some Western journalists sitting at their screens in London, New York, Washington, Berlin, Paris and elsewhere write sensationalist, badly informed and clichéd pieces about Russian life and politics, as unfortunately they do about many places in the world under ever increasing proprietorial and editorial pressure of various kinds. (Research? Does any journalist now have time for serious research?) However it is also true that many Moscow-based correspondents of the world’s great newspapers are truly outstanding and dedicated reporters. Think for example of the recent line of Moscow bureau chiefs at the Financial Times - John Lloyd, John Thornhill, Chrystia Freeland and Andrew Jack – and read their books! These correspondents were exceptionally well-informed when they were on the Moscow beat, and there are many others like them today.

This however leads to a second point, which is closely related. The organs of the Russian state and their press officers are generally very bad at communicating with the international media in any language. Perhaps this is unsurprising given the historical background, but it is nonetheless disappointing to hear repeatedly that so little effort is made to treat international correspondents with any kind of rudimentary respect. The commonplace idea that “media relations” is both an important function of democratic government and, more especially in the context of your question, a vital tool of international public relations, and that this function should be managed accordingly, has not yet taken root in Moscow government circles.

There was a moment in 2001 when it looked as if things might be changing in this respect. I managed the international PR programme for the lifting of Kursk submarine working with Sergei Yastrzhembskiy, the then head of press relations in the presidential administration. Mr. Yastrzhembskiy understood completely that this difficult project would fail unless he and his team embraced the basic principles of effective communications, firstly by putting up very senior people to be scrutinised by the media in London (vice-admiral Barskov, academician Spassky and others), and secondly by talking openly and honestly about malfunctioning Russian torpedos and not making themselves look silly by blaming the Americans. The project was deemed a great success in the Kremlin, but subsequently, post-Yastrzhembskiy in this role, all has once more become obfuscation and mendacity as was made evident during the Dubrovka theatre siege and the Beslan massacre. The problem is that I’m not convinced that anyone at the top table in the Kremlin really cares about this any more.

Yours sincerely
Dr Martin Smith
Managing Director
West Bridge Consulting
12 St. James's Square
London SW1Y 4RB
United Kingdom.