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The Ethical Vacuum of Russia's Media Business
— How trust is lost to cronies, bullies, and bosses.

File Photo of Russia Television StudioFrom: "William Dunkerley" <wd@publishinghelp.com>
Subject: The Ethical Vacuum of Russia's Media Business
Date: Mon, 27 Jun 2011

By William Dunkerley,
Media business analyst and consultant

Presented at Saint Petersburg State University of Economics and Finance Conference on Business Ethics and National Models of Conduct, June 15, 2011

Okay, the title of my talk kind of reveals my point of view. "The ethical vacuum of Russia's media business." That doesn't leave much to your imagination. But, to start, let's look at this from a different angle.

Consider Russia's media sector as a model in the development of ethical business behavior. It's had a code of conduct almost since the start of the Russian Federation. Practically every indigenous media organization in the country has consistently implemented the code.

By the mid-nineties, there was a movement to refine and formalize the code. And in 1995, I presented a paper on ethics in media advertising. It was at a large conference in Moscow entitled "Ethics and the Media in Russia Today." Delegates came from media outlets across all Russia. Organizers hoped to have a mass signing of the code.

That all may sound like an impressive beginning for the emergence of ethical conduct in the media business.

But it wasn't.

The reality was different. That initial code of conduct can be expressed with the proverb "kto platit, tot zakazivaet muziku" -- he who pays calls the tune. That's the code. But where's the ethics? Where's the balance? Where's the fairness? The prevailing business practice meant that people who want to distort the news in their own favor PAID the media outlets. And then the public was presented with news that isn't reliably true. It cheated media consumers of the real news. The media's financial overlords reigned supreme. This was a model for bad business behavior.

And the ethics conference? Working groups considered a new code, one that would be consistent with world norms. In the end, however, the editors and journalists refused to sign on. They considered the ethics code impractical. One prominent editor of the period admitted that the media practiced bad ethics. But, he said, "We are at war for our survival. We don't have the luxury of good ethics."

Arguments for the long-term efficacy of business ethics and trust made no inroads. The attitude was, "Today is what matters. We'll deal with tomorrow when it comes, if it comes."

Now, years later, the media sector's business ethics have not substantially changed.

How did the media end up with this business culture? - one so devoid of ethical principles? Were the participants fundamentally without principles right from the start?

I don't think that is the case. Instead, the poor ethics grew out of a legal and economic framework that left little alternative. The kind of position the media were put into is neither unique nor new. Indeed, at its heart, this is a kind of timeless problem. Dostoyevsky articulated it in the nineteenth century when he wrote, Nakormi, togda i sprashivai c nikh dobrodeteli, "Feed men, and then ask of them virtue."

The problem faced by the media was that Russian Federation laws made it impractical for media enterprises to operate profitably. They could not feed themselves through legitimate, ethical business practices. In order to survive, the outlets adopted the corrupt practice of coloring the news content for a price. Those who paid became the bullies and bosses.

In the Yeltsin years, media outlets were subjugated by both politicians and business tycoons. During the Putin administration, there was a minor but highly visible tendency toward central consolidation. Western media were quick to call this a crackdown on press freedom. But, of course, it wasn't. There were no truly independent media outlets for him to crack down on. Almost all were conscripted by politicians and businessmen to serve their needs. The media were not free to tell the truth.

How bad is the situation today? News stories still are bought and paid for in order to favor the business or political interests of the payer. This practice exists not only in the mass media, but in trade and professional offerings as well. Presently, a vast majority of news outlets are owned or controlled by some level of government. Consumers are aware that they are being lied to by the media. And they don't like it. Indeed, multiple studies have shown that most Russians would prefer a return to official censorship over perpetuation of the present nonsense.

What problems does this all pose? The overall situation breeds a deep sense of cynicism. News and information that could be helpful to consumers in their everyday lives is in short supply. Citizens are unable to avail themselves of reliable news that serves their needs and interests.

One result is that they are hampered from making informed political choices and from exercising vigilance over their government. A Russian journalist observed that in the United States people view the news media as a means for exercising vigilance over government and for keeping it in check. In Russia, she added, the government has traditionally viewed the news media as a means for influencing the people and keeping them in check.

For media businesses there is no real opportunity for legitimate success. If you choose to be in the media business, you are choosing to be in the business of selling influence at the expense of your consumers' needs. Serving their needs and interests is not a priority. Few media companies could survive as honest, consumer-centric businesses.

Media companies have no practical alternative. Engaging in unethical practices in order to survive is practically unavoidable. The current system rewards bad business behavior and gives little incentive for change.

The legitimate media advertisers are negatively impacted, too. They advertise in order to reach prospective buyers. But, media audiences are aggregated to suit political exigencies instead of business needs. Pensioners are sought because they vote in disproportionately high numbers. That's good for the sponsors of distorted news. But pensioners are not big spenders. That's bad for the honest advertisers. As a result, media advertisers are unable to reach commercially active audiences efficiently. The consumer base is not being targeted.

None of this bodes well for Russia's economic outlook. Worldwide, media advertising is normally an engine of commerce. It brings together buyers and sellers. But when the consumer base is not targeted in media audience aggregation, there is a systemic breakdown. It retards commerce in all sectors of the economy. It is inimical to economic growth and development.

Have attempts been made to change Russia's media mess? Actually, considerable Western help appeared on the scene before Westerners had any real understanding of the then embryonic problems.

First overtures focused on teaching journalists how to write better, how to do investigative reporting, and how to conduct themselves ethically. But writing skill was not a key problem area; newly acquired investigative skills ultimately were used in journalistic blackmail schemes; and, in the absence of a legal framework for conducting honest business, lectures on ethics were premature.

During Vladimir Putin's first term, an American-Russian private sector initiative successfully advocated for change. That brought about the repeal of the laws that had precluded media companies from operating profitably. But the new opportunity to conduct business ethically did not lead to the abandonment of the corrupt business culture. It had become entrenched.

The presence of this corruption and an absence of ethics and trust now confound attempts at legitimate business success.

What options exist for the future?

Albert Schweitzer taught us, And I quote, "In a general sense, ethics is the name we give to our concern for good behavior. We feel an obligation to consider not only our own personal well-being, but also that of others and of human society as a whole."

However, the Russian media have reminded us of Dostoyevsky's admonition: "Feed men, and then ask of them virtue."

That means that before Schweitzer's ideal can be achieved, there are some practical fundamentals of life that must be dealt with successfully. Russia's media sector has shown that there are preconditions to ethics.

The unethical media sector landscape was originally created by bad laws. But even after those laws were repealed, the resultant problems live on. They are propelled by the inertia of an entrenched, corrupt business culture.

There is no direct path from the current mess to the implementation of an ethical code of conduct.

The problem is not that media professionals don't recognize their lack of ethics.

It is not that they don't know what ethical behavior is.

Fundamentally, good intentions alone for ethical business conduct have proved useless.

The problem is that in a very real sense, there is no palpable impetus for change. No one seems to have a vested interest in shepherding change. Media professionals may not admit it, but most are comfortable with the way things are now. They have acquired skills in dealing with the way things are, not how they might be. In fact, most are ill-equipped for working as legitimate media professionals. They lack the appropriate skill set. This is a complex problem!

If there is to be real change, there is a need for strong and courageous national leadership. President Medvedev has made fighting corruption a centerpiece of his presidency. But, so far he's failed to target the corrupt media sector. Still, the media constitute the most conspicuously corrupt, unethical, and untrustworthy sector of the country's economy.

In the meantime, Russia's media sector is likely to remain mired in its current dysfunction. That bodes ill for progress in trust and ethics throughout the economy. Until it is fixed, the media sector will continue to inspire distrust and bad business behavior throughout all Russia.

(Note: Video of presentation including Q&A can be found at www.publishinghelp.net/finec01)

Keyword Tags:

Russia, Media, Internet - Russia News - Russia - Russia - Johnson's Russia List

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