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Russian journalism’s double white lines

A recent leak from a leading Russian media outlet has sparked a bitter debate about censorship and professional ethics, exposing how fragmented Russia’s journalist community truly is. Русский

RBC's offices, Moscow. (c) Aleksei Fillipov / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.Two weeks ago, Russia’s media community was shaken by scandal after a meeting between the new management of a leading business media and its journalists was leaked word-for-word online. Indeed, the reaction has been fiercely polarising, with journalists debating the fine print of professional ethics in public for all to see. 

The strength of this reaction is easy to explain: the transcript exposed a taboo — every Russian journalist has an implicit understanding of what you can and can’t publish, but they don’t discuss this in public. The exact content of the discussion over this leak, however, reveals the divisions inside Russia’s journalist community. 

Reputations built and broken 

Over the past three years, business media RBC has built a solid reputation as a leading source of investigative journalism in Russia — breaking the identity of Putin’s daughter after an investigation into university expansion in Moscow, exposing details of corruption at state infrastructure projects and inside the Russian Orthodox Church. 

But in May 2016, after the police searched the company of owner (and oligarch) Mikhail Prokhorov, RBC’s management were fired. The Panama Papers revelations over the money trail leading to Putin transmitted by RBC are thought to have been the final straw. 

The consequences of these changes were crystal clear to outsiders — no one doubted that the old RBC was gone, and for good

While RBC’s editorial team were unclear about what would happen next, the consequences of these changes were crystal clear to outsiders — no one doubted that the old RBC was gone, and for good. New managers were appointed, and, as the transcript shows, they met with the RBC team (or what’s left of them) in early July to explain the “new rules” to the team. Their audience’s reaction during the meeting and the ensuing departure of 20 journalists made one thing clear: they hadn’t been successful. 

The contents of this conversation were, however, recorded and then leaked to the Riga-based Russian media Meduza, which published it online to scandalous effect. Yet the understandably heated reaction on Facebook (referred to as a “media shitstorm” in Russian journalists’ slang) wasn’t so much about what would happen to RBC. Instead, it revolved around how ethical it was to record the conversation in the first place, and whether Meduza had the right to publish it. 

The art of being adequate 

Many people in Russia and abroad want to believe that the Kremlin has direct control over the majority of Russian media. This picture of the world would, of course, make the work of analysts easier, but it doesn’t match up to real life. The Russian authorities’ influence on media management is plain to see, but the situation with how exactly news is produced is far more complicated. 

In Russia, journalists independently (and, on occasion, enthusiastically) create stories that meet the demands of the ruling regime. As my colleague Elisabeth Schimpfossl has discussed, the main indicator of professionalism for Russia’s state media and private broadcasters loyal to the Kremlin is adekvatnost’, which translates literally as “adequacy”. 

Intuition is the most important quality for a Russian journalist who wants to stay in the profession and make a career. 

For Russia’s media workers, adekvatnost’ refers to the clear boundaries of what you can (and must) publish, as well as what is strictly off limits. At most mass media in Russia, these rules are unwritten — they are defined almost exclusively ad hoc. While the turn of the millennium saw many Russian media outlets draw up editorial charters, a decade and a half later, it’s rare to find any outlet that follows them. Instead, intuition is the most important quality for a Russian journalist who wants to stay in the profession and make a career. 

We know now that the Kremlin prefers a politics based on tactical decisions rather than clear long-term strategy. To survive and succeed in this environment, Russian media has had to learn how to mirror the Kremlin’s behaviour — they have to be ready to change the angle of coverage on any event, even 180 degrees, at short notice. When it comes to topics that the Kremlin finds sensitive, though, adekvatnost’ matters. You can’t make a career without it. You can cover other topics however you like (even, as I’ve discussed, to the point of conspiracy), as long as the reader or viewer isn’t bored. 

April 2016: journalists at a Moscow newspaper watch "Direct Line with Vladimir Putin". (с) Aleksandr Vilf / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.At the same time, we should be clear that adekvatnost’ is not equivalent to self-censorship, when a journalist has to go out of his or her way just to present a story in a certain light. Russian journalists, particularly those who work in state media or at outlets loyal to the Kremlin, rarely ask themselves ethical questions (or face moral dilemmas) when it comes to production of news. The most important thing is to catch the correct angle on a story. 

Second, it’s important to keep both the consumer and management/owner satisfied. These are unavoidable components of “quality” journalistic material in Russia — the secret of a modern media professional, which some people even take pride in.

Regime change

The transcript of the RBC meeting reveals how media managers establish a “regime of adequacy” inside a team of professional journalists. Indeed, RBC’s new managers Elizaveta Golikova and Igor Trosnikov quickly became the authors of a new meme that indicates the new boundaries of the permissible for RBC’s journalists, who, as I mentioned above, have authored some of Russia’s most sensational corruption investigations over the past few years. 

For Golikova and Trosnikov, the line that you shouldn’t cross as a journalist is akin to the double white line that runs down the middle of the road. 

Elizaveta Golikova: Do you ever break the traffic laws? Ever gotten a ticket? Do you pay up?

RBC journalist: Yes, of course. 

Elizaveta Golikova: Well, if you drive over the solid double line, they take away your license. Does this [risk] mean you'll stop driving your car, or that you'll start traveling by plane, or maybe in something else?

RBC journalist: Where's the solid double line?

Igor Trosnikov: Unfortunately, nobody knows where the solid double line is.

It turns out that no one knows where this “double white line” is, or when and where it will move.

Instead, as the transcript makes clear, for Russian journalists, true “professionalism” lies in following certain unwritten rules to ensure you don’t cross the eternally moving “line”:

Elizaveta Golikova: And this is the road. The information space, as you all know too well, is a very sensitive place. And we all find ourselves at a catastrophically difficult moment—not just for RBC, but for the entire mass media. This difficult moment, I don't know — the traffic is at a standstill, the drivers are growing anxious, and there's a catastrophic stress overtaking the people outside and inside the cars.

Our job is to show our professionalism in such a way that the traffic is safe for the people inside and for the pedestrians [inaudible].

As Golikova makes it clear, everything comes down to what we understand by “professionalism”. This isn’t a journalist’s ability to search out lines of investigation and publish articles important for society, but to prop up the ephemeral harmony between Russian journalists and the authorities.

This relationship is overseen by Russia’s media managers, who are a key link in the chain of news production. Indeed, the managers try to avoid what their former colleagues got into trouble for previously, and to continue making profit for the outlet’s owner. 

The leading principle of Russian journalism has never been made public in such a pure form before. The significance of this transcript for society (and research) is unparalleled. Nevertheless, not everyone in Russia’s media community agreed that it should have been published.

Not in the public interest 

At the start of the conversation, Trosnikov asks his audience not to publish the discussion on social media. Indeed, after it was published, the Meduza team and the RBC journalist behind the leak were accused of breaking professional ethics. According to this interpretation, their actions were worthy of the tabloid press, not “professionals”. 

RBC’s new management stated that their call not to record the discussion or reveal the name of the speaker was a request for an “off the record” conversation. Similar scandals have happened in Russia before: in 2013, Russian business daily Kommersant published Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov’s admission as to why Vladimir Putin doesn’t say opposition politician Alexey Navalny’s name on television. And in 2014, the online portal Slon published a recording of a meeting between the new editor-in-chief of Lenta.ru and the outlet’s journalists, who had just lost their previous editor Galina Timchenko “at the owner’s request”. 

Given that emotions are running high at RBC, who’ve spent the past three months under siege (searches at Prokhorov’s company Onexim; departure of the previous management), it’d be naive to expect that the conversation wouldn’t be recorded. Moreover, as one RBC journalist told me, several of the journalists present followed their professional instincts and also recorded the conversation. 

When a newsmaker discusses a sensitive issue with a group of journalists, it’s hard to keep the most important details secret. Journalists across the world interpret the principle of “off the record” as a means to limit their ability to distribute important information to their readers and viewers.

The more Russia’s media professionals discuss the essence and principles of journalism — even if it is in the beloved form of an online “shit storm” — the clearer the core values of journalists become

Hence the constant “battle for words” between journalists and newsmakers — what can be released by the journalist from the interview and what has remain off the record. The case of RBC is hardly an exception in this regard, and is another attempt to start a discussion on professional principles, which is being held the world over. It’s just that in Russia, with its characteristic style of debate (make yourself heard, don’t listen to others), clear problems with freedom of speech and falling number of independent media, this discussion has, as usual, taken on a scandalous character. 

The team at Meduza was a particular target in this argument. Meduza has a significant number of journalists from the old Lenta.ru, which was, much like RBC, destroyed by its owner in 2014. They took the situation personally — yet again, a quality media outlet was being demolished and brought under control. Even prior to this, Meduza had actively participated in discussions over professional ethics with other journalists, pointing out how journalistic investigations should really be conducted. It was Meduza’s active position that became the argument of their opponents: while Meduza tries to act as a sounding board on ethics for Russia’s journalists, in reality, it behaves like a tabloid.

Comments from Kommersant journalist Alexander Chernykh are typical in this regard. He criticised Meduza not only for publishing the transcript of the meeting with RBC and the lack of a socially significant “hook” in the story, but also because Russian media owners would stop their discussions with journalists as a result, and this would have a direct effect on journalists’ work. Meduza, in effect, had let everyone down.

The very fact that Chernykh refers to the 2011 meeting between Kommersant journalists and owner Alisher Usmanov after editor Maxim Kovalsky was fired is revealing. This conversation was also apparently “off the record”, but the Kommersant team showed their “professionalism” and did not record the meeting, allowing, as far as Chernykh is concerned, Kommersant to continue working to this day. Ironically enough, Trosnikov, a former employee of Kommersant, also referred to the changes of ownership at Kommersant (Boris Berezovsky, Usmanov) and that everyone was used to what comes next when speaking to the RBC team.

The discussion about whether Kommersant has become more “loyal” in relation to the Kremlin over the past few years is the subject of another article. But the very fact that criticism of Meduza and RBC comes from Kommersant, a leader of post-Soviet Russian journalism, is worth exploring. 

The newspaper may be known for its telltale brand of postmodern sarcasm and irony, but throughout the post-Soviet period Kommersant has stood out for its capacity to compromise and support the authorities — whether it was the presidential elections of 1996, special correspondent Andrei Kolesnikov’s integration into Kremlin life in the 2000s, the particular way it covered Yevgeny Primakov’s u-turn over the Atlantic in 1999, or the deletion of a comment made by an aide to deputy prime minister Igor Shuvalov over recent allegations that the minister’s family was buying up property in central Moscow. All of this is evidence of Kommersant’s “adequacy”.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that Chernykh’s reply refers to the “unprofessionalism” of the RBC and Meduza journalists who recorded the material — these people aren’t adequate.

On the other hand, Meduza is an example of a different kind of Russian journalism — the behaviour of their journalists is strikingly different from the majority of Russian media. In contrast to other outlets, the previous Lenta.ru team had a charter, the so-called “manual”, according to which the outlet operated. Galina Timchenko, unlike her counterparts, continues to keep her distance from the powers that be — which is probably why she lost her job at Lenta in 2014. 

Back then, Lenta.ru journalists showed solidarity with Timchenko, and resigned in protest against their editor’s departure. The small, but principled collective at Meduza, as well as their location abroad, creates an opportunity for Meduza not just to be “inadequate”. Against the opinions of the majority of their colleagues, Meduza journalists forget where the “double white lines” lie, provoking arguments amongst their “professional” colleagues. After all, the transcript revealed how the process of degradation begins at a media outlet, which is, undoubtedly, worthy of the public’s attention.

The very fact that this scandal has been discussed demonstrates not only the current polarisation of opinion in Russia’s media community. It is also a sign that this community is gradually evolving.

For this reason or that, the majority of Russian journalists are striving towards adekvatnost', as the history of post-Soviet media has taught them. However, the more Russia’s media professionals discuss the essence and principles of journalism — even if it is in the beloved form of an online “shit storm” — the clearer the core values of journalists become, and the closer Russian journalism will come to meeting world standards.

Want to know more about how media works in the post-Soviet space? Follow our Beyond propaganda section.

About the author

Ilya Yablokov teaches Russian politics, history and media at the University of Leeds. His research interests include conspiracy theories, nation building and politics in post-Soviet Russia, the history of post-Soviet journalism and international broadcasting. His article ‘Conspiracy Theories as a Russian Public Diplomacy Tool: The Case of Russia Today’ has recently been published in Politics. He tweets @ilya_yablokov.


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