"I'm no hero, but it's time to call a spade a spade" — Parfyonov

On Thursday evening, prominent TV journalist Leonid Parfyonov broke with the etiquette of live award ceremonies, and made an unannounced and sensational attack on the state of Russian journalism. Russian TV bosses have become slaves to government bureaucrats, he said, and in so doing are complicit in the recent wave of violence against journalists. Here we publish a transcript of his speech.

This morning I visited Oleg Kashin in hospital. He’s just had another operation, which has literally and metaphorically restored the face of Russian journalism. The brutal beating of this Kommersant correspondent has provoked a much stronger response in society and professional circles than any other previous attempt on the life and health of Russian journalists.  Of course, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that the response of the federal TV channels was dictated from above,  since the tone of immediate response from the President [Dmitry Medvedev] was quite different from the way the last head of government [Vladimir Putin] responded to the killing of Anna Politkovskaya.

"Kashin's recent work focused on protest movements and the opposition ... which are unthinkable subjects for Russian TV journalism" (in Russian)

Before he was attacked, Oleg Kashin was clearly a nonentity as far as the national airwaves were concerned. His most recent work focused on radical opposition groups, protest movements and youth street leaders, issues that are simply unthinkable for television. Although this apparently marginal community is beginning to effect changes in the social situation and to forge new trends, Kashin simply does not have an equivalent among television journalists. There was Andrei Loshak but he has long since moved onto the Internet. 

"Media stories, and with them all of life, now fall into two immutable categories:  those that can be broadcast on television and those that cannot."

Following some genuine and alleged sins in the 1990s and 2000s, “federal” television was nationalized with two aims – first in order to eliminate the media oligarchy and second to create a united front in the war on terror. Media stories, and with them all of life, now fall into two immutable categories:  those that can be broadcast on television and those that cannot. Every politically significant broadcast is read as an indication of the state’s goals and intentions, of its mood and attitude, its friends and foes. Institutionally this is not even information but rather state PR or anti-PR, as we have seen in the media assault leading up to Luzhkov’s dismissal. And, then of course, there is the state’s self-promoting PR.

These days a national TV channel correspondent’s top bosses are not newsmakers but his boss’s bosses. Institutionally such a correspondent is no longer a journalist but rather a state official following the logic of service and subordination.  For example, one cannot conduct an interview in the true sense of the word with a boss’s boss since that would reveal someone who does not wish to be revealed. Andrei Kolesnikov’s interview with Vladimir Putin in a yellow Lada Kalina conveys the Prime Minister’s self-confidence, how he feels about 2012 and his unfamiliarity with less pleasant topics. But can we imagine a domestic TV journalist such as Kolesnikov asking Putin the following question – and having the answer broadcast on national television: why have you pushed Mikhail Khodorkovsky into a corner?

"These days a national TV channel correspondent’s top bosses are not newsmakers but his boss’s bosses."

This was another example from Kommersant – sometimes one gets the impression that the Russia presented by the leading national current affairs newspaper (hardly a programmatically oppositionist paper) is a different country from the Russia seen on national television channels.  The [State Duma] Speaker Gryzlov has basically suggested that the leading business paper Vedomosti aids and abets terrorists – in the usual context of Russian media, particularly television. The support enjoyed by the current President and Prime Minister is estimated at around 75%. On the national airwaves no critical, sceptical or ironic comments about them are allowed.  Of the full spectrum of public opinion up to a quarter is being silenced. The country’s leaders are treated as the deceased: you only speak well of them or not speak of them at all. At the same time the audience clearly thirsts for other opinions, as demonstrated by the fuss caused by the almost single exception, the TV broadcast of a discussion between Yuri Shevchuk and Vladimir Putin.

Evergreen are the methods familiar to anyone who has experienced the USSR Central Television. Instead of reports we get the official record of a “Kremlin meeting”, where the text is enhanced by “correct delivery”. Information is presented in line with an established canon: the country’s leader receives a minister or a regional leader, he goes among the people, he holds a summit with a foreign colleague. These are not news – these are “olds”, rehearsing the requisite broadcasting formulae. A presentation does not need to be information-driven: any fruit will look lovely in a thinned out garden patch if only it appears on screen regularly enough.

"A journalist does not get beaten up because of what he has written, said or filmed. He gets beaten up because it has been read, heard or seen."

 

I speak with bitterness, having worked for Russian television full-time or freelance for 24 years. I have no right to blame any of my colleagues: not being a hero myself, I cannot demand heroic deeds from others. But the least we can do is call a spade a spade.  Current affairs programmes on television are doubly embarrassing when compared to the obvious successes of big TV shows and our homegrown school of soap opera. Our television is getting increasingly sophisticated at providing thrills, fascination, entertainment and at making us laugh, but it hardly deserves the title of a civic social and political institution. I am convinced that one of the main reasons for a dramatic fall in viewing figures among the most active part of the population is the fact that people from our circles are saying: why should I turn on the box, they’re not doing it for me!

What is even worse is that most people no longer have any need for journalism.  He got beaten up, so what?  All sorts of people get beaten up these days, so why all this fuss just because of a reporter?  Judging by this type of bewildered response millions of people in our country do not understand that a journalist takes professional risks for the sake of his audience. A journalist does not get beaten up because of what he has written, said or filmed. He gets beaten up because it has been read, heard or seen.

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About Leonid Parfynov

Leonid Parfyonov was at one point one of the most recognizable faces on Russian TV. In 2004, he was controversially removed from his post as NTV news anchor following an interview with the widow of a Chechen rebel leader. From 2004 to 2007 he served as the editor of Russian Newsweek, during which time the publication enjoyed a reputation of editorial integrity and journalistic excellence. He remains a prominent figure on the Russian media landscape.