This is the first part of an essay which I wrote for the current issue of the ‘British Journalism Review’. Based on my experiences reporting from Russia in the 1990s, and partly as a response to concerns raised by Channel 4’s Jon Snow in his 2017 McTaggart Lecture it argues that not all journalists are too close to political elites — especially foreign correspondents in countries where the elites don’t want to to talk to them. That gives them insights often denied to their better connected counterparts.
THE MISSED AND MISUNDERSTOOD STORIES of Brexit, and Donald Trump’s triumph in the US presidential election – as well as political correspondents’ failure to predict Theresa May losing her parliamentary majority last year – have all led to soul-searching about whether journalists are too close to the elite. In his MacTaggart Lecture at last year’s Edinburgh Television Festival, Jon Snow described his own background and said: “We are comfortably with the elite, with little awareness, contact, or connection with those not of the elite.”
Foreign correspondents often come into closer contact with those “not of the elite”. While the political upper class may want to talk to foreign media to get their international message across, these are more likely to be rare, set-piece events. In consequence, reporters overseas seek out other stories – those of the ordinary people who will more readily speak to them. Ryszard Kapuscinski was famous for this approach. It was also one often followed by western reporters in Russia in the early post-Soviet era.
It may seem strange, in this era of confrontation between the UK and Russia, to write this, but I have Vladimir Putin to thank for the experience which has led me to develop the argument I am going to put forward here. For it was during his own formative years as a politician – Russia’s troubled 1990s – that we western journalists based in Russia were left largely to our own devices. Senior politicians did occasionally give interviews, but the often chaotic world of Boris Yeltsin’s administration meant that they had plenty of their own worries to deal with.
This was when a large part of the political elite were keen to show that they were breaking from the Soviet past, promoting a western-style idea of a free press, a “fourth estate” permitted to speak truth to power. Russian journalists enjoyed then freedoms unknown before or since. We did, too.
The restrictions on travel which had been part of the Soviet police state were mostly gone. Travelling close to military installations without permission was an exception, as I discovered in 2009 when the FSB arrested my colleagues and me for visiting some glasshouses which happened to be about 20km from a naval dockyard.
Kept at a distance from the Kremlin’s innermost power struggles – as foreigners generally have been throughout Russian history (remember Churchill’s “Kremlin political intrigues are comparable to a bulldog fight under a rug. An outsider only hears the growling, and when he sees the bones fly out from beneath it is obvious who won”) – and allowed to explore the biggest country on earth, we had the chance to learn more than other generations of western journalists covering Russia. Going somewhere that your news organisation has never been before is always a help pitching a story, and travel – thanks to the troubled rouble – could be incredibly cheap. The weak currency did throw up some absurdities. One flight from St Petersburg to Moscow is memorable because the sandwiches in the airport café cost almost the same as the plane tickets.
With air travel literally as cheap as chips, and Russia’s overnight trains even cheaper, we took advantage. There was then a huge appetite for learning about Russia, with which we were enjoying much better relations. That has changed since. As I write this in late March, the talk – following the poisoning in Salisbury of the Russian former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter – turns to tension between Moscow and London. The foreign ministry spokeswoman in Moscow has warned that British journalists will be expelled from Russia should RT (the Kremlin-backed channel formerly known as Russia Today) be closed down in the UK.
It was different then. In the late 1990s, colleagues and I travelled to Siberia to do a story on forest fires; to the far north east, above the Arctic circle, where blocks of flats, abandoned after their residents’ jobs went with the collapse of the planned economy, were being buried by massive snowdrifts. With Allan Little, I produced for the BBC’s Newsnight a lengthy report on how people of the southern Russian town of Rostov-on-Don coped with an economy that had largely ceased to function: workers at one of Russia’s biggest agricultural machinery factories got jars of gherkins instead of wages.
On that first trip to Siberia we also interviewed a coming strongman in Russian politics, the Afghan war veteran Alexander Lebed, then governor of Krasnoyarsk. He later died in a helicopter crash, but his growing popularity provided a clue to the direction Russia might later take. The consequence of these trips was that we saw how the country was changing.
It was not changing in the way that many people in the west hoped.
You can read the full article in the current issue of the British Journalism Review