The election wot ‘The Sun’ never won

 

The influence of the media tycoon, Rupert Murdoch, on British politics is a subject discussed at every UK General election. Earlier this month, when the Conservative Party failed to win a parliamentary majority despite his newspapers’ support, I wrote a piece for The Conversation, arguing that the result marked an important moment in British press history. Here are the first couple of paragraphs; a link to the full story follows below.

Britain’s tabloid press is by turns rude, cruel, and funny. To politicians, it is often all three. As voters in the UK went to the polls on June 8, the newsstands offered strong support for Theresa May – and a picture of Jeremy Corbyn in a dustbin.

The prime minister’s political opponents took to social media during the campaign, urging young people to vote. The fact plenty of them seem to have done so may prove to be a factor in the shock result. If so, those social media messages are likely to have been a much greater influence than the slogans and insults of a printed press. Young people tend to read newspapers much less than their elders do.

Failure to understand the nature of change in business or politics leads to defeat, perhaps disaster.

You can read the rest of the article here.

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FACING THE FACTS: REPORTING WITH RESTRICTIONS

Reuters’ Editor-in-Chief’s message to staff, ‘Covering Trump the Reuters Way’, raised  plenty of questions about how journalists should work with the new U.S. administration. I took on some of them for a piece this week on The Conversation

IT WAS HIGH SUMMER ON THE EDGE OF SIBERIA and suddenly there came the hardest question of a tough assignment. I had travelled to Yekaterinburg for a story about the spread of HIV. The city’s location made it a crossroads for the trade in many goods, including heroin. As a result, HIV infection rates were rising frighteningly rapidly among drug users. The trip involved encounters with sources, many of whom were distressed – some of whom who were frankly scary. But it was questions from the journalism students who were with us that really stumped me.

The questions – including the size of my salary – were largely predictable. One was not: “What do you do when the governor does not like a story you have written?”

The obvious answer from a Western reporter might have been something about the noble notion of the fourth estate speaking the truth to power. But I knew that such an answer would not work in the lawless Russia of the post-Soviet era. Journalists – especially those who uncovered incompetence or corruption among the powerful – could find themselves in serious, even mortal, danger. So I offered a reply which blended the ideal with a more realistic point

You can read the rest of the piece here

Reflections on 2016, and 1991: two revolutionary years

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A monument to Vladimir Lenin, USSR, 1991 ©James Rodgers

‘DO YOU KNOW WHAT THE USSR WAS?’ asked the Ukrainian I had got talking to in London.

The USSR was many things to me — although I think it has taken a quarter of a century for me fully to understand something of what it was to others.

‘Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive/ But to be young was very heaven!’ wrote Wordsworth in ‘The French Revolution as It Appeared to Enthusiasts at Its Commencement’. That is how it felt to me to be in Moscow in 1991. I was in my 20s, and on my first foreign assignment as a TV producer, for the Visnews agency.

Russia’s post-Soviet revolution was ‘at its commencement’. For someone of my generation, who had spent their teenage years worrying whether the acceleration of the nuclear arms race in Europe was going to lead to conflict, the end of the Cold War between East and West was indeed blissful. The excitement of being on assignment in Moscow as a young journalist ‘was very heaven’. The world as I had known it all my life was changing forever, and I was there to see it.

What I — and the other young western journalists I met, and who were in some cases to become lifelong friends — saw that summer seemed good. Especially in the Soviet capital, we saw a population enthusiastic for change — brave enough, when the time came, to stand with sticks against tanks to defend it. They faced down a coup attempt by hardliners in August 1991 . Later that year, and 25 years ago this month, the Soviet Union formally ceased to exist. Back in London, I was in the newsroom on Christmas Day when Mikhail Gorbachev went on air in Moscow to resign, and the red flag was lowered from the Kremlin.

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The Kremlin, summer 1991, with the Red flag of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics flying. © James Rodgers

For some Cold Warriors in the west, that was victory. For one prominent American academic, this was — absurdly, it is now clear — the ‘end of history’. For those of us who spend a lot of time reporting from Russia in the 1990s, it came to be something else: the beginning of an age of great hardship, uncertainty, and humiliation for millions of people in Russia, and other parts of the former USSR.

‘We keep on failing to understand the nature of the trauma that hit all Russians in 1991,’ Sir Rodric Braithwaite, the last British Ambassador to the USSR, told an audience at Chatham House 20 years later. Policy makers did not understand well the possible political consequences of that trauma either — at least until it was too late.

For it was in those days that the wrath of post-Soviet Russia was being nursed. It came to adulthood in the annexation of Ukraine, and, on the wider global stage, in the Middle East. The end of history mindset seemed to have prevailed among policy makers, too — again until it was too late. When relations with Russia turned bad, there were not enough people who understood why. ‘What’s really lacking in all these theatres is sufficient people who are deep experts on the language and the region to actually produce the options to ministers,’ complained Rory Stewart, then Chair of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee, in a 2014 interview with Prospect Magazine , as Russia cemented its hold over Ukraine.

Experts: in 2014, a senior Conservative politician said they were lacking; in 2016, another, Michael Gove, said Britain had ‘had enough’ of them.

Many disagreed — but enough were persuaded to accept the case made by Mr Gove and his fellow ‘Leave’ campaign leaders that Britain should leave the European Union.

That is one of the ways in which 2016 has helped me understand 1991. Now, in middle age, I have a perspective on how it must have felt for Russians in their 40s and 50s to see their country go to hell, taking with it all they had known.

This year, it has been the turn of my country to have a revolution — for that is what ‘Brexit’ is — and head off in an unknown direction. Not even those who most fervently sought this turn of events can claim that it has been adequately prepared for.

As a foreign correspondent in the 1990s and 2000s, I saw other people’s political systems fall apart. Both in the former USSR, and in the Middle East, this led on occasion to wars which cost countless thousands of lives. There is no prospect now of war in Western Europe, although that was the way we chose for centuries to settle our disputes. It is not simply coincidence that the era of the European Union has also been an age of peace.

The signs of other times are still there to see. As a frequent visitor to both Scotland and Denmark, my seaside walks lead me past Second World War fortifications scarring the beaches on the North Sea coast.

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World War Two defences on the coast of East Lothian, Scotland, October 2016 ©James Rodgers

Will Europe ever be as divided again in my lifetime? As Christopher Clark wrote in the introduction to his excellent 2014 book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to War in 1914, ‘what must strike any twenty-first-century reader who follows the course of the summer crisis of 1914 is its raw modernity.’ He continued, ‘Since the end of the Cold War, a system of global bipolar stability has made way for a more complex and unpredictable array of forces.’

That’s why we need good journalism. Those of us western journalists who lived in Russia in the 1990s understood very well the reasons for Vladimir Putin’s rise to power (I wrote about this at greater length in a recent piece for The Conversation).

So, yes, I did know the USSR. A quarter of a century later, I know this, too: like the USSR,  nothing lasts forever. Blissful dawns do not necessarily lead to sunny afternoons, or peaceful evenings. The demagogues who have tasted victory in 2016’s tumult would do well to remember that.

 

 

 

 

 

A Trump victory: Russia’s revenge?

WRITE ABOUT TODAY. People will be asking you about this in 25 years time,’ I suggested on Wednesday to some of my MA International Journalism students at City, University of London. They were exhausted, having worked through the night to produce excellent coverage of the potentially world-changing events across the Atlantic. Some, themselves from the United States, had the experience of watching from afar as journalists something which will undoubtedly affect them as citizens.

Two issues among the many which will now be discussed are the effect Mr Trump’s victory will have on U.S. foreign policy, and what his win means for those established media organizations who failed to foresee it, and who cannot expect favourable treatment, even in terms of access, from the incoming President.

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The Soviet Foreign Ministry building in Moscow, June 1991. © James Rodgers

My world — and that of my generation — changed with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the collapse of the USSR. The latter was my first foreign assignment as a journalist. This week I have written two pieces for The Conversation reflecting on Russia’s role in the world today: both in terms of politics and media.

In one,  I argue that Mr Trump’s victory is also a victory for Russia’s opposition to western, liberal, values — an enmity which has its roots in the end of the Cold War. In the other, I contend that Russia Today, or ‘RT’ as it now prefers to be known, is a successful part of Russia’s drive to regain some of the prestige and influence it lost with the collapse of Communism. Its success is a challenge to western ideas journalism as an impartial fourth estate — at a time when that kind of journalism is under unprecedented pressure.

To see what a divisive issue Russia remains, you have only to look at the comments

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Copies of the Communist Party newspaper, ‘Pravda’, from the last summer of the Soviet Union

Drawn swords in the digital age: #Whittingdale

Earlier this week, the UK Culture Secretary,  John Whittingdale, faced allegations about his private life. Specifically, how the newspapers’ decision whether or not to report the story might affect his role as minister with responsibility for the press. I wrote an article for The Conversation trying to place the controversy in its historical context as part of a battle between authority and the news media. You can read that here, and a version follows below.

THE WORDS are those of weapons and power, whether real or metaphorical. Today, political opponents of the Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale, suggest that he has been subject to a ‘sword of Damocles’ over a relationship with a sex worker.

In 2010, the then Business Secretary, Vince Cable, announced to undercover reporters that he had ‘declared war’ on Rupert Murdoch. In the 1990s, the Conservative Cabinet minister, Jonathan Aitken, promised to fight with ‘the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of fair play’ to ‘cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism’ – yet it was he who came off second best in the end. Earlier in the last century, Stanley Baldwin – frustrated with the newspaper tycoons of his age – accused them of seeking ‘power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot through the ages.’

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A casualty in an earlier battle between press and power? The last edition of the ‘News of the World’, 2011

The common theme in this warlike talk is the battle between political power and the news media — in whatever form. As far back as the 15th century, the Tudors, coming to the throne with a questionable claim to the crown, made sure that they controlled the chroniclers, and the printing press, as closely as possible. These were the new media of their day — and the Tudors understood that they had to make the best possible use of them.

This meant, broadly speaking, two things: accept that the media had their uses, and also, that the successful exercise of power required a degree of control.

Tudor courtiers had far greater sanction at their disposal than modern ministers or their spin doctors. Even the most draconian contemporary advocate of press regulation would not argue for torture or mutilation (although the stocks might still find their supporters).

Our contemporary notions of the role of the press in political life tend to be based on the idea that it is a Fourth Estate — an integral part of a functioning democracy. Its role is to question and hold to account those in power — even to the extent of sometimes causing their downfall. The heroic determination, and ultimate success, of the Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, are often seen as an inspirational example of this kind of journalism. Watergate gave journalism the “gate” suffix without which no scandal is now complete.

The reality of the relationship between political power and press power is rarely so clear cut. As a former BBC journalist, I tried to imagine the discussions which might have gone on last year at the Corporation when Downing Street refused a one-to-one television debate between David Cameron and Ed Miliband.

BBC guidelines state that “the refusal of an individual or an organisation to make a contribution should not be allowed to act as a veto on the appearance of other contributors holding different views, or on the programme itself”. So the BBC could have “empty chaired” the prime minister, as TV current affairs slang has it. This would have been radical — and extreme. It would have been a moment in TV history. It would also have been very unwise from a BBC which already expected few favours from a future Conservative government.

The case of the culture secretary’s relationship with a sex worker raises anew many eternal issues. Has the story remained largely unreported for editorial reasons, or is it the [latest weaponisation of politically sensitive information?

The question will continue to be discussed. Cable, after declaring war on the Murdoch empire, was eventually withdrawn from the battlefield, having his responsibility for the case taken away.

Alongside the continuity from previous ages of battle between power and the press, there is also change. Recent cases concerning the private lives of celebrities have shown that even the most strictly worded injunctions struggle today to keep scandals entirely out of the public domain. Social media have seen to that. That being the case, what is the real power of press regulation? And who, in the age of the MP’s expenses scandal, and the Panama Papers, really trusts the political establishment?

Both the news media and the political establishment are subject to digital disruption — the latest factor in the battle between press and power.

Ukraine: politics, and football

The thirst which came with being trapped in a huge crowd on a late summer day, and the excitement of change — unprecedented, and, until shortly before, unforeseen — are the two strongest memories of that day.

Two things which have happened this week have brought those memories back. The first was the latest round of political uncertainty in Ukraine. The second was a football match.

In September 1991, Visnews, the TV news agency for which I was then working, sent me to Kiev. The city was then still capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. I can only understand a little Ukrainian, but I think this press pass says ‘3-10 September’.

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However hard you try to plan for what is going to happen, most foreign correspondents know that success is often a result of luck as well as judgment. I was fortunate that hot day because I did get a front row seat — actually, in spectating terms, it was really a cramped standing space — as history unfolded.  I filmed the Soviet-era flag being lowered from the flag pole on the top of the Ukrainian parliament. It was replaced by the yellow and blue — for cornfields and sun — which still flies today.

In a 2014 essay for the Wall Street Journal, Serhii Plokhy, author of several acclaimed books on Ukraine and Eastern Europe, wrote of the confrontation between Russia and Ukraine, ‘The roots of today’s crisis go back to the last days of the Soviet Union.’

An underestimation then of what those last days meant still has consequences today. Ukraine became the focus of the most serious crisis in Russia’s relations with the West since the Cold War. In choosing to challenge the West by annexing Crimea, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, has shown an excellent understanding of his constituency.

For the many years I lived in Moscow after the end of the Soviet Union, a mention to a Muscovite of an upcoming trip to Ukraine might prompt the response, half-joking perhaps, ‘Tell them to give us back Crimea.’

On my travels around the former Soviet Union — often linked, as the news agenda goes, to reporting on armed conflict, I was struck by the number of people who still thought of themselves as Soviet. The USSR had collapsed politically and economically, but it still existed culturally.

This was not always well enough understood in the West, but Mr Putin and his supporters understood it very well, and have exploited it. Remembering now that sunny day — the picture with Professor Plokhy’s article was taken then, I think — it is hard not to regret the passing of the euphoria and optimism that radiated from that crowd.

‘We wanted the best, but it turned out like always,’ as Russia’s post-Soviet Prime Minister, later ambassador to Ukraine, Viktor Chernomyrdin, once observed. He was reflecting on the roughness of Russian life in the 1990s, but his words describe pretty well Russia’s current relations with the West.

25 years on from that hot afternoon, Ukraine is not the place that crowd hoped it would be. Watching the UEFA Champions League on TV the other evening, I saw the Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko, among the spectators for Dynamo Kyiv against Manchester City. Mr Poroshenko was surrounded by men — presumably his body guards — in military fatigues: their clothes a reminder of the conflict in the east of the country.

I have supported Manchester City since long before the end of the Soviet Union. For years, I never imagined they would enjoy the success they do today. Both as a football fan, and foreign correspondent, you get used to the fact that everything changes — though rarely in ways you expect.