Misled by elites? Not every journalist

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.

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Restoration work on a church in Rostov Veliky, northern Russia, June 2008. Photo: James Rodgers

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

 

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The cabinet’s clumsy diplomacy — and Britain’s place in the modern world

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I wrote last week for The New European on the way that Britain’s confrontational political culture does not necessarily travel well — with consequences for the coming Brexit negotiations. There’s an extract here.

I was in Aarhus for a meeting of the Erasmus Journalism programme on which I teach. As a former correspondent who has always loved travel and languages, there was plenty to interest me: discussion of how we can make the programme work better across different countries, observation of differences of culture and interpretation.

Yet these are things we have come to value less in the UK. Yes, there is the talk of a ‘truly global Britain’, but this is an empty phrase. It is thrown around too frequently by people who too often say ‘we’ve been fine on our own before, and we will be again’. They are often thinking of Britain’s imperial past. A common failing of the Brexiteer is to fail to understand Britain’s place in the modern world.

David Davis has some Ministerial experience in the Foreign Office, but that was more than 20 years ago. His recent meetings with EU officials did not give the impression he had the necessary relationships for smooth negotiations. Liam Fox’s most prominent international connections were with the Atlantic Bridge – a link to Tea Party activists. None of their biographies lists a foreign language among their skills. Any good will which Boris Johnson may have built up in that respect by speaking in French last summer has been more than outweighed since by less diplomatic interventions on prosecco trade wars and WW2 punishment beatings.

The Brexiteers are acting as if they are masters of their own destiny, using that imagined power to wield their weapons of political confrontation abroad. Our political culture does not necessarily travel well. Prime Minister’s questions may make for great TV, but the way our MPs taunt each other like football hooligans – remember the old point about two swords’ length between the benches in parliament – reflects an underlying aggression which may not deliver the best results across the channel and beyond.

You can read the rest of the article in the March 10-16 edition of ‘The New European’.

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.