4 April 2017

How the Kremlin puts its spin on world affairs

By Mark Almond

Last week, there was a small post-Soviet crisis in the Slovak media. The country’s state news agency signed on with Russia’s Sputnik to acquire access to its global resources. Within 24 hours, an outcry from Bratislava to Brussels about subordinating Slovakia’s news media to the old master in Moscow had caused a reversal of course.

Was this just a storm in a Slovak teacup, or the harbinger of media wars to come?

The United States is obsessed at the moment (at least inside the Beltway) with the question of how far Vladimir Putin pulled multimedia strings to influence the outcome of last year’s presidential election. Disinformation, that old Soviet stock-in-trade of the Cold War propaganda battles before 1989, has suddenly become a meme in our post-modern media.

Did Russian outlets and trolls operating in English and on the internet decisively shift the balance between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton? Were carefully planted “fake news” stories able to steer US voters from one candidate to another at the Kremlin’s behest?

These are fascinating but unanswerable questions. And worse, they still distract attention from the profound technological and economic forces gnawing away at the viability of the Western media model.

Propaganda is only effective if it chimes with what the people it targets are thinking and experiencing. Even with total domestic media control, the Soviet regime was increasingly unable to convince more and more of its subjects of the justice of its cause.

Anyone in the West old enough to remember the stilted vocabulary of Radio Moscow or the hilarious cult of Enver Hoxha coming on the shortwave from Tirana knows how counter-productive Communist agitprop was.

But lending an ear to today’s post-Communist – but state-funded – global broadcasters from Moscow or Beijing reveals a dramatic lessening of the gap between Western presentation and theirs.

What is striking is that Russian and Chinese governments, not to mention Qatar’s, are willing to invest hundreds of millions in news channels broadcasting in English and other languages at the very time that Western commercial news media are cutting back broadcasts and languages.

Commercial pressures weaken the viability of international news media. A glance at CNN’s advertising reveals that much of it is (foreign) state-sponsored slots promoting a particular state. Euronews similarly has a line in “postcards” from states whose reputation as happy holiday playgrounds leaves something to be desired.

Russia’s RT, China’s CCTV or Qatar’s Al Jazeera are rapidly supplanting the old American satellite channels. Even the BBC’s licence-fee and taxpayer base struggles to keep up, especially in countries where English is the second language so native fluency is not essential.

So the challenge Western media face today is very different from countering Cold War propaganda – when in any case, Soviet propaganda wasn’t very good at reaching over the Iron Curtain into Western homes and offices.

Back in 2015, the BBC produced a report on the “Future of News” which argued that local newspapers had collapsed as the internet took off, and that – in the interests of serving the public – the BBC itself should fill the void. It provoked howls of outrage from local publishers, not least because of the impact the BBC’s own multi-platform presence had had on their own revenue models.

This process is now repeating itself on a global level. Well-funded media behemoths with no worries about budgets or profitability can put commercial global news media under severe stress, because new technology cuts profitability even more than costs.

This is the deeper existential issue confronting Western media as foreign-funded news and internet platforms invade their home space: how far has the very success of the Western economic model in toppling state socialism from East Berlin to the border of North Korea also undermined the viability of much of the Western media?

Free and diverse media are essential both to political liberty and the effective functioning of the free market. But that mix is being poisoned by a toxic combination of technological change and economic pressures at home, as the intrusion of state-funded news media from outside pushes alternative narratives and disquieting lines of enquiry.

And if even large media markets like the US, or Britain, France or Germany, are vulnerable to well-funded competitors from outside, spare a thought for the local media in the 20 or so newly independent states which have appeared across the old Communist bloc since 1991 – or the Third World.

Ex-Communist countries are often not only small but also poor. What made Sputnik’s offerings attractive to the Slovak news agency wasn’t that it was run by an old Communist plant, but that media markets of five million or fewer news consumers need cheap content – masses of it, at very competitive rates.

Imagine if Kent or Norfolk went independent and wanted to provide 24-hour news. Where could they get material, except from a residual BBC in London? (Scotland could face a similar problem of sourcing programming if it splits from the rest of the UK.)

This irony is what Marxists call – or used to call, when there were still any disciples of old Karl outside Jeremy Corbyn’s office – a “dialectical contradiction”. Marketisation promotes competition and that pushes down prices. It ought to push costs down further – but in the post-modern market economy, the intensification of the pace of technological change means that media firms need constant investment to stay abreast of new platforms.

In the good old days, newspapers occasionally brought new printing presses and changed their layouts, but their classic appearance was part of their appeal and identity. Today a media platform which becomes staid is a loss-maker as audiences migrate in search of novelty.

Newspapers rushed to offer access free on the new internet in the early 2000s. But journalism remains labour intensive and expensive. Without a sugar daddy or a state sponsor, newsgathering becomes viable in niches, but not at a global level.

Even if RT’s reach is much-disputed – and any ability to create mass ideological conversion via YouTube clips probably exaggerated – it is the shape of things to come.

Let’s allow that much of its US coverage in 2015-16 through the primary season to Trump’s election was focused on anti-Wall Street groups like Occupy. If RT was preaching to a candidate’s potential backers it was more likely move Democrat voters to Bernie Saunders from Hillary Clinton than to swing them to a billionaire like Trump.

But Russia has limited appeal as a model. We buy energy, gold, caviar and wheat from them (this last is at least an improvement on the Soviet system, which imported grain). But Russia lacks so-called “soft power”.

China, however, has the potential for massive soft power. Go into any European, American or Australasian shop and try to find basic household goods or electronics not predominantly from China. Chinese food is global. CCTV’s English-language channel targets African Anglophone audiences with specialised news and documentaries as well Euro-Atlantic ones.

The reason why the West wasn’t vulnerable to Soviet propaganda was that our market economy offered benefits that residents of Moscow could only dream about. In the Third World, China’s road to fast growth and consumerism now looks like one worth copying to many people emerging from rural poverty.

Brezhnev-era dissidents in Moscow used to joke that an optimist was someone learning English while a pessimist was learning Chinese. Today, the media in China, Russia and elsewhere are saving us the trouble – because they not only speak our language, but can afford to get a hearing here and now.

Mark Almond is a historian. His book 'Secular Turkey: A Short History' will be published in April