By John Helmer in Moscow
On February 24, at the headquarters of Russia’s state media, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visited the offices of Russia Today, an English-language cable and satellite broadcaster. He was escorted by Svetlana Mironyuk, the head of the Russian News and Information Agency (RIA-Novosti), an administrative holding for state media; in the Russian administrative jargon, the holding is a “federal state unitary enterprise”, without shareholdings, fully funded from the state budget.
Her boss, Mikhail Seslavinsky, head of the Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communications (FARMS, aka Rospechat), wasn’t reported to be in attendance. But then Putin wasn’t visiting for long. Actually, fifteen minutes — according to Moscow News, a weekly tabloid in English, which is also funded and managed by the state from an office in the same complex, a stone’s throw from the Foreign Ministry.
Mironyuk has headed the state news agency since 2003; before that she worked for Vladimir Gusinsky’s Most media group, and survived his downfall. Her agency began before she was born, in 1941, as an information outlet for the Communist Party’s Central Committee, focusing on reporting from the war fronts. By the war’s end, it was running media outlets, including newspapers, magazines and radio stations, in more than 20 countries. The target audience had shifted from domestic to foreign.
In 1961, the two audiences were combined in a mission charter that aimed “to contribute to mutual understanding, trust and friendship among peoples in every possible way by broadly publishing accurate information about the USSR abroad and familiarizing the Soviet public with the life of the peoples of foreign countries.” During Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika, the charter was modified to democratize the media themselves. The Gorbachev mission statement of 1990 said the new agency was “to provide information support for the USSR’s state domestic and foreign policies and proceeding from the interests of the democratization of the mass media.” At the time, the agency was running an extraordinary number of bureaux in 120 countries.
Whether the media output was propaganda, or accurate news reporting, depended on which side of the Cold War and the Iron Curtain you were on. When the curtain came down on the Soviet Union, according to Mironyuk’s agency website, “the main criteria of RIA Novosti’s information services were the combination of promptness, objectiveness, authenticity and its own opinion regardless of the political situation.”
Seslavinsky has been the head of government’s press agency since 2004. Before that, when there was a separate Ministry for Press, Television, Radio, and Mass Communications, he was first deputy minister. Before that, Seslavinsky had been a deputy in the State Duma representing the district where he was born, in the Nizhny Novgorod region. According to Finance Ministry officials, and members of the Duma committees supervising the state media, the budget for RIA-Novosti’s media operations is drafted by Mironyuk, and submitted to Seslavinsky for approval.
State media used to be proud of their provenance — in Russia no less than counterparts like the Voice of America, the British Broadcasting Corporation and Deutsche Welle. They were part of the Cold War fight for hearts and minds, when propaganda (and truth) were thought to be a powerful weapon of influence – on both sides.
There was also the secret side of that media war – the so-called “active measures”. When Putin was a KGB novice learning spycraft, he was taught that “active measures” (“activnie meropriatiya” in Russian) were techniques and tactics of deception, intended to convince an adversary of something he would otherwise be unlikely to believe. That might mean disinformation, or misinformation; it also might mean the truth.
American and British audiences have proved to be such gullible victims of the deception operations of their own governments, they have often failed to credit the truth, particularly when it came from the other side. The Blair-Bush lie about Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction”, and President Lyndon Johnson’s lie about the Tonkin Gulf attack by North Vietnamese gunboats are the most famous, and also the most costly, active measures perpetrated by the western powers in recent history. They make the lie perpetrated by the Anglo-American organs that Russia provoked, or caused, last year’s war with Georgia piddling by comparison. That was also a lie that didn’t pass the credibility test for long.
It’s natural for state-funded media to claim they play a significant role in persuading foreign audiences of home truths, if only to justify their substantial annual budgets and keep their jobs. But if noone is watching, listening to, or reading these media, that’s hardly a claim that can be justified. If international sentiment quickly concluded that Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili not only started last summer’s attack on South Ossetia, but did so with prompting and approval of the Bush Administration, which then abandoned him to defeat and destruction, did the Russian media play a significant role in getting the truth of the matter understood and believed outside Russia?
The answer doesn’t have to probe the sensitive zone between dozens of millions of hearts and minds. It is a simple measurement statistic: if noone, or almost noone, was watching or listening to the Russian state media, then that’s the number of people who were persuaded. Zero rating — zero persuasion — zero value. This also reflects the hoary doctrine that had the ancient Greeks and Romans worried about the meaning of life, and the future of their souls: ex nihilo nihil fit – nothing comes out of nothing.
In modern media business, you can forget the existential stuff, and stick to the bottom-line, where the wolf and the money are. If you don’t have a rating, your house gets blown down, and you get eaten.
Of course, for state media that cannot show anyone is paying attention, there is just one way of saving their bacon. And that’s to play to the audience which approves the budget, not the audience that listens to the broadcasts. And that’s why it was arranged last month that Putin should stop on his way somewhere else, to pay his 15-minute visit to Russia’s state media – to prove there’s an audience of one.
But does the prime minister realize he is alone? Has he any suspicion that he may be the target of an “active measure” by his own media managers?
What is unusual today about the Russian media operations that have replaced the Soviet ones is their pretending to be something they are not. Hiding your light under a bushel may be something espionage agencies are good at, because they are meant to be secret. But public broadcasters are nothing if they are not visible. Broadcasters who claim to be open and transparent about what they are doing cannot turn out to be secretive, jealous, and fearful of exposure. The contradiction between broadcasting and publishing in the spotlight, and spending money in a blackout, ought to be too obvious to conceal; or, since Gorbachev “democratized” the Russian media, to justify.
Russia Today Television (RTTV) is an English-language medium, broadcasting by cable, satellite, and by internet. It was inaugurated by Seslavinsky in June 2005, with a budget to the end of that year, he said, of $30 million. The person in charge was, still is, Margarita Simonyan; her previous job had been a Kremlin pool reporter for a state television channel. She reports to Mironyuk. Reporting to Simonyan is a deputy in charge of RTTV operations, Alexei Nikolov; and a deputy in charge of RTTV’s website, Tina Berezhnaya. The executive in charge of external communications for RTTV is Julia Ermolina.
They refuse to say how much money RTTV spends each year, or what annual RTTV budget has been voted by the State Duma. Public reports indicate that it grew rapidly. In 2007 RTTV had a budget of Rb2.4 billion ($91 million), according to public data. The Duma Committee on Budget reveals that in 2008, this was hiked by 50% to Rb3.6 billion; that was equivalent at the time to $147 million. The same amount, according to the Duma supervising committee, was budgeted for 2009; at the start of this year this was equivalent to $102 million.
An inside source reveals that in February there was considerable apprehension among the staff and management that a crisis review by the Finance Ministry of all government spending for 2009 might cut RTTV’s budget. The source was so frightened of being cut himself, he hung up his telephone with the plea never to be called again. But a Duma Budget Committee source reveals that the RTTV budget was reviewed on February 13, and the decision made by the government not to cut.
The RTTV executives refuse to say how many people are employed, and how the budget money is divided between management fees, reporter salaries, carriage fees for satellite and cable, office overheads, and technical costs. A Russian press report of 2007 claimed that at the time RTTV had 500 staff, with an average salary of $3,000 per month, and that some individuals were receiving up to $20,000 per month. The rough estimate for salary costs in the annual budget amounted to $20 million.
Investment bank analysts specializing in commercial media say that for a broadcaster limited to cable, satellite, and internet, annual cost spending of $90 to $145 million is exceptionally high. According to Anna Kurbatova at Unicredit Securities, a branch of the European Unicredit banking group: “3.6 billion [roubles] is a very big number for such a TV channel. By comparison, [the Russian] CTC, which is an on-air channel, with revenues for the first nine months of 2008 of 370 million, had expenses of $170 million The full-year estimate will be around $250million in costs. Their audience comprises 60 million viewers. I seriously doubt RTTV has something similar. To me, 3.6 billion roubles, or around $100 million, is too much.”
Another investment banking analyst of media companies said that costs can be justified by audience. As for RTTV’s budget, he noted “they had smaller amounts at the time of formation and start-up than now. Currently, they have around 500 employees, according to the press. I am not sure what the real number is. But in that case, $100 million is quite a number.”
So what is the audience RTTV is spending to reach?
According to the RTTV website in February, ”the analysis of television audiences conducted by Nielsen Media Research in 2008 has shown that the number of RT viewers surpasses that of BBC America by 11%. The number is also over ten times the number of Deutsche Welle viewers. In RT’s home country, the size of its audience has grown by 82% in the last six months alone. In Moscow, it has become more popular than international giants such as CNN and Bloomberg.”
Bigger than the BBC in the United States; bigger than the German state broadcaster wherever they compete; bigger in Russia than CNN and Bloomberg – that seems to be what RTTV is saying.
Again, according to RTTV itself: “RT’s website has become Russia’s most popular English language internet news service, with the number of hits surpassing that of a number of established Russian resources combined, like Themoscowtimes.com, Interfax.com, RBCnews.com and Kommersant.com. Millions in New York’s Times Square saw our live broadcast of 2008 New Year celebrations in Moscow and St. Petersburg. In August 2007, RT was the first channel in television history to report live from the North Pole. We’re available around the world on cable, satellite and online. RT is the first Russian TV channel to hit the web with its own page on YouTube and blogs on services such as Facebook, MySpace and Blogger. During the South Ossetian conflict alone, our YouTube viewership rose to 1,330,803 and our number of viewers off line surpassed those of such international broadcasting companies as BBC World News, Euronews and France 24, being second only to that of Al Jazeera English.”
Nikolov and Ermolina were asked to clarify what audience measurement contractors RTTV has engaged to substantiate these claims, and to confirm the audience numbers for the US, UK, Africa, and Russia. They refused.
Then, just after the questions were asked, and just before Putin arrived, the text of the website audience claim was changed. In its new version, RTTV now says: “In 2008 the monthly audience among those who have access or are aware of RT’s broadcasts on Time Warner Cable in NYC exceeds the one of BBC America by 11%. The daily audience of RT exceeds that of Deutsche Welle tenfold, within the same network.” The footnoted source for this claim was reported to be the internationally known media measurement company, Neilsen.
At its New York headquarters, a Neilsen source had trouble understanding what exactly the RTTV audience claim means. She said she could find no survey Neilsen has done for RTTV, and no measurement of RTTV’s audience in the US, or elsewhere. The Neilsen source also confirmed that “we don’t have any measurement of the German network [Deutsche Welle]”. Neilsen explains that it does not do audience measurement surveys in Russia. That is covered, according to Neilsen, by TNS.
In the revised RTTV audience claim, TNS is reported as the source for this report: “In 2008, RT’s average monthly reach in Russia indicated a growth rate of 82% within just six months. Over the same period, the channel’s average daily reach grew by 46%.” This is a measure of growth, not a measure of audience.
TNS confirms that its surveys of the Russian media market have included RTTV, and other English-language media. Russia Today, according to a TNS source, “has a small sized audience. The brand-name is recognized by 3.2% of Russian citizens; that is equivalent to 2.95 million people. It is watched by 0.7% of the Russian population; that is 451,000.” The contrast with the American broadcaster CNN and the BBC is considerable. According to TNS data, CNN’s brand-name is recognized by 12.1% of Russians, or about 8.4 million. An estimated 1,050,000 watch CNN. The BBC is known to 13%, or 8.5 million, and watched by 1.4%, or 800,000.
In short, RTTV’s audience is roughly one-half to one-third of the two better-known broadcasters inside Russia. The one international English-language channel whose audience inside Russia may be smaller than RTTV is Bloomberg. According to TNS surveys, this business media specialist is recognized by 2.6% of Russians, or 1.7 million, and viewed by 198,000.
Sources at the BBC research departments in London and New York say the wording of RTTV’s claim about its audience in the US, compared with the BBC’s, is misleading. All that is known, according to these sources, is that Russia Today is included in subscription packs of hundreds of channels, and that the BBC is also included. The sources claim there is no evidence of who is watching RTTV in the US, if anyone. “Everybody gets the pack, but noone at RTTV knows if anyone is watching them,” another source claims.
By commercial standards, the Russian government’s spending on RTTV is out of all proportion to its audience. There also appears to be no checking by the government of the audience claims. The Duma Press and Budget committee staff believe the Accounting Chamber, the state auditor, monitors the media budgets. But at the Chamber, spokesman Andrei Belayev says he is not aware of any audit or inspection that has been carried out since RTTV was formed; nor of its parent, RIA-Novosti.
Taisiya Nikitenko, spokesman for the Press and Mass Communications Agency was asked how Seslavinsky interprets RTTV’s audience claims; what is his rationale for the Rb3.6 billion budget; and how he assesses the effectiveness of RTTV. She refused to respond.
A well-known Moscow advertising and public relations director said that state funding for RTTV has created “a self-serving machine. It operates unchecked for the benefit of itself.”
A Moscow publisher of English-language media in Russia adds: “ RIA and RTTV are not lying on air. Even if the audience is paltry, they are doing a half-decent job as an English-language TV channel. The deception is not against the viewers, for noone really knows who watches it; but against Putin. Putin is the one being fooled by his own TV channel.”