Journalism or agitating for an interest group?

Journalists should be able to tell the difference between news and the story an interest group wants to tell. This isn’t just the opinion of this author. This is what journalism is. Journalists need to be able to sift through the material which comes into their inbox (Facebook messenger, whatever), proactively check as best they can, find sources other than the interest group which wants you to tell the story their way – and then put together an informed article. In particular if they draw on material from an interest group in writing the story they should alert their reader to this.

Shaun Walker (and not just Shaun Walker; this is the trend for Guardian journalists working in Russia, probably other papers too) must know the above. So why doesn’t he practice it? Why does he pass off as news a hopelessly biased article about protests in Moscow as reportage? Perhaps because he thinks his editor in the UK wants him to tell a story about the ‘opposition in Russia’ and repressive state measures. He has an eye on his job security and promotion prospects and is writing what his editor wants (anti ‘Putin’ propaganda)?  Is that it? It is difficult to know but one thing I am certain about; Shaun Walker knows that he is not telling the truth.

This is his latest piece about the unsanctioned rally in Moscow.  The background is that the Election Commission has barred some independent candidates from standing in the upcoming elections to Moscow’s local government. There has been one legal and approved rally. A second unsanctioned, and therefore illegal under Russian law, rally has been held and many of the protestors were arrested. Let’s look at some examples of how this is reported in the Guardian:

a protest called in response to the refusal of electoral authorities to register independent candidates for the Moscow city

The authorities have not ‘refused’ to register independent candidates. That’s not true. To take part in the election as an independent a candidate must get a certain number of signatures. The Moscow Election Commission has said that these candidates produced lists but the lists contained many invalid signatures. It is 100% possible that this is a ruse by the Election Commission to block candidates. But if that is what Walker is suggesting he should say so. In fact – several paragraphs further into the article we do learn that the basis for the rejection of the candidates is fraudulent signatures and that the banned candidates claim this is a “pretext” – but this clarification is not what the story leads on. The exaggerated claim is made in the opening paragraphs and the detail appears later. This way the authors can achieve the sensationalist aims of dressing up the claims while avoiding the charge of not being accurate. Many people will take from the article the first and exaggerated claim not the detail mentioned further into the body of the article.

An independent monitoring group said at least 25 people sustained injuries in the police violence.

Perhaps we can safely assume that the ‘independent monitoring group’ is associated with the demonstrators? If it isn’t why not source the claim? Otherwise we can assume perhaps that this is independent as in the White Helmets are independent? As for “in the police violence” – there’s no evidence of this. The one image accompanying the story shows a perfectly ordinary arrest. What “police violence”? If there was “police violence” we would certainly expect there to be images of this – after all almost everyone these days has a phone with a camera. The lack of supporting evidence for the claim invalidates the claim – at least until the evidence is produced.

The turnout shocked authorities, who did not give official sanction to the rally.

I wonder what the source for this is? In fact the presence of very large numbers of police and the arrest of key speakers on their way to the rally suggests that far from being ‘shocked’ the authorities expected this and were well prepared for it.

Large areas of the centre were cordoned off, and police used rough tactics and batons to detain protesters despite their action remaining peaceful

This is an interesting sentence. Firstly ‘rough tactics’ sounds off. It isn’t normal English. An English speaker would use a phrase such as ‘heavy-handed policing’ or ‘excessive force’. Quite likely this text was sent to Shaun Walker (via Facebook?) by his contact in the group of banned candidates (Navalny perhaps) and was written in English by a Russian speaker and Shaun Walker has copied it verbatim into his article. As to the ‘rough tactics’ themselves. Again; surely there must be some photographic evidence of this? RT can certainly find pictures of the demonstrators looking aggressive and pushing down barriers .

Alexei Navalny, Russia’s best-known opposition leader, was arrested last week and sentenced to 30 days in jail for calling on people to attend an unsanctioned rally

Ha. Ha. Ha… Ha. “best-known opposition leader”. Alexei Navalny is a Moscow blogger. He is concerned chiefly with alleged Kremlin corruption. He has a small following in Moscow and probably in some of the other major cities. He is not the political opposition in Russia. This line about Alexei Navalny being Russia’s “best-known opposition leader” is standard for the liberal press in the West. In reality there is another opposition – socialists and communists, represented politically by Fair Russia and the Communist Party of the Russian Federation respectively. These people have serious political programmes very much at odds with Putin’s form of capitalism (for example the Communist Party favours large-scale renationalisation). But then nationalist anti-corruption activist Navalny is more to the taste of the political and media classes in the West so they talk him up and ignore the socialists and communists – despite these people being ordinary Russians, who, in any democratic sense, have just as much ‘right’ to be heard as Navalny. When journalists talk up Navalny and ignore the socialist and communist opposition this gives the lie to their claims to be concerned about ‘democracy’ in Russia.

Natalia Zviagina, of Amnesty International, said the violent response to the protest was a “new low” for Russian authorities and called on police to release all of those detained. “No one should be imprisoned for merely exercising their rights to expression and peaceful assembly,” she said.

To be fair to Mr Walker here he quotes his source and the opinion is not his but Amnesty International’s. Amnesty International appears to have an oblique relation to the concept of law. There is a law in Russia which states that rallies have to be agreed and approved by the authorities. There was such a sanctioned rally on 20/7/19. According to Russian state media one of the leaders at that rally (Navalny) used the occasion to call his supporters to break the law and hold another rally on 27/7/19. [1] It isn’t clear therefore what Amnesty’s position is? Are they claiming a right to write Russia’s laws for them, or, at least, to approve them, or not? Laws in Russia are passed by a legislative process involving an elected parliament of deputies and an elected President who heads the government. Does Amnesty want to subvert/override this process and impose its standards on Russia? The fact is that many Russian will see these protestors as troublemakers and won’t see any reason to allow them to carry out unsanctioned rallies whenever they want.

The Moscow parliament is a largely decorative body with little real power

According to my contact in Moscow (who is sympathetic to the protests) the Moscow parliament has large budgets and this is in fact a large part of the beef. According to the website of the Moscow Duma the revenues for 2018 were projected to be 2 trillion roubles or £25 billion. The money is spent on social and development projects. Not, then, “largely decorative”. [2]

The main problem though with this article is that it appears to rely almost entirely on a narrative provided by one of the barred candidates (or a group of them). This isn’t journalism. It is agitprop.



2. Moscow City Duma


Author: justinwyllie

EFL Teacher and Photographer