Reframing Russia is a research project that aspires to reach a better understanding of the dynamics of the intensifying ‘information war’ between Russia and much of the “western” world. As part of this ambition, on November 7th, 2019, we organised a dialogue across what are often conceived of as deep set political and media divisions at the Frontline Club in London. The roundtable debate brought together a high-profile RT presenter, a senior RT executive, a columnist for The Independent, journalists from the BBC and from Sweden’s main public broadcaster, SVT, an ABC reporter, a retired senior British diplomat and an academic from the Alan Turing Data Science Institute specialising in researching populist politics and the detection of extremist discourse online.
‘Populism, Post-Truth and the Challenges for Journalists’ were chosen as topics that could provide common ground. While Russian disinformation, interference and ‘cyberwarfare’ techniques are often invoked in this context, our aim was to forge dialogue across divisions in what has become a very hostile and conflicted space. The discussion was held under the Chatham House Rule.
The dialogue was conducted in a calm atmosphere of mutual respect. There were inevitably several sharp exchanges. Some of these adopted familiar, ‘information war’ tones but there was convergence on a surprising number of issues.
A central point of contention revolved around the assertion by one participant—contested by others—that the loss of public trust in journalism and the very failure of current business models for press journalism might ultimately lead to the ‘death of democracy’. The claim, convincingly illustrated, was that traditional journalistic mechanisms for providing audiences with information of the quality and depth necessary for them to develop informed opinion are being fast eroded. As another speaker argued, the impact of emerging phenomena like ‘deep fakes’ is likely to accelerate this process. Others, however, observed that social media platforms facilitate more meaningful audience engagement and help rebuild trust in journalism; meanwhile access to multiple new open information sources aid news gathering and create space for crowd-sourced and citizen journalism, enhancing the quality and breadth of public knowledge. Moreover, it was suggested, popular concerns over limited political and media literacy resulting in widespread failure to detect misinformation and media bias may well be overstated and reflect condescension towards younger audiences.
The debate took a new direction following an intervention highlighting the alleged degeneration of the traditional media sphere into ‘a self-perpetuating echo chamber that has lost touch with its audience’. This bold inversion of the conventional wisdom that ‘echo chambers’ are the by-product of new, online media led the same speaker to claim that the digital revolution into which RT was born has equipped members of the public with an unprecedented choice to ‘mix and match’ the outlets they follow, and to consume hitherto unavailable stories and alternative narratives which are sometimes unjustifiably vilified.
Inevitably, attitudes to fact-based journalism loomed large in the debate. One participant lamented that in the current political climate, ‘we need to present facts and not speculations; but when we present facts, the audience does not care’. Others cautioned against over-fetishizing facts and the fact that very different versions of the truth circulate. Nonetheless, pressure on journalists and media organisations to deliver news in entertaining ways to capture audiences, both in terms of substance and format, were recognised as intense – often militating against the straight presentations of facts. An important point of convergence was that the vital contextual knowledge needed to make sense of the complexity of international affairs, not least those involving Russia, was often missing. Russophobic and anti-Western narratives, which are equally toxic, circulate with too little question in both Russia and elsewhere.
The latter point was among several which elicited broad consensus, including the following:
- The tendency to single out Russia as acting in a unique or exceptional way renders representations of Russia in Western public discourse unbalanced, merely fuelling its claims of double-standards and hypocrisy (e.g. not subjecting the likes of Saudi Arabia or China to the same scrutiny in relation to human rights). This was noted by a respected western journalist who did not specialise in Russian affairs.
- Focusing on ‘Russian meddling’ unduly narrows and distorts analysis of the reasons for the wider decline of trust in mainstream media and elected politicians. Commercial pressures, decreased funding for quality journalism and UK press partisanship offer better explanations for such phenomena. Participants with very different political views including those highly critical of Russia and RT concurred on this point.
- UK-Russia relations should be viewed in a longer perspective. Negative images of Russia are historically entrenched in the UK where they are more prevalent than in other European countries. British policymakers, journalists and analysts should broaden their view, avoiding ingrained stereotypes which hamper the analysis of specific situations and the development of appropriate policy responses.
- The idea that ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’ are an entirely recent phenomenon is unhelpful. Misinformation, skewed interpretations and the dissemination of complete fabrications have a long history from which lessons can be drawn in order to identify which aspects of these phenomena are genuinely new (those attributable to the reconfiguration of the public sphere by social media, for example).
- Most facts are open to all manner of contestation, selection, manipulation and reframing. Journalism in Russia as in the UK is a mix of fact-gathering and fact-curation and debate should focus on the appropriate relationship between these principles.
- In this context, notions of ‘due impartiality’ should not be confused with ‘objectivity’; the BBC definition of this axiom is admirably nuanced, but it leaves too much latitude for individual journalists’ judgement. But we need to be cautious, lest we undermine the criteria by which we consider journalistic practices in contexts where the hand of state control is more apparent.
Nonetheless, relativistic claims of complete equivalence between media outlets which operate in very different political environments are misplaced. Examples of BBC management standing by its journalists when under severe attack by UK governments are not universally replicable. Dialogue of the sort represented by the discussion at the Frontline Club does not require participants to compromise on points of fundamental principle, to be forced into general accord in the interests of diplomacy, or to lose face; on many points a respectful ‘agreement to disagree’ remained the order of the day.
Indeed, perhaps the key take-away from the event was that, precisely because UK-Russia state relations are stuck at such a stubborn impasse, policy makers and those in the position to influence their thinking on both sides should encourage further initiatives involving actors at the sub-state and non-state levels. Such trust-building exercises could serve as a means of kick-starting the much-needed process of resetting diplomatic relations, if not from the bottom up, then at least from outside conventional channels. There is a valuable role here for discussions under Chatham House rules in which influential figures from opposing positions can come together in open debate, working towards establishing a common agenda, or a common language in which to disagree.
A particularly important place in these forums should be reserved for journalists and newsmakers since they play such a critical role in influencing popular attitudes on both sides, and because mutual accusations of malign interference in the two respective public spheres are driving the diplomatic crisis. That crisis is liable to intensify with Brexit, which may reinforce Russia’s perceptions of British weakness and isolation, whether those perceptions are justified or not. Now, therefore, is the time to act.