August 4, 2015 7:16 pm
How to beat Vladimir Putin in the battle for hearts and eyeballs
Peter Pomerantsev

Kremlin still has media hegemony over 142m Russian citizens, writes Peter Pomerantsev

he west is belatedly waking up to the power of the Kremlins media machine. The supreme commander of Nato called the annexation of Crimea the most amazing information warfare blitzkrieg we have ever seen. Zhanna Nemtsova blames the climate of hate created by Kremlin propaganda for the murder of her father, opposition politician Boris Nemtsov.
The Soviet empire may be gone but the Kremlin still has media hegemony over 142m Russian citizens and an estimated 93m elsewhere in the former USSR for whom Russian is a first or second language (plus as many as 3m in Germany). A project by the European Endowment for Democracy, a Brussels foundation of which I was an author sought ways to tackle this challenge. We soon found differences between the situation today and the in cold war.

In the 20th century the job of western Russian language media such as the BBC World Service or Radio Free Europe was to break through the information iron curtain. The battle was for alternative points of view and against censorship. Today television is strictly controlled by the Kremlin, though there is access to other media online. Russian speakers in Ukraine, Moldova and the Baltics the groups of most immediate concern to US and European policymakers worried about Moscow stirring unrest have access to a plethora of Kremlin, local and western media, each offering strikingly contradictory versions of reality.
Take Estonia, where viewers who followed rival Russian and western stories about the downing of flight MH17 over Ukraine last year ended up disbelieving both sides. Something similar is happening in Kharkiv, a Ukrainian city near the border with Russia, where polls showed a high number of people cynical about all media, whatever the source.
Viewers are nevertheless entranced by Russian channels. The Kremlin blurs the lines between fact and fiction: current affairs shows are cinematic and sensational, with scare stories about Russian children crucified by Ukrainian militias or US conspiracies to ethnically cleanse east Ukraine.
The disinformation fits into a consistent narrative. News focuses on fighting in Ukraine, western plots against Russia and positive stories on Vladimir Putin. The president provides stability for a nation beset by enemies. This is reinforced by big-budget historical dramas that strengthen his policies: glorious second world war battles for Crimea, or tales of nefarious liberals collaborating with the motherlands enemies.
Kremlin media, however, ignore local news and social issues. EED experts recommended a news agency or news hub to focus on the details Moscow wants to avoid. They might not be able to convince audiences who downed MH17, but by focusing on local stories about hospitals, schools and courts they could prove more relevant. A content factory could also provide socially engaged documentary material: docu-soaps about schools or hospitals; reality shows exploring ethnic tensions. Local broadcasters need help, both financial and professional, to create such high-quality content. It is something the British especially, with their sophisticated TV industry, should take the lead on.

Ideally such programming would dovetail with development priorities . When the UKs Department for International Development backs judicial reform in Ukraine or Moldova it should also make TV dramas and documentaries about the court system. BBC Media Action (the charity arm of the BBC) has been working with the fledgling Ukrainian public broadcaster on short dramas about young people caught up in the war. The budget is minuscule but it is exactly the sort of project we need.
High-quality shows are not cheap. A channel such as a BBC Russia would cost more than 20m a year. This may seem like a lot but take into account a single Eurofighter jet costs 90m.
As Mr Putin knows, media and entertainment are as vital as doctors or soldiers. The west made a bad error in the 1990s, abandoning the development of media in the former Soviet Union to the free market: instead, media were captured by oligarchs or corrupt regimes. After the cold war it was considered part of the peace dividend to slash funding for the likes of Radio Free Europe. A much greater cost is being paid now.
The writer is a senior fellow at the Legatum Institute and author of Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible

There's been a lot of talk in recent months by US Neocon politicians and the heads of their obedient media channels in the West about how to counter 'Russian propaganda' - which they say has been attracting increasing audiences in the West, and achieving growing influence over Western publics.

As a result of their anxieties on this front, yet more millions have been allocated by Congress to allocate even more funds - with no consciousness of any irony - to pushing US government propaganda across Western media.

They know that the mass media is less and less believed by the publics of many Western countries - a trend which the Editor of the Economist recently noted had accelerated and intensified since wide coverage in Western media of the coup in Ukraine.

Of course, it still hasn't entered their minds that the reason why the mainstream media in the West is less and less believed is that on political events of great importance to the Neocons who run US foreign policy, nearly all the mainstream media spout exactly the same narrative, with no querying or challenging of the US government narrative by journalists on such matters.

The US-backed coup in Ukraine is one example of this - and indeed the 'single narrative' pumped out by all mainstream media in the West about that coup, and the events that followed it, were so similar and unquestioning that this attracted a lot of comments in social media, where people expressed their belief that a 'free press' in the West is now almost extinguished, when it comes to events where Washington wants to push only their narrative through all media channels, relentlessly.

And so, millions of people - many of them people who had previously never questioned or disbelieved their mainstream media sources, went searching on the internet for alternative accounts of such events. And as a result, media such as RT had a sudden massive boost in readership / viewers - and consequently, the increased influence on Western publics which the Neocon politicians expressed such worry and anger about.

The US Neocons' unparalleled success in achieving such near-total control over the narratives pumped out by Western mainstream media that has been their undoing - and which has driven so many millions of the public to seek some other media that they find more believable.   

For this reason, simply allocating more hundreds of millions of dollars to doing more of the same will only worsen the problem that Washington finds so worrying, about the increasing distrust of mainstream media by people in the West.