How easy is it to co-opt the credibility of some of the world’s most venerable newspapers, such as the Fairfax metro tabloids, The Wall Street Journal, owned by the Murdoch clan, The Telegraph (UK), owned by the Barclay brothers (among Britain’s most conservative and richest people), or The New York Times? Maybe in these lean times it’s not as hard as you think.
Readers of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age might have been surprised to find a 16-page lift-out — entitled “Russia Beyond The Headlines” — in both papers this morning. Its inclusion is part of a major international attempt by the Putin government to influence Western opinion.
It’s not the first time the lift-out has appeared in Fairfax’s highest-profile papers. Last year, Crikey spoke to the Asia-Pacific editor of Russia Beyond the Headlines, Gleb Fedorov, who told us it was a serious, journalistic operation that appeared in the world’s leading papers. The publishers of the lift-out pay for the content, subbing and printing of the insert, but they say that while the Russian government funds it, it is independent from the Kremlin.
Speaking to Crikey this morning, Sydney Morning Herald editor-in-chief Darren Goodsir confirmed this was the gist of the commercial relationship that existed between Fairfax and Russia Beyond The Headlines.
“We distribute their publication at arm’s length, like a number of comparable newsrooms around the world, including The New York Times,” he said. “No reporters or producers of the SMH or the Age are involved in its production.”
When asked by Crikey whether he would call the insert an ad, Goodsir said it “wasn’t an altruistic activity”. “It’s a commercial arrangement with those behind the publication.”
So what’s in today’s supplement?
At the bottom of page 1 of the lift-out was an ad for the Russian Film Festival, running later this month in Sydney, and in Melbourne in November. There were heart-rending stories about refugee camps in Russia set up to handle refugees from Ukraine. The 16-page lift-out carried more stories about events in Ukraine than Fairfax has carried so far this week.
There was a story on page 3 headlined “We want peace in Ukraine”, written by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. There’s another story on page 4 headlined “Embargo prompts chefs to be more creative” (which will strike terror into the Australian foodie gulags in Sydney and Melbourne). A page 7 article on new laws requiring bloggers with more than 3000 visits a day to register with the Kremlin was described as subjecting them “to the same laws that apply to the mass media”, and adds that surveys have found most internet users aren’t bothered by the new laws. The publication portrays Russia as a cultured, modernising nation.
Asked this morning whether he believed the inclusion of the supplement impacted the credibility of his paper, Goodsir said he didn’t. “And if I thought I did, I wouldn’t be allowing it to appear in the paper.”
“We’ve taken a very robust line in our news and opinion pages on the actions of the Russian government … We’re distributing a publication produced by Russian organisations about Russia, that in no way affects or influences the editorial independence of The Age or the Sydney Morning Herald. And I think our readers know that, and the publication is adequately labeled so that the reader is in no doubt as to the distinction of this advertising supplement. “
A strapline at the top of each page of the supplement says “Russia Beyond The Headlines is a global media project sponsored by Rossiyskaya Gazeta (Russia), distributed by the Sydney Morning Herald”.
Rossiyskaya Gazeta is a government-owned daily paper “of record” in Russia, in that it publishes all the decrees, statements, etc, of the Putin administration.
A small box on the bottom of page 10 reveals the other Western papers carrying the supplement today — El Pais in Spain, Le Figaro in France, La Repubblica in Italy and papers in countries such as Argentina, Brazil, India, China (the state-owned Global Times which knows all about state-sponsored propaganda), South Korea, Japan (the Mainichi Shimbun), Belgium, Thailand, Uruguay, and the United Arab Emirates. Interestingly the 16-page liftout wasn’t inserted in newspapers in the Netherlands or Malaysia (countries where many citizens died in the MH17 atrocity). Nor was it placed in papers in Scandinavia.
Another edition of the supplement, readers are told, will be in the Fairfax papers on October 16.