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In Western media, publishing fake news about Russia is a good career move… with no consequences

Bryan MacDonald
Bryan MacDonald

Bryan MacDonald is an Irish journalist based in Russia. He has written for RT since 2014. Before moving to Russia, Bryan worked for The Irish Independent, the Evening Herald, Ireland on Sunday, and The Irish Daily Mail. Follow him on Twitter @27khv

Bryan MacDonald is an Irish journalist based in Russia. He has written for RT since 2014. Before moving to Russia, Bryan worked for The Irish Independent, the Evening Herald, Ireland on Sunday, and The Irish Daily Mail. Follow him on Twitter @27khv

In Western media, publishing fake news about Russia is a good career move… with no consequences
Fighting "Russian disinformation" in the West has become a lucrative business. But, in reality, you're far more likely to encounter deceitful agitprop directed at Russia.

MOSCOW – CP Scott remains a towering figure in the annals of British journalism. Editor of the then "Manchester Guardian" for an astonishing 57 years, he celebrated his paper's centenary by laying down a set of legendary principles.

"Comment is free, but facts are sacred," Scott intoned in the missive. Sadly, almost a hundred years later, facts are free and the right to spread disinformation is becoming sacred, as far as his successors are concerned. Particularly when it comes to coverage of Russia.

Yet another example came over the New Year break. Following a few weeks out of the spotlight after peddling an obviously fake story about Julian Assange/Paul Manafort meetings in London, Luke Harding reappeared. And he came armed with his particular brand of bulls*** and sloppiness.

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A sensationalist interview with former Soviet spy 'Viktor Suvorov' was full of fragile fact-checking and downright stupidity. For instance, presenting a pensioner, who defected from a different country almost 40 years ago, as an authority on how Vladimir Putin's Kremlin operates today stretched credulity. And the piece was also riddled with factual errors, to boot.

For instance, Harding claimed Suvorov's 1980's book "Icebreaker" now "has broad acceptance among historians;" a tome which insists "Stalin had been secretly plotting an offensive against Hitler's Germany" but first he "wanted Hitler to destroy democracy in Europe, in the manner of an icebreaker, thereby clearing the way for world communism." In other words, not the version you learned at school.

Except, surprise, surprise, this statement on Suvorov's book isn't true. As one scholar pointed out, while demanding a correction from Harding, it's more accurate to say the opposite is the case. Indeed, the scholar referenced, "Suvorov's argument was rapidly countered by much of the established Russian historical community," including Dmitry Volkogonov, "with the support of Western historians."

Specialist in speciousness

We've been here before with Harding. He's repeatedly weaved fantastical stories about Russia, and other subjects, for years. But, as the legendary ex-Moscow hack Mark Ames observes "literally nothing Harding publishes, no matter how demonstrably false and reckless, will ever hurt his journalism career. He's a Made Man."

And, while he's an especially blatant example, Harding is not alone in this. Because on the Russia beat, it seems Western journalists can pretty much get away with any transgressions, without suffering career damage. Instead, paradoxically, it often seems to even lead to professional progression.

Today, you hear a lot of hysteria concerning "Russian disinformation" in the West, but little or nothing, in mainstream media, on "disinformation about Russia," something this writer has tried to cover in recent years. And it's a lonely beat.

Indeed, as the Canadian academic Paul Robinson rightly notes, while "there's a huge army of well-funded institutions and individuals now devoted to uncovering and countering 'Russian disinformation,' there seems to be little or no accountability for the false stories produced by Western sources (on Russia)."

And the examples are legion. With even the most heinous fakes failing to amount to any sort of setback for their promoters. Which suggests editors are more than happy to indulge the practice, because after all it's only Russia and everyone knows Russia is "bad."

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Here are a few selected lowlights…

  • Back in October 2015, with East/West tensions running high due to the Ukrainian war and Moscow's reabsorption of Crimea, Politico dropped a bombshell. Its writer Ben Judah alleged that Vladimir Putin offered Poland the opportunity to divide Ukraine up between Warsaw & Moscow. But, we all breathed more easily after the source publicly disowned the story and the editor was shown to have failed to engage in even basic fact-checking. However, it was only a minor inconvenience for the author, who later fell into a Hudson Institute gig and plenty of CNN punditry.
  • The following spring saw more ludicrous hackery. The Daily Telegraph reported that "Vladimir Putin's girlfriend has given birth." In Switzerland, no less. The story was never corroborated by any Russian (or any other) outlet & made no sense for various reasons. The reporter concerned currently enjoys the position of a senior foreign correspondent with the newspaper.
  • In the summer of 2015, the Times of London ran a ridiculous claim that Moscow was helping East Ukrainian rebels to make a "dirty bomb" for use in their conflict with Kiev. The single source was Ukraine's SBU (successor to the KGB in Ukraine), which obviously had skin in the game and isn't exactly known for straight shooting. Anyway, no chemical weapons have been used in Donbass, thankfully, but we also haven't seen a retraction. Meanwhile, the rookie reporter involved now has a plum role at George Soros' Open Society and visitors to his Twitter account are first greeted with "a short history of Russian disinfo." Which amounts to Alanis Morissette levels of irony.
  • In May of the same year, The Daily Beast warned how Russia would launch a full scale invasion of Ukraine that summer. It didn't happen, but it wasn't an impediment for the two reporters involved. One was later hired by CNN as a contracted "Russia expert," despite the fact he's never been to Russia and can't speak Russian. The other went on to work for US state broadcaster RFE/RL, where part of his duties have been selectively quoting parts of RT opinion pieces in attempts to label them untrue or misleading.
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  • In December 2017, Newsweek stunned its readers by announcing "Putin is preparing for World War Three," subtitled "yeah, that's bad" for reasons known only to its editors. The piece, written by the magazine's Moscow correspondent, was based on two anonymous British sources, who may or may not exist, and a Russian opposition rent-a-gob with zero access to Putin's circle. The author remains Newsweek's Moscow Bureau Chief.
  • Almost concurrently, Foreign Policy's reporter in the capital wrote a long whinge about problems she had acquiring contacts associated with the Russian government. She correctly pointed out that the Russian capital's Western "hack pack" are shunned by powerful people here. However, she failed to explain why (it's simply because they aren't taken seriously and it's widely believed they don't cover Russia fairly). In the end, the whole thing blew up in her face when Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova pointed out that she never tried to contact her department and failed to attend a single briefing over a seven month period, post-accreditation. Soon after, our hero was hired by the Washington Post. 
  • A few months later, Ben Nimmo, a lobbyist at NATO's Atlantic Council adjunct and a former press officer for the military alliance, labeled Twitter user Ian Shilling a "Russian troll." Soon after, Shilling turned up on UK TV to prove he was a real British person, who merely opposes London's foreign policy. Nimmo hasn't apologized and continues to be cited as an "expert on Russian disinformation" by mainstream media outlets, who rarely, if ever, inform readers of his NATO ties. Or his more recent work with "Integrity Initiative," a UK government-funded "info warsproject.
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  • Around the same time, the notorious "Gerasimov Doctrine" fake took flight among the Western "Russia Watcher" community. Coined by Mark Galeotti, a British pundit, the trope was based on a poor translation of a 2013 Russian-language essay and pushed by the likes of Molly McKew and CNN's Jim Sciutto. Meanwhile, serious Russia analysts tried to explain such a document didn't exist and were largely ignored. The Financial Times should have listened because its Foreign Desk made fools out of themselves via a wordy article titled "Valery Gerasimov, the general with a doctrine for Russia." The author is still in situ as Moscow bureau chief.
  • This past November, the Times of London alleged that the Kremlin is running 75,000 informants in London. The figure was based on data from the Henry Jackson Society, a neoconservative lobby group. It later turned out that the 'research' involved just 16 interviews. The correspondent behind the pieces seems to specialize in hysterical, and factually loose, splashes concerning Russia. Presumably this is what his editors want.

Numerous other examples exist but more are hardly needed to show how there seems to be no penalty for getting Russia wrong in Western media. And, on the contrary, it's hardly a conspiracy theory to suggest it's actively encouraged.

Which means, of course, disinformation about Russia is far more common, organized and influential than notional "Russian disinformation." Particularly on social networks, but prevalent too in supposedly "respectable" media.

READ MORE: The only ‘Russian bots’ to meddle in US elections belonged to Democrat-linked ‘experts’

Nevertheless, don't hold your breath waiting for the usual think tank "info war" chancers to issue reports, dripping with condemnation. Because this isn't about delivering truth in the news, it's about keeping control of the narrative.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.