When Russia ignored a British government ultimatum to explain whether it was involved in the nerve agent attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, Theresa May quickly announced a set of measures in retaliation. These include expelling 23 intelligence officers, the freezing of Russian state assets, and a government and royal boycott of the Fifa World Cup in Russia.
The prime minister has rightly described Russia’s response to the UK’s ultimatum as “sarcasm, contempt and defiance”. The reaction to the Salisbury attack in the Russian government-controlled media has been full of mockery and contempt, fuelled by contemptuous language. A typical example of how facts are “translated” into a sarcastic narrative was an article (in Russian) published on the Ria-Novosti news site published entitled: “Big British punishment: why the world is bewildered.” The sarcastic undertones are in the choice of words and syntax, which aims to undermine the object of discussion. Here is a section of it I’ve translated:
For some reason (possibly, out of mortal fear), Russia has not rushed to justify itself. In response to a BBC question, Vladimir Putin recommended that ‘first they need to sort it out’ and only then they should bother a nuclear power. The Russian Ministry of International Affairs politely requested access to the materials related to the investigation including a sample of the nerve agent – or anything concrete for that matter – but Britain has not responded to Russia’s humiliating request to follow international norms.
The use of the adjective “humiliating” to describe Russia’s request to share a sample of the nerve agent is sarcastic, implying that Britain is patronising Russia.
Some outlets, such as lenta.ru seized the opportunity to label Skripal as a traitor and ran news stories about how he became a double agent. Lenta.ru used to be known for its free and fair journalism read by 20mln readers – but in 2014 it lost its chief editor Galina Timchenko in a row over the coverage of the Ukrainian conflict. Since the new chief editor Alexei Goreslavsky described as “an editorial policeman for the Kremlin” was installed, lenta.ru has lost its reputation as a source of alternative views.
Where young Russians get their news
In Britain, the Russian state-controlled mass media is often and quite rightly portrayed as “at war with the West”. My own research, and other work on news consumption by the political scientist Ellen Mickiewicz, shows that many young, university-educated Russians do not trust Russian news. They are capable of reading between the lines and look for the truth by searching the internet. They don’t hate the West – they have open minds and are keen to find out what other viewpoints are there. They also often feel powerless and, as a result, I’ve found that many turn away from the news and politics.
But it’s increasingly difficult for them to find alternative opinions. When it comes to domestic Russian affairs and the election, they can go to the blog of the opposition leader, Alexei Navalny. But for international news, all they have to rely on is the news translated by the government-controlled media agencies for domestic news consumption. For example, many media organisation provide a reference to InoSMI (Foreign Mass Media), whose website provides a translated selection of foreign news in Russian.
But translation can be used as a tool of soft power: the information is filtered and skewed in the process. This is increasingly being seen on InoSMI where news stories for translation are carefully selected, framed and interpreted in the way that is favourable to Russia. The West is caricatured, mocked and satirised.
“Truths” are invented. Everything can be turned into anything else, like in some postmodernist carnival.
Russians don’t have much of a choice but to consume Russian language media, as a majority don’t speak other languages. When my colleagues and I asked people to keep news diaries for a week as part of our research on news consumption, we found Russians don’t ordinarily consume news in other languages but Russian – whether on the TV or the internet. In 2015-16, we distributed 140 news diaries to university students – the majority of who were monolingual – in the cities of Moscow and Perm. The majority of the students taking part in the research accessed news only in the Russian language. On those few occasions when they mentioned looking at some English-language sources, they said it was for language practice.
This is not just a Russian problem, however. In similar research in the US, UK and France, we also found that respondents mostly consumed news in their native languages. Only “balanced” bilingual speakers who have equally fluent command of two languages and are invested in both cultures tend to consume news in two familiar languages, such as Spanish students in the UK or Americans in Paris.
I think UK media outlets, especially the BBC, should invest in broadcasting and publishing in Russian: to expand news and entertainment programmes in the Russian language and possibly in other languages too. BBC Russian is a good source of online news in Russian but it is no longer enough. Those international outlets that do produce news in Russian also need to think about more effective ways of spreading the news through Russian social media and the internet.
Ordinary Russians desperately lack access to Western news in their native language. They need to have alternative views to those bombarded at them by the government propaganda. Instead of shutting down the Russian state-sponsored English-language channel RT in the UK, as some have suggested, the government should give the BBC extra resources to invest in Russian-language media and ensure that Western viewpoints are known in Russia.