Sarah Hurst reports on a new British group which criticises pro-European projects and draws the praise of Russian state media.
A team of four British academics has received a grant of £719,635 from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) for a project called ‘Reframing Russia’ — to evaluate the significance of the Russian state-funded television channel RT in the “information war” that Russia insists we are all waging.
The project is being led by Stephen Hutchings, a professor of Russian Studies at the University of Manchester. But there is a risk that in their eagerness to prove their impartiality, the researchers will themselves become the useful idiots they claim to dislike.
The project’s credibility has already been undermined by a blog post from 8 April by Hutchings and his co-investigator Vera Tolz, which attempts to justify Russian state news agency RIA Novosti’s report, made on the evening when Boris Johnson was hospitalised with Coronavirus, that the UK prime minister would be “hooked up to a ventilator”. The article briefly succeeded in confusing UK readers who heard about it and wondered whether their government or the Kremlin was telling the truth. Perhaps RIA really did have a “high-level source in the NHS” who was telling them something the Conservatives didn’t want them to know.
“A simple inspection of the original RIA Novosti article reveals that this representation of the Russian news agency report results from a mistranslation,” Hutchings and Tolz wrote. They claimed that “hooked up to an IVL” (the Russian acronym) could mean that Johnson was being assisted with an oxygen mask. But Russian speakers, like people the world over, have quickly become familiar with Coronavirus terminology, and all understand “IVL” to mean a ventilator. An article by TASS on 13 April with the headline “Over 240 patients with Coronavirus in Russia have been hooked up to IVLs” provides further evidence of this.
Exposing the EU
The Reframing Russia blog post was particularly ironic when juxtaposed with another of their comments about the EUvsDisinfo project. The same two authors wrote on 6 April that “the EU’s main task force for fighting Russian disinformation is in danger of becoming a source for disinformation itself.”
This article made some valid points about the dangers of amplifying obscure conspiracy theories in a quest to debunk them, and the flaws in carelessly sticking a “disinformation” label on reports that aren’t always deserving of the description. But this is nothing new: for example, the FT reported in April 2018 that NGOs analysing media for EUvsDisinfo had made mistakes, and three Dutch news outlets forced the project to remove claims of disinformation it had made about them.
The output of Reframing Russia doesn’t seem to be providing the AHRC with value for money. It has been praised by RT, though, in an article from April 7 with the headline “No COVID-19 fake news on RT, EU accusations are ‘problematic’ — UK watchdog.” Reframing Russia is not a watchdog, but that wouldn’t bother RT, of course.
Reframing Russia has also been defended on Twitter by the RUSI think tank in London. In response to this Chatham House fellow Keir Giles pointed out that Reframing Russia had deleted a “breathtaking puff piece for RT” titled “Healthy Democracy Has no Reason to Fear RT” from January 2020. “I am more than willing to give @ReframingRussia the benefit of the doubt, where it exists (even though hurriedly deleting material from their website once it is brought to light is rarely an indicator of impeccable intellectual honesty),” Giles tweeted in a thread on 11 April.
Stephen Hutchings depicted Putin as better than the unknown alternative in an interview he gave to the Russian Media Lab Network in Finland in November 2017.
“By the way, if people think that deposing Putin will lead to a nice, cosy liberal democracy in Russia, they are probably deceived,” he said. “Putin is in many ways having to moderate and disarm forces far more extreme than himself (though he is surely to blame for having fostered the conditions in which such forces can thrive).” It is hard to see how sending Russian nationalists to fight in Ukraine could be termed “moderating and disarming” extremist forces, and Putin has jailed far more liberals on extremism charges than militants. It’s also hard to imagine how much more damage a more “extreme” Russian leader would have done in Syria, or to envisage a worse terrorist act than the downing of MH17 with 298 deaths.
In the interview Hutchings also referred to the “aggressive, eastwards expansion of NATO” as a reason why Putin has chosen his current path: a phrase straight out of Putin’s own playbook. NATO has not been aggressive towards Russia, and in fact attempted to partner with Russia before the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Eastern European countries flocked to join NATO because they wanted protection from Russia after being occupied and forced into the Warsaw Pact. NATO has not been willing to consider Ukraine as a member, because that would cause the alliance to be obligated to defend Ukraine against Russia.
Hutchings replied to my questions about Reframing Russia by email. Asked whether the funding award was rather high for a project of this nature, he wrote, “The fact that we have had academic articles deriving from our research accepted for publication in prestigious outlets like European Journal of Cultural Studies and Journalism, suggests that the evaluation was not inappropriate… Non-academics might also benefit from some context. For example, at the time our grant was awarded, the same Research Council awarded an even larger amount of money to a colleague from another department whose 3-year project focused on one single, ancient manuscript.”
Too many people misunderstand RT, according to Hutchings: “Most of what has previously been said about RT is based on a crude misconception about how Russian state media operate, and their relationship with the Kremlin, and with other Russian state actors,” he wrote. “It is the product of a highly polarised environment in which to question received wisdom leads to allegations that you are either ‘a Russophobe’ or ‘’a Useful Idiot’ (we have been accused of both crimes!),” he added.
“Virtually nothing was known until now about RT’s audiences and our project is succeeding in filling that gap. Most of those who have been writing on RT and Russian media more broadly tend to confuse the nature of the messages and the content with their impact,” Hutchings wrote.
Again he ignored the good work that has already been done analysing RT, for example an article by Russian media expert Alexey Kovalev that was translated and updated by Bellingcat in January 2017. The article pointed out that RT’s claims of billions of views of its YouTube channel mainly came from videos with no political content, such as “Meteorite crash in Russia,” “Kid dies falling from Ferris wheel,” “Whale hits and smashes yacht in South Africa” and Japan tsunami footage.
There is value in bringing together RT staff with Western journalists and academics, as at an event Reframing Russia hosted at London’s Frontline Club last November, Hutchings thinks. Participants “welcomed the debate and found it enlightening and useful,” he told me. “Particularly positive remarks were made by a BBC reporter who acknowledged that the event changed his view of Russian journalism, the Moscow correspondent of SVT (Sweden’s equivalent to the BBC) who said that the event, along with our project as a whole, has made him think about his work in more depth and reflect on his coverage in a more analytical way, and an ex-British diplomat who indicated that such events can play a very useful role in resetting relations with Russia ‘from the bottom up’.”
Hutchings strenuously denies that Reframing Russia’s purpose is to improve the image of RT and the Kremlin. “It is patently false and without foundation as anyone with an ounce of intelligence who cares to read any of our published outputs will discover,” he wrote. “We are well-established, open-minded scholars who follow a strict code of research practice. To do otherwise would, in fact, be of great detriment to our careers. The idea that we are ‘trying to improve the image of RT’ let alone ‘the Kremlin’ is, in fact, a classic, open-and-shut piece of disinformation of the most disreputable kind.”
This article was developed with the support of Journalismfund.eu