The Russian journalists’ community as well as many bloggers have been avidly discussing a transcript leaked from a meeting of the new management of RBC with staff.
They are Elizaveta Osetinskaya, editor-in-chief of the site; Maksim Solyus, chief editor of the RBC newspaper; and also Roman Badanin, chief editor of the RBC news agency.
Elizaveta Osetinskaya went to take a sabbatical at Stanford University. Roman Badanin left to head up TV Rain.
— The Interpreter (@Interpreter_Mag) 7 июля 2016 г.
— The Interpreter (@Interpreter_Mag) 14 мая 2016 г.
— The Interpreter (@Interpreter_Mag) 7 июля 2016 г.
Igor Trosnikov and Elizaveta Golikova, both deputy editors at TASS who are now the new editors of RBC, convened the staff on July 7. Trosnikov told them his own background, working at the business daily Kommersant for 16 years and then TASS, the state wire service, for the last 3 years. He congratulated RBC’s employees for making a “brand,” a commercial success, and said he and Golikova were coming not as “new bosses” but “as colleagues, and respecting you professionally” and therefore counting on “mutual respect.”
He urged the staff not to relay the content of their conversation on social media — but within a day, it was posted by Meduza.io, an online news site in Russian and English established by editors and journalists of Lenta.ru who were fired or quit under Kremlin pressure over their reporting on the war in Ukraine.
At the RBC meeting, one journalist spoke up right away and said that since the past leadership was fired because “something didn’t jibe in terms of the editorial policy” then it stands to reason that the new editors have a different policy, and that “the editorial policy will not remain the same…because something clearly wasn’t suitable.”
“Completely correct,” said Trosnikov.
Golikova then drew an analogy of driving a car, keeping to the traffic rules, and if you don’t, being stopped by the police.
“If you cross the double line when you are driving, your license is removed. Does that mean that you will no longer drive an automobile or you will now fly a plane, or something else perhaps?”
“Where is the double line?” the reporter instantly asked.
“And it is a road. The news space, as you know full well, is a very sensitive zone. And we all have now a catastrophically difficult moment. Not only in RBC, but in all mass media. This difficult moment, I don’t know — the overflowing street traffic, very nervous drivers, the catastrophic tension everyone who is outside the automobile has, and inside of it. And our job is to display our professionalism in such a way that this traffic is as safe as it is for those who sit inside the car as it is for pedestrians.”
Trosnikov then continued with his concept of RBC as “colleagues” with TASS, as many of them trained at Kommersant.
“We are of the same school, believe me,” he claimed. “Both regarding the audience and responsibility to the audience — it’s the same in fact.”
The RBC journalist said his question wasn’t about that, then Trosnikov said, “But I replied: no one knows where the double line is.”
“No,” said the RBC journalist. “It’s moving.”
Trusnikov conceded this, but said the main standards for journalism were “definitely not moving.”
The RBC journalist pressed harder. “What mistakes do you think the previous leadership made?” After all, if everything was fine, they wouldn’t have been fired.
Trosnikov ducked this direct question as he “highly respected Elizaveta Osetinskaya,” the previous RBC editor-in-chief and then demanded to know whether the journalist wanted to talk about the past or the future.
Another journalist, head of the news department, pointed out that in order to understand the future, they had to understand what the “mistakes” were. So he wanted to know what the new editors’ “line” was and what direction they were taking.
Here Trosnikov became testy. “Listen, I didn’t fire Liza or Maksim, alright?” — referencing Osetinskaya and Solyus.” Trosnikov said the journalist could not get “anything concrete” from him now as his main purpose was to establish rapport and reassure the staff “nothing fundamentally will change.”
Nikolai Molibog, the CEO of the company who attended the meeting said that he and Osetinskaya had said several times that RBC covers the news on every subject except possibly pubic hair — this was a reference to a story on Lenta.ru on men shaving their pubic hair to look attractive. As Molibog explained:
“And when we get into not news content, but deep content, then everything has to be looked at through the prism of money, state money, the corrupt element, corrupt money, personal money, that is, the basic by-word is not in news content for RBC but in money.”
Another journalist who introduced herself as the deputy editor of the politics department said the new editors may not be so familiar with their work methods. “Now, we have only one reason not to publish a text — the inability to prove [inaudible] of the topic,” she said.
“But from your statement on the double line, I have understood that perhaps there is some other factor which would influence the selection of the text,” she said.
Golikova asked if the journalist didn’t think there should be any rules of the road at all:
“…there are rules of the road; everyone here are adults and understand perfect well that they [the rules] are thought up so that traffic is safe and so that people going 180/km and hour understand that they are risking their own lives.”
Another journalist asked point blank: were the double lines involving Kirill Shamalov, said to be President Vladimir Putin’s son-in-law, and Katerina Tikhonova, said to be his daughter?
“For us, in my understanding, they are not crossing the double line. These are good, professional pieces. Are they crossing or not crossing in your understanding?” he asked.
Trosnikov replied in exasperation, “I’ll tell you honestly, I will not answer such a question, you want too much.” Golikova urged the journalists to discuss future material.
The journalist came back at them with the remark that they had more material on Putin’s daughter.
“Send it in, we’ll read it,” said Trosnikov.
“So it’s possible material, then?” This journalist felt that a story on a big construction project at Moscow State University which the president’s daughter was said to be involved in was a worthy story.
Next the journalists discussed Putin’s absence. “It’s not investigation; it’s news,” said one.
Molibog asked, “Is it news?” He felt that the end of the piece RBC did publish, about people praying for the president was “irrelevant.”
Trosnikov reiterated that he understood RBC’s plight:
“Believe me, we have sat many times where you have sat now, the shareholders changed in Kommersant, Berezovsky came to us, Usmanov, Kovalsky was fired. It was exactly the same, to be equal you would have to ask about computers that didn’t work.”
“We will definitely not answer the questions, and you shouldn’t torment us with them, let’s talk seriously,” he cautioned. He said the journalists “would not be ashamed” to go on working there and that “with or without you will do this project.” He would prefer doing it with the RBC journalists as they had made RBC what it is today.
“So don’t distract us for God’s sake with Putin’s daughters, let’s talk seriously, like adults,” he concluded.
Another journalist said a lot of people had already left RBC, and there were a lot of vacancies. Where we they get new employees, and would they be coming from TASS?
Trosnikov said there would “definitely” not be people from TASS — he had given his word not to take them away when he moved to RBC.
Yet another journalist asked about campaign ads from United Russia which another publication said appeared without the editor’s knowledge or consent. Will RBC face a situation like this?
Molibog said that banners could be bought, but there would be no special projects. “What difference is it whether it’s Baltyka beer or United Russia?” he said.
A journalist asked what the response would be to government officials, or, say, law-enforcement, calling to try to influence stories which they often did. What would be the attitude toward such officials?
Golikova said they were experienced in dealing with such telephone calls and they “would not reflect on the quality of the publication.”
Finally one journalist hit the nail on the head. “What if material on the Panama documents were to come out now? ITAR-TASS was very late with this.”
Golikova replied, “And you don’t sense the difference between RBC and the agency ITAR-TASS?”
The journalist said no, but since they had come from TASS he had to ask.
The journalists argued over who had worked at TASS in the past or whether any place they had worked influenced them, and finally Molibog said Vedomosti hadn’t “crossed the double line” in their handling of the Panama Papers material. But RBC had. So how?
Moliborg then implied it was due to the pictures and headlines they used, taken from Western publications. Those stories featured Putin.
The journalists also discussed the issue of the “unified editorial board,” i.e. that the news site and the magazine would have the same editors.
A journalist tried to raised the specifics of what content would not be allowed. Trosnikov asked if they thought there was a special book in the Kremlin “Guide for How to Determine Whether Material is Correct.” Golikova insisted the issue was only regarding the quality of the facts and their appraisal of them.
A young journalist, only 22, who said he had been at RBC already two years, called out Trostnikov and Golikova for acting so defensively. He pointed out that people had left RBC for very defined reasons, so that those staying needed to know the direction the new editors were taking the publication.
Another journalist asked if all the freelancers and investigative journalists would remain, and Trosnikov said they would but also that he didn’t know what the future structure of the organization was, only that it had to be in compliance with Russia’s media law.
“Any journalistic argument today is an argument about the government — to co-exist with it, oppose it, or flee,” blogger Oleg Kashin said about the leaked transcript.
Kashin cited the story of a media outlet using an article from Le Monde about how many billions the Russian prime minister had; this led to the editor being fired. That was the “double line” — newspapers should not peer into officials’ wallets.
In fact Kashin was referring not to the current story of RBC, but to Izvestiya, and the firing of Igor Golembiovsky, its editor, and the involvement of the shareholder Lukoil. The prime minister in question was Viktor Chernomyrdin, and the story was back in 1997.
Kashin pointed out that the technique now only associated with Putin and perfected by him — pressure by the government on a private media owner, and the owner forced to make concessions and fire the editor-in-chief, and some journalists depart with him — was first used by President Boris Yeltsin.
But now it is widespread, and all journalists will have to figure out how to cope with it.
By Catherine A. Fitzpatrick, for The Interpreter