Translated from the original by Jim Kovpak
Frequent readers have no doubt noticed my, shall we say, “special” feelings toward Russia Today (RT) and MIA Rossiya Segodnya chief editor Margarita Simonyan. I’ve decided that it’s finally time to explain them in more detail, and frankly I just wanted to get it off my chest.
First I must say thanks to Margarita. I am sincerely grateful to her, because she (or more accurately her deputy) freed me from a difficult dilemma. I could remain in a good position within my agency (I was head of a department within RIA), but under her direction- not a good trade-off. Or I could leave with pride, slamming the door on my way out. I never had to make that choice. As soon as Margarita was firmly established as the head of a new agency (and consequently, as my boss) in early 2014, she immediately fired nearly all of the old management, including myself. To be sure we were not formally dismissed, but rather our contracts were not renewed after all RIA employees had been cut following the decision of the liquidation commission. But I’ll spare the reader the technical details.
It all happened very calmly, prosaic even. One day in April of 2014 I come to work in the orange newsroom on the second floor of a building on Zubovsky boulevard, and there sitting in the office of my now-former boss was one of Simonyan’s deputies. I say hello, introduce myself, explain that my contract has expired, and I ask what we’re going to do about it. They tell me there is nothing to do; they have no intention of renewing my contract. There is no other way. Thank you and goodbye. Then as is typically the case when employees are dismissed, I went through the clearance procedures, got all the necessary signatures, and received my severance compensation according to the labor code.
In short I have no claims against Margarita Simonyan or her subordinates, nor do I have any tales of personal vengeance (this does not mean however, that other ex-employees of RIA don’t, as I have heard. Perhaps I was just lucky). And dear readers, I must say I really abhor these personal attacks on Margarita, about what she eats or whom she allegedly sleeps with. What disgusts me the most are the xenophobic attacks directed against her nationality. I don’t care how much she gets paid, how she spends her personal money, or whose children she allegedly bears. And all these stupid jokes about beavers have been done to death. This beaver has become an obsession to some of you out there. I also love cooking and am no stranger to culinary experimentation. I’d try eating beaver meat and I don’t see any joke in this.
So here’s what I really don’t like and in fact despise about Margarita Simonyan- her duplicity, hypocrisy, and constant lying. Margarita is an extremely intelligent person with a well-tuned moral compass. The only pity is that she shows this in all the wrong ways. In every interview Margarita loves to lecture about journalistic ethics, addressing both her Russian colleagues and Western counterparts. The problem is that all her moral preaching would best be applied to herself. Besides that, she’s continuously lying. I’ve already written so much about that and still she continues to lie. It’s almost like some kind of disorder. Moreover I can perfectly see that Margarita or at least her employees have read all of this. Links from Noodle Remover routinely go through RT corporate email. For every post I can see where visitors are coming from.
I know that she’s lying; she knows that I know, and so on. And yet it goes on as though nothing has happened. Take any of her interviews, TV appearances, or commentary- wherever you look you’re sure to find a ton of lies so primitive that they can be easily refuted within a few minutes search on Google. Here’s a fresh example that illustrates what I’m referring to.
Margarita went on the program “The Right to Know” on TVC (aired 6 February), and at 24:48 she said the following:
“We do what is interesting for the audience. Here’s an example: when the Occupy Wall Street protest started, we were the first to tell people in the States about it. For two weeks even the key news agencies were silent about this.”
I honestly don’t know how she manages to pull this off every time. A simple search on Google news for the two weeks following the beginning of Occupy Wall Street in New York reveals plenty of coverage of the event from all the major US and international publications. This is directly from the first day, 17 September 2011, when the first protesters appeared in New York’s Zucotti park:
Here we have an example from the Fox News channel, which Margarita loves to contrast to RT. There are photographs from the Associated Press:
Are those not “key news agencies?”
Here’s RT’s own page from the first day of Occupy. Not a word about the protests.
And these examples were just from one broadcast. Again, we’re talking about lies which can be easily refuted by a simple internet search. Here’s something I found entertaining when I was sitting on the second floor of the building on Zubovsky boulevard and Margarita was on the fifth:
“If the US media coverage of Manning were at least 10% of their coverage about our Pussy Riot, I’d believe in democracy.”
“Margarita, you can’t do anything without this, can you? NYT: Bradley Manning: 3,520 results. Pussy Riot: 2,170 Results.”
“A British blog has published research on why RT is beating the BBC. I will tweet a few quotes.”
“Here’s the BBC’s coverage from the first day of Occupy London. Who beat whom?”
You get the idea. I have a whole collection of these. It all ended when she blocked me on Twitter (and then fired me- ha ha!).
Then there was the time when Margarita wrote a column complaining about the British communications regulator Ofcom:
“There are direct threats to revoke our license. Recently we have had nine warnings from the British media regulator. They do not like us at all. I would understand if they found we had broadcast actual lies, incorrect facts, or something concretely wrong. But they didn’t find any of that. Indeed they don’t have to. It’s enough for them to accuse us of lacking objectivity. For example, in the case of Ukraine, from Ofcom’s point of view our television channel “did not adequately reflect the position of the provisional government in Ukraine.” Or in the case with our coverage of Libya, there was an accusation that NATO’s point of view was not presented. As if the BBC ever “adequately reflects” the Kremlin’s point of view on anything.”
“I would understand if they found we had broadcast actual lies, incorrect facts, or something concretely wrong. But they didn’t find any of that.” What do you take us for, Margarita? Not only did they find brazen lies, but there was even the modern blood libel of the so-called “crucified boy.” RT itself admitted as much when they deleted the episode of Truthseeker which contained the story from their site. Here is the relevant quote from the Ofcom newsletter, in which the claims against this (and several other episodes) can be found, along with RT’s reaction.
“Horrific and wild claims” – this, among other things, and the title “Eyewitnesses: KIEV ARMY LITERALLY crucify babies in captured towns and forced their mother to watch” (i.e. the very same “crucified boy” story from First Channel).
Caught in a lie, they were made to remove it and ordered to issue an on-air retraction. They still haven’t done the latter, meaning that Ofcom’s complaints have the status of “upheld,” meaning they are still active. This, according to Margarita, means that the British regulator just “doesn’t like” RT at all. As if it wasn’t bad enough that RT lied, Margarita went and lied to RBK about the incident in an interview, where she claimed the story had never been aired.
Interviewer- How does the situation with the sanctions and Ukraine influence the development of RT and Rossiya Segodnya?
Simonyan- On the whole, the situation in the mass media does influence our development. I don’t need to mention, perhaps, the fact that there isn’t one significant Western media outlet that hasn’t written us off as scoundrels. Anyone writes anything about us, and then it goes down in print and the rest reprint it. The biggest problem is that 99% of the mass media lies. For example, Anne Applebaum wrote about RT and said that this is the mass media that aired the story about the crucified boy. But we didn’t have any crucified boy!
Margarita loves to attack the “mainstream media,” hypocritically accusing them of lying. Her favorite example is the story of how the New York Times actually provoked the invasion of Iraq in 2003. This story was based on the fact that in 2002-2003 the paper put out a lot of material which supported the claim that Saddam Hussein had a large arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. These articles were later cited by Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, and Condoleezza Rice as a casus belli for the invasion, yet it was later revealed that much of this material had come from unreliable sources- for example, the biased founder of the anti-Hussein Iraqi National Congress, Ahmed Chalabi.
What Margarita is silent about is the fact that the New York Times has admitted their mistakes in this matter numerous times (on their site there is a whole section dedicated to refuting their earlier articles about Iraq), the reporter who wrote those articles was fired after the scandal in spite of the fact that she was a Pulitzer prize laureate, and still the New York Times’ general reputation was irreparably harmed by the incident. And what about RT and the “crucified boy?” Simonyan is simply lying, and the host of the Truthseeker program, Daniel Bushell, is still quietly working at RT.
In principle, a pathologically lying journalist is not a unique phenomenon. We’ve encountered them long before Margarita came along. There are several famous, or infamous stories such as that of Jayson Blair, a reporter for the New York Times, and Stephen Glass from The New Republic, who began with inventing small details and then ended up fabricating entire stories and interviews with non-existent people. If you watched the acclaimed TV series The Wire, you might remember that we meet such a character in the final season. The collective image of the reporter is that he is a resourceful liar.
The moral of that story, of course, is that such cases represent a pathology, and they are used as a negative example of how not to be a reporter. And of course in the history of journalism there doesn’t seem to be a single known case where a pathological liar was the head of a country’s largest news outlet.
This is the most horrific thing about this situation. RIA used to have a reputation not only in Russia or the Soviet Union, but in fact the whole world, for being one of the most reliable sources of information. This reputation was built up over a whole decade. Then Margarita, a pathological liar, came to RIA and it began to assault audiences with the most outlandish, primitive nonsense, “hanging noodles on your ears” as the Russian colloquialism goes. The problem is that RIA is not only the main source of information for its own audience, but also for other publications as well. If RIA publishes something, then it’s true, and one can publish their own news citing them as the source. The main news service of a country couldn’t be lying, could they? Oh wait…
Here’s another example of duplicity- Margarita simply idolized Julian Assange. She calls him her friend, he had his own TV show on RT, and almost every day the channel reports on virtually every step taken by this courageous fighter against the American intelligence community in the name of freedom of information. It leads to curiosities such as this:
The tweet with this photo and the headline about the “crowd” was later removed, but the message was clear- Assange is a hero if not an idol. However, if Assange were just an ordinary employee of RT and not a star personality and a personal friend of the chief editor, and he had tried to tell the world what goes on behind the scenes at the TV network, he would have received the following letter from the management:
I want to direct your attention to the mandatory rules of proper behavior on social media. I remind you that every one of us has signed a labor contract and a confidentiality agreement. In accordance with both of these you do not have the right to distribute or discuss information about your work with the channel or co-workers in open sources during the time you are employed by the channel and for the three years after you leave. Any social network, regardless of the type of account (e.g. one with highly restricted access), is considered to be an open source.
We have been forced to enact such policies after numerous occasions when posts from employees were used by malicious people in order to spread lies about RT and those who work there.”
All employees at RT are forced to sign something called the “non-disparagement agreement.” This means that they are not only obligated to refrain from discussing the channel while they work there, but up to three years after they leave. It’s interesting to think about what Julian Assange would have to say about this. And there is something to talk about. Paranoia reigns at RT, where denouncing and intimidating dissidents is encouraged. This is what I’ve been told by one of a few former employees who spoke to me on the condition that they remain anonymous:
“The silence is easy to explain. Employees who write about forbidden topics, even under invented names, are later called in for a discussion about values. I personally know one of these people. Margarita Simonyan loves Assange, who sits in London and slings mud at America, scoring points for RT. But she does not tolerate Assanges in her ranks. So you must understand that you are talking to people that have the basement of the Lyubyanka looming before them.”
Julian Assange, who regularly appears on the channel, might be curious to find out that Russia Today is one of the most opaque media outlets in the world. The fact is that most of the state media in Russia, such as “MIA Rossiya Segodnya,” VGTRK, and others are legally classified as Federal State Unitary Enterprises (FGUP in Russian). Therefore they regularly complete and detailed accounts on their activities. All this data is publicly available- you can find out how they spend each and every kopek they get from the Ministry of Finance under the heading “Mass Media.”
Russia Today is a different case. The owner of RT is an ANO, “Autonomous Non-commercial Organization” i.e. a non-profit or charitable organization, called TV-Novosti (news). Here’s what kind of subsidies the richest non-profit organization in Russia receives:
Where any of this money goes is utterly incomprehensible. How much, for example, was spent on the luxurious RT office in London, the one with a view of Big Ben? Nobody knows. But these are our taxes. After much head-butting against the Ministry of Justice, to whom all Russian non-profit organizations including TV-Novosti must report, lawyers from “Team 29” managed to get some kind of report from RT, but it looks like some kind of ambiguous mockery. The report on the expenditure of 11 billion rubles is just one page with two lines:
Such a report to the Ministry of Finance from any other non-profit organization in Russia would have earned them a fine, but Margarita got away with it. Every year, hundreds of millions of dollars which belong to us are cast into a bottomless pit which requires more and more. Margarita constantly moans about how most of her expenses are in foreign currency, and the dollar is growing so please give more. But what she does with that money she does not want to tell us for some reason. If only some story about some shadowy Israeli attorney and millions of dollars deposited in Luxemburg bank accounts would leak out. If only there were some Assange or Snowden to tell us the whole story. But Assange is a hero only on the air at RT, and behind the scenes of the network Margarita wages a ruthless struggle against Assanges.
This is why I don’t like Margarita Simonyan. It was not because she fired me; as I mentioned in the beginning I was actually grateful to her for that. It is because she is a pathologically lying, dishonest, and duplicitous person who is a disgrace to the profession of journalism and who is destroying the once-great reputation of the best news organization for which I was proud to work.
About the author- Alexei Kovalev was head of InoSMI for RIA-Novosti before the latter was liquidated in 2014. He currently heads up the project Noodle Remover, which scrutinizes propaganda and bad journalistic practices in the Russian media.