Friday

22nd Feb 2019

Feature

Corriere della Putin: Interview raises questions

  • Valentino (l) and Fontana (c) with Putin at the Kremlin (Photo: kremlin.ru)

Last weekend, Corriere della Sera, Italy’s newspaper of record, published a long interview with Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

He spoke more freely than usual on why he seized Crimea, why he opposes EU energy laws, and his reasons for resuming Cold War-era air patrols.

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He also made false claim after false claim about Ukraine and Russia.

He said the Euromaidan was a CIA coup, that Crimea wanted to join Russia, that his forces aren’t in Ukraine, and that Russia is becoming more democratic.

The newspaper’s editor-in-chief, Luciano Fontana, and its foreign affairs correspondent, Paolo Valentino, didn’t confront him and didn’t insert factual context.

“Forgive me for this protracted monologue”, Putin said at one point.

Propaganda

Corriere della Sera’s treatment of the interview drew criticism from some Russia experts.

Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, a Polish MEP, said: “If you present [Putin’s] claims without explanatory comments … it constitutes a breach of good journalism”.

“It’s a platform for Russian propaganda”.

Ulrich Speck, a former RFE/RFL reporter who works for the Carnegie Europe think tank, said Putin used the newspaper to attack EU sanctions.

“He considers Italy to be a weak part of the pro-sanctions coalition … With the interview, he’s addressing the Italian public, trying to strengthen those forces who want to go back to business as usual”.

Elena Servettaz, a Russian-French journalist with Radio France Internationale, called it “naive” and “boring”.

“Lame and sycophantic”, Dejan Anastasijevic, an award-winning Serb journalist, said.

Insight

For his part, Corriere della Sera's Valentino told EUobserver: “Our effort was to understand the Russian point of view, which Western media rarely do”.

“Some of the things he says are interesting if you want to know his mental framework … to get an idea of the mindset of Vladimir Putin”.

“You can’t explain his popularity just by saying he controls Russian media. There’s something deeper here, which goes to the heart of Russian identity, of Russian nationalist feeling, and we’re trying to understand it”.

He noted that European papers often publish interviews in a Q-and-A format without inserting context.

“When you talk to a head of state, I think it’s fair you give them space to explain their position”, he said.

He added that his readers get “the full picture” from other stories.

Corriere della Sera posts correspondents to Ukraine who report Kiev’s point of view and it speaks to Russian dissidents.

It put a story on Russia’s blacklist of EU politicians on the same page as the Putin piece.

It did an interview with Ian Bremmer, a US academic, on Putin’s comments, the same day. It also did an interview on Putin with the Italian foreign minister.

“I totally reject the argument that we gave a platform to Russian propaganda”, Valentino said.

What do you ask?

The interview controversy poses the question: What do you ask a man like Putin?

Valentino said the Kremlin requested a list of topics in advance and to authorise Putin’s quotes before publication. The White House imposed the same conditions when he interviewed Barack Obama.

He said he was free to improvise questions to Putin on the day.

He asked about hard topics, such as media restrictions in Russia and whether Crimea-type annexation could happen in east Ukraine.

But he said confrontational questions don’t work: “He’s [Putin] answered them time and again and we’d have gotten the same rubbish he’s always giving”.

Mark Gaelotti, a US scholar of Russian affairs, agreed.

“Getting an interview with Putin is very hard … Obama hardly allows himself to be grilled, either. It's the nature of the business”, he noted.

“I strongly doubt we'd have learned anything more had they been more confrontational”.

But for some, the Italian newspaper went too far.

“They failed to challenge Putin even when he mouthed obvious lies, for instance, on Russia having almost no troops outside its borders”, Anastasijevic, the Serb journalist, said.

He said it missed opportunities to trip up the Russian leader.

Russia doesn’t recognise Kosovo independence. But Putin told Corriere della Sera that Kosovo is a precedent for Crimea. “One could ask: ‘If Crimea's secession was justified, why doesn't Russia accept that Kosovo had the same right?',” Anastasijevic said.

Servettaz, the Russian-French journalist, said some of the questions to Putin - for instance “What is your biggest regret in life?” - make the interview “ridiculous”.

She rejected the idea the soft touch made him open up.

“This interview has given nothing new to those who follow Russian developments from a close range”, she said.

Trust

In broader terms, Putin’s claims also pose the question: Who can journalists and readers trust?

Anton Shekhovtsov, a scholar of Russian propaganda at the Legatum Institute, a British think tank, said reporters can trust their own eyes if they go to the conflict zone in Ukraine.

“But even then, you can't see the whole picture”.

He noted that Western states have intelligence on Russian troops in Ukraine. But they withhold it from press in order not to compromise sources.

He said some Ukrainian media are also guilty of propaganda.

But he said the best sources on the conflict simply check out: “You follow multiple media. Nato briefings. Russian briefings. Time passes, and you can see what percentage of it is correct or incorrect, who is worth listening to”.

“A fact has no second point of view. It’s not open to interpretation”.

Carnegie’s Speck added: “Journalists can trust Western sources because they’re part of a free and competitive information environment, driven by the idea of objectivity”.

“What matters for state-controlled media in autocratic countries … is to make their leaders look good”.

Assumptions

The fierce reactions to Corriere della Sera indicate that political assumptions also play a role in trust.

Zhanna Nemtsova, the daughter of Boris Nemtsov, a murdered Russian opposition leader, told the BBC on Tuesday (9 June) that “Kremlin-controlled media recall the rhetoric of African propagandists”.

"Putin's information machine - similar to those in Nazi Germany and in Rwanda - is using criminal methods … [to] sow hatred, which generates violence".

Her comparison of Russia to Rwanda is a long way from Valentino’s mindset.

The Italian journalist told EUobserver: “We would't ask for an interview with, for instance, the Syrian leader or the North Korean leader”.

“But we're talking about the leader of Russia, which is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, and, until last year, of the G8. It has a major role in all issues, including Iran and weapons of mass destruction”.

“We spoke with someone with whom the US secretary of state, [John] Kerry, recently spoke … We're not talking about a rogue state. We don't think Russia is a rogue state".

Saryusz-Wolski, the Polish MEP, who hails from the centre right, linked Russia-friendly sentiment inside the EU with old left-wing sentiment.

Not referring to Corriere della Sera directly, he noted that “a large part of public opinion in Western Europe falls victim to naivety, manipulation”.

“It’s the effect of decades of fascination by the European left with the Soviet experiment, which is now being transferred to Russia”.

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