Russian President Putin – facing accusations from Western leaders of orchestrating a ‘disinformation’ campaign intended to distort outcomes in Western politics – has now intervened in the whole discussion of how contemporary news is reported.
He has done so in the most droll way, highlighting once again his mischievous sense of humour, by sending a facetious message of congratulations to the Italian newspaper La Stampa on the occasion of its 150th anniversary.
Putin’s message reads as follows
Congratulations on the 150th anniversary of the publication of the first issue of La Stampa, one of the oldest periodicals in Italy and all of Europe, a continent traditionally known for such values as freedom of expression, objectivity, impartiality and the readiness to allow any viewpoint to find its way to the reader. However, over the past several years, some of the most influential media outlets in Europe have turned into a tool to manipulate public opinion. Information wars have become a daily reality. The co-opted media prefer to present a distorted picture of what is going on to suit entrenched interests, and planted news stories have begun not only to ruin individual lives but also to redefine the political landscape of entire countries.
La Stampa is a model of journalism’s traditional values. Your publication gives voice to people with different views and provides good opportunities for constructive discussion. As a result, it is invariably marked by a profound and comprehensive analysis of current events, objectivity and well-substantiated evaluations.
Your staff writers have always been true professionals who sincerely love and know their trade and who firmly adhere to the lofty principles of journalistic ethics. Your highly professional work and responsible civic stance contribute to strengthening trust and mutual understanding among people from various countries and help address the pressing problems of modern society.
(bold italics added)
That the President of Russia would take time off to congratulate a Western establishment newspaper on its anniversary is so far as I know unprecedented, and though Putin’s praise for La Stampa is doubtless sincere there is no doubt he sent his message with his tongue firmly in his cheek.
Incidentally, for those who might be wondering, La Stampa is owned by the Fiat group, not by Putin’s friend, former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
What Putin was of course doing by sending his message of congratulations to La Stampa was intervene in the whole ‘fake news’ debate by impishly highlighting the degree to which the rest of the European establishment media has given up on Europe’s “traditional values” of “freedom of expression, objectivity, impartiality and the readiness to allow any viewpoint to find its way to the reader”.
About that he is of course absolutely right, with the traditional European establishment media at least in Europe’s three leading countries – France, Germany and Britain – now almost monolithic in their unity of views and their intolerance of other people’s.
On his last point, the one about the European media’s former tradition of “allowing any viewpoint to find its way to the reader” Putin is of course – ever so gently – drawing attention to the way the current campaign to suppress outlets providing what Western leaders call ‘fake news’ contradicts Europe’s tradition of freedom of expression.
As it happens, on the subject of how the current campaign against so-called ‘fake news’ is totally contrary to the Western tradition of freedom of expression, I recently wrote a piece myself, in which I said the following, with which – judging from his comments – Putin would no doubt agree
To be clear, the way to deal with damaging news — ‘fake’ or otherwise — for those who genuinely believe in free speech is not to seek to suppress it or to try to silence those who communicate it. It is to expose the news either as untrue, or to provide counter arguments to rebut or refute it.
Needless to say Putin’s humorous poke will not go down well with the self-important owners and editors of Europe’s traditional media, who – though they will largely fail to report it – are undoubtedly aware of it. On the contrary that the President of Russia – of all people – should read them a lecture on freedom of expression will appear to them outrageous. All the more so I suspect because privately they know he is right.