Rules of the game

Investigative journalists are being picked off one by one in Russia. Their "crime", says Roman Shlei

European and American perceptions of Russian life are nothing if not naive. My view is reaffirmed every time I speak to western journalists, and hear the way they interpret the dangers their Russian colleagues face and the limitations imposed on free speech in Russia. It is naivety in the positive sense of the word: a real failure to grasp why Russian state officials do not resign after press revelations have directly implicated them in criminal cases; why the public does not protest when local elections are cancelled; why assassinations of journalists do not bring thousands out on to the streets or provoke questions of the authorities. In Europe, any one of these events would create a level of indignation capable of bringing down a government. In Russia, it passes unnoticed. So what is the point of Russian journalism, if there is virtually no response to revelations either from the public or the state?

For more than ten years I have worked for Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper viewed in Russia as an opposition publication. Currently, I am in charge of the investigations section. The paper appears twice a week and has a print run of 500,000 copies, pretty much average for Russia. It focuses on misappropriation of power and corruption. It also reports on human rights abuses and the repression of opposition. Many western journalists discovered Novaya Gazeta through Anna Politkovskaya. One of her chief areas of interest was the human rights situation in Chechnya and the North Caucasus. She was highly critical of the authorities, both federal and local, for their policies in these regions. In 2006, she was assassinated in the lift of her apartment block.

For our editorial team, this loss was by no means the first. In 1994, our special correspondent Svetlana Orliuk travelled to Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia to look into the detention of an officer held in a solitary-confinement cell for interrogation. The officer was released and it was acknowledged that his arrest had been illegal. Orliuk died of poisoning. There was no proper official investigation into her death. In 2000, our columnist Igor Domnikov was murdered in the entrance to his home in Moscow. He had been reporting on corruption in Lipetsk Province. The culprits are now in the dock, but the people who ordered the hit are still free. In 2001, Viktor Popkov, a freelance correspondent and human rights activist, was killed in Chechnya. Yuri Shchekochikhin - our deputy editor, a parliamentary deputy and member of the Russian parlia mentary commission against corruption - died suddenly in 2003. He had received a number of death threats. A preliminary diagnosis suggested poisoning, but no official investigation ever took place. The killings testify to the fact that, in Russia, journalists have influence and are taken seriously. According to the international Committee to Protect Journalists, 42 Russian journalists have been murdered over the past 15 years. The Russian Union of Journalists estimates that more than 200 have been killed in ten years.

Appalling as it may sound, we have grown accustomed to these things happening. Anna's assassination provoked a stronger response in the west than it did in Russia. If it had not been for a telephone conversation between the Russian president and George Bush two days after the tragedy, and questions raised by European journalists, Vladimir Putin would probably not even have referred to her death. At a press conference in Germany, he emphasised that Politkovskaya's influence on Russian politics was negligible. He also blamed forces from abroad for her murder. Putin's thinking is shared by other state officials as well as the leaders of state-controlled businesses. They are, in effect, unaccountable to the public (or their shareholders); they look to their superiors alone; and they tend to interpret journalistic criticism as open hostility.

But it would be unfair to point the finger only at the authorities. Russian civil society, including its journalists, is immature, ill-developed and accustomed to being ignored by the state. Most people remain convinced that their views can have no impact. It would be optimistic to estimate that 10-15 per cent of the population is engaged with public life. The passive majority is stirred into action only when its survival or personal welfare is under threat. Russian pensioners came out on to the streets when they were deprived of free travel on public transport, for example. Car owners organised nationwide pro tests when the government attempted to stop the use of right-hand-drive vehicles. Yet when the elections for regional governors were called off in 2004, there was no sign of mass protest.

At present, most people do not consider elections as important as a car or a pension, and cannot imagine participating in decision-making. Journalists writing for publications that are not geared to entertainment or the mass market address a very small proportion of the population.

To be fair, there are signs of change. When, in 2005, the car of a regional governor rammed another at 125mph, the owner of the other vehicle - a member of the public - was deemed respon sible for the accident. With press support, a national wave of protest ensued and the verdict was overturned in March last year. This offers some hope that the public is capable of making its views heard, though the threshold of sensitivity to events remains extremely low.

Dangerous assignments

In the provinces, living standards vary a great deal and it would be a mistake to judge Russia by Moscow or St Petersburg. "The other Russia" begins just beyond the Moscow ring road, and the degree of free speech permitted there is considerably lower than in the capital. The catalogue of assassinated journalists consists mainly of people who worked in the provinces. Their names are unlikely to be publicised in Europe because they reported on local issues: corruption among governors and heads of administration, their links with crime, battles for regional ownership, and the involvement of the local security services, law-enforcement agencies, public pro secutors' offices and courts in these struggles.

Regional assignments are the most dangerous. Local authorities react to publications far more ruthlessly than federal ones. The heads of local administrations and presidents of republics within the Russian Federation have free rein in their dealings with journalists. On their own territory, they are small-time "tsars", and they mimic the central authorities in exaggerated form. The militia, public prosecutor's offices, courts and the special services are deployed to create obstacles for newspapers. Legal justifications are provided for formality's sake, but the game is poorly played and motives behind the allegations are all too visible.

In 2006, a newspaper in Perm, in the Urals, permitted itself to criticise the local authorities. A police search of the editorial offices followed. Militiamen removed computers, servers, discs, flashcards, audio recordings and photographs. That summer, all members of the editorial team faced criminal charges for "causing offence" and "disseminating state secrets". A series of critical articles published in a paper in the mining town of Kemerovo prompted the governors of that province to write to the office of the public prosecutor, demanding that measures be taken against the editor. The regional office of the FSB, the successor to the KGB, told the public prosecutor's office it had legal grounds to investigate the paper. In Kaliningrad, a newspaper frequently critical of the local authorities had its entire print run sequestrated, its offices searched and computers confiscated.

Regional newspapers in any position to criticise may belong to local opposition parties (sometimes to local MPs). They may be small publications founded by business people in conflict with the regional administration, who use the newspaper as a weapon in the struggle for private ownership. Or they may be a combination of these. In such conditions, journalistic standards in the provinces are not high and editorial independence is elusive. Never theless, this may be the only opportunity for regional audiences to hear criticism of the local authorities and get access to alternative information.

Clumsy acts

Journalists employed by mainstream publications are in a less dangerous position. Criticism of the federal authorities does not instantly lead to searches, arrests and criminal allegations for one reason - there is no cause for high-level officials to perform clumsy acts of vengeance in full view of the media at home and abroad. It is far more effective to make a deal with a newspaper owner, and if a loyal businessman is persuaded to take ownership of the paper, so much the better. Alternatively, material released by newspapers with small circulations can simply be ignored. Unpleasant reports will not be disseminated widely, because central TV channels, which have tens of millions of viewers, are entirely under state control.

In conditions where law-enforcement agencies, the public prosecutor's office and the courts are compromised and the public is undemanding, the publication of even the most damning information does not bring about change. A multilayered field of protection - loyal owner, obedient television, dependent state arbiters - guarantees that no one will rock the boat. If necessary, legal proceedings can always be opened.

Novaya Gazeta's experience in this area is considerable. One example: a former nuclear energy minister, Yevgeny Adamov, sued us for defaming his "honour, dignity and professional reputation". By way of evidence we offered the court copies of documents on which we had based an article about him. Adamov won. We then published facsimiles of documents containing the minister's signature, so that our readers would understand how this case had been handled. Some years later Adamov was detained in Switzerland at the request of a US district attorney general. He was extradited to Russia to face criminal charges. A case against him is now under way in the same Russian court. It rests on the very facts to which Novaya Gazeta had originally referred. From time to time, our journalists are summoned to the public prosecutor's office or to the FSB. Generally, a criminal case will be initiated in response to an article that, in the eyes of the public prosecutor or the special services, exposes a state secret. This happened when we published a list of former special service employees who had gone on to work for private business.

It is no secret that Russian state officials have strong links with business. Not long ago, we put together some material about a little-known firm, which had suddenly been granted a highly lucrative contract. After examining the facts, we turned to the company's directors and to state officials for comment. Soon after, Novaya Gazeta was offered US$240,000 not to publish the material. When we refused, we received a series of telephone calls from government employees, and later from the presidential administration. Officials tried to interfere with editorial decisions and stop publication. The material appeared nonetheless and there are now hints of possible legal proceedings.

The most common reaction to criticism of highly placed officials, however, is silence. In 2005, we published lists of criminal cases that had featured the names of President Putin and several cabinet ministers. We called upon one of the former leading investigators in the case in which Putin's name appeared. He had been forced to resign after several cases he was investigating were aborted. All the cases concerned Russian officials, and there was no hope that they would be indicted. After the investigator resigned, he brought a lawsuit against Putin as a common citizen, trying to prove that the cases had been stopped illegally. The court received a letter from the president's office saying that Putin could not be part of the process. We turned to officials for comment but received no response. Even the publication of documents from criminal cases in which the head of state's name has appeared will not bring repercussions. By the next day the public will have forgotten.

Minority interest

A journalist becomes a target not as a result of criticising the Kremlin and the state, as is often thought in the west, but after investigating how the bureaucracy in the regions really functions, where state policies are leading and who stands to gain. These were the issues Anna Politkov skaya addressed. I do not think that a Kremlin official organised her assassination, but the Kremlin is fully responsible for creating the situation in which the murder became possible.

Journalism becomes a threat and a serious irritant when it begins to influence social dynamics. Politkovskaya's reports had this effect because they were seen by foreign human rights organisations as an alternative source of information. She had become more than a journalist: she was a social activist. It is not criticism of the Kremlin itself that endangers Russian journalists, but the threat they pose to an old system of relationships that benefits a tiny minority of people. And that will not be permitted.

Roman Shleinov is investigations editor of Novaya Gazeta

Translation by Irena Maryniak

A version of this article appears in the current issue of Index on Censorship

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Russia: The beggar becomes the belligerent

Martin O’Neill for New Statesman
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1966 and all that

A year of World Cup glory, meeting Paul McCartney and eating placenta.

Fifty years ago this Saturday, on 30 July 1966, I was at Wembley. I have my ticket and my programme to prove it. I also have my 1966 ­diary, which I am looking at now. I was 30, weighed ten stone and eight pounds, and my waist was 32 inches – about as hard to believe now as England winning another World Cup final.

I am still in the same house, all these decades later, but my telephone number then was GUL 4685. GUL was short for Gulliver, I can’t remember why. In my list of contacts at the end of my diary is Melvyn Bragg, who was another recent arrival in London from Cumbria, like myself and my wife, on PRO 0790. PRO stood for Prospect, I think, which was the exchange name for somewhere over the river, possibly Kew.

My office number was TER 1234. I always thought that was a great and memorable number. It’s only now, thinking about it, that I realise that TER – meaning Terminus –
probably related to King’s Cross, which the Sunday Times was near in those days.

At the top of the charts in July 1966 were the Kinks with “Sunny Afternoon”, which I can well remember, as it was so ironically chirpy, and Georgie Fame with “Getaway”. I liked Georgie Fame – low-key, cool – but I can’t remember that tune. Both were replaced in August by the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine”/“Eleanor Rigby”.

My day job in July 1966, on the Sunday Times staff, was writing the Atticus column. It still exists, but in a smaller, more skittery format. Previous incumbents included Ian Fleming, John Buchan and Sacheverell Sitwell, who was reputed to have got free Mateus rosé for life after giving the wine its first mention in an English newspaper.

I had been on the paper since 1960, after spending two years as a so-called graduate trainee journalist, mainly in Manchester, which was a laugh. There was no training and there were no lessons in law. You had a mentor for a few weeks and then you got on with it.

In my first few years as the boy on Atticus, I never had my name in the paper. I had to write dreary paragraphs about who might be our next man in Washington, or the bishop of London, or the master of Balliol, as if I cared. I wanted to write about footballers, gritty northern novelists, pop stars.

When I started at the Sunday Times, I felt for a while that people were prejudiced against me, because I was northern and working class and had gone to grammar school and a provincial university (Durham). Everyone else seemed to have been at Oxbridge and gone to public school.

But this prejudice was all in my head, imagined, just as it had been when I used to go from Durham to visit my girlfriend, Margaret – whom I married in 1960 – at Oxford. I was convinced that some of her posh friends were being condescending ­towards me. Total nonsense, but I had a chip on my shoulder for some years. Gone, all gone, just like my 32-inch waist. (I am now 12 stone and the new shorts I bought last week have a 38-inch waist. Oh, the horror.) If anything, these past 50 years, any prejudice has been in my favour.

Harold Wilson was the prime minister in 1966. His northern accent was even stronger than mine. I still have a letter from him, dated 21 March 1963, after I interviewed him for Atticus. In the letter, he ­describes the 1938 FA Cup final in which Preston beat Huddersfield Town 1-0, scoring in the last minute of extra time. At the bottom of the page, in handwriting, he’d added: “after hitting the crossbar”.

What I remember most about the interview was George Brown, who was deputy to
Wilson as Labour leader at the time, hanging around outside his office, drunk. Marcia Williams, Wilson’s secretary, was going around tut-tutting, making faces, complaining about George. I thought she shouldn’t have done, not in front of me, as I was a total stranger and a hack. (I don’t think we called ourselves hacks in those days, which is the normal, half-ironic self-description today.)

Harold was a football man and also a real know-all, forever boasting about his memory for facts and figures. The contents of this letter illustrate both aspects of his character. It led me later to collect a letter or autograph from every prime minister, going back to Robert Walpole. Only took me ten years.

There is a myth that England’s 1966 win helped Labour stay in power – which does not quite stand up. The general election was in March – four months before the final. But Wilson did milk England’s victory, identifying himself and the nation with our English champions.

It is possible that the reverse effect happened in 1970, when Wilson was chucked out and Edward Heath came in. England’s defeat at the 1970 World Cup by West Germany was just four days before the June general election.

***

I got my ticket for the 1966 World Cup final – for one of the best seats, priced at £5 – from my friend James Bredin, now dead, who was the boss of Border Television. Based in Carlisle, Border covered the Scottish Borders and the Isle of Man. It was a thriving, thrusting regional ITV station, now also deceased.

James’s chauffeur came to pick me up and waited for us after the match, a sign of the importance and affluence of even minor ITV stations. Border contributed quite a bit to the network, such as Mr and Mrs, starring Derek Batey, who presented 450 editions of this very popular national show. Batey was a local lad who started his show business life as an amateur ventriloquist in the little market town of Brampton, Cumbria, before becoming Carlisle’s Mr Show Business. He was so polished – lush hair, shiny suits, so starry, so glittery – that I always wondered why he was not in London, in the West End.

Border TV also produced some excellent documentaries that were networked across the ITV region, two of which I presented. One was about walking along Hadrian’s Wall and the other was about George Stephenson. For a while in the 1970s, I began to think I was going to become a TV presenter, despite being not much good. I was lousy at acting, which you need for television, and disliked asking questions to which I already knew the answers. And it took so much time. For each programme, we spent eight weeks on location with a crew of eight, just to make a one-hour documentary. Now they
do docs in a week with just two people.

For half an hour, I also imagined that I was going to become a playwright. In 1967, I had a play in the BBC’s Wednesday Play slot, awfully prestigious at the time, called The Playground. It was one of those shows that were filmed live and then wiped, so I have never seen it since, nor has anybody else. I blamed that for blighting my playwriting career, though till I was looking in my 1966 diary and saw that I was working on that play, I’d forgotten about its existence. As we go through life, we forget all the paths not trodden.

I’ve boasted endlessly about being at the 1966 Wembley final, and it was so exciting, but I can’t remember many of the details. I must have been aware of Geoff Hurst’s second goal being a bit dodgy, as there were loud complaints from the German fans, but as Sir Geoff, as he then wasn’t, went on to score a third goal, it didn’t really matter. At the time, I considered that the England-Portugal semi-final had been a better game, with our Bobby Charlton scoring two goals against one from Eusebio, but of course winning a final is winning a final and the excitement and the patriotic pride continued for weeks and months. We felt as if it had been our right to win – after all, did we not give the game to the world, lay down the first rules, show all those foreigners how to play our game?

The result was that we usually ignored all the new ideas and developments that were emerging from Europe and South America, carrying on with our old ways, stuffing our faces with steak before a game and knocking back six pints afterwards, a bit like Alf Tupper in the Rover comic. He lived on fish and chips, but on the race track he could beat anyone.

Those funny Continental players started playing in funny lightweight boots, more like slippers or ballet shoes, which seemed barmy to us. How we scoffed. How can you play properly, far less kick someone properly, unless your ankles are encased in hard leather as tough as steel? Who cared if they weighed a ton, especially in wet weather? We Brits were tough.

The top First Division stars of 1966 earned about £200 a week, including bonuses, and lived in £20,000 houses, semi-detached, on new estates with Tudor overtones. The top players drove Jaguars. But most were lucky to afford a Ford Cortina. I had one myself for a while. Awfully smart, or so I thought at the time.

Their basic wages were little more than double that of the best-paid working men, such as a foreman bricklayer or a successful plumber. Their neighbours on their estates were bank mangers or salesmen, a higher scale socially than their own background, but still fairly modest. Not like today. Footballers don’t even have neighbours any more. They are cocooned in their own gated mansions, with personal staff, gardeners, nannies, accountants, lawyers, agents.

Yet despite their modest lifestyles in those days, there were celebrity players, such as Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton and, before them, Billy Wright, all household names, loved and admired, recognised everywhere.

None of them had an agent in 1966. The nearest thing to it was the system that operated if a team got to the FA Cup final. They would then agree to divvy up the peripheral proceeds, such as money from giving newspaper interviews, posing for staged corny photographs, opening shops, or selling their spare tickets to touts (which they were not supposed to do). They’d appoint some dodgy friend of one of the senior players to arrange the deals and collect the monies for them. Times, they always change. Otherwise, what’s the point, eh?

***

In 1966, two big events occurred in my personal life. In May that year, my son, Jake, was born – at home, in what is now our kitchen. He arrived so quickly that the midwife hadn’t turned up yet and he emerged with the cord twisted around his neck. I managed to untie it, which I have maintained since kept him alive (a trick I had learned at fathers’ classes).

Fathers’ classes – wow, what a novelty that was in the 1960s. Who says we were all chauvinist pigs back then? (Today’s young, female star writers at the New Statesman, probably.) I attended my first ones, at the Royal Free Hospital in 1964, when our firstborn, Caitlin, was about to arrive. I remember immediately thinking when the invite came that I would get 1,000 words out of this – which I did, for the Sunday Times women’s pages.

Also at those first-ever fathers’ classes at the Royal Free was a young BBC producer whose wife was also about to give birth: Wilfred De’Ath. He, too, was desperate to get a piece out of it. (He now writes occasionally for the Oldie, and he appears to be down and out and living in France.)

After Jake’s birth, I got the midwife to give me the placenta and I ate it, fried with onions. Tasted like liver. Another 1,000 words.

The other event of note in my ever-so-exciting life in 1966 was meeting Paul McCartney. When “Eleanor Rigby” came out, I thought the words – not just the tune – were so wonderful. Possibly the best poetry of the year, I said, as if I knew anything about poetry. I went to see him for Atticus in his new house in St John’s Wood, which he still has, being a very conservative feller. I talked to him about the background to the lyrics, as opposed to his hair, which interviewers were still asking him about.

A few months later, at the end of 1966, I went to see him again, wearing a different cap, as a screenwriter. I’d had a novel published the previous year, Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, which was being made into a film, with Clive Donner directing. We went to see Paul at his house and discussed with him if he would do the theme tune. He turned us down in the end but it was while I was with him that I suggested that there should be a proper biography of the Beatles. He said Brian (Epstein, the band’s manager) would have to agree – and there and then sat me down and helped me write a suitable arse-licking letter to him.

I eventually saw Brian, after several cancellations, at his home in Belgravia and he played me the acetate of “Strawberry Fields Forever”. I was astounded. It seemed to break every rule of what was then considered pop music. I wondered if all Beatles fans
would take to it. But I could see that it was amazing and perhaps the Beatles weren’t finished, which was what some people were saying in 1966. At my publisher, Heinemann, which paid me £3,000 for the book, there was one director who maintained the Beatles bubble was about to burst.

Brian agreed to my project and offered a clause in the contract that we had not requested or even thought of. He said he would not give any other writer access to the Beatles for two years after my book came out. This was 1966. The book came out in 1968. Two years later, in 1970, the Beatles were no more. Without realising it at the time, I became the only authorised ­biographer of the Beatles.

***

So, 1966, a big year for me, so glad I kept that diary, and also a big year for the nation. I thought at the time that the Beatles were bound to fade, eventually, while England surely would dominate world football from now on. After their humbling by Iceland at this year’s World Cup, I now realise that England will never win the World Cup again in my life, what’s left of it. And probably not even another game.

The only way to rationalise it is to tell ourselves that we are ahead of the game. We are rubbish, but in turn it will happen to all the other so-called advanced nations.

You could say Brexit is a bit like that. We are ahead of the other leading European nations in going it alone, even though it is depressing and awful and shameful. We are advanced in wilfully turning ourselves into a rubbish nation. We are leading the way, as ever. Inger-land, Inger-land.

Hunter Davies’s memoir of the postwar years, “The Co-op’s Got Bananas!” (Simon & Schuster), was published in April, followed by “Lakeland: a Personal Journal” (Head of Zeus). His final book on the Fab Four, “The Beatles Book” (Ebury), will be published on 1 September

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue