The government has promised to crack down on academics promoting pro-Putin talking points in British universities. In the Commons on Monday 14 March, the chairman of the Education Select Committee Robert Halfon spoke of “pro-Putinist propaganda at some of our leading universities”. He went on to cite several academics including Tim Hayward, a professor of environmental political theory at Edinburgh University. Hayward recently retweeted (to his 19,000 followers) a Russian representative to the UN describing the attack on Mariupol’s maternity hospital as “fake news”. Halfon also referred to another academic, at the University of Leicester, who boasted on her university profile page of appearing on Russian state media.
The government is right to refer to such people as “useful idiots” (a term attributed to Lenin to describe flatterers of the Soviet Union, although there’s no evidence he ever used the phrase). But why has it taken so long for these academics to appear on the government’s radar? Anyone who has followed the civil war in Syria during the past decade will be familiar with some of those now parroting pro-Kremlin talking points. Professor Hayward, for example, is a founding member of the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda, and Media (WGSPM). During the conflict in Syria the WGSPM regularly sought to cast doubt on Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, despite multiple credible reports to the contrary.
Hayward for his part denies being pro-Putin. In the past he has also denied being pro-Assad. This would make sense – there is little for even the most blinkered ideologue of any persuasion to admire about two dictatorships whose entire raison d’être is holding on to power at all costs. But unlike during Soviet times, when ideological fervour made some in the West act as willing dupes for a foreign power, Russia no longer needs true believers to do its dirty work. The rules of the game have changed significantly since the advent of the internet. Today, instead of seeking converts, hostile dictatorships seek to undermine our faith in objective reality.
Social media helps to facilitate this. As do academics such as Hayward. Under the pretext of asking “awkward questions”, seeking to “hear two sides of the story” and rejecting the official narrative of the “legacy media”, they pose as plucky outsiders brave enough to challenge the status quo.
Yet it is the Kremlin that benefits from an information landscape in which, as Gleb Pavlovsky, one of Vladimir Putin’s early spin doctors has put it approvingly, “everyone invents their own ‘normal’ humanity, their own ‘right’ history.”
In seeking to blur the distinction between truth and falsehood, these academics may not be pro-Putin. But they are useful idiots in the truest sense of the term.