The new Russian journalism finds old Soviet habits die hard

Russia's media has dealt President Putin a bloody nose over his bungling of the "Kursk" tragedy. But will he respond with meekness or meanness?

Nearly a week after the "Kursk" sank, Russia's navy commander finally joined the rescue operation at sea and a top politician from Moscow flew to the Arctic to meet relatives of the lost submariners.

Nearly a week after the "Kursk" sank, Russia's navy commander finally joined the rescue operation at sea and a top politician from Moscow flew to the Arctic to meet relatives of the lost submariners.

Reporting on the meeting between Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Khlebanov and the sailors' mothers, the pro-Kremlin television channel ORT said that it had been "emotional". The independent NTV channel showed one distraught mother screaming at the minister over the authorities' delays and demanding that naval officers take off their epaulettes in shame.

Russia will not be the same after the loss of the atomic submarine that was thought to be unsinkable. Just as the Chernobyl nuclear accident of 1986 changed the Soviet Union, convincing Mikhail Gorbachev that there was no alternative to a policy of reform, so the sinking of the "Kursk" will be a political watershed for President Vladimir Putin. The only question is will he conclude that Russia needs more of the openness practised by the independent media, or will he take revenge on those who have humiliated him and seek to bring back censorship.

Russia has come a long way since communist times, when major disasters were covered up, news of them leaking out weeks or even months later in the underground bulletins of dissidents. The world only found out about the explosion at Chernobyl when Sweden detected a radioactive cloud over its territory.

By comparison, today's officials were prompt in informing the public the Kursk had gone down a mere two days after it actually happened. The navy appointed a young and personable press spokesman, Igor Viktorovich Dygalo, who became the most familiar face in Russia last week with his updates on the rescue operation and the changing weather in the Barents Sea.

Yet, the handling of public relations was half-baked and still reminiscent of old Soviet habits. Some Russian media were more inclined than others to accept this. Two women presenters, Yekaterina Andreyeva of ORT and Tatyana Mitkova of NTV, demonstrated very different styles. Ms Andreyeva, or "Katya" as she is known nationally, has a severe hair-do and an aggressive tone of voice that suggests she is going to be merciless with waffling officials. But she rarely pressed the navy's apologists or asked them awkward questions.

By contrast, Ms Mitkova purrs like a pussycat but she has a low tolerance of fudge and on several occasions, made the hapless Igor Viktorovich look very inadequate.

ORT, the only station that reaches some of the remoter provinces, is part owned by the state, the other shares belonging to the oligarch, Boris Berezovsky. NTV belongs to his business rival, Vladimir Gusinsky, who earlier this year spent four days in jail on embezzlement charges that the state prosecutor later dropped for lack of evidence. Both men also own newspapers.

Whether because Mr Berezovsky has lately moved into opposition against the Kremlin or whether because his print journalists wrote what they wanted anyway, his dailies, Nezavisimaya Gazeta (NG) and Kommersant, were as critical of the authorities as Mr Gusinsky's Segodnya. "Soviet ideology" was weighing down the naval chiefs' thinking, said NG. Admirals were worrying about the political consequences of their decisions instead of acting to save lives, said Segodnya.

The glaring difference was in the coverage of the television channels. ORT and the state channel RTR played down the offers of foreign help, so that many Russians were left with the impression that they had been made more or less at the same time as President Putin accepted them. NTV, by contrast, made clear that the Kremlin leader had wasted valuable time by not grasping immediately the rescue options offered by Britain and Norway. On ORT, Katya told the viewers what to think. "I am sure you will all agree that our Russian rescuers are heroes," she said in one comment.

NTV avoided any editorialising by its presenter but instead gave the viewers a regular review of what Western newspapers were saying.

Public fury about the authorities' incompetence and insensitivity will only grow since Norwegian divers yesterday managed to open the hatch of the submarine, although they found the vessel full of water. Had they failed, like the Russians before them, to lift the hatch, then Moscow could have said it was an impossible task. Now it is clear for all to see that, had the Norwegians been given access earlier, at least some lives might have been saved.

NTV was relentless in its criticism. "The speed with which the foreigners have worked re-inforces the view that their help should have been accepted sooner," said one reporter. Another suggested that the president was not travelling to the Arctic to meet the bereaved relatives because he was afraid of them.

Why President Putin, a former KGB agent who has been tough in his handling of Chechnya, was passive in this crisis remains a mystery. Perhaps he lacked the experience to foresee that the world's media and public would react more strongly to an underwater drama than to routine losses in Chechnya, although far more men have died there than on the submarine. Perhaps he was caught between ordinary Russians' desire to save lives and the demands of military hardliners to preserve state secrets.

Whatever the reasons for his lacklustre performance, he has fallen between two stools. By accepting foreign help but accepting it too late, he has pleased nobody. Now, in order to try to redeem himself, he may become more caring and open. But there is also a risk that he might fall back on dictatorial methods, which would affect the already vulnerable independent media.

The signs yesterday were not hopeful. Only the state channel RTR was allowed to film near the scene of the accident. The flow of information from the navy became thinner than ever and Moscow journalists were ringing Norway to find out what was going on in the Barents Sea.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event
filmBut why were Back to the Future screenings cancelled?
News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
Lewis Hamilton walks back to the pit lane with his Mercedes burning in the background
Formula 1
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con
comic-con 2014
Sport
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
football
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
News
i100
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Data Scientist

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A data analytics are currently looking t...

Web / Digital Analyst - SiteCatalyst or Google Analytics

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client who are a leading publisher in...

Campaign Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A leading marketing agency is currently ...

BI Analyst

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A leading marketing agency in Central Lo...

Day In a Page

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride