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?
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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.