Russian press goes West: Phillip Knightley in Moscow for a probe into the state of fearless reporting

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The Independent Online
JUST WHEN you thought investigative journalism was dead, 200 reporters from 18 countries have been meeting this weekend to discuss how to terrorise guilty governments, errant bureaucrats and corrupt corporations.

And they are meeting in, of all places, Moscow, where until recently you had to become an investigative journalist to discover your aunt's telephone number. Now, however, it is, says the New Yorker, 'the most exciting newspaper city since New York at the end of the Second World War'.

The conference has been organised by Nation (circulation 100,000), the American left-wing weekly founded in 1865; Top Secret, a Russian monthly (circulation 2.3 million) founded in 1989; the Independent, a Russian daily (circulation 200,000) founded in 1990; and Little Flame, a Russian weekly (circulation 1.5 million) - with help from various, mainly American, sponsors.

If we had expected a stirring rally-round-the-flag speech from that grey-haired doyen of investigative journalism, Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame, we were to be disappointed.

Bernstein delivered a series of myth-busting blows, mostly directed at himself and his former partner Bob Woodward, but also at the state of Western journalism in general.

'We went into an orgy of self-congratulation after Watergate,' Bernstein said. 'But there were 2,000 reporters covering Washington at the time; 14 were assigned to Watergate, and of those, only six on an investigative basis. Six out of 2,000 is no reason for self-congratulation.'

We were still recovering from this when Bernstein went on to the state of the Western press. 'We have failed to open the press to the same scrutiny we demand of the people we write about. The press has become obsessed with trivialisation, marginalisation and the behaviour of celebrities.'

In an example drawn from America but equally applicable to Britain, he added: 'In the past month there has been more investigative reporting of the lives of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen than on President Bush for the whole of the past year.'

It is hard to tell what the Russians make of all this. Half the newspapers that were launched in the afterglow of glasnost have failed, and the famous old-timers are struggling.

Izvestia once sold 4.7 million a day but is now down to 2 million. It once had 52 correspondents abroad, it now has four. And Komsomolskaya Pravda, whose circulation of 23 million a day put it in The Guinness Book of Records as the world's biggest newspaper, is down to 600,000.

But such is the hunger for news, views and stories in a Russia where before no one knew anything, that enterprising foreigners and the new local capitalists see chances of great fortunes in the press business.

A Greek millionaire has bought Pravda, main organ of the old Communist Party, and is expanding it as fast as he can. At the moment Pravda has 20 foreign bureaus; by the end of this year it will have 100. The aim is a circulation of 75 million, but how much investigative reporting it will do remains uncertain.

An ominous sign is the popularity of escapist fiction. The pirate publisher who ripped off Scarlett, sequel to the bestselling Gone with the Wind, sold a million in six months at 250 roubles a copy, which at the exchange rate then equalled a gross profit of dollars 25m or pounds 12.5m.