An open letter to Private Eye

Our writer is the subject of the Hackwatch column in the latest edition of Private Eye, after attending a dinner of the Valdai Group. Here she responds to her critics

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The Independent Online

Dear Hackwatch,

You have used my attendance at a dinner with the Russian President, which is an annual event for members of the Valdai group of international Russia specialists - and the fact that I have attended, and reported on, such occasions in the past - to paint me as a latter-day fellow-traveller and apologist for Vladmir Putin.

Let me ask this. If I were a foreign specialist on British politics invited to a group dinner with the Prime Minister, or a specialist on American affairs, invited to a dinner and question and answer session with the US President, would you regard this as evidence that I was in hock to that particular interest, or would you rather, as I suspect, see such invitations as a bit of a feather in my cap, a recognition of my expertise and perhaps even influence in my field?

The Valdai group includes Russianists from around the world, and more researchers and academics – including from Georgetown University and Harvard – than journalists. As a specialist with this privileged access, I see it as my job to report what happens and what the Russian president says when we meet him. How come a Russia specialist is regarded as somehow suspect for doing her job, but no such doubts attach to a US specialist, say – a coterie to which, as a past Washington correspondent, I also belong?

I can only interpret this as evidence of the double standard that Russians – whether pro-Putin or anti-Putin - often complain of in Western, especially British, reporting of their country. Russia today is a society in flux; a new generation will come to power, and it will be quite different from those who were formed by Soviet communism. But there is such a thing as public opinion in Russia and Putin still enjoys a large measure of popular support. Without recognising this, and listening to what he has to say - as well as what the various strands of the Opposition say - your view of what is going on will be distorted.  

In your Hackwatch, you have clearly trawled the internet, selecting passages that suit your thesis and rejecting the rest. For the record, I deplored Putin’s decision to stand for the presidency again. I commented positively on last year’s post-election protests, and my notebook item last year about the TV star Xenia Sobchak – by the way, I may have been the first Western journalist to recognise her political potential – contained no suggestion at all that she would be in Putin’s camp. On the contrary, I identified her as someone who could contribute to the development of real politics in Russia – which is indeed what she is doing.