Putin and TV as the Opium of the Masses

A review of 'Television and Presidential Power in Putin's Russia' by Tina Burrett.

by Terry Severson - 14 September 2015

Putin and TV as the Opium of the Masses - Illustration

Traditionally totalitarian dictatorships have relied on heavy handed methods to keep their restless citizenry under control. Methods such as heavy-handed propaganda, and banning books and publications that dare to criticize the government. Citizens are told to turn in anyone who dares to criticize or spread dissent, and threatened with prison if they don’t turn in friends or family who whisper skeptical thoughts. Imprisonment, torture and even death await those who stand in the way of important government initiatives. All these techniques have shown their effectiveness throughout the 20th century.

But perhaps there is a gentler, more entertaining way for dictators to stay in power and keep the support of the populace. Perhaps Vladimir Putin has found that way. That is the premise of “Television and Presidential Power in Putin’s Russia”, a meticulously researched, very academic book, looking at how Putin has used television to wrestle power away from the oligarchy and turn himself into a beloved national hero.

Putin’s predecessor was Boris Yeltsin, president of the Soviet Union from 1991 to 1999. During those tumultuous years Yeltsin was not very media savvy, often saying what he thought instead of carefully crafting talking points at staged media events. At the end of his two terms, Yeltsin hand-picked Putin as one of his key ministers because the ruling oligarchy found him acceptable and because Putin had proved his competence. The media-owning oligarchs made a point of supporting his candidacy, ensuring that he went from a political unknown to a highly popular politician all within six months, thus ensuring that he was the one the public supported in the presidential election. The same oligarchy, however did not want him to become too popular or too powerful; after his election the television media did an about-face and started to be much more critical. Under Yeltsin, media-owning oligarchs expected to be well compensated for positive coverage, and used negative coverage as a bargaining chip. Putin did not want to be at the mercy of such tough bargaining the way Yeltsin had been.

Here in the West, we are well of aware of how large media corporations use television, radio, internet sites, and print media to support their favorites politicians, but there is enough political diversity to make the case that we are still living in a democracy that continues to reflect the will of the people. By the time Putin came to power, Russian was already a well-entrenched oligarchy, with a number of oligarchs supported by their own media empires. Putin’s genius was to understand the importance of media (especially television), and to understand that to wrestle power away from the oligarchs, he needed to take control of their media empires and use them to make himself revered by the citizenry, and thus more likely to keep power and accrue more power.

“On assuming office, Putin quickly signaled that the rules of the political game had changed. Criminal proceedings were brought against media-owning oligarchs whose outlets opposed Putin’s political programme.” “By 2000, after a decade of economic chaos and political controversy, many of the oligarchs began to see the need for greater elite cooperation. In July 2000, soon after he became president, Putin met with twenty-one well-known oligarchs and urged them to negotiate a power-sharing pact that would approximate an elite settlement; Berezovsky and Gusingsky were not invited. […] The president was reported to have proposed a deal whereby his government would refrain from examining the privatization process, through which the oligarchs acquired their wealth in the 1990s, if they would refrain from further political interventions and opposition to the strengthening of the state and the presidency at its apex.” (Burrett, 2010) 1.”

These methods were extremely effective and quickly the TV attack dogs were called off which gave Putin an amazingly benign media landscape.

In Russia, even before Putin, most Russians got their news from television. By 1999, newspaper circulation had dropped to 7 and a half million (in a country of over 140 million), and this was before the internet became available to more than just a small elite. One positive result is that during his first term, newspapers could write whatever they liked and could be as critical of Putin as they liked, no one cared, because Russians preferred to get their news from the TV. But by his second term, Putin’s tolerance of criticism went down, and even newspapers had to watch their step.

Channel One, Rossiya, and NTV were the most popular news channels. Interestingly, despite Channel One being state-controlled and an obvious Kremlin mouthpiece, it was the most popular news station. How could that be?

“It is possible that more cynical reason lay behind the critical tone of reporting on social issues by Vremya [Channel One] and Segodnya [NTV]. The Putin administration knew that if it imposed complete censorship, people would no longer believe what they were told by television, as happened in the Soviet period. Television channels with a reputation for unbiased reporting are more effective PR instruments for the government than media outlets that are obviously loyal to the Kremlin. Given audiences’ first-hand experience of the problems afflicting the delivery of social programmes in Russia, news reports praising the success of government social politics would likely cause viewers to question the honesty, not only of reporting on these issues, but of coverage on other topics as well. Likewise, news reports reflecting audiences’ own experiences of social provision can help convince viewers that reporting on more distant subjects is also unbiased.” (Burrett, 2010) 2.

On Channel One, coverage of Putin and his policies were very positive and supportive. In addition the channels owned by the oligarchs, although not as fawning as Channel One, did refrain from attacking Putin or his policies. This all paid off for Putin as he continued to enjoy sky-high public support despite economic and political set-backs.

“The natural rules and rhythms of the television media were ideally suited to the election strategy of the Putin campaign. Media experts employed by the president developed a strategy that appealed to the hearts rather than minds, focusing on Putin’s personality and leadership qualities over his policies and political record. The consistently high approval ratings Putin had enjoyed throughout his first term suggested that such a strategy was sound.” (Burrett, 2010) 3.

Also, as America’s Fox News has amply demonstrated, audiences prefer propaganda that supports their own personal biases. For Putin to thrive he needed to be portrayed as supporting popular policies and positions. For his election campaigns he ran as economically neoliberal, socially conservative, and extremely patriotic/nationalistic, which turned out to be a winning recipe.

Note, a reoccurring theme in the book is self-censorship. The government does not have a list of what is allowed and what is not. Instead the large media owners know, from experience, that if they want to hold onto their TV stations or radio stations, they had better make sure that any news coverage will not upset the Kremlin too much. In turn these large media owners make sure to only employ reporters and producers who have a very good understanding of what is acceptable and what is not.

Definitely I would highly recommend this book. The above description covers just a few of the highlights. The author, Tina Burrett is an Assistant Professor of International Affairs at Temple University, Japan. The research is meticulous and includes a content analysis study comparing major news shows on Channel One and NTV, so her conclusions are backed up with solid evidence. In addition, it was an interesting way to learn about various media and political theories, as she would describe what a certain theory would predict and then compare that prediction with what actually occurred.

My only complaint was that it would have been useful to have a chapter putting her conclusions into a wider context. For example, Russia’s economy has been steadily improving under Putin; perhaps that had also helped his approval ratings? And what about TV shows other than the news; what are their propaganda effects? Do Russians spend a lot of time watching TV? Has television weakened Russian civil society? And then there is the internet; are there any early indications on whether the internet will support or undermine TV propaganda?

Here in America, media stories about Putin’s latest exploits are much enjoyed, his horseback riding (shirtless), target shooting, race car driving, fishing, tag hunting (shirtless) and so on. And although we get a big laugh over such pandering, it does show the power of propaganda, even blatant, over-the-top propaganda. But as Burrett’s book shows, Putin has been a master of propaganda, blatant, subtle, and everything in between. Television, it seems, is a much more pleasant way to persuade the public to support a dictatorship than the brutal ways of the past century.

Much has happened since “Television and Presidential Power in Putin’s Russia” was published in December 2010. Unfortunately most of which has not been positive for the average Russian. The economy is struggling due to a number of reasons (such as the price of oil and international sanctions). The Kremlin is tightening its control of the media, muzzling TV stations that are even slightly critical of Putin and is now taking control of the Russian internet, including Russia’s version of Facebook. They’re even forcing bloggers with over 3000 readers to register with the authorities. 4

And yet, Putin’s approval ratings are over 80%.5 Does this prove categorically the power of propaganda? Not quite. Despite his best efforts, Putin’s approval rating had been dropping for a number of years and had even reached a low of 60% (which is considered sky high in countries with free presses). It took an exciting military adventure (Putin’s annexation of Crimea) to bring his ratings back up. Not everyone is taken in by the nationalistic and rose-colored coverage, which is why Russia is seeing a large increase in emigration, a brain drain of well educated professionals leaving the country in large numbers to escape the corruption and poor prospects in Russia. 6

So the question remains, is television a gentler and more entertaining way for dictators to stay in power? Because watching TV is much more fun and entertaining than going to boring party meeting and lectures, I would say that TV is a gentler, more entertaining form of control (and easily as effective) although the consequences of living in a dictatorship are just as harsh. Without a well informed and organized citizenry, there is nothing to stop those on power from enriching themselves at the expense of the general population. Being stolen from is not so harsh when the economy is growing and the price of oil is high, but with the Russian economy slipping the rich can easily ride things out, while most people have little cushion to protect themselves from destitution.

In “Brave New World”, Aldous Huxley describes a utopian dictatorship where the average person was happy to do as they were told as long as they were well entertained. Is this something that could work in the real world? Is Putin using television as his “opium of the masses”, to keep the populace controlled and content over the long term? Well, he is trying to do exactly that. But the rulers in “Brave New World” were also able to keep their workers well fed and well kept as well as very entertained. Putin’s propaganda, and other forms of control, will only work if he can also continue to meet the very basic physical needs of his citizenry. This is not so easy in a country controlled by voracious oligarchs who are intent on squeezing out as much treasure as physically possible.