chapter  1
(Dis)informing Russia: media space and discourse conflict in post-Soviet Russian television news
Pages 28

Russian television news in Putin’s second term reached a new nadir in its descent into ideological servitude. With Russia officially designated by international observers as ‘not free’, Putin’s power over the flow of information and the framing of political debate became almost akin to that of his Soviet predecessors.1 Reporting of the 2004 Beslan tragedy, and of Victory Day celebrations in May 2005, provided two examples confirming that the national media were tacking ever closer to the official, Kremlin line on events, predicted and unpredicted. There is little need to elaborate on why control over television news is so

important to the Kremlin, particularly in light of the central role news broadcasts have played in recent Russian history (see Introduction). However, the persistent fluidity of the political situation (following unpopular welfare reforms in 2005, Putin’s own supremacy came under question for the first time) and the fact that Putin felt obliged to assert his dominance so crudely, suggests that classic hegemony has yet to work its magic in postSoviet Russia; had the values of the forces dominating post-Soviet society penetrated it throughout, there would be no need for the heavy-handed manipulation of news agendas practised under Putin. Indeed, the overarching purpose of this chapter is to challenge the view of Russian national television news as entirely monolithic and uniformly subservient to government ideology. Another way of accounting for the imperfect functioning of Gramscian

hegemony is by reference to Bakhtin’s dialogic theory which remains an implicit influence throughout our analysis in this chapter. It would appear to be entirely appropriate to apply Bakhtin’s notion of monologism to the situation occurring in Putin’s media. However, the term is often misunderstood to mean the silencing of non-official discourses and the erasure of dialogue, when in fact Bakhtin made it clear that the monologism of the centralised state is merely one variety of dialogism – one in which a single voice or discourse has secured a position of authority over that of others and attempts to subordinate them to it. This coincides with Gramsci’s notion of hegemony as a constant process of renewed resistance to a dominant

discourse which never ceases to incorporate and thereby disarm that resistance. The difference is subtle, but important; for Bakhtin (as for Gramsci), all discourse is dialogic and open, all positions of dominance temporary and constantly subject to challenge. Indeed, as he points out in respect to the seemingly pure monologism of the late Tolstoi, the very heavy-handedness of the assertions of authority betray the strength of the hidden dialogic challenge that they are called upon to rebuff. This was the case even at the height of Stalinism (whose characteristic paranoia can be read in just these terms), but is especially so under the conditions of the proliferating influence of globally disseminated discourses under which Putin’s propaganda machine must operate. Bakhtinian dialogism extends in two other directions of acute relevance to

the case in hand. First, Bakhtin makes it clear that discourse is always oriented towards its recipient(s) and is enacted at the threshold at which the voice of the self encounters the voice(s) of the other. In this sense, television is the supremely dialogic form. For, owing to the fluidity of its textual boundaries (it is hard, for example, to say whether the popular meanings generated by soap operas or reality TV shows are located intratextually, or within the readings that they elicit) meanings are negotiated between text and audience in a way that is much less true of traditional, author-centred forms such as the novel, or even film. Thus, when discussing the degree of ideological servitude endured by television news under Putin, we must have regard to the role of viewers, exposed as they are under the conditions of globalisation, to an increasing array of discourses from an expanding range of sources, in negotiating the meanings produced by news discourse, and, just as important, to the efforts of television producers to anticipate, account for and respond to viewer contributions to those meanings. This, too, attenuates the potential effects of Putin’s naked propaganda making. Secondly, unlike popularised versions of the concept which talk merely in

terms of multiple references to, and citations of, other texts, Bakhtinian accounts of intertextuality insist that all utterances are essentially re-accentuations of prior utterances, with whose entire context and intentionality they enter into dialogue, and which remain an active force, shaping the discourse in which they are cited. Thus, post-Soviet news broadcasts cannot simply accommodate the passive textual forms of western news making (or, for that matter, those of the Soviet news making which preceded them) to their own ideological agenda. This, too, has profound implications for the ability of post-Soviet news to control the meanings that it articulates. Dialogism was a key influence on Lotman’s notion of semiosphere

(Lotman 1990), which, by analogy with Vernadsky’s concept of biosphere, he interpreted as the ‘semiotic continuum’ in which all meaning is created – an organic, but heterogeneous, totality in which different structures come into contact and generate new meaning. John Hartley’s adaptation of the notion of semiosphere as ‘mediasphere’ to account for the particular semiotic continuum from which meanings emerge in the contemporary, globalised, realm

of media texts (Hartley 2004) is particularly apt for the purposes of examining the significatory ambiances of post-Soviet news. A section of what follows deals therefore with what, in our turn, we have referred to as ‘media space’, with particular attention given to the meaning-generating role of generic boundaries, whose instability in post-Soviet television opens up possibilities for considerable activity within that space. Following Hartley, we have chosen to translate the implicit theoretical

assumptions underlying our approach into a set of terminological tools derived from media studies rather than literary analysis. Thus, in following the section on heteroglossic media space with a segment addressing the representational space within which the monological voice of post-Soviet officialdom attempts to (re)assert its control, we adopt the tools of frame analysis (investigations of the pre-established narrative models, myths, discourse structures and semantic fields into which news stories are packaged in order to accord them ideologically appropriate significance), agenda setting (including running-order hierarchies), and Barthesian ‘inoculation’ strategies (the principle by which dominant discourses vaccinate themselves against the seditious potential of oppositional voices by incorporating manageable instances of those voices).2 At the same time, in a to-and-fro movement between theoretical underpinnings and methodological tools, we re-invoke the Bakhtinian framework by turning to the concept of chronotope to capture the temporal constraints on Russian news’s ability to manipulate this representational space to its own ends. This, in its turn, returns us to the wider semiotic space in which Russian news meanings unfold, and which complicates, dilutes and subverts the ideological mission to which they are harnessed. However, it would be entirely misleading to present Russian television

news as a hotbed of dissidence, or to deny the ideological manipulation to which it is increasingly subject. A cursory comparison of news output in the mid-1990s and between 2000 and 2007 would reveal that news teams have become increasingly supine in their relationship with the President, and exponentially more obedient to his agenda (a fact explained most obviously by the effective take-over of Channel 1, RTR and more recently NTV, by figures loyal to Putin). A portion of what follows aims to trace the deleterious effects of these changes on the Russian news agenda. Our proposition that all is not quite what it seems is based on the semiotic principle that meaning is shaped not just through a text’s intended ‘signifieds’, but also by the culturally laden signifying forms and codes expressing them, and that forces located at the level of the code are liable to complicate and impede the effectiveness of those operating at the level of the signified. We focus on three aspects of post-Soviet Russian news ‘form’ in which we

detect these principles at work:

(1) Media Space (we focus particularly on generic boundaries, and on that space within the official realm set aside for emergent post-Soviet commercial and celebrity cultures);

(2) Representational Strategy (the importance of authenticating inter-texts, myths and narrative structures bearing memories and meanings incompatible with the agendas they serve; the tensions generated by the need to adopt the procedures and forms of democracy as well as to mimic its ambiances);

(3) Discourse Structures (ways in which the multiplicity of vernacular discourses which have now entered Russian media space frame and reframe one another and undercut the authority of the dominant discourse).