The Economist magazine is an admirable publication to which I have subscribed for over fifty years, with gaps now and then. While serving in Vietnam in 1970 its weekly arrival was a major event, as we were bereft of sensible reportage about that disastrous war, and I have always considered it to be balanced, extremely well-informed, and accurate. In its own modest words “What ties us together is the objectivity of our opinion, the originality of our insight and our advocacy of economic and political freedom around the world.”
Quite so. And so say all of us. Let’s hear it for a fearless journal that tells it like it is.
Until it doesn’t.
In the issue dated December 15, 2018 there is a strange anomaly in its description of life in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a shattered African state which the magazine’s writer(s) criticise objectively and with originality. And it’s the originality tangent that is intriguing.
The hard copy which I received in France has a half-page leader about Congo, headlined “The Kremlin-style charade in Kinshasa — Can anyone stop Joseph Kabila from doing a Putin?” which was an arresting summons that indicated objective cover concerning what one might expect to be a series of parallels and comparisons involving the leaders of Congo and Russia. On reading it, however, I wondered if perhaps the writer(s) had trended to originality that transcended objectivity, so went to the website where the headline was slightly different, employing the tried and faithful “-ology” tack-on and omitting Kabila’s name. It read “Kremlinology in Kinshasa: Can anyone stop Congo’s president from doing a Putin?”
This was becoming even more fascinating, but on reading the objective commentary on Congo’s hideous circumstances it was difficult to see how the eye-catching headline “Kremlin-style charade” was justified in relation to the text. The description of Mr Kabila was condemnatory in the extreme, and the observation that “his regime is filthier than the untreated water that most Congolese drink”, while distinctive and admirably original, could not by even the most objective commentator be applied to “doing a Putin”.
What, then, justified the comparison? The headline to the editorial on another Economist web page was “A farce in Congo: Pulling a Putin”, which wasn’t much help, and the text appeared to be identical, with the Putin-Kremlin-charade stuff being confined to a few words about presidential selection. The Economist postulates that Mr Kabila picked a successor “in the hope that he will be like Dmitry Medvedev, Vladimir Putin’s sidekick who kept Russia’s throne warm for a few years until the big man was constitutionally allowed to come back.” A headline and 32 words of an Editorial total of 620 were used to focus readers’ attention on Russia. It was an attempted excoriation exercise that was quite skilful, because it is a principle of psychological operations to refrain from outright insult while encouraging audiences to associate dubious behaviour with the intended target and go on from there.
Everyone is entitled to their opinions concerning other nations’ affairs, and if it seems to The Economist that there has been questionable activity in Moscow concerning governance of the Russian Federation, then it is quite entitled to make such a point, however inconsequential it might be — but even The Economist couldn’t claim that there was anything unconstitutional or illegal in President Putin’s election process. The BBC described what happened succinctly, in that “first elected president in 2000, Mr Putin renewed his four-year term in 2004 before stepping aside in 2008 to serve as prime minister under his protégé, Dmitry Medvedev, because by law he could serve only two consecutive terms.”
The Economist considers this to be reprehensible, but to publish a major editorial piece with a headline implying that the electoral system of the Democratic Republic of the Congo can be equated with that of the Russian Federation is preposterous. (It was reported on December 20 that the Congo elections scheduled for the 23rd had been postponed until the end of the month because “a fire destroyed 80% of the voting machines in the capital, Kinshasa.” Just as happens all the time in St Petersburg and Novosibirsk.)
Then it seemed that The Economist might not be so anti-Russia focused as appears in the editorial referred to above. If one reads the Middle East and Africa edition of this objective advocate of political freedom it is fascinating to see that the headline about the Congo’s election reads “A puppet is set to replace the president : Joseph Kabila will still pull the strings after stepping down.”
There isn’t a hint of “Kremlin-style charades” or “Pulling a Putin” and nowhere in this edition is there mention of Moscow, Prime Minister Medvedev, Russia, Kremlinology or even the word “corruption.” Interestingly, the word “regime” is also omitted, although it appears three times in the “Doing a Putin” version.
The Economist’s Middle East and Africa editorial about Congo is over twice as long as the Putin/Kremlin rendering, and at that length it might be imagined there would be a greater scope to elaborate on comparisons between Russia’s electoral system and that of Congo. But the author(s) refrained from taking the opportunity, and confined observations to such exposition as “The election has been a long time coming. The constitution required Mr Kabila to step down in 2016. He tried to change it, failed, and stuck around for two more years anyway.” Neat, meaty, to the point, but strangely devoid of Kremlinology comparison.
Why did The Economist publish a totally different version of the Congo editorial in its European and Middle East/Africa editions? The major differences between them is that in the former there was a headline sliming President Putin and a snide comment in the body of the piece about Russia’s presidential election system, while in the latter there was nary a whiff of Kremlinology. Is it imaginable that The Economist wants to send different messages about the same subject to different parts of the world? Why tell Europe and America about a “Kremlin-style charade” and “Pulling a Putin” and abstain from such influential impact on readers who inhabit the region from the Mediterranean to the Cape?
But perhaps that begs the question about why the objective and original Economist indulged in Moscow-slanging in the first place.
It’s not as farcical as the approach of “There’s a Bear in the Woods” in the “Daily 202” of the Washington Post, which is obsessed with Russia, and it’s unlikely that the Economist will go anywhere near such gutters — but all the same, it would be decidedly more principled to refrain from spreading false impressions by using suggestive headlines, and just be a tad more objective about the Russian Federation.