MOSCOW – England is far too sunless and wet to be able to grow olives. In Nyons, in Provence, where the best Mediterranean olives have been grown since Roman times, the peasants have two bits of advice for olive-growers. Roughly translated, the advice for proper pruning and cutting out of old wood is, “Undress me, says the olive tree, and I will dress you.” The advice for digging the ground and fertilizing around the tree roots is, “Oil my feet, and I’ll oil your mouth.”
When it comes to journalism on Russia, the advice for neophytes is much the same. In the days of the Soviet Union, and in the time of the tsarist censors before that, foreign and domestic journalists learned to protect themselves by writing between the lines – a space that could only be understood by those privy to the code. For a very short time in the early 1990s, all of the pruning and all of the fertilizing that had gone on for years before suddenly produced a bounty of reporting that revealed what had only to be hinted at before. That harvest was brief. The state gave up its property, and the commercial interests that took over the media and now dominate it through advertising applied different arboreal methods. Nowadays, “oil my feet” generally means editorial favors traded for money, delivered one way or another.
Andrew Gowers is the editor of the Financial Times (FT), the business newspaper based in London that is the property of Pearson Ltd. According to his staff, Gowers has no experience reporting from Russia, or knowledge of what his paper’s reporters were doing in Moscow in the years before he came along. Gowers has declared that his newspaper has not negotiated promotional coverage of Mikhail Fridman’s Tyumen Oil Co (TNK) and that the editorial and advertising processes of his newspaper are separate. Unknown to Gowers, there is substantial evidence supporting the credibility of the sources who say otherwise.
Apparently, Gowers was not involved with TNK. In his place, Chrystia Freeland, a Financial Times editor, has revealed that she personally initiated an FT interview with Fridman, who controls TNK, as well as the Alfa Bank group. She hasn’t revealed what she knows about negotiations that were taking place in parallel and continued just before the interview took place in Moscow.
While the record of the Financial Times’ publications may not conclusively prove a relationship between coverage and advertising, it certainly corroborates the promotional arrangement the sources have reported. On March 15, the FT published an interview with Fridman, reported by Robert Cottrell, in which Fridman is described as “an astonishingly nice man in conversation – a youthful 38, and by far the most diffident and least sinister figure among the 20 or so tycoons who dominate Russian big business”. Since Cottrell didn’t spell out what he knows about the other 19 or so tycoons, let’s say that his enchantment, if not promotional in intent, was promotional in effect. Fridman had reason to be confident that no uncomfortable matters would be raised or reported by Cottrell. They weren’t.
On April 1, in an anonymously authored special Financial Times report on Russia, Fridman is again quoted with approval, and, on the same FT page, there appears a large advertisement for Fridman’s Alfa Bank, which includes the message, “We know how you can plug into Russia”. Coincidence?
On May 6, Fridman issued a writ alleging that he and his Alfa Bank had been defamed in an article published on February 7-8 by Les Echos, the Financial Times’ sister newspaper and the leading business daily of France, fully owned by the Financial Times parent company, Pearson. Fridman’s writ, filed with the Tribunal de Grande Instance de Paris, claims that published allegations by Martine Royo, the reporter for Les Echos, are false and defamatory. Among the alleged libels in Les Echos, the text of the writ cites allegations of corrupt takeover, tax avoidance and other nefarious practices in the Russian oil industry, as well as links between Fridman’s companies and the sunken oil tanker Prestige, which has recently polluted the Spanish and French coasts.
Les Echos is currently preparing its defense and has revealed that, prior to publication, it had repeatedly sought an interview with Fridman and repeatedly been refused. In the texts of the Financial Times’ interview with Fridman on March 15 and the special Financial Times report of April 1, there is no reference to the subject matter of the earlier Les Echos report; nor to an internal analysis of the Alfa group prepared by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development that was disclosed by Les Echos; nor to the US and UK court cases, where allegations of racketeering and other offenses against Fridman and his companies have been put on the record. One can only wonder why the Financial Times would spend so much space on articles promoting Fridman, and at the same time spend no space on investigating him?
On May 27, the Financial Times published a fresh article by Andrew Jack, this time reporting what was described as a pattern of threatening lawsuits in Moscow, London, Frankfurt and Paris by Russian business figures aiming to suppress newspaper coverage critical of their business practices. The Financial Times mentions several Russian litigants by name and a lawsuit against its sister newspaper in Russia, Vedomosti. It fails to mention Fridman or his lawsuit against Les Echos. Nor does the article mention Gowers’ threat, published in a Washington newsletter on May 7, to sue me. One rule for plaintiffs, another for defendants?
According to Gowers’ US article, “our newspaper’s reputation for independence – which is appreciated by advertisers as much as other readers – has always been supported by a strict separation of editorial from advertising.” My report, he added, was “entirely incorrect and libelous”. The Financial Times’ claims invite readers to seek the reason its interview and reportage of Fridman failed to ask a single question from the public record that had been analyzed by Les Echos. When probed for how that could have happened and how Fridman must have anticipated it when he gave Freeland his consent to be interviewed, Freeland did not reply.
If Gowers himself didn’t know what Les Echos had published on Fridman and the Alfa group in February, it is improbable that his subordinates did not. Freeland had been the Financial Times’ correspondent in Moscow from 1995 until the crash of 1998. She rewrote her reportage in a book published in 2000 which refers at length to Fridman. In 2001, when she was an editor at the Toronto Globe and Mail, she employed two journalists in Moscow to report on TNK’s depredations against more than one Canadian oil company. One of those reporters was me.
When Jack, the author of the May 27 report, was asked questions, he said it had been Freeland’s idea to do the interview with Fridman, but he didn’t know what she and he had said. Jack admitted he attended the interview with Fridman. He also said that when he had been researching Russian tactics of intimidating the press with lawsuits, he didn’t know that Fridman was suing Les Echos. A line from his story reveals that Jack knew something of the shenanigans in Paris, because he mentions that Oleg Deripaska’s Base Element group is currently suing Le Monde. Asked how he could have been ignorant of Fridman’s suit, he had no reply. Asked why the FT should disapprove of the Russian tactics but use them itself against me, Jack continued to be silent.
In the olive groves of Western journalism in Russia, trees will fail to bear fruit if the roots are allowed to stay too dry in summer and too wet in winter. Striking the right balance is what the peasants of Nyons understand. And so it is with journalism on Russia, too