Propaganda cannot be subtle or timid. It should be blunt and hard-hitting. And it shouldn't cost too much.
That was the message Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered yesterday by ordering the liquidation of RIA Novosti, until now Russia's premier government-owned news agency. Putin's decree stunned RIA's managers, who had not been told in advance. He also added insult to injury by appointing television presenter Dmitri Kiselyov, whose loyalty to the Kremlin notoriously eclipses his interest in facts, as head of the successor organization, called Russia Today.
RIA Novosti Editor-in-Chief Svetlana Mironyuk was known as something of a liberal, aligned with former President Dmitry Medvedev, who now serves as Putin's prime minister. "She has done a lot to make sure that, despite the toughest censorship, RIA Novosti supplied relatively objective information and analysis," political commentator Grigory Melamedov wrote on his blog at Echo.msk.ru.
No one will say this of Kiselyov, whose weekly show on Russia 1 is the bane of the intelligentsia. Protesters in Ukraine's capital, Kiev, recently awarded him an "Oscar" in absentia for lying about the mass protests against the Ukrainian government's decision not to sign an association deal with the European Union.
Kiselyov's pointed delivery and lively gesticulation are almost hypnotic. And his views are ideally suited for the task formulated for the new agency by Putin's chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov: "Russia conducts an independent policy and firmly defends its national interests. It is not easy to explain that to the world but it can and must be done."
Mironyuk wept as she spoke to RIA Novosti staff the day Putin's decree came out, calling the agency "the best media outlet in Russia" and saying with visible outrage that the government had spent "almost $1 billion over the last 10 years" to build the organization it was now so abruptly dismantling. The outgoing editor, however, stopped short of criticizing Putin or guessing at the political reasons behind his move.
Mironyuk thrived under Medvedev's presidency, channeling government funds into innovative media products ranging from a large infographics service to commentary delivered by a rapper. Even Russia's few remaining independent media outlets relied heavily on RIA Novosti for breaking news coverage: With more than 1,700 staff, the agency delivered more news from more locations than the others could ever afford.
Mironyuk's ambitions were expensive. The news agency pays its staff salaries well above market rates for private media outlets. Both Putin's decree and Ivanov spoke of the need to cut costs. Under Kiselyov, Russia Today will concentrate on carrying a pro-Putin message to foreign audiences, and RIA Novosti projects aimed at the domestic market will be scrapped or downsized.
All in all, this is no big loss to the Russian media scene, which is now almost entirely under Putin's control with just a few independent outlets still fighting to stay afloat. One of the agency's statutory goals was to provide "information and propaganda to support the Russian Federation's domestic and foreign policy," and even if Putin felt it was not doing its job as well as Kiselyov will, that goal placed a ticking bomb under the reliability of RIA Novosti's reporting. It could never be entirely trusted.
In the propaganda world, there are numerous shades of gray, but in the final analysis, the differences between them are too subtle to matter. А whole new media industry could have been created in Russia with the $1 billion RIA Novosti spent in the last decade. As it is, the money was squandered on a shiny toy that Putin sent to the scrap heap with a single stroke of his pen.
Now, the government will suckle Kiselyov's new agency, burning more money on the hopeless task of brainwashing foreign audiences, who have access to plenty of other sources of information.
(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is a Bloomberg View contributor. Follow him on Twitter.)