Putin and journalists: press conference as ritual and mode of goverance.

By | December 20, 2012 at 8:36 pm | No comments | Russia | Tags: ,

As usual, a press conference with the Russian president has made headlines and covered a lot of issues. Obviously some issues can be considered as newsworthy (it’s difficult that nothing would be interesting when the press-conference lasts more than 4 hours) e.g. relationship with former minister of finance who is currently considered to be oppositional leader Aleksey Kudrin, the end of the world, support of U.S. Adoption Ban, Russian position about Syria and a  definition of Russian political system. Traditionally, some episodes are anecdotic. For instance this question by a journalist from the far East of Russia as well as her conversation with Putin (“Seat down Masha” – “Thank you, Vova”) will definitely become a meme.

Another issue that is always interesting in this type of events is to what extent liberal independent journalist can ask question and if oppositional voices could be expressed within the press-conference’s agenda. Indeed, and almost as usual, few journalists asked a number of questions that can be defined as brave. It included harsh critiques of the new legislation that prohibits Russian children’s adoption by U.S. citizens, a death of attorney Magnitsky, prosecution of participants in protests (so called “Bolotnoe delo”) and decrease in rates of support in Putin (some experts argue that the major reason that some questions were asked is a mistake, since at some point Putin replaced his spokesperson and started to grant the right of question by himself, while other will suggest that it’s a way to maintain an imitation of media freedom).

Some expets argue that this year the press conference was different from the similar events in the past and it was full of a spirit of protest. Olga Pavlikova from Slon suggests that the president lost control over the conversation with journalist and calls the conference as “media Bolotnaya square” (th square where the protests in Moscow took place following the elections to Duma). However, there is also another opinion. In a brilliant op-ed Oleg Kashin (whose participation in the press conference was blocked by presidential administration) points out that this conference demonstrates the death of professional journalism in Russia. But the fact that the conference can’t be considered as a journalistic event, doesn’t mean that press-conference doesn’t matter. Vice versa, it should lead to a question what is the role of this event with particular political system. That requires to go beyond the discussion about the content of the press-conference, as well as the relative degree of “media freedom” at the conversation between Putin and journalists.

The majority of discussion about the conference is placed within what is called in communication theory as transmission model, when a source of information sends some kind of messages to audience. This approach makes us focusing on the content and relationship between particular individuals – the journalists and the responder (the president in this case). However, both, the content and the individual interaction can be secondary.

One should ask what is the function of the press conference for political system. That requires putting aside the transmission model and placing the analysis of this event within other frameworks. The first, is a famous alternative to transmission model that approaches media as a culture (James Carey). It allows to consider press conference as form of ritual . The second suggests to approach press conference as a form of governance.

The first argument suggests that the presidential press conference in Russia is not a channel for transmission of information, influencing public opinion and opportunity to make news, but a ritual the defines and reaffirms the relationship between journalist and the leader, the state and the media.  As Silverstone explains “if influence and affects models tend to focus the mind on media as disturbance of the social order and on the manifest exercise of symbolic power, then ritual models tend to focus the mind on the media’s role in creating and sustaining that social order”.

In this case, “sustaining social order” means sustaining a particular mode of relationship between the leader and the media. The press conference ritual defines and reaffirms the boundaries between the media and the state. As every ritual it has similar structure and similar elements year after year.  It includes how journalists try to attract the attention of the president to their questions, the dynamics of interaction between the leader and spokesperson in management of the conference, participation of same journalists with same questions year after year, the way journalists approach the president, links to previous press conferences etc. The specific structure of ritual can be a separate research topic.

Moreover this mode of relationship communicated to the wide public. Relying on notion of media as a ritual, Katz and Dayan, suggested a concept of media events as rituals that included disasters, wars, coronations, sport events etc. Media events concept allows to understand the source of fail in case of Russian presidentail press-conference. If in the liberal systems journalist should be external to the ritual, in Russian case they become a part of the ritual, and at the same time they cover this ritual.  Journalists have a dual role. They are ritual participants and mediators at the same time. This conflict can’t be resolved. Ritualization of relationship between journalist and the state through press conferences  media event become a major element of media control by the state.

However, if a ritual is a form of sustaining social order, what it nature of order in state-media relationship in the Russian case and what are the boundaries between the media and the stated that are defined through it? What is the message of the ritual?

The majority of journalist who were allowed to address the leader hasn’t asked questions. They asked for solutions or/and sent messages of support to the leader.  Many questions, especially those that come from regional journalist raise some specific problems that are relevant to specific group and region (e.g. lack of budget, problematic law, lack of recognition). The journalists speak on behalf of particular group (national minority, residents of villages, social or professional group). In most of the cases the question is asked with expectation to get not a response, but a solution from the president.

As Oleg Kashin describes, these journalist don’t act as journalist. But what is important that it doesn’t mean that they don’t have a function at all. They just have very different functions. This function is defined by the structure of Russian political systems and so called “vertical of governance”. According to the “vertical” all the roads lead to the top of pyramid and the one who is on the top is the ultimate source of solutions for any problem. The only way to solve the problem is to reach the top of vertical. The press conference is a very rare opportunity to raise a problem in front of the top of the vertical.

As concequence, the role of journalists is reframed. They act as representative of the people, who asked for help from the leader. It happens also due to failure of other institutions to address problems of people. As Russian political expert Lilya Shevtzova point out, Russian political institutes focus on creation of imitation of activity instead fulfiilling their duties. The most prominent example for this argument is the Russian Duma. Journalists become to a substitute to a failing institute of parliament that should provide channel for representation, but doesn’t really do it in Russian case.

From this perspective, the press conference also has dual nature. On the one hand it reaffirms the mode or relationship between state and the journalists. On the other hand, it reaffirms the structure of Russian governance and the role of the leader as the ultimate source of solutions. As a result, the Russian media is embedded within the vertical of governance. The press conference is not really a conference, but a “press-audience” that is similar to an audience that kings granted to to the members of the public who wanted to complain. This “press-audience” is a ritual and mode of governance.

Obviously, there is a minority of journalist who ask difficult questions, but these questions are also framed not as a journalistic work, but primarily as political oppositional activity. Members of liberal online communities discuss the courage of these journalists and consider it as a heroic act. But these “oppositional questions” also become a part of the ritual, but not a part of professional discourse that could be expected from press conference. The ritual of “press-audience” frames these journalists as a marginal and excluded group. This exlusion is also a part of ritual.

What I tried to suggest is a different view on the role of presidential press conference as a ritual the reaffirms the boundaries between state and media as well as adapt a new function within a particular system of governance. However, this analysis can also have some practical applications.

The only way to break the ritual, is to place yourself out of its framework. It requires a high degree of self-reflexivity from potential participants. What is also required is more professionalism that will allow journalist to avoid emotions and political narrative, and ask difficult questions without expressing their political positions.

If the journalist will analyze the structure of the system and the way the system frame the role of media in a critical way beyond the traditional framework of transmission and struggles for media freedom, it can help to suggest alternative. The power of journalism is not only about acting against censorship and challenging the repressive leader, but challenging the system that defines media boundaries.

The latter requires form journalists to place themselves out of the system of ritual and governance as it is designed by organizers of the «press-audience». The journalist required to work on two layers. They have to ask challenging questions, but at the same time they have to challenge the structure that defines how these questions can be asked.

Photos by Kremlin.ru

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Gregory Asmolov. All rights reserved.