To be distributed to all major media organisations in the US, UK, Canada and Australia. By Russell O’Phobe.


Over the past couple of years we in the media have, by and large, risen to the challenge and the need for publishing a good variety of Russian scare stories. That is all well and good, but it is my belief that unless we continue to publish pieces which adhere to the same journalistic standards, the narrative we have been working so hard to maintain might be lost and the general public might begin to suspect that we’ve been taking them for a ride. That won’t do, of course, and so in the interests of keeping the narrative flowing, here is a basic primer on the art of writing Russian scare stories for public consumption:

1. It may be that many of you feel that the old rules of journalism — such as including verifiable sources and adhering to credible standards of evidence — should apply to pieces written about Russia, Russians and the Russian President as much as to other subjects. Let me assure you from the outset that this is not the case. Thanks to the hard work of those who have gone before you to convince many in the public that “the Russians are coming”, piffling matters such as verifiable sources and credible evidence are really non issues and, providing you are careful, you can pretty much make up whatever you like and get away with it.

MiGs in the sky...somewhere
MiGs in the sky…somewhere

2. Further to point number one, the recent story concerning the military intervention of the Russian army in Syria, which first appeared in the Israeli online news site, Ynetnews.com, provides a textbook example of how these pieces should be written and I strongly advise anyone interested in becoming a real expert in Russian scare stories to go and study that piece. It started by claiming that “Russia had begun its military intervention in Syria”, went on to cite “Western diplomats” as its source, and then accompanied the article with some nice pictures of Russian MiGs. However, regardless of the credibility gap, the piece was then picked up by the Council on Foreign Relations, before going all the way up to the White House itself, where the claims were taken as credible. This is a brilliant example of just how much you can get away with and I would advise you to let Churchill’s great line give you comfort as you set about penning your scare piece: “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on”.

3. For those who still find themselves a little queasy, fearing that writing unsourced and frankly outrageous claims might land you in hot water, let me encourage you to dabble in that little scribe’s device, the quotation mark. Take this from the BBC earlier this year: ‘Russian submarine’ suspected of damaging UK trawler in Irish Sea. What those quotation marks do is give you the best of both worlds. On the one hand, they give you the opportunity to write all sorts of unsourced and incredible claims to scare your readers that the Russians are up to evil tricks (including damaging fishing boats). Yet at the same time, they absolve you from any responsibility should the ‘Russian submarine’ turn out to be a ‘Swedish civilian boat’ or a ‘British Navy submarine’, since you can just claim that you were quoting rather than asserting. Provided you begin your article with something like “Experts believe that the Irish/Swedish fishing boat which capsized ‘may have been hit by a Russian submarine,’” you have all you need to scare the willies out of your readers whilst at the same time ensuring immunity.

4. Staying on the subject of submarines, let me encourage you to use them in your pieces as much as possible. They really do have a very Cold War-esque feel to them and to a populace schooled in James Bond films and such like, they tend to carry a certain automatic fear factor. So even if you happen to be writing about the effect of sanctions or an economic forum in Vladivostok, if you can squeeze a submarine or two into the piece, I would encourage you to do so as it will undoubtedly lend your piece the extra bit of menace and Soviet-feel creepiness that you’re looking for.

5. The art of writing Russian scare stories is really one of playing on people’s fears. This being the case, it is good practice to begin your piece with the words, “Fears are growing that…” or “There is concern in Western capitals that…” or “Washington and London are alarmed by…” It goes without saying that you should not ask questions about Washington’s or London’s own behaviour — encouraging people to question their involvement in destabilising entire regions could be quite detrimental to your piece. Personally, I would love to see someone write a piece beginning, “Fears are growing in Western capitals of an alliance between Russia, the Islamic State, and the Ebola virus.” That would bring all the elements of President Obama’s new axis of evil into one, although I admit it would be a tricky piece to spin, given the Russian government’s support for Assad. Nevertheless, that sort of thing is the Holy Grail of Russian scare stories, you might say, and so may I put it out there as a challenge for the best of you to try to get that one into print.

6. I mentioned submarines above, but I would also encourage stories about military jets. To my knowledge, there have been no instances – in recent memory at any rate – of Russian military aircraft flying into the airspace of another country without permission. But this should not prevent you from milking the fact that they do sometimes fly in international airspace. Some textbook examples of such pieces were seen earlier in the year when Russian military aircraft were flying over the Baltic Sea, in international airspace, at the same time as NATO drills were taking place (see here for example). What’s so good about these sorts of stories is that they are designed to make the reader think that whilst there is something extremely sinister about Russian jets flying over the Baltic, it is perfectly normal and right for British RAF jets to intercept them there. You do have to be careful with these pieces though. I have known some rather naïve journalists, unschooled in these matters, who have wanted to accompany their story with a map of the area. Needless to say, this would be extremely unwise as it may lead some of your readers to notice that Russia is in fact right next to the Baltic Sea, whereas Britain isn’t. And that wouldn’t do, would it?

7. I would encourage you to use the word Kremlin as many times as you can in your piece, rather than referring to “The Russian Government said…” or “A spokesman for the Government commented…”. The reason for this is of course that the word Kremlin, to Western ears, sounds sort of like Barad-dûr, Dol Guldur and Mordor all rolled into one. It is therefore a gift for Russian scare story writers, and I would urge you to milk it for all it’s worth.

8. It is crucial that in your piece certain facts are withheld from the general public, or at the very least minimised. For instance, don’t ever succumb to the temptation to mention the history of Crimea or the linguistic and cultural leanings of its population. That won’t do your cause any good at all. Another example would be the coup which originally brought the Kiev government into power, and their subsequent war against millions of their own population using neo-Nazi battalions. Mentioning these things will only succeed in utterly destroying the narrative that many of us have worked so hard to get across – that Ukraine is run by an enlightened, peace loving government which came to power after the previous government was ousted by young maidens and grandmothers with blue and yellow flowers in their hair. Just don’t do it!

9. On the subject of Kiev, it is vitally important that at all costs you are selective over what you report on the President and the government. It simply wouldn’t do to report on things like President Poroshenko’s desire to bomb children into bunkers, for instance. You wouldn’t want to give your readers the impression that he is an unhinged megalomaniac, would you? No, you must remember that at all times your task is to present the Kiev government and the President as the epitome of enlightened, democratic goodness, in contrast to the evil machinations of the Kremlin Gremlin. Perhaps I could make a suggestion at this point, which has served me well over the past 18 months when writing Russian scare stories. On my desk I keep pictures of Presidents Poroshenko and Putin. On the head of Mr Poroshenko I have glued a white hat, whilst on the head of Mr Putin I have glued a black hat. Whenever I’m tempted to quote words of Mr Poroshenko that might cast him in a somewhat negative light, I look up at his picture and remember, “White hat, old boy, white hat.” And of course whenever Mr Putin comes out with something that doesn’t quite square with the “new Hitler” mould, once again I look up, see the black hat, and act accordingly.

10. Finally, any budding Russian scare story journo would do well to pin that Karl Rove quote about reality to their desk: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” Remember that. Learn from it. Chant it in your sleep. You are a hit-and-run merchant. Because you have the whole of the mainstream press on your side, you can write all sorts of unsourced and incredible claims about Russia, and before anyone gets around to debunking what you have written, you will have moved the narrative on.

Soldier Baba YagaA great example of this was that recent story about Russia publishing figures of its dead in the “Eastern Ukrainian Campaign”. By the time the story was debunked, the narrative had moved on, nobody was held accountable for propagating falsehoods, but the impression was left with many that it was all true. Provided you hit with your story, and then run with another narrative soon after, you can create your own realities and leave your detractors gasping for air as they try to keep up with you. In fact, I think you could probably get away with a story about Russian soldiers invading Syria dressed in Soviet-era uniforms with Baba Yaga emblems on the arms, provided you follow up a day or two later with a piece about “Growing fears of a Russian invasion of the Baltics and Poland”.

Now that idea about Soviet uniforms and Baba Yaga gives me a great idea for a story…

3 thoughts on “A Media Primer on the Art of Writing Russian Scare Stories

  1. There is a double irony in your first choice of stories.
    The allegation against Russia turned out to be more or less true.

    But!!!!
    The US soon produced satellite evidence and within a week Russia admitted it was true (whereas most stories have never been followed with evidence, and Russia continues to deny them – most of all no evidence, let alone satellite evidence, has shown any significant Russian presence in E Ukraine).
    In other words for real stories it is easy to find evidence. For false stories no one bothers.

    The second irony is that Russia was invited to Syria by its legal government and has been requested to bomb rebels by both Syria and Iran.
    The US (or UK on the very odd occasion) has not been invited to bomb Syria and it has been denied permission by the UN. So that even the true allegations against Russia turn out to be about legal activity in comparison to war crimes by the US.

    Of course the lies about Syria are endless. Even today’s final acquiescence of the US to join the Russian centred anti rebel coalition – an enormous diplomatic defeat for the US – has been proclaimed as a US victory in a peace process.

    1. Thanks Michael for all your comments on various pieces. You’re right that this particular story did turn out to be true, and no-one could be in any doubt about it. One of the ironies of it though was that it showed beyond doubt that all the claims about the alleged “Ukrainian invasion” were always complete hogwash. As I have remarked to one or two people who kept insisting that the Russians had “invaded Ukraine” and wanted to take the country, now that you’ve seen what a Russian military intervention really looks like, are you still sure that the “Invasion of Ukraine” ever took place? Needless to say, the question is met with blank looks.

      Best wishes,

      Rob

  2. “Johnson’s Russia List” brought me here and I’m glad it did. This is a brilliant column and should be required reading for students in all accredited schools of journalism! Of course, those billionaires who own outlets for what we laughingly call “journalism” these days don’t hire graduates of such schools due to potential workplace contamination via such dangerous concepts as “accuracy”, “balance”, “ethics”, “fairness”, etc. I hope Mr. O’Phobe writes more instructive columns such as this one. Thank you and keep up the good work!

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