Portrait of Putin: It may not be nice, but that doesn't make it unfair

The complainant, Gregory Duffell, thought that a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin broadcast on The National portrayed him as an unstable paranoid leader. He thought it failed to explain why Putin’s actions might be justified, and those chosen to speak about him stacked the deck against him. I found that while the portrait was not flattering, it was based on an analysis of the facts and it did provide some understanding of his style and why he is supported by many Russians.

COMPLAINT

You were critical of a feature story about Vladimir Putin prepared by Neil Macdonald and broadcast April 9, 2014 on The National. The piece was presented in the context of recent events in Ukraine, including the growing dispute over Crimea. You felt that the piece “was not journalistic in any meaningful way” and was completely unbalanced in its portrayal of the Russian president, and his policy decisions vis à vis Ukraine and the west. You thought all those interviewed served to reinforce a picture of a man that is “mentally unhinged and dangerous to the world.”

Mr. Macdonald provided an analysis of Putin’s personality and leadership style by interviewing four people, who were either experts on Putin and Russia, or had some personal experience with the Russian president. You thought his choice of interviewees stacked the deck against him:

“The manner in which the presentation unfolded, there was not one person that had any genuine admiration for Mr. Putin, or thought that whatever actions being attributed to him were justifiable. The report provided no credit, or blame, to the vast majority of citizens of the Crimean peninsula who desperately wanted out of the political, ethical and financial mess that Ukraine has become. It could easily leave the impression in the minds of viewers that no reasonable individuals could be found anywhere who agreed with the situation in Crimea, or how Mr. Putin governs Russia or that might have the opinion that Mr. Putin is not psychotic. This was the lack of both balance and objectivity that I found so reprehensible and embarrassing.”

You thought that there was important context missing from the piece that would explain Mr. Putin’s views and behavior and put them in a better light. You pointed out, “Any examination of the geopolitical order would show that Russia is being encircled by NATO.” In that context, you say, he would not be seen as paranoid. You think portraying him in this fashion “polarizes the discussion” and is a disservice to Canadians.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Mark Harrison, the executive producer of The National, replied to your complaint. He explained that all four people interviewed had either studied Mr. Putin or had “some experience with his style of leadership.” He said that each of them had a different perspective and their insights contributed to a better understanding and knowledge of the Russian leader. He did not agree that the overall impression left was of someone who was “mentally unhinged,” or that he was some kind of maniac:

“In fact, many qualities are attributed to President Putin in the report, among them that he is smart, ambitious, strategic, conservative and, yes, conspiratorial, dangerous and cruel.”

He agreed that two of the four interviewees were critical in their views. He added that the other two had some “appreciation, and perhaps admiration” for Mr. Putin. He said they provided some perspective on why Mr. Putin is well liked in Russia and what is behind some of his thinking. He pointed out that Mr. Macdonald ends the piece by reinforcing the message that whatever his methods, Putin is a successful leader, when he says:

“Whatever his flaws, though, Putin is regarded as a sane, understandable and dangerous opponent by his adversaries.”

He also told you that future broadcasts would address further developments in Ukraine and NATO’s relationship with Russia.

REVIEW

As The National’s anchor, Peter Mansbridge, said in the introduction of the piece, the stated purpose of Mr. Macdonald’s feature on Vladimir Putin was to examine some of “the forces that shaped him.” The introduction to the piece went on to say:

“To know the Russian leader’s next move, one has to understand his mind. Tonight senior Washington correspondent Neil Macdonald delves into Putin’s rise, his rage, his greed, and his power—a portrait of the man at the heart of a crisis looming over Europe.”

Macdonald interviewed four people who have either studied or knew Putin. One was the former head of the CIA, another a Russian gay rights activist and author of a biography about him, The Man Without a Face. The author, Masha Gessen, is the most overtly critical of him – she says he has “dismantled the electoral system . . . taken over the media, thrown his opponents into jail . . . has scapegoated minorities and instigated violence against them . . . he’s a monster.” The former head of the United States spy agency talks about Putin’s KGB background as his heritage and leading to an “incredible conspiratorial view of the world.”

The two other participants in the piece are a former KGB agent, once Putin’s boss, and an American investor who talked about Putin’s persecution of those who opposed him. The investor shone light on the corruption and the way in which Putin has amassed enormous wealth for himself and those closest to him. The information is presented in the context of what motivates the man, as well as shedding some light on his leadership style.

You are right that the piece could serve to demonize him, but there is some context. The only time one could say The National indulged in hyperbole was in the headline which promised “Neil Macdonald takes you into the ruthless and paranoid world of Vladimir Putin.” It may be hyperbolic but, based on known facts, it is not false. The piece itself does touch on what shaped and influenced Putin’s approach and style. Michael Hayden, the former CIA chief, points to his KGB past and the world of spying as a formative factor. He also says that Putin has been effective, in the context of his own country’s needs. He sees him as a skilled politician who has reasserted Russian power: “What Putin delivered and the factor on which he bases his legitimacy is that he has restored Russian pride. He has to an extent got Russia back into the game.”

And the former KGB agent, Oleg Kalugin, while also no fan of Putin, actually states that he is a good leader without whom “Russia would fall apart.” He puts the financial corruption in perspective as well: “ . . . corruption is universal problem . . . the economic situation in Russia is not bad at all. It’s been improving. People live better.”

The portrait that emerges is not flattering, to be sure. It portrays a man, as Macdonald states, that is a “despot, shrewd, strategist, spy, nativist, kleptocrat – Vladimir Putin seems to be all that and quite a bit more.” It doesn’t, however, portray him as mentally unhinged, but rather as someone quite determined and ruthless. CBC Journalistic policy allows its journalists to “provide professional judgment based on facts and expertise.” That is what Mr. Macdonald has done with this piece. Balance is not the same as equivalence. There are voices in this segment that put Putin’s actions in some kind of perspective, acknowledge that they are effective. In this context, there is no need for an apologist for his actions or for someone to defend them.

Your overarching concern, in this complaint and your previous one, is that CBC News has not reflected the view from Moscow sufficiently. Mr. Harrison committed to further coverage from a variety of perspectives as events unfold. Editorial discussions of that coverage should consider explaining that view to Canadian audiences.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman