14 February 2014, 14:10

38th VoR Live Panel. Sochi coverage: U-turn for western press?

38th VoR Live Panel. Sochi coverage: U-turn for western press?
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From the moment the Russian city of Sochi was chosen as the host city for the Olympic games of 2014, the Western media viewed this event in the best of cases as a test for the Russian president Vladimir Putin. Some of the mainstream Western media viewed it as a battleground where Russia would fight the West – or so one might conclude from the headlines. 

Comparisons with the Olympic games in Nazi Germany in 1936, even though they were visibly insulting and inappropriate, were commonplace. Some of this stuff continues even now, even though the authors of such comparisons are put to shame by the vast majority of the people who watched the games – by their own eyes or even on TV screens.

Guest in Washington:
- Amos Gelb, Director of Broadcast at Medill School of Journalism

Guest in London
- Alexander Mercouris, a legal expert and media analyst

Guest in Moscow:
- Robert Bridge, a former editor-in-chief of The Moscow News weekly, a person who observed the coverage of Russia by Western press for as long as 23 years.

People who accuse the western media having a whisper for conspiracy theories might cite other examples of negative coverage ahead of major event. For example the 2011 World Cup in South Africa was preceded by several months of negative coverage when changed for the better only when teams started to actually kick the ball around the game's began. But still the coverage that Russia had to endure before Sochi was unprecedented. And it went far beyond with China had to go through before its recent Olympic games. I have a very simple question – why?

Robert Bridge: As you say it's definitely unprecedented – the scale of the negative media coverage, it's been unbelievable. It's gotten to the point where myself personally I stopped reading the coverage in the media. It's just been depressing and I think there are different things that you can point. I think the main thing is that everybody keeps talking about that this is the so called Putin Olympics. First time I think that any president has had the honor of having the Olympic Games named after him but it has been politicized to such a degree that it is quite disturbing. You could point to different reasons why that is so: you have the situation in Syria, where Putin stepped in and he basically stopped what was pretty much preordained American attack on Syria, he stepped in with his peace plan and that certainly upset a lot of people in Washington. Second of all, you have Edward Snowden, now he is sitting in Moscow comfortably with his political asylum. So that is also another factor in the negative publicity.

Amos Gelb: Two things I'm going to say to you. First of all, it may be unprecedented in some of the tone, but it is not unprecedented in the coverage. You forget about the Salt Lake City Olympics where charges of corruption were not only in the media all the time, it was the one defining story. We are talking about Mitt Romney and his bodies. And there were some core cases, there were criminal charges filed, people were cleared. But the question of Olympics and the disasters coming forward – we have to date back to Montreal when Montreal which is still paying for its Olympic Games. Don't forget that Mitt Romney made a big deal in London before the London Olympics when he essentially said that they were not going to do it very well. And now it is sort of like the plane crash – will the plane crash? The fact that it lands safely and as it appears the biggest problem seems to be at the moment, the weather out there. The stories after the initial stories of some of the problems in the facilities that some of the people clearly did have, I think they are crying unfairly that Russia is being singled out. Maybe you could argue with the tone, but I think you'd be wrong to say it is the first time. By the way for that point when I was at CNN, we did a very thorough investigation of the Atlanta Olympics which by the way was thoroughly corrupt. And I was at CNN when the story got killed because Ted Turner had people on the board, on the Organizing Committee. So, again Sochi is not the first nor the most egregious.

Alexander Mercouris: I've experienced to recent Olympics quite closer. One was in Athens which is the city I was born and where I have family, one was in London. There has been absolutely no comparison in my opinion between the kind of criticism that the Olympics in Athens and London or indeed Beijing or Salt Lake City or elsewhere got and those in Sochi. Sochi has been on entirely different scale. More importantly there has been a very strong political agenda behind all of this. We've seen European and American leaders for example refusing to go there and all sorts of things being said. On the subject of the money that has been spent in relation to Sochi, I think a point to make is that a lot of this money was spent in order not just to develop Sochi but as a boost for the local economy in an area, the Northern Caucasus, which has been extremely rammed down with high unemployment and where there has been recently history of war. One of the points about the Olympic Games was to boost the economy and the infrastructure in this area. So, the fact that the Russian government and Russia was going to spend a lot of money on Sochi was something that everybody knew in advance. This figure of $50 billion that comes up and if you watch the BBC coverage of the opening ceremony they were repeating it almost insistently is one that actually comes from the Russian opposition leader Mr Boris Nemtsov who did a report on the Sochi Games which has been largely discredited. The point is that figure is a perfect figure and people have been recycling it continuously, however often it has been proved that it is not actually correct.

Recently America had the Super Ball which is the championship game for the NFL (National Football League). This is a major event, we are talking about billions of dollars for one game. The New Jersey state government and the NFL, a billion dollar organization, had three years to prepare for this event, yet on game day they failed miserably. On a game day it turned out that they left tens of thousands of fans still stranded in a bitter cold not only before the game but after the game as well. If this had happened here in Russia at the Olympics what would the American journalists have written?

Amos Gelb: They would have been all over it like they were all over the Atlanta Games. The Atlanta Games sailed disastrously in its transportation. One team actually hijacked a bus to get to its event on time. There would have been a huge outcry. I would understand the desire to cry foul on this. And if you noticed actually the coverage for the last few days has been tempered down aside from complaints about the conditions up at the mountain and then the question is why would the Olympic Committee agree to have games in a subtropical climate where its known to get warm like this. Let's be very clear, you mentioned people not going to the Olympics, but there was a major concern before because of the bomb threats, the security which was promoted by the Russians saying how secure it was going to be and then the threats by the terrorists. That was a legitimate concern. There has been no comments about the security, it seems to be going fine. There were comments at the beginning in the same way they were about Brazil that the facilities were not ready.

Is Sochi a victim of today's technology or are the derogative social posts a clever new way of seizing the spotlight and becoming rich and famous?

Robert Bridge: What they did before the games was in my opinion the worst form of poor sportsmanship you could possibly get. The are so many people who cancelled their tickets to come to Sochi because of this ridiculous, one sided type of journalism that is totally biased and are basically pushing pro-Western agenda that wants to continue this argument, that Russia is somehow backwards, that it is still a Soviet State. They don't want Western audiences to see the reality. So they had to continue pumping this type of a story.

Alexander Mercouris: Yes, that was the attempt to define the story by talking up missing door knobs, bad toilets, double toilets – all that nonsense. The moment the actual games started however that became unsustainable because what people saw was something completely different.

Amos Gelb: I think one thing you are seeing here is more outlets, more ways of information getting out. Second part of it is, yes, terrorism is a huge issue. To be honest if you would have this in St. Petersburg or if the games had happened in Moscow or any place other within the area, there is a geographic perception that there has been issues in Chechnya, they have spread to Dagestan and other areas down there and the concern is real not just for foreigners but also for Russians.

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