Saturday, July 29, 2017


The current trend in journalism is to talk of countries as though they do things.  So we say: 'Russia interfered in the US elections', or 'the US has imposed sanctions on Russia because it interfered in the US elections'.

But perhaps we could take a moment to think what we are doing when we assent to such language.  What do we mean when we say 'Russia did this', or 'the US is doing that'?  I suppose what I am asking is: can a country do things, and, if so, what do we actually mean when we describe a country as doing things?

Let's first look at the vast amount of the universe we are ignoring when we talk like this.  When we say 'Russia interfered in the US elections', we don't mean that the Altai Mountains and the Ural Mountains forgot their rocky-ness, and started transmitting radio waves into US territory.  Presumably the mountains, the vast mountains, just sat there and did nothing, innocently.  We don't mean that the Baltic and Black Seas, the East Siberian Sea and the White Sea all rose up and conspired to wash the US citizens into voting differently.  Nor do we even mean that the brown bear, the Amur tiger and the grey wolf sneaked over onto US territory and prowled and stalked until the US populace gave in and voted Republican.  No, we mean the humans.

Having excluded the vast majority of material space and animal kind from Russia's apparent actions, we are left with some assumption that Russia is the humans in it. But by Russia, neither do we mean most of the 144 million people who live there.  They have better things to do than to try to influence how US citizens voted.  We mean, I imagine, not the Russian people, but the Russian Government.  Having limited the ambit of the phrase 'Russia' to the few people in charge of the political country, we might go further, and look to the most powerful among them.  Perhaps the most powerful person is the President, Vladimir Putin, supported by his Presidential Administration.

What may be meant by 'Russia' is 'the Russian President'.  After all, if we do not mean this, then we mean 'some people in Russia for whom the Russian government does not speak'; and there are any number of those.

Interestingly, journalists tend not to say 'Vladimir Putin'.  They operate on the assumption that we all know who 'Russia' is.  But the effect of this elision of colloquialism into fact, is that a little part of our brain really thinks that the whole geographical country of Russia interfered in the US elections.  It's irrational, but it's a persistent assumption, albeit unconscious.  It is as ridiculous as saying that a mountain moved and hit someone over the head.

Now, what is the effect of this loose use of language?  I would argue that, by using the name of a whole country to describe the actions of a few, we are indulging in nothing less than casual racism.  The Russians did this.  The Americans did that.  We use a descriptive phrase to encapsulate an entire country, when we mean to point to one or two key agents.  It wraps whole countries into battles that are really not their battles.

Let's assume what we mean is 'Vladimir Putin, or agents on his behalf, found a way to influence the outcome of the US elections'.  Forgive me for saying so, but this is the most unsurprising thing I have ever heard.  For centuries, administrations in the UK, US, Russia - everywhere - have sought to influence political outcomes everywhere else.  I may as well say 'John Smith from down the road sought to influence the outcome of the planning permission for my extension', and then translate it into 'the North Guildfordians' or some such generic description.

Let's be clear: it is standard practice for all governments to seek to influence political decisions which make or break other governments.  The democratic process is not a complete purdah applied to citizens.  We are all deemed to be grown up, able to determine, from the raft of influences we are exposed to, what we are going to do next, and for whom we are going to vote.  That's the assumption that defines the right to vote.

Finally, let's look at what we mean when we suggest that the US president may have 'communicated with Russia' in the run-up to the election.  We mean that a candidate in an election may have been offered help by Vladimir Putin or agents on his behalf.  So what?  I mean, really, so what?  Yes, it is true that the US has laws preventing inappropriate contact with foreign political influences in such situations.  But the problem is this: a law cannot place candidates in purdah, just as it cannot place citizens in purdah.  Elections happen in the open, in a world where people speak to other people, seek to influence other people.  We have yet to distinguish well between accepting help and being influenced.  Arguably, we call it accepting help when the 'goodies' are involved, and 'being influenced' when the 'baddies' are involved.

What I am arguing for, is more subtlety in our understanding of politics.  Instead of vague statements such as 'Russia interfered in the US elections', we might say 'agents working on Vladimir Putin's behalf...' and then describe what they did.  I am arguing that it is not good enough for US authorities to assert the general without explaining in detail the specifics.  If we are talking about influencing social media, then that is propaganda, and it simply means that some successful propaganda happened in the US.  Not a surprising thing.  The US government seeks to influence social media abroad all the time.

So let's not keep talking about how 'Russia did this', or 'North Korea did that'.  Let's refer to the people we mean, and then explain who did what, and how.  Otherwise, we are no better than casual racists who explain life with reference to generic and vague terms of origin.  It is up to journalists to help this change by avoiding such phrases.  We need to stop pretending that countries do things.  People do things.  To report the general is not journalism - it is gossip.  To explain exactly who did what, and how, and whether or not it is unusual... now that is closer to journalism.