The Orange revolution

Meejit spends some time in the Ukraine and dissects the media there.


So you think Eamon Dunphy is irritating? What would you reckon if your pre-match build-ups and your half-times and the après match came with no football discussion at all, just a dense package of advertisements, mostly for alcohol given the preponderance of young, and underage, males in the audience? Then occasionally there might be an idiotically patriotic football music video to fill the space between ads. (Apologies to readers who realise the word "idiotically" is redundant in that sentence.)

That's the sort of World Cup coverage you'd get in Ukraine, from where this column comes to you. (This phrase, by the way, and as is often the case, is a disingenuous half-truth: I'm writing this column back in Dublin, where I'll have been for several days by the time you can read it in print. But I did spend "last week" in Ukraine.)

Even while their own country was progressing to the quarter-finals, the two Ukrainian channels showing World Cup matches were taking their capitalist freedom seriously, maximising income, mainly from vodka companies, and keeping costs to a minimum. They didn't even spring for a little clock in the corner with the scoreline, now standard in most of the rest of the world. (Maintenance costs too high? Not if you're watching England.) In the western region where I was staying, you could always switch over to a fuzzier picture from Hungarian TV if you needed to check on the score.


The O'Reilly factor

The priorities of these television stations are indicative of larger problems in the post-Soviet, post-Orange Ukrainian media, where many observers believe money trumps service to audiences and the interests of a few oligarchs are permanently protected. Is it worse than a country where, as fellow Villager Chekhov Feeney pointed out recently, 80 per cent of newspapers sold are controlled by a key corporate player, Tony O'Reilly? Let's just say it's a close call.

In my conversations in Ukraine, even the most enthusiastic proponent of the changes wrought in recent times by the "pro-democracy" movement there suggested that the percentage of articles in the nation's press that are essentially bought and paid-for by interested parties, be they political or corporate, has now dropped as low as 50 per cent. Others put the percentage much higher. This is very difficult to condemn in a country that is supposed to be shedding old Stalinist strictures and embracing the joys of the market. Market principles and journalistic principles have longstanding compatibility problems that perhaps we in the West have grown better at camouflaging.

I was in a position only to make a direct assessment of English-language publications, which include a slick weekly newspaper full of stories that an Irish journalist would recognise as "advertorial", but without the little "special report" or "commercial feature" label that we like to think draws a clear ethical line. There is also a slightly less slick English-language magazine that is a more or less frank vehicle for the PR company that publishes and touts for business in it.


Market politics

As the fraught restoration of the photogenic gas billionaire Yulia Tymoshenko as prime minister should indicate, the boundary between politics and business doesn't exist on the Ukrainian map. Locals will openly explain that businesspeople don't like to settle for mere influence, on the Western model, and instead seek elected positions of power for themselves because of, eg, the attraction of parliamentary immunity from prosecution.

In a large country of nearly 50 million people, there are plenty of bigwigs and also plenty of media for them to control. That plenty is set to get more plentiful with further privatisation of state-owned broadcasters. A local TV journalist laughed as he showed me the calendar his station brings out annually, featuring a paid-for picture of one hideously ugly regional power-broker or another for every week of the year; the same people also pay the station to deliver New Year greetings each winter. However, he admitted that critical journalism about such people was difficult to do.

Moreover, when Ukrainian papers do shout about the corruption and decadence of certain public figures, readers tend to assume the complaints are being published on behalf of others who are pulling the strings, rather than in the public interest.

As a caricature of journalistic culture fuelled by rampant, hungry capitalism, it may be less grotesque than we would like to believe.