“The Doctor vs the President” (Foreign Correspondent, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 2 June 2020)
Even during the COVID-19 global pandemic, Western mainstream news media outlets can never resist the opportunity to bash countries they are ordered by governments, defence establishments and intel agencies not to like – countries such as Russia, China, Iran, Cuba, Syria and Venezuela – when they should be highlighting, comparing and analysing different approaches adopted by nations around the world to combating the disease and developing ways of eradicating or controlling it. A prime example of the never-ending propaganda is this episode from Australian television current affairs program “Foreign Correspondent” in which home-bound Russia correspondent Eric Campbell follows the adventures through his laptop of supposed renegade ophthalmologist Anastasia Vasilyeva in her stunt to deliver boxes of masks, gloves and other PPE to hospitals battling the SARS-COV-2 virus in the Novgorod oblast (an administrative region between Moscow and St Petersburg). Along the way, Vasilyeva and her convoy of four cars (with three people in each car – what happened to social distancing?) are stopped and questioned by police who then detain her for breaking lock-down rules (she was supposed to stay in Moscow) and for having no registration in Novgorod oblast (the region having closed its borders to outsiders). Since the convoy included a lawyer, a foreign reporters and three camera crew, instead of a full complement of medical staff and nurses from her trade union (Alliance of Doctors), Dr Vasilyeva obviously knew she was going to be arrested. In addition to breaking lock-down rules, the good doctor also disobeyed police instructions so she was further detained – in full view of the camera crew.
It probably does not need to be said that had Dr Vasilyeva been genuinely concerned about the needs of hospitals in Novgorod oblast, she could have organised a fund-raising effort among Muscovites and sent money electronically to the hospitals or the PPE in the post or by courier to the same, at much less cost to herself and her petrol bill – but of course this would not have made for confrontational TV titillation. Incidentally, the two head physicians of the target hospitals in Novgorod oblast expressed surprise at Dr Vasilyeva’s stunt and concern that the equipment had no certification or registrations, and that the stunt was intended to be provocative. All of this went unreported on the “Foreign Correspondent” report.
The program says very little about Dr Vasilyeva’s Alliance of Doctors, how large it is (or not), and does not interview any other members of that trade union. One would think it should be a very large union with branches right across Russia. There is nothing about where it is headquartered or how much influence it has among the medical profession in Russia. Viewers of the program will come away with no idea of where the trade union’s income comes from. Oddly enough, the program emphasises Dr Vasilyeva’s personal connection with the charlatan “opposition figure” Alexei Navalny, who enjoys very little support among the Russian voting public, who is supposed to be under house arrest for his role in embezzling funds from a state timber company in Kirov oblast, and whose lavish life-style is far beyond the amount of money he earns from his activities and fund-raising. Anyone even mildly au fait with Russian politics will know straight away that people with personal associations with Navalny are likely not only to be feted by Western governments and media organisations, they are likely to be shady characters themselves receiving funding from foreign organisations with an interest in deposing the current Russian government and targeting President Putin in particular.
Ah, yes, no program criticising Russia can resist mocking Putin as a would-be Stalinist dictator intent on prolonging his grip on the country to 2036 through a referendum that would give him an extra two terms as President: a referendum inspired by a proposal from none other than State Duma representative Valentina Tereshkova, who in a former life was the world’s first female space traveller. Funnily, “Foreign Correspondent” does not notice that Putin doesn’t straight away sign a decree making himself President for life – no, he actually decides to put the idea to a public referendum. Elsewhere in the program, Putin is portrayed as something of a weakling in retreating from the public at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic lock-down in Moscow (instigated by Mayor Sergei Sobyanin: it was his job after all, not Putin’s) and then somehow re-emerging as the leader in tamping down the infection’s spread and halting its progress. The fact that it is other people’s jobs and the function of health ministries at the national and regional levels to control and if possible eradicate COVID-19 in Russia, with the President watching their progress as any political leader would and should, giving them encouragement and admonishing them for failures, seems to have escaped “Foreign Correspondent”. But when opportunity arises to perpetuate a stereotype of Russia as a tired, clapped-out has-been empire lost in nostalgic fantasy, and its government and leader as despotic and out of touch with reality, “Foreign Correspondent” like every other mainstream Western media outlet seizes it and flogs it at the expense of its credibility with an increasingly sceptical Australian audience.
An opportunity to critically view and report on how successfully or unsuccessfully Russia is dealing with COVID-19 – despite the huge numbers being infected, the actual death toll is very low – and the reason for the huge disparity in the statistics compared to equivalent figures in other countries, adjusted for population size, was missed.