The Guardian And Putin

Two months ago I wrote an article in which I used data and statistics to show that Russian journalists today under Putin are, contrary to extravagant claims in the Western media, far safer than in several acknowledged democracies such as India or Brazil; far safer than ordinary Russians; and indeed, far safer than they were under Yeltsin. Why then does one get the exact opposite impression from reading the Western media on this subject? Mainly that is because they lean on rhetoric and hyperbole over fact; they deny the utility of comparative perspective; and in some cases, they outright lie or make things up. The Guardian is an example par excellence of all this. On reading a certain Guardian editorial, longtime DR commentator Alex Mercouris noticed that its figure of 200 journalist deaths under Putin clashed irrevocably with ALL estimates from reputed press freedoms watchdogs, most of which converged on a figure of 40 deaths or less. Did The Guardian just make up its own facts? Unable to rest without an answer to this question, Mercouris embarked on an investigation to find out the origins of this massively over-inflated figure… and why The Guardian left it up on their site unchanged for SIX MONTHS after having become aware of their mistake. I am happy to present:

The Guardian and Putin

Alexander Mercouris

As readers of the British newspaper the Guardian know, the Guardian has conducted for many years a fierce campaign against Vladimir Putin.  This began almost from the moment of Putin’s appointment by Boris Yeltsin as Prime Minister in 1999.  I still remember an editorial the Guardian published at the time which called on Yeltsin to sack Putin just a few weeks after he had appointed him.

On 18th December 2011 the Guardian published another in its long line of anti Putin editorials under the provocative title “Truth is being murdered in Putin’s bloody Russia.” The language used in this editorial was extreme even by the Guardian’s standards.  I was particularly shocked by the final sentence, which referred to the Russian state as “slack, slimy and savage”.  Such language seems to me completely inappropriate in an editorial in a serious newspaper with an international readership.

The editorial appeared in print form in the Guardian’s Sunday supplement the Observer and online in the Guardian’s website on “Comment is Free”.  The timing of the editorial on 18th December 2011 is important.  Parliamentary elections took place in Russia on 4th December 2011 over the course of which the pro Putin party United Russia suffered a substantial loss of support, triggering protests amidst allegations of vote rigging.  An unauthorised protest took place in central Moscow on 5th December 2011, which turned violent.  A much bigger peaceful protest took place in Moscow on Bolotnaya Square within sight of the Kremlin on 10th December 2011.  This was followed by a further big protest in Moscow on Sakharov Avenue on 24th December 2011.  The editorial therefore appeared at a tense time in Russia, when the protest movement in Moscow against Putin was at its height and when the Russian and international news media were buzzing with speculation that Putin might be on his way out with rumours circulating of troop movements in Moscow and of a violent crackdown being planned against the protest movement.

The editorial was supposedly written in connection with the murder in Russia’s southern republic of Dagestan in the northern Caucasus of a journalist called Khadzimurad Kamalov.  In emotional and angry language the editorial condemned Kamalov’s murder, which it linked to the murder of what it said were “around 200” other journalists who had supposedly been killed in Russia since Putin came to power.  Amongst the murdered journalists named in the editorial was the famous journalist Anna Politkovskaya who was killed outside her apartment in 2006.  The editorial accused Putin and his government of complicity in these murders as part of a “bloody” campaign to “murder the truth”.

In other words at a time when Putin was facing a challenge in Moscow from the protest movement and at a time when speculation of a violent crackdown on the protest movement in Moscow was rife the Guardian published an editorial that accused Putin and the Russian government of complicity in the murder of “around 200” journalists and which referred to Russia as a “slack, slimy and savage” state.

The subject of the murder of journalists in Russia is a fraught one.  No one denies that journalists have been murdered in Russia and that this was and remains a problem.  Whether the single murder of one journalist working in a troubled Russian republic which is in the grip of a violent Islamic insurgency is in itself a sufficiently important subject to justify a whole editorial is another matter.

Several months later in May 2012 the editorial was referenced in a carefully researched article on the subject of the number of journalists murdered in Russia written by Anatoly Karlin and posted by him in May 2012 on his Da Russophile blog.  In this article Anatoly Karlin shows that the number of journalists killed in Russia is actually both proportionately and absolutely significantly less than the number of journalists killed in democracies like Brazil or Mexico, which are not the subject of the same sort of fiery denunciations western media agencies such as the Guardian reserve for Russia.

On reading Anatoly Karlin’s carefully researched article on his Da Russophile blog I noticed that the figure he gave for the number of journalists murdered in Russia was smaller by a factor of five from the figure of “around 200” given by the Guardian in its editorial of 18th December 2011.  To be precise Anatoly Karlin gave a figure for the number of journalists killed in Russia since 2000 (when Putin came to power) not of “around 200”, as appeared in the Guardian’s editorial, but of 36.  Moreover it turned out that Anatoly Karlin had obtained this figure of 36 from the website of the Committee to Protect Journalists, which is the leading organisation that researches and campaigns on the subject.

This is as I said a fivefold difference.  It is simply too big to be explained by a different method of counting the number of murdered journalists.  Moreover on checking the websites of other organisations that also concern themselves with this subject I could not find a single one that gave a figure that came even approximately close to the figure of “around 200” murdered journalists that had appeared in the Guardian’s editorial.

The Guardian paraphrasing the words of its former editor C.P. Scott claims that its editorial policy is that “comment is free but facts are sacred”.  Since I was unable to verify the figure of “around 200” murdered journalists given by the Guardian in its editorial of 18th December 2011 I decided to write to the Guardian to seek the source of this figure.  I set out my letter to Stephen Pritchard, the readers’ editor of the Observer, the Guardian’s Sunday supplement in which the editorial appeared in printed form, in full:

Stephen Pritchard
Readers’ Editor
The Observer
King’s Place
90, York Way
London N1 9GU
28th May 2012

Dear Mr. Pritchard,

Observer Editorial Comment – 18th December 2011

I am writing to you in connection with an editorial comment that appeared in the Observer on 18th December 2011.

The main title of the editorial reads as follows:

“Truth is being murdered in Putin’s bloody Russia”. 

 Below the main title there is a subtitle that reads as follows:

“Another journalist is brutally killed for daring to expose the corruption and organised crime that is at least tolerated by Moscow’s elite”.

The first paragraph of the editorial gives an account of the murder in the Russian republic of Dagestan of a journalist by the name of Khadzhimurad Kamalov.  The next paragraph reads as follows:

“The more facts along this trail of blood, the more dismaying it becomes.  Four journalists murdered in Vladimir Putin’s Russia this year alone.  That makes it a “good year” by some standards, because around 200 have been killed since he first came to power.  We in the west may have registered a few dreadful cases – say, the murder of Anna Politkovskaya – but, year in year out, something close to a silent slaughter has been allowed, even condoned.  Crimes unchecked, often cursorily investigated.  Crimes against freedom bathed in slothful impunity.  Many, many die, but few merit even a semblance of justice”.

The concluding paragraph then finishes with these words:

“Inside Moscow, rulers who pay lip service to human rights parade only an indifference that makes them complicit in these crimes.  Mr. Kamalov died on the very day that Russia’s journalist organisations have banded together to commemorate those of their colleagues who’d been slain.  Bitter irony.  How many more Mr. Putin?  How long are we supposed to mourn fellow journalists who died trying to tell us, and their fellow Russians, what a slack, slimy, savage state you run?”

These are very strong, even emotional words.  Given that this is so and given the extremely grave nature of the accusation that is being made in the editorial, that the Russian authorities including Mr. Putin are complicit in the murder of journalists, I am sure you will agree that it is essential that the facts given in the editorial should be accurate and true.  The editorial in particular makes two very specific factual claims.  These are:

  1. That around 200 journalists have been killed in Russia since Mr. Putin came to power, which was in 2000; and
  2. That four journalists including presumably Mr. Kamalov were killed in Russia in 2011.

The difficulty is that I have been unable to verify either of these two factual claims, which are the basis for the whole editorial.  The Committee to Protect Journalists, whose survey is generally acknowledged as the most authoritative, puts the total number of journalists killed in Russia for reasons connected to their work since Mr. Putin came to power in 2000 not at “around 200” but at 36.  Its total of journalists killed in Russia for reasons connected to their work since the fall of Communism in 1991 (ie. from well before Mr. Putin came to power) is 77.  Moreover its survey shows no journalists killed in Russia for reasons connected to their work in 2010 whilst instead of the four journalists who the Observer editorial says were killed in Russia in 2011 it cites only one journalist killed in Russia in that year, who is Mr. Kamalov. 

A different survey by the International Federation of Journalists and the International News Safety Institute using a somewhat less rigorous methodology puts the total number of journalists killed in Russia between 1996 and 2006 as 96, still far below the figure of “around 200 since Mr. Putin came to power” referred to in the Observer editorial.  Moreover this survey also shows Mr. Kamalov as the only journalist killed in Russia in 2011.

There are other less rigorous surveys including one by the Russian Glasnost Foundation but not one I have found comes close to matching the figures given in the Observer editorial of around 200 journalists killed since 2000 when Mr. Putin came to power or of four journalists (including Mr. Kamalov) killed in Russia in 2011.

Since as C.P. Scott the famous editor of your sister newspaper the Guardian once said, whilst comment is free “facts are sacred”, and in view of the nature of the claims made in the Observer editorial, that the Russian authorities including Mr. Putin are “complicit” in the killing of journalists and are “allowing” and “even condoning” in the “silent slaughter” of journalists, and given indeed the emotionally charged language of the whole editorial, I would ask you in the light of the substantial difference between the figures for journalists killed in Russia given in the editorial and those of every other survey I have found, to provide me with

  1. The source or sources for the figures in the editorial of “around 200” journalists killed in Russia since Mr. Putin came to power in 2000 and of four journalists (including Mr. Kamalov) killed in Russia in 2011; and
  2. The names of the 200 or so journalists who the Observer editorial says have been killed in Russia since Mr. Putin came to power in 2000; and/or in any event
  3. The names of the three journalists other than Mr. Kamalov who the Observer says were killed in Russia in 2011.

Please note that this letter and your reply may be circulated to third parties and may be published including on the internet.

In anticipation I thank you for your assistance and look forward to your reply.

Yours sincerely,

Alexander Mercouris

Several weeks later Mr. Pritchard replied:

Dear Mr Mercouris,

Further to my earlier email, I have finally got to the bottom of this error.

I attach a pdf of the leader page from 18 December 2011.

As you will see, the printed version of the leader says that “around 40” journalists have been killed since Vladimir Putin came to power. The online version (the one you read) said “around 200”.

How did we arrive at such a discrepancy? The author of the leader wrote 200 in error…and reading through his piece after sending it in to the paper realised his slip. He immediately called the office and the change was made before the paper went to press…but, unfortunately, the same piece was not “relaunched” for the website. If a change is made in text for either print or the web, it has to be sent through a relaunching process so that the change appears online. There was a regrettable failure to do this so I have reopened the leader online, changed its figure and added a footnote and apology for this failure.

The leader writer tells me his figures came from a International Press Institute survey which is referred to in this piece, which breaks down the figures more closely.

It’s worth noting that these surveys sometimes come up with slightly different figures because some count “media workers” slightly differently (in terms of cameramen, sound technicians etc).

Thank you very much for drawing this error to our attention. Naturally, we apologise for our failure to notice that we had carried an incorrect figure online since December.

(It was obviously not a difficult day in the office: you’ll notice that at the bottom of the pdf of the page there is a further error: a line of type that reads” Dummy to go here dummy to go here” instead of a small heading…).

Best wishes,

Stephen Pritchard

Attached to the email was an attachment, which was a photocopy of the Observer’s printed editorial page of 18th December 2011.  This confirmed that the editorial as it appeared in the printed version of the Observer published on 18th December 2011 put the number of journalists who had been murdered in Russia since Putin came to power not at “around 200” but at “around 40”.  Allowing for methodological differences this figure is in line with the figure of 36 given by the Committee to Protect Journalists and by Anatoly Karlin in his article.

This email was not my final communication with Mr. Pritchard on this subject.  A short time later in response to a further enquiry from me I received the following further email from Mr. Pritchard:

Dear Mr. Mercouris,


In an earlier email you asked why it had taken so long to correct the leader. To be frank, it would still be incorrect if you had not written – no one else had pointed out our error – not even the Russian authorities. It took me more than a month to get to the bottom of this because I was away for three weeks and then the leader writer went away. I apologise for this but my assistant was not aware of your letter. I had filed it away for attention and neglected to tell her of its existence. We might well have fixed it before if she had known about it. That’s my fault.

Best wishes,

Stephen Pritchard

The Guardian has admitted that the editorial of 18th December 2011 as it appeared on its Comment is Free website was wrong on its single most important fact.  The true number of journalists murdered in Russia since Putin came to power is not “around 200” as the editorial in its online form said but “around 40”.  The Guardian has now corrected the online version of the editorial and it now appears together with an explanation written by Mr. Pritchard of this correction and of the earlier error.

As Mr. Pritchard’s second letter to me shows, what Mr. Pritchard and the Guardian have however failed to do is explain why the editorial was allowed to remain uncorrected online for more than five months.  Mr. Pritchard gave me a clear and satisfactory explanation for his own delay of about a month in correcting the editorial.  He also says that no one including the Russian authorities pointed out that the editorial was wrong apart from me.  However this does not address the question of why the Guardian needed to have the error in the editorial pointed out when by Mr. Pritchard’s own admission the person who wrote the editorial knew before it was published that it was wrong.

The Observer has a print circulation of around 250,000 copies limited to Britain.  It appears only on the Sunday on which it is published.  Articles and editorials obviously are not carried forward. The Guardian website claims an international readership of 25 million and is not time limited.  Anyone can read an article or an editorial that has appeared in it at any time after it is published.  To say that far more people will have read the editorial online on the Guardian’s website than in its print version in the Observer scarcely does justice to the truth of it.

Some of the people who will have read the editorial online would have been Russians in Russia.  Some of them would be persons involved in the protest movement.  The editorial appeared on 18th December 2011, a week after the protest at Bolotnaya Square and a week before the protest on Sakharov Avenue.  Russians who read the editorial online and who were planning to attend the protest on Sakharov Avenue on 24th December 2011 would have read in the Guardian, an internationally respected newspaper with an international readership that claims to treat “facts” as “sacred”, that the Russian government against which they were protesting “murders the truth” and is “complicit” in the “bloody” murder of “around 200” Russian journalists.  They would not know that the last fact was wrong.  Nor would they know that the Guardian published this fact notwithstanding that the person who wrote the editorial in which it appeared knew that it was wrong.

A more inflammatory or provocative editorial written on the eve of a protest I cannot imagine.   Given that this is so I find it incomprehensible that the Guardian having decided to publish such an editorial did not make sure that the facts in it were true.  The Guardian however not only published this editorial with a key error of fact but did so notwithstanding that the person who wrote the editorial knew that the most important fact in it was untrue.  Moreover the editorial was allowed to remain in this factually wrong form on the Guardian’s website for a further 6 months.  Mr. Pritchard in fact says that if I had not pointed out the error in the editorial it would probably never have been corrected, in which case it would have remained on the Guardian’s website in its factually wrong form indefinitely. The editorial appeared on Comment is Free, where it drew the usual flood of comments from respondents from around the world including some from people from Russia.  They did not know that they were responding to an editorial the key fact of which was wrong.   The comments were moderated by a Guardian editor with immediate access to the editorial.  This editor presumably also did not know that the key fact in the editorial was wrong or that the person who wrote the editorial knew it was wrong before it was published.

The only conclusion I can draw from this episode is that on the subject of Russia the Guardian’s editorial control and its tradition of accuracy is being sacrificed to its feud with Putin.  At a time when Putin appeared to be at his most vulnerable it mattered more to the Guardian to publish an editorial accusing him of complicity in murder than to report accurately how many people have actually been killed.  The result is the betrayal of the first duty of a newspaper, which is to report the facts.  Many complain about the heavy editing the Guardian imposes on Comment is Free, with comments routinely excluded if they clash with the Guardian’s anti-Putin editorial line.  On the strength of this episode it seems that on the subject of Putin and Russia if comments in the Guardian are no longer free then facts are also no longer sacred.


  1. Moscow Exile says:

    Dear Alexander Mercouris,

    May I congratulate you on your work in revealing the dark side of the Guardian’s coverage of Russian news items.

    After having read the Guardian for almost 40 years, a large number of which years I had it delivered daily to my front door, likewise the Observer on Sundays, I stopped reading that rag almost a year ago. I just got sick and tired of reading “comment deleted” after I and other readers had attempted in the “Comment Is Free” feature to point out errors and distortions that regularly appear in that newspaper about practically all matters Russian. It was also especially irritating for me to notice how the Guardian created a CiF house rule prohibiting any criticism of any Guardian employee, which rule was rigorously applied to any reader’s comment concerning that newspaper’s infamous plagiarist and erstwhile chief of its Moscow bureau, Luke Harding.

    • yalensis says:

      I second that. HUGE accomplishment to get at least partial retraction from Guardian. Kudos!

      • Anna Bailey says:

        Hear hear, great work and a very temperate and well-argued article. It will be interesting to see how far the error has travelled and if we start seeing others refer to ‘200 murdered journalists’. Your reference to the Guardian’s ‘tradition of accuracy’ made me laugh out loud, though. There’s a reason why it’s popularly known as the ‘Grauniad’…

  2. Dear Moscow Exile and Yalensis,

    Thanks for your very kind words and thanks to Anatoly for publishing this piece.

    Unfortunately getting the Guardian to publish a retraction takes time and effort, which most people simply don’t have. Meanwhile you may be interested to know that our former nemesis Luke Harding is currently prowling around the outskirts of Aleppo.

    • Jennifer Hor says:

      Thanks very much for your piece and the effort you put into it.

      Maybe LDH is obsessed with Soviet MiG fighter jets. Missed out on seeing them while in Russia so he goes to Syria instead.

  3. The same Observer/Guardian editorialist has now produced an editorial on the Pussy Riot affair which it predicts will be the beginning of the end of Putin.

    The idea is of course fantastic and betrays an absurd lack of understanding of the matters that most concern Russians. Worrying about Pussy Riot is not one of them.

    What I find most interesting in the editorial is the fact that it however manages to talk about the supposed collapse of Putin’s popularity without mentioning that only a few months ago in March he was re elected President in a landslide.