Russian journalism students, the FSB and a warm First Amendment welcome

The First Amendent at the Manitowoc Herald-Times-Reporter
I’ve left some of the details purposefully vague for reasons that I hope are obvious.

A couple of years ago, I was in Russia working with a newspaper for the Media Development Investment Fund. While there, the publisher of the newspaper asked me to speak to her daughter’s university journalism class. I love talking to students about journalism so I quickly said yes.

A few hours before I was supposed to speak, the publisher took a phone call. Russians have this singular ability to express displeasure without needing words: “Rrooohhh, wwrrrooohhh, wwrrooohhh,” was all I heard her say in her husky alto.

She got off the phone and had a quick chat with my Russian colleague, who then turned to me and said, “The FSB has noticed you are here.” The FSB is the Russian Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB. The students had been talking about me on vKontakte, one of Russia’s most popular social networks, and the FSB had noticed and called the dean of the journalism school. My colleague continued, “They say, ‘Who is this Guardian guy? Why you no tell us?'”

My colleague tried to calm me and told me not to worry. “Don’t worry. Last time Danish guy only detained for two days,” she said. I wasn’t comforted. I didn’t really care about being detained, well much, but it was Suw’s mother’s 70th birthday party the following Sunday, the day after I was due home, and I was more worried about missing that than the FSB, which I was pretty sure wouldn’t really care that much about me. However, in an abundance of caution, I let Suw know what was happening, and told her to put the American embassy in Moscow on speed dial.

The publisher made a phone call to someone she thought had connections to the FSB, someone who could smooth things over. It must have worked because a few hours later, I was at the university speaking to a packed room of students in the international journalism programme.

I gave the presentation that I had intended to give about the changing world of journalism and the opportunities open for young journalists, and then I opened up the floor to questions. A few questions in, one student asked, “If you had to choose between writing a story critical of the government and going to jail, which would you choose?”

I quickly scanned the room, with the tune “One of these things does not belong” going through my head. Was there an FSB agent lurking somewhere in the shadows? No one jumped out, literally or figuratively, but I still took a moment to carefully thinkĀ over what I was about to say. I replied that, thankfully, I had never had to make that decision, and that in fact, in Britain, if you didn’t criticise the government, you would be pilloried by your peers.

Things went pretty smoothly after that, but near the end, one of the students asked, “Would you care to comment on the press situation in Russia?” I looked at my colleague before responding, “No,” with a bit of a laugh. The room, fortunately, laughed with me. The student persisted, and I relented. I collected my thoughts, and then I said, “I am an American, who has worked in the US and the UK. For the past seven years, I’ve worked mostly in the UK. I miss the First Amendment every single day.”

Which is to say that the press enjoys incredible freedom in Britain, but the First Amendment provides another level of protection, both for the press and freedom of speech. (Of course, there are the issues of the insane libel and privacy laws in the UK, but that’s not nearly as pithy.) The First Amendment not only grants journalists in the US freedoms, but it also gives us a sense of responsibility about those freedoms. I sometimes got the sense in the UK that some journalists couldn’t tell the difference between freedom of the press and a libertine press, a press devoid of any sense of principle or moral purpose. The tabloids and the mid-market Mail have an electric monk morality, being able to hold two entirely contradictory moral positions simultaneously. They wring their hands about the moral degradation of the country while simultaneously, in an act of total self-denial, basing their businesses largely on selling soft porn. I am sure tabloid hacks will call me a puritanical American, but the tabloids love to point out hypocrisy unless it involves their own activities.

As I said a few weeks back, I have come back to the US to take up an executive editor position overseeing a couple of newspapers. The picture above is from the stairs leading up to the newsroom of the Herald-Times-Reporter in Manitowoc Wisconsin, one of my two newspapers. When I saw the First Amendment written on the wall, it was a great welcome, back to the US and back into a newsroom.