Excerpts of interview with a journalism school group in Siberia, April 20, 2011
– Where do you work?
– What are you working on now?
Specializing on Russian business, I write about three stories a day – one on metals, one on maritime affairs, and one on mining or other forms of oligarch business. The biggest and best of the day’s stories goes on the website, and from there it goes into media in the US and elsewhere.
– In what genre do you write? Do you like the genre in which you write?
I write in the genre of investigative journalism, though that is hardly practised any longer in the US and UK, where I first learned it. It has disappeared almost entirely from Australia, where I began. The pieces I prefer to write are unusually long by journalistic standards – 1500-3500 words. It’s a form, style and rhythm I’m used to now. They usually have the same cast of characters – the Russian oligarchs, politicians, government officials. Reporting about them is like writing new episodes of the same soap opera, a low-grade War and Peace.
– Or would you like to write something else, or to write on other topics?
I’d like to write autobiography, but I don’t dare start, because I don’t know what the story means, or how it will end.
– Have you realized yourself at your work, i.e. done everything that you have been dreaming of?
I have nightmares instead of dreams, and writing is a way of warding off the night. Writers like me try to realize themselves every time we face the page, or screen, or keyboard – and while we might think we realize ourselves while we do that, what we are doing is, I think, to wrestle with the fear and ignominy of not being able to realize oneself, as one’s heroes have done in the past. My heroes are all dead, defeated most of them, unremembered in some cases, and in one case, he’s fictional.
– What, in your opinion, among the accidents occurring in the world deserve the most attention? (What events are more meaningful for you, for the newspapers (magazines) in which you write?)
The forces which move the things I write about are money and criminality – the desire and intention to cheat others of their rights. My focus on accidents is on those who profit from them unethically, and those who are liable for not foreseeing the damage they cause, and not protecting those who deserved to be protected. Russian coalmine disasters, for example, are the accidents I focus on, because their underlying cause isn’t the spark which ignites the methane which kills. It’s the management policies and the orders from the mine owners which drive the miners into danger, and lead inexorably to their deaths.
– What kind of articles are occupying the highest ratings and which ones least? (in Russia, in America).
In general terms, I suppose celebrity pop draws the most internet hits, the most readers’attention – Michael Jackson’s death, for example. That’s the new opiate of the people, to use Marx’s phrase. In my reporting, some of the highest ratings have been for articles about Oleg Deripaska alive – that’s partly because he pays thousands of dollars to PR men and strong-arm men (lawyers, detectives) to read the pieces. Too bad Oleg Vladimirovich can’t sing and dance – then my stories would really draw big audiences.
– What, in your opinion, is the difference between Russian journalism from the U.S.?
The biggest difference is that Russian readers start by not believing what they read, and that sets a standard for Russian journalism which doesn’t exist in the US. Russian readers always smell a rat, a payoff. Unfortunately, that isn’t so in the US, although there are plenty of rats in English and American journalism too.
– Pluses and minuses of your profession in your country?
In Russia, reporting the truth is dangerous – everyone knows it. Since media owners don’t pay for their journalists to run the risks, and don’t pay to protect them either, the profession attracts a combination of mercenaries and madmen, but very few comedians. The most dangerous journalists are those who make their readers laugh. The biggest minus of the profession is journalists are taught not to make their readers laugh.
– How do you work, i.e. what helps you write good journalism texts?
Getting angry at something you see or read or hear – that’s the start of good journalism. Learning how to read a company balance-sheet, or decipher a bureaucratic memorandum, or figure out how mining companies find gold (or conceal from investors what they haven’t found) – these are the disciplines you need in order to do something worthwhile in journalism. Writing skills can come later. That means you must study accounting, political science, geology and metallurgy, history – these give you the training you need to turn suspicion into hypotheses, and hypotheses into reportable truth.
– Do you allow yourself to write what you think? Do you always express your own views through your articles?
I never allow myself to write what I think. It’s my task to write what is true that other people need, for all sorts of reasons, to know. All the great journalism about Russia has had to be protected by concealment of one kind or another – de Custine hid his despatches inside his hat, and he was reporting back in 1839. Hats are okay – concealment inside heads is something different. That’s called self-censorship at best, brainwashing or brown-nosing at worst. If you’ve got an idea of a truth you suspect may be dangerous for your bones, or your pocket, my advice is to try to turn what you’ve got into a series of episodes, a piece at a time, and make the series run for at least five years, better twenty years. By then you might be famous, and that’s the best protection of all for journalists. Then they can stop reporting with honour.