Better watch out - Putin's comin' to getchya!

From Russell O'Phobe to all journalists working on Russia-related stories in the media

Dear Friends & Colleagues,

I want to begin this missive by pointing to some of the success stories that we have seen over the past few weeks, before going on to issue what I believe is a necessary warning about some of the challenges that lie ahead.

I must say that it has been particularly pleasing for me personally to see many of the rules I set out for you in my "Primer on the Art of Writing Russian Scare Stories" and in my last letter being followed so judiciously by so many of you. The exercise was clearly valuable and it seems that many of the points I made have been thoroughly imbibed. That is to your credit.

Let me draw your attention to one such example, which I think we can all learn from. The Huffington Post recently ran a wonderful piece entitled "What Would Happen If Russia Cut The Transatlantic Data Cables?" Now that's a great start, is it not? Fear? Check! Disturbing question ungrounded in anything resembling reality? Check! Presupposing that the Russians are so unutterably sinister that they want to shut down the internet? Check! The perfect headline to start a scare story.

The piece itself was a masterpiece in the art. I urged you in my Primer to make good use of submarines in your articles — gives them a very Cold War feel — and I also went on to encourage the use of phrases such as "Fears are growing that...". Well HuffPo really exceeded all my expectations of the sort of thing we can conjure up if we put our minds to it. Here's an excerpt:
"Recent reports have suggested that deep beneath the ocean, something ominous is taking place. According to sources inside the US intelligence community there is an increased fear that Russia could have the power to take down the world's internet...Some have even postured that these deep sea cloak and dagger manoeuvres could be the start of a 'new Cold War'".
Got that? Recent reports! From where? Doesn't say. Why not? Doesn't need to! Are they credible? Who cares! You see how it works? Try making something up off the top of your head — say, Russians have developed technology that can cause mental illnesses at targeted people groups — and then all you have to do is refer to some other "reports" add a few spicy phrases like "cloak and dagger manoeuvres" or "sinister movements" into the mix, and you've got your story.

So how about: "Disturbing reports have suggested that deep within Kholat Syakhl — Mountain of the Dead — Russia under Vladimir Putin has for years been developing 'WMD's - Weapons of Mass Depression'. These weapons, can apparently cause mass depression amongst Westerners at a range of up to 1,500 km. It is thought that this might explain the increasing prevalence of depression and possibly even dementia in the West. According to sources inside the US intelligence community blah blah blah." Job done.

But back to that business of cutting internet cables. I have to say we did have a chuckle in our office about that, since the obvious answer to the question of what would happen if Russia cut the transatlantic data cables is that they'd be cutting their nose to spite their face, as we'd at last be able to get our narrative out there unchallenged by all those pesky citizen sites that irritatingly keep on questioning what we write. Come to think of it, that's not a bad idea, you know. Cut the cables. Blame it on the Russkies. And no wretched internet around for anyone to challenge the narrative! Must remember to run that by the chaps up at GCHQ.

On the theme of telecommunications — and by the way it's always good practice to try to get a "Barbaric Russians interfering with modern technology" meme going in your pieces — there was another issue which I think is a wonderful demonstration not only of what we can do, but also of what we can get away with. You may or may not recall the hacking of the UK telecommunications company, TalkTalk, back in October. When I first heard of it, my eyes lit up at the plethora of headline opportunities that this presented us with: "Was Putin behind the TalkTalk hack?" "Russia suspected of hacking Telecom company". Or my favourite, especially for the trashy tabloids: "Putin's Crack Hacks in Max Attack." The headlines were practically writing themselves.

But when I looked at my MSN newsfeed, what did I see: "Islamic Jihadists claim responsibility for cyberhack." I was livid, I can tell you. An open goal and we missed it. Surely someone could have had the sense to allege Russian involvement for pity's sake?

Then, lo and behold, I clicked into the article to see this: "TalkTalk cyberattack: 'Russia-based Islamic jihadists' claim responsibility for hack action". Dear friends, I must confess that I have rarely laughed so hard. Even now it brings tears of laughter to my eyes. There they are bombing the living daylights out of Islamic jihadists in Syria to stop Islamic jihadists coming back to Russia, and this genius of a headline writer in one foul swoop comes up with a line that makes it look to the uninitiated and clueless as if Russia is actually harbouring Islamic jihadists who hack British telecoms companies.

But just when I thought it couldn't get any better, I went over to our friends at HuffPo again and saw this:
"The TalkTalk cyberattack that has potentially affected four million customers around the UK could have been caused by an Islamic jihadi group, a former detective in the Met's cybercrime unit has said. Speaking to the BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Adrian Culley said the perpetrators posted a message online last night claiming to be part of an Islamic group based in Soviet Russia."
Yes it really did say "Soviet" Russia. My colleagues were almost picking me up off the floor at that point. The line about Soviet Russia apparently came from this semi-literate email posted online:
"We Have adapted To The Security measures Of The Web. We Cannot Be Stopped. We Have Made Our Tracks Untraceable Through Onion Routing, Encrypted Chat Messages, Private Key Emails, Hacked Servers. We Will Teach our Children To Use The Web For Allah.. Your Hands Will Be Covered In Blood.. Judgement Day Is Soon. Our One Childrens Name Is Mohammed. Your Women Are being Taken Over By Us. Your Children are being Killed By Us For Being S**t On Earth. WE Are In The Soviet Russia And Near Place, Your Europe, WE control Asia, We Control AMERICA. Prepare, Secure Your Websites, Secure Your Borders, Secure Your Country, But Jihad From Us Is Coming."
Kudos to the journalist and her editor for their bravery and ingenuity in deciding to report that as if it were to be taken seriously and not as patently absurd drivel. And of course the punchline is that since then, police have arrested several people in connection with the hack, including a 15-year-old in — no not Soviet Russia, funnily enough — but Northern Ireland. Goes by the name of Vladislav Mikhailovich O'Donnell

But all joking aside, I do want to get serious for a moment. These stories are great and they serve our twin objectives of demonising an entire country and its leader through baseless scaremongering, whilst at the same time treating our readers like imbeciles. That's as it should be, but we do need to be careful. Take this piece from the Daily Star, where in the midst of their usual array of titillation and gossip, they printed this: "Exclusive: Europe braced for Russian invasion as Putin masses troops on NATO borders".

Well yes, on the one hand you know we've never had it so good when we can write that sort of nonsense, but on the other hand a quick look down the comments section underneath that piece will show you that more and more readers are wising up to it. Some of them are starting to ask questions such as where this country called "NATO" actually is, where are its borders, and whether "Russia putting troops on NATO's borders" might more accurately be described as "Russia has troops in Russia".

Don't get me wrong, I am by no means trying to discourage you from a good dose of dishonest scaremongering — it will always have its place — but I am saying be careful how far you go. It's fine reporting on the non-existent threat to Europe as if Russia were poised to invade, because as you know, nobody can "prove" that they aren't about to invade. But the real problem, and where we need to be really careful is in Syria. Friends, I do hope you appreciate how precarious that situation is. We could be found out at any moment if we're not careful. Let me give you an example.

You will recall that when Moscow started its bombing, we and our friends in government did a sterling job of telling the world that they were hitting the wrong targets — "moderates" and hospitals (did we manage to get any orphanages in there?), but not terrorists. But then those foxes in Moscow went and called our bluff by saying, "Well if you think we're hitting the wrong targets, presumably you must know where the right targets are, so tell us and we'll hit them".

Of course this was, for reasons I'm sure we all understand, followed by radio silence from Washington. I must admit that I broke into regular sweats and had many a sleepless night for a week or so as it seemed to me that our entire narrative was on the verge of collapsing. I mean if the average Joe out there had realised the significance of Moscow's question and Washington's muted response, and what that meant about Washington's real agenda, all sorts of unknowns might have occurred.

Thankfully — and I mean thanks to all of you — by and large you were wise enough to keep all that uncomfortable stuff out of the papers, and I would urge you very much to continue sticking to that rule. At all costs we mustn't let the realities of the situation seep into our narrative, right? Remember, never quote Moscow in context, never report accurately on the types of people they are really bombing, and above all, avoid giving any impression that our side is doing anything else other than fighting ISIS and trying to sort out the mess which we didn't create in the first place and which Moscow is now making even more difficult for us.

Maybe I might pick up on those "dos and don'ts" more fully in my next epistle. But I do feel much better having got that off my chest, and perhaps I can sleep a little easier and reduce my sweatiness knowing that I have warned you to be on your guard.

Best wishes,