Australian media reactions to Carlson vs Putin

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It was without a doubt the interview of the year.[1] On 6 February 2024, US journalist Tucker Carlson talked with Russian president Vladimir Putin. Even more fascinating than the 2-hour conversation itself was how the media reported on this event.

Swiss peace researcher Daniele Ganser analysed how German-speaking newspapers from a range of political affiliations reported on the interview in quite a predictable way.

The more NATO-aligned the newspaper, the more negative or dismissive was the framing of the interview, whereas those newspapers which are more NATO-critical tended to simply state what was said, convey that the interview was interesting, or encourage their readers to watch the interview for themselves. 

Dr. Daniele Ganser: Carlson und Putin im Mediennavigator, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v_o0DnTbumA

Inspired by Ganser’s analysis, I examined how the interview was portrayed in Australia. The Australian media landscape is much smaller, and there is a lot less diversity. What I have found is that to the extent there was any coverage of the Carlson-Putin interview at all, the vast majority of it framed the interview in a negative way – not only in relation to the content of what Putin said; much of it was openly hostile towards the interviewer as well. There was no positive framing of this event in the sense that the content was interesting or that Australians should watch the full interview to form their own opinion.  

Before I examine in more detail how the Australian media portrayed this interview, here are a few key points Putin made during his interview:

  • The NATO attack on Serbia in 1999 was illegal.
  • The US instigated a coup in Ukraine in 2014 which ignited the current conflict.
  • Ukraine is a satellite state of the US and the US are essentially fighting a proxy war in Ukraine.
  • UK prime minister Boris Johnson sabotaged the peace negotiations in Istanbul 18 months ago.
  • Putin wants to achieve de-nazification in Ukraine, and the end of the cultivation of Nazism in Ukraine was part of the Istanbul agreement. 
  • The CIA was behind the sabotage of Germany’s Nord Stream gas pipelines
  • Germany’s current government is incompetent and more led by Western interests than national interests.
  • The Cold War was ended by Russia, and Russia expected friendly relationships with the West.
  • Despite promises made not to expand, NATO expanded eastwards in five waves since then.
  • Russia has no expansionary interests.
  • Russia is always willing to negotiate.
  • There are ongoing negotiations between the special services of the US and Russia for Wall Street Journalist Evan Gershkovich to return to the US.

Australian Financial Review (AFR)

The AFR and sister publications Sydney Morning Herald and The Age didn’t even bother to write their own articles. The AFR simply reprinted, more as an afterthought, it seems, a New York Times piece from an Anton Troianovski, and a headline which at least fairly conveyed one of the main points Putin made, namely that negotiations should take place, but the quote marks around the word ‘negotiate’ constitutes negative framing in itself.

AFR, 10-11 Feb 2024, p15

The article concluded by citing some think-tank person from the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Centre, who reckons Putin is using the US to pressure Ukraine into entering a peace deal that would install a Russia-friendly government there. Hugh? Speaking of the pot calling the kettle black. I wonder who is using whom in this war, starting at least in 2014, when the US orchestrated a coup to… anyway, moving on.

The Australian

The Australian had more coverage, although most of the content consisted of syndicated pieces.

One dated 9 February came from international news company Agence France Press (AFP) which for the most part simply states some of the things Putin said, but sandwiches them between the catchy but weird headline

The Australian online, 9 Feb 2024

The headline is full of negative framing, and the article ends with the commonly told story that allegedly Putin and Trump love each other, whereas Biden hates Putin, and because Biden called Putin a ‘war criminal’, you should also think that, unless you love war criminals. Something along those lines anway.

Another article from the same source loosely strung together a few Putin quotes and otherwise didn’t miss the opportunity to frame Carlson as a Trump-supporter and to criticise him for not asking tougher questions:

The Australian online, 9 February 2024

Yet another AFP article framed the interviewer as a “controversial right-wing US talk show host” and otherwise was substantially the same as the previously referenced piece:

The Australian online, 9 February 2024

A more positive and accurate framing might have been: “Putin tells West: Peace is possible through negotiation.”

The UK Times article the Australian re-published was purely about giving the UK prime minister a voice to dismiss anything Putin said in the interview. The authors then engaged in some good old-fashioned “fact checking” to steer the reader’s mind in the right direction.

The Australian online, 10 February 2024

There was also a Wall Street Journal article that dealt exclusively with the prisoner exchange part of the interview. Evan Gershkovich is a WSJ reporter held in Russia accused of espionage. The WSJ called again for the release of Gershkovich, stating emphatically that “journalism is not a crime”. Indeed. I’m sure Julian Assange, realistically facing a life sentence in the home of the free would strongly agree with that.

The Australian online, 10 February 2024

The only original contribution was by Paul Monk, who made it all about interviewer Carlson and how he, Monk, would have done a much better job. Negative framing all the way.

The Australian online, 12 February 2024

Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC)

Rachael Hayter’s shortish ABC Listen piece, Putin blames US for war in Carlson interview, simply reported some of the main arguments Putin made during the interview, without resorting to loaded language. 

In contrast, the article by European correspondents Kathryn Diss and Lucy Sweeney, Why Russian President Vladimir Putin and Tucker Carlson need each other right now, was full of negative framing. Carlson was described as a “right-wing host” (twice), as a sympathiser of Putin, and they tried to paint the Russian president as a cornered leader, something that even back in February was nothing more than wishful thinking.

They dismissed Putin’s long historical excursions as “long-winded anecdotes and lectures” and as a “sermon”. They fairly reported some of Putin’s statements but used the usual fact-checking techniques to dismiss others.

For example, they said that Putin’s argument that he’s also fighting Nazism in Ukraine was debunked by “hundreds of historians who study genocide” – the authority for which is a short article signed by many historians who seem to be primarily offended at the suggestion that there is anything like a holocaust going on in Ukraine – something I don’t think Putin is claiming in any event. The referenced article even acknowledges the neo-Nazi problem in Ukraine:

Jewish Journal, 27 February 2022, https://jewishjournal.com/news/worldwide/345515/statement-on-the-war-in-ukraine-by-scholars-of-genocide-nazism-and-world-war-ii/

The other example is Putin’s assertion that the US was behind the sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines, for which they link to another ABC article that is inconclusive and does nothing more than cite various US officials who, predictably, deny the allegations.

A substantial portion of the article is dedicated to painting Carlson in a bad light. They also take issue with Carlson’s claim that Western media hadn’t bothered to give Putin a voice. I’m pretty sure that was indeed a whopper.

But, firstly, I can understand why Putin can’t be bothered to talk with Western media – he knows they will simply twist his words and spin his statements to suit their needs before publication. With Carlson he might have had some assurances about the format of an uncut interview, and that he would be allowed to talk. Also, Putin knew full well that Carlson has a huge audience, and there would be no better channel to be heard uncensored by more people in the west than ever before.

Secondly, dear ABC and all other Western journalists, if you really want to, you can hear and report on what Putin is actually saying at any time. You could translate his speeches, interviews with Russian media etc, and just listen to what he’s actually saying. One lone German journalist does this, Thomas Röper who has lived in St Petersburg for many years. Just make sure you too wear your critical thinking hat. Propaganda abounds, but that’s no different in the West.

You don’t have to like what Putin says or does, but as a leader of a big nation he must be taken seriously, and some honest reporting would be more useful than faithfully repeating the usual US narrative. 

The Media Watch program dedicated a 5-minute segment to the interview. It was mainly concerned with denouncing Carlson as a “Russia apologist” and a “useful idiot”.

Host Paul Barry went on to call the event a “snooze fest”. Classical negative framing. Yes, Putin took a few detours on his history tour, but you would only find that boring if you had absolutely no interest in actually understanding how this war came about – from Putin’s point of view for a change – or if you already knew all of that.

Sure, you could argue Carlson should have asked Putin about the justification for the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives. Would he have received a better answer than US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright gave when she justified the killing of similar numbers during the Iraq war?

I can imagine Putin would have simply laughed if he’d been asked whether he eliminated Prigozhin, who was never a serious competitor, something Putin would have been aware of.

And if Barry had asked Putin whether he was guilty of war crimes, he would have simply denied it and laughed it off in the same way every single recent US president would answer such a question – all of whom have been waging wars of aggression for decades, claiming they were under attack or saving another country or gifting democracy.

The ABC Listen program with the refreshingly neutral title What does the Putin interview reveal about the Russia-Ukraine war? couldn’t have been any more biassed. Isabel Moussalli invited academic Will Partlett from the Melbourne Law School to analyse what he took from the interview.

Partlett tried to argue that Putin has an expansive agenda which means the war won’t end anytime soon. He based this on an alleged statement in the interview that Putin said Russia had a claim to parts of western Ukraine. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nowhere in the interview does Putin say that, not even implicitly.

Strangely, it is ‘Russia-friend’ Carlson who falsely says in his (in my view unnecessary) introductory remarks to the interview that “Russia has a historic claim to parts of western Ukraine.” Why and how Carlson himself made that statement on the basis of this interview is a bit of a mystery, actually. The only point at which Putin even mentions the western Ukraine is in one of his historical excursions, when very early on in the interview he merely refers to the pre-World War II Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Germany and the USSR, according to which (probably pursuant to Article II of the Secret Additional Protocol) part of what is now the western Ukraine was to be given to the USSR “in the event of territorial and political rearrangement of areas belonging to the Polish state”.

So how did Partlett, who apparently studied Soviet and Russian history, spin a territorial claim out of this interview?

And Partlett completely dismisses Putin’s NATO argument, as if that didn’t or perhaps shouldn’t matter. In his view, the NATO argument is one that “plays well with Republicans” and those into conspiracy theories “who think that America has played too much of a role in trying to be the policeman of the world.” You get the framing, right? The Americans are the good guys, and don’t you forget it.

Another ABC Listen episode with Sam Hawley, ominously titled What Putin wins from Tucker Carlson’s ‘interview’  promises to “unpack” the event by subtly suggesting in the opening lines that the interview was a failure because Putin won. But that’s only the beginning of this negative framing frenzy.

The invited guest, academic Gordon Flake from the USAsia Centre at the University of Western Australia, gets stuck into negative framing right away by delegitimising Carlson, saying he is engaged in “infotainment” and pro-Donald Trump with a huge MAGA Republican following, adding the suggestion that Carlson allowed himself to be used by Putin. That might all be correct, but why this obsession with Carlson?

Hawley took it to another level when she said:

It was far less of an interview than a platform for the Russian president to say whatever he wanted to say; and it was rather bizarre in parts, wasn’t it?

Seriously? I always naively thought the purpose of an interview was to find out what the interviewee thinks. Then again, reflecting on the days when I still watched the ABC 7:30 program, it already seemed to increasingly be more about what the interviewer wanted to get across.

Also, journalists all over the world were all so very good at letting the politicians talk and not ask any pointy questions during the entire covid era.

Oh, I’m getting confused! Are you? But it gets even more confusing when Flake agrees:

In some respects, I think it probably will have backfired in the long run, just because letting someone like Vladimir Putin just ramble on for two hours straight isn’t always [chuckle] a good idea. Letting Putin be kind of be Putin undermines the broader political narrative of the Russians that it’s not their fault, right, because he makes it pretty clear what his intent is in Ukraine and that’s not a message they [the Russians] probably want out. 

But that would make Carlson more like a genius, no? He managed to trick Putin into revealing his true intentions.

Putin never made a secret of what his intentions were and why he was doing what he was doing in Ukraine. In his mind, he’s playing defence.

A third into this episode Hawley steers the conversation towards what she called was Putin’s “diatribe”. Next negative framing incident: Allegedly, Putin said nothing new. 

Indeed, there was much that Putin had already said in the past, only this time he had the largest audience ever. But there were also other interesting statements that the media could have literally feasted on.

At various points Putin referred to conversations he had had with US leaders, broken promises and such, although he didn’t reveal the full details. Will Carlson or any other Western journalist ask these US leaders to confirm or deny what Putin said in the interview? Hardly. The media didn’t even pick up on these points.

Flake rounds off his assessment of the interview by lamenting that it was a “clear statement of Russia’s view of the world which is inconsistent with history in fact.”

Remember, the stated intention of the interviewer was to allow Western audiences to hear Russia’s view. But naturally, only the Western view of history is correct (sarcasm intended). 

Hawley proceeded to frame the interview in an even more negative light, suggesting that by listening to this interview one would show openness to the Russian perspective when she says:

So this interview shows just how open some Americans are to Russia’s perspective on the world and that they actually want to listen to its leader. They care what he says and thinks. 

She may not have done this consciously, but there was a message that this interview and listening to a Russian leader in general is forbidden fruit for decent Western ears.

Flake takes it a step further by stating that the interview is another manifestation of the Russians’ desire to sabotage American society.

Personally, I don’t think that’s necessary. The Americans do a pretty good job themselves of sabotaging and dividing their own society.

All in all, analysing the Australian media coverage of Carlson vs Putin was an interesting exercise. This example demonstrated that our news channels don’t just tell us what happened. More often than not, they use framing language to tell us what to think about what happened, in strict accordance with whatever the dominant narrative is.


[1] The transcript can be found here on the Kremlin website. Your browser (or the owner of your browser) may not like it, so I’ve downloaded a PDF version which you can download below.

Interview to Tucker Carlson • President of RussiaDownload

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  • Jörg Probst

    Jörg Probst is a Sydney-based Swiss-born polyglot Australian researcher and commentator with a passion for promoting critical and independent thinking. He studied philosophy, psychology and law, practised as a lawyer and now works as a legal researcher.

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