People will judge the Carlson-Putin talk for themselves, not by what their media tells them
Published: Feb 11, 2024 12:44 PM
Photo: CFP

Photo: CFP

The immediate response from Western mainstream media to American broadcaster Tucker Carlson's exclusive interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin has been largely less than positive. This could have been predicted, as much of the pre-interview coverage by the same demographic was negative too. Many doubted - both before and after the event - the ability of Carlson, renowned for his highly polemical and often partisan style, to challenge his interviewee on crucial aspects of the war in Ukraine. They suspected that it was going to be a sympathetic, even sycophantic, discussion. What it ultimately turned out to be was utterly compelling viewing.

The response from many journalists, including some who may well have tried, but failed, to secure the prestige of a sit-down with Putin included criticism of the questions - "softball" was a common expression. Politicians like former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said Carlson was Putin's "useful idiot". The major US news network CNN said Carlson gave his interviewee a "propaganda victory" simply by talking to him. Leading European MEP Guy Verhofstadt complained wryly that the interview was "the best thing that ever happened to Putin". 

But away from the pros, the pundits and the politicians, ordinary people seemed willing to watch the two-hour session with an open mind. The mere fact they had both seen and heard Putin for a prolonged period - when his usual appearance on their TV screens might include a five second soundbite as part of a negative news item - was novel. There were also public figures disinclined to find fault. Prominent British politician George Galloway said: "When people see Putin in the Tucker Carlson interview they'll realize he's not Vlad the Mad or Bad and that they've been lied to about him".

That is almost certainly why the Russian leader agreed to be interviewed by Carlson. Suspicious of other Western journalists who - rightly or wrongly - he suspected might distort his words or otherwise use them out of context. It is true that it might have been a very different, perhaps more difficult, and maybe shorter interview if conducted by anyone else. The point is that this was the only way it was going to happen, and whatever anyone thinks of the two parties involved, it was engrossing. The criticism that it "platformed" Putin is not valid. The truth is that Western audiences are reliant on Western media for information about Russia, and it is most often in the form of an attack. This interview allows them to compare, contrast and fact check for themselves what was said - and then make up their own minds. Why should anyone in a liberal Western democracy have a problem with that?

Even though this was the first conversation with a Western journalist since the war in Ukraine began almost two years ago, critics will be able to list questions that Carlson should have asked, but didn't, or maybe say he could have challenged what Putin was saying, but wouldn't. Nevertheless, he deserves credit for extracting what information he did from the Russian leader.

This is important because it addresses - perhaps for the first time to many in the West - the thinking behind the terrible two-year war from Russia's perspective. It is important to understand this if there is to be any hope of peace. Putin was clear in reiterating that Moscow and Kiev had been close to a peace settlement during negotiations in Istanbul early in the war, but that Ukraine's Volodymyr Zelensky was talked out of settling on terms by the then British prime minister Boris Johnson, under pressure from the United States. "We are ready for this dialogue," he stressed. He said the provocation for the current conflict sprang from NATO's broken promises not to expand eastwards, and that Ukraine would remain neutral, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

He even revealed that Russia might have considered becoming a member of NATO, in the interests of peaceful co-existence, but his overtures were rebuffed during meetings with the then US president, Bill Clinton. "We realized we weren't welcome there," Putin told Carlson. This interview may well turn out to be what most in the West had feared. It was an occasion - possibly the first time - when people whose countries are helping to fund and arm Ukraine in the war were able to see and hear Putin's voice, albeit through an interpreter, without the intervening filter of mainstream Western media. They were able to watch him, listen to him, and form their own judgements about him.

There are legitimate questions to be asked about how this came about. Why was Carlson granted privileged access when others were not? Was he, a right wing US political commentator, unbiased? What was the quality of his interrogation, the standard of his questions - and did Putin have advance knowledge of the questions he was being asked? Surely the answer to many of the critics is that, if you question the integrity and motivation of a country or individual you owe it to them to be able to confront them with it. This, however naive it might sound, is essentially what Carlson claimed to be doing. Whether he succeeded in any meaningful manner has been judged immediately by the world's commentators, moments after the interview was broadcast; but perhaps it will be judged more meaningfully by the public, and by history.

The author is a journalist and lecturer in Britain. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn