Vladimir Putin’s propaganda war: How I just managed to escape joining in on the wrong side – Kevan Christie

Some time before Russian state-owned media company Sputnik was accused of “serious distortions” in a Commons committee’s report about Russian interference in UK elections, Kevan Christie went along for a job interview.

Vladimir Putin's regime has been accused of interfering in democratic elections in both the US and UK (Picture: Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
Vladimir Putin's regime has been accused of interfering in democratic elections in both the US and UK (Picture: Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

The fallout from the Russia report into interference in UK elections, including the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, brought back memories of a strange experience I had on the sixth floor of an Edinburgh office block, dear readers.

Going through a lean period in the old journalism stakes and on one’s uppers having tried and failed miserably to news-edit the Evening Telegraph in Dundee, I applied for a job with fledgling Russian media operation Sputnik who were setting up in the Capital.

The position as I recall was for a press manager, so I fired off two pages of ‘fake news’ otherwise known as a CV before looking up the YouTube footage of the Red Army singing the State Anthem of the Russian Federation at the Victory Day Parade to get the juices flowing.

Sure enough, a week later I was heading up in the lift to the sixth floor of Exchange Tower at 19 Canning Street, armed with an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Russian having spent the previous night watching The Hunt for Red October followed by Rocky V – the one where our hero takes care of that nasty Soviet, Ivan Drago. “Yo, Adrian, I did it.”

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Getting out the lift, I turned left and walked into a pretty much empty office floor, with newly installed state-of-the art equipment set against a stunning view of the backside of Edinburgh Castle.

There was another guy there who told me he had been hired to do radio but didn’t say if that included firing off the latest intelligence reports to the Kremlin. “Radio Moscow, Radio Moscow.”

He whispered that the boss was a young woman who wasn’t about but her equally glamorous assistant would be interviewing me.

Drunk bowlers, chickens and nightclubs

She arrived and explained the set-up, which was basically going to be the Scottish headquarters of a wider UK operation.

I ran through my reporting ‘career’ giving her the lowdown on the six years I spent at Her Majesty’s Daily Record (HMDR) with notable highlights including stories on ‘Sex Change Chickens’ and a range of bar and nightclub incidents involving the Hibs player Derek Riordan.

I left out my exclusive from 2012 about the drunk bowler who stripped down to his boxer shorts and punched a pensioner in front of 200 spectators at the Edinburgh Cup final for lawn bowls as she’d probably read that one.

It was more of a chat than an interview and she said they’d be in touch which I took to be a positive sign as I made my way to The Blue Blazer for a reflective pint or four.

A couple of weeks later I was called back to the sixth floor, this time to be interviewed by the boss who I’d first thought was a student on work experience but was soon put right.

Gone was the pleasant chat as I was quickly told I wasn’t qualified to represent the communications arm of the operation as they had their own people doing that.

Bride of Chucky

I’d done my research beforehand and realised my five years at Leith Academy – where they bizarrely taught Russian but I never took it – paled into insignificance compared to a degree from Moscow State University. The chief told me they would consider me for a reporting role and explained that Sputnik was there to provide an alternative to the mainstream media and would focus on the political situation in Scotland with particular regard to independence.

I was going to ask her thoughts on crown green bowlers under the age of 30 at this point but thought better of it in case they “whacked” me in the lift. I’d also provided them with three story ideas which they’d asked for in advance which I thought was a bit cheeky but they dismissed them out of hand.

We discussed a range of issues and had a bit of an argument over Russian athletes doping which she said was ‘fake news’ and western propaganda. By this point my interviewer, nee interrogator, who was starting to resemble the Bride of Chucky in my mind’s eye, told me there was a test.

I had visions of that scene in the Deer Hunter where De Niro plays Russian roulette with the Vietcong but mercifully it took the form of around 50 multiple choice questions. These ranged from who shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine to a question about South Ossetia and the Georgian-Ossetian conflict.

A security expert calls

I did what I always do in these situations and answered ‘D’ for the ones I didn’t know, which was nearly all of them, and needless to say I never got hired.

The women who interviewed me later featured in a tabloid newspaper as one of ‘Putin’s propaganda girls’ with the bureau chief described as having close ties to the Russian president. ‘Kalinka Malinka.’

I later took a call from a security expert who wanted to ask me about the experience for a story he was working on.

He told me the Russians would definitely be in favour of the SNP as any plans to scrap the Trident nuclear submarine programme in Scotland would be of strategic importance to their military plans.

All of which sounded interesting, especially if you’re the sort of middle-aged chap who spends too long trawling the internet for conspiracy theories and watches The Alex Salmond Show on Russia Today.

Sadly, he hung up before I had a chance to ask him about their policy on confused chickens.

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