BBG Watch Commentary EXCLUSIVE

Jeff Shell chairs BBG meeting in October 2013.
Jeff Shell chairs BBG meeting in October 2013.

Senior congressional staffers told BBG Watch that the expulsion of Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) chairman Jeff Shell from Russia deserves a strong condemnation by the United States, but in their view, the Russian action was completely predictable and a result of political naïveté of BBG officials.

Congressional sources added that while the Russian authorities bear the full blame for their inexcusable attacks on free media and poor treatment of a high-level U.S. government official who is a presidential appointee, for which they should be held accountable, executives in charge of the BBG should have also thought hard what they were doing and hoping to achieve by arranging this trip, considering recent Russian provocations and attacks on U.S. diplomats and other Americans.

While strongly condemning the Russian decision to expel Mr. Shell, congressional sources said that even if the Kremlin allowed his visit to proceed without any incident, their propagandists would have found a way to use it to the Kremlin’s advantage. It was a remarkably ill-conceived and badly planned idea on BBG’s part, they added.

BBG executives, some of whom reportedly accompanied Jeff Shell on this trip, came up with the idea for staging the Radio Liberty anniversary party in Moscow and presumably told Jeff Shell he could go despite obvious signs of the Kremlin’s misbehavior in similar circumstances, a senior congressional staffer told BBG Watch. This incident proves that the BBG Board should be abolished and its bureaucracy removed from running U.S. international media outreach before they fully undermine U.S. overseas media efforts and cause more embarrassment for the United States government, sources on Capitol Hill told BBG Watch.

“It is my understanding that the Russians denied Chairman Shell entry by applying visa regulations in the most strict sense. If true, it’s surprising that Chairman Shell didn’t anticipate the probability he would be denied entry given the broader context of US-Russia bilateral relations,” a congressional source said.

A Russia expert told BBG Watch that BBG officials who thought they could send a large high-level delegation to Moscow and hold a large reception at the Marriott Hotel to mark the 25th anniversary of the opening of Radio Liberty’s Moscow Bureau without the Russian security services using this occasion to stage a provocation have shown a remarkable lack of knowledge and common sense. According to one source, BBG even invited officials from the Russian Foreign Ministry to attend the party, possibly tipping them off and making it easier to plan the action against Jeff Shell.

BBG CEO John Lansing, BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) deputy director Jeff Trimble, and new president of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) Tom Kent should explain what they were thinking would happen when the BBG chairman showed up at the Moscow airport.

“I’m sure the Russians are looking for reasons to embarrass and harass USG representatives; recent press reporting is filled with such examples. It is my understanding, however, that Chairman Shell was traveling on a tourist passport and visa because his primary purpose for travel was official NBC business,” a congressional staffer told BBG Watch, thus revealing a possible new twist to the story, although this information has not yet been fully confirmed.

“Again, if true, that would be yet another example of how BBG Board members’ private professions raise conflict of interest issues. All the more reason to finally do away with the Board,” the congressional source added.

While the Jeff Shell’s passport issue still requires further clarification, the BBG chairman should have been traveling to Russia on a U.S. diplomatic passport since he was going there at least partly on U.S. Government business. BBG officials should have applied to the Russian Embassy in Washington for a diplomatic visa for him, a former BBG executive told BBG Watch. He should have never been allowed by BBG officials to go to Russia under these circumstances using his personal passport, if that indeed was the case.

BBG Chairman Jeff Shell is chairman of Universal Filmed Entertainment. It is is one of the world’s leading media and entertainment companies in the development, production, and marketing of entertainment, news, and information to a global audience. He was nominated by President Obama and confirmed by the U.S. Senate as Chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors on August 1, 2013.

BBG Watch has reported shortly before the incident became public that Jeff Shell’s presence in Moscow as BBG chairman on official U.S. government business may put him in a somewhat uncomfortable position if Universal Filmed Entertainment also has business interests in Russia.

In the past, at least one former BBG member had conducted private business talks in Russia while visiting the country on official U.S. business. “While Jeff Shell was made fully aware of these issues and it is certain that he would not mix government and private business in Russia, members of Congress of both parties have been looking at ways of reforming the BBG agency because of its numerous and continuous shortcomings, and possibly eliminating its bipartisan board altogether, or making it purely advisory,” BBG Watch reported earlier today.

A comment from a congressional staffer seems now to suggest that Jeff Shell may have been planning to do private business in Russia. We have not been able to confirm this information. Our inquiry with the BBG, submitted shortly after 5 PM ET, remained unanswered.

John F. Lansing joined the BBG in September 2015 after nine years as President of Scripps Networks. He is a full time U.S. government official while BBG members only serve in part-time capacity and most of them have other full-time jobs. John Lansing has no current private business interests in Russia. He has no prior U.S. government, public diplomacy or foreign policy experience.

IBB Deputy Director, Jeffrey Trimble, worked for 10 years at RFE/RL, where his positions included Acting President, Counselor to the President for Programs and Policy, Director of Policy and Strategic Planning, and Director of Broadcasting.

READ MORE: BBG in Moscow: Russia needs a new and reformed Radio Liberty, a journalist says, BBG Watch July 13, 2016


READ MORE: BBG Chair Jeff Shell detained and expelled from Russia, BBG Watch, July 13, 2016


NBCUniversal Executive Is Denied Entry Into Russia, By RON NIXON and ANDREW E. KRAMER, NEW YORK TIMES, JULY 13, 2016


U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors Chair denied access to Russia, BBG Press Release, July 13, 2016.


RFE/RL moves from goats playing ball to serious journalism under new president, BBG Watch, July 12, 2016


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