BBG Watch Commentary

John O'Sullivan
John O'Sullivan

John O’Sullivan, former Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty executive editor (2008-11) and vice president (2011), the author of “The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister” (Regnery, 2006), and former advisor to Margaret Thatcher, published an op-ed article in The Wall Street Journal critical of RFE/RL president Steven Korn’s mass dismissal of Radio Liberty journalists in Moscow and programming changes introduced by Masha Gessen, Korn’s pick to run the Russian Service.

O’Sullivan, a British conservative political commentator and journalist who during the 1980s was a senior policywriter and speechwriter for Margaret Thatcher when she was British prime minister, was one of former top RFE/RL managers whom Steven Korn derisively called “old white guys” and forced to leave.

Before leaving, O’Sullivan told Korn that what he was planning to do with Radio Liberty in Russia was insane from a journalistic and political perspective. His warning was ignored and Korn appointed Julia Ragona, who has no record of journalistic experience, to be the vice-president for content and marketing. She assisted Korn in firing Radio Liberty journalists in Moscow. Dale Cohen, the vide-president for administration, whom Korn brought on board to replace another “old white guy,” who was also forced to leave, organized the firings in such a way that it created a moral outrage among Russians. Some of those fired were fully qualified employees with disabilities.

Dedicated, loyal and experienced longtime and younger Radio Liberty journalists, many of whom are well known and highly respected in Russia, were barred by RFE/RL-hired security guards from entering their news bureau in Moscow, directed to a law firm and forced to resign. They were later prevented by RFE/EL executives from saying good bye to their radio and online audiences of many years.

“Even without the style of the firings,” John O’Sullivan wrote in The Wall Street Journal, “Russians would have been upset by the purge of a rare news outlet outside the control of the Kremlin and its compliant oligarchs.” “Mikhail Gorbachev was among the first to protest, saying that the dismissals looked ‘especially strange’ given Mr. Putin’s moves against independent journalism in Russia,” O’Sullivan pointed out.

The mass firing of Radio Liberty journalists prompted protests by human-rights activists in Russia. They wrote protest letters to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, an ex officio BBG member, and to members of the U.S. Congress.

O’Sullivan notes in his article that having radio as an in-house partner gave Radio Liberty’s website an advantage in Russia’s competitive digital environment. He also asked “if strengthening Radio Liberty’s digital presence was the strategy, why jettison Radio Liberty’s successful website team?”

O’Sullivan reported that two external critics invited to critique Radio Liberty Russian programs–a BBC World Service veteran and a Daily Telegraph Internet pioneer–concluded that the service was doing the right things.

“The outsiders’ verdict annoyed those managers who wanted more popular fare. But the managers were bureaucrats, not program-makers. They needed a simpatico editorial vision. They found it in Masha Gessen, the Radio Liberty director appointed by RFE/RL President Korn after the September housecleaning.

‘I want to do a kind of journalism that no one is doing at the moment. I would describe it as normal journalism,’ she told the Moscow Times shortly after her appointment. ‘Something that’s not polemical, like opposition media, and something that’s not controlled by the Kremlin.’ In practice this journalism has turned out to be softer news features in which liberty is likely to mean sexual liberation (with illustrations) rather than ‘political’ aspects of human rights.”

O’Sullivan wrote that Mr. Korn did not respond to an email request to comment for The Wall Street Journal article, and his telephone was not accepting messages.

O’Sullivan reported that in mid-December, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the official agency overseeing U.S. international broadcasting, “took action—thanks in large part to the terrier-like insistence of one governor, Victor Ashe, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland knowledgeable about Eastern Europe. The governors announced an investigation to be completed in six months, but according to multiple sources they also asked Mr. Korn to resign, perhaps as early as Dec. 31.”

Gessen was in fact appointed by Korn before the September housecleaning but did not come officially on board until October 1, which allowed her to claim that she had nothing to do with the firings and accuse independent Russian journalists who made such suggestions of slandering her, a criminal offense in Russia according to a new law, which was signed by President Putin and designed to stifle free speech and investigative journalism.

BBG Watch has learned that the RFE/RL corporate Board, which is composed of BBG members, was scheduled to have an official meeting on Monday, but at the last moment RFE/RL Board chair, BBG Governor Dennis Mulhaupt, a Republican, changed the meeting to an informal one, which would prevent board members from voting. Mulhaupt is believed to be possibly the only remaining supporter of Steven Korn among BBG members. According to inside sources, Mulhaupt had strongly protested earlier when other BBG members wanted to discipline and even fire Korn for his “old white guys” remark. According to our sources, other BBG members are actively looking for a replacement of Mr. Korn as RFE/RL president, with former BBG members, former RFE/RL presidents, and heads of human rights NGOs being discussed as candidates for an interim or permanent position.

John O’Sullivan offered his suggestion in The Wall Street Journal article on how the Radio Liberty crisis could be resolved:

“If he does depart, any investigation should be handled by the new or interim head of RFE/RL. That person, someone experienced editorially and internationally but detached from recent BBG politics (former NPR president Kevin Klose would be ideal), can determine what went wrong in the course of putting it right. The board’s sole advice should be: Rehire the journalists dismissed in Moscow to such loud effect.”

READ MORE: “Turmoil Over America’s Radio Voice in Russia,” John O’Sullivan, The Wall Street Journal, December 30, 2012.