Bullshitting Russia A new government media report says half of Western reporting about Russia is ‘negative.’ It turns out that a single tabloid journalist writes a lot of it.
According to a report by the news agency Rossiya Segodnya (“Russia Today,” not to be confused with the network RT), almost half of the articles in the foreign press about Russia are “negative.” This new study leans heavily on the British media (which makes up more than a third of the entire sample), where nearly 40 percent of the selected coverage is “negative.” Meduza has learned that most of the articles Rossiya Segodnya examined in the British press share the same author: a man who’s worked in Russia since 1992 and simply rewrites blurbs he finds in Russian tabloids, selected for him by Russian staff working at his news agency.
On October 14, 2019, the international news agency Rossiya Segodnya released a study, titled “Octopus-1,” devoted to how the foreign press covers Russia. According to the authors, the research project's name reflects how the country is depicted abroad. “And nothing has changed in 150 years,” they argue. The report was unveiled by communications director Pyotr Lidov (who came to Rossiya Segodnya from the telecommunications company Megafon, which he left amid a scandal after tweeting about “juvenile degenerates” at Moscow’s opposition protests).
Together with Alexey Dubossarsky (the editor-in-chief of Inosmi.ru, which translates foreign-language news stories), Lidov told an audience of journalists how a team of Rossiya Segodnya experts analyzed roughly 80,000 articles published in the first half of 2019 by outlets in G7 countries and coded them as either negative, neutral, or positive. Negative content, Lidov explained, is coverage where “the role, actions, policies, or something else related to the article and to Russia is absolutely and unambiguously assessed negatively.”
Among all the content studied by Rossiya Segodnya, the British press got far and away the most scrutiny. The news agency looked at more than 25,000 articles from the UK — more than a third of the total content analyzed in the report. Lidov attributed this imbalance to the relatively large number of media outlets in Britain, which is home to many tabloids. (Tabloids, and not just the British variety, play an important role in this story — but more on that later.) Almost 40 percent of this British content, according to Lidov’s study, was “negative.”
Rossiya Segodnya says the three worst offenders in the UK include the competing tabloids The Daily Mail and The Daily Express — two outlets that are both among the country’s top-10 most circulated papers (the former is in third place with 1.3 million copies sold a day, and the latter is in ninth place with about 300,000 copies sold every day). These publications and other tabloids like The Daily Mirror and The Sun (which Rossiya Segodnya also codes in the top-10 of its study on “negative” Russia reporting) publish articles on a daily basis that cast Russia in either a “negative” or at best “exotic” light. Here are a few choice examples from just the past few months:
- 'Jealous' woman 'killed her younger model sister, 17, gouged out her eyes, hacked off her ears and stabbed her 189 times in frenzied attack in Russia' (The Daily Mail, September 25)
- UFO alert as Putin drafts in army after Siberian mountain 'collapses' (The Daily Express, January 25)
- Mother, 29, stabs her two-year-old son to death after he pleaded with her to stop partying as she boozed with group of men in Moscow (The Daily Mail, August 20)
- Blonde bombshell who is top Vladimir Putin guard wins Russian army beauty contest (The Daily Mirror, April 27)
- No clue: Bungling dentist screamed at nurse to ‘Google it’ as teen patient lay dying ‘after being given the wrong injection’ (The Sun, October 10)
Citing this report, members of Russia’s Civic Chamber have advocated “a broad public discussion about the rights of foreign news outlets and foreign journalists working [in Russia],” and Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova also quoted Rossiya Segodnya's research in a daily briefing with reporters, singling out Britain's supposed leaders in “negative” reporting about Russia: The Times and The Daily Express.
Who are you, Mr. Stewart?
These articles and hundreds more like them share a few common features: they’re all retellings of reports from the Russian news media (for example, the piece about the “bungling dentist” who killed her patient first aired on the television network NTV), and they were all written by the same person: William (or Will) Stewart. Who is this man? He’s the absolute record holder for articles written by a foreign correspondent about Russia. On The Daily Mail’s website alone, his byline appears on roughly 220 texts in just the first six months of 2019. In other words, for this single publication, Will Stewart averaged two articles every weekday.
In fact, he writes for dozens of media outlets. According to Stewart's verified profile at MuckRack.com (a networking website for journalists), his byline appears at at least 43 different publications, from Britain to the U.S. and Australia. In the first half of this year, The Sun, The Daily Mail, The Daily Mirror, and The Daily Express released at least 600 stories from Russia written by Stewart — and this was just in their flagship publications. (The articles were often reprinted in regional editions in Scotland and Ireland, for example.)
These 600 stories comprise more than 10 percent of all the “significant publications about Russia” in the British media that Rossiya Segodnya analyzed in its study. Stewart's productivity also dwarfs the output of the average foreign reporter. For example, Alec Luhn, who's registered with Russia's Foreign Ministry as The Telegraph's chief correspondent in Moscow, authored just 76 articles in the same time period.
According to estimates by Meduza’s sources in the British media, Stewart’s income should amount to tens of thousands of pounds sterling a month, based on the assumption that reporters earn several thousand for front-page material in national newspapers. Stewart’s byline regularly graces page one, and every year he authors hundreds of less prominent news briefs. His reporting is so often and so shocking, even by the standards of British tabloids, that he captivates readers.
At the same time, the real Will Stewart remains a mystery even among veterans of Moscow’s foreign media bureaus. Not one of the foreign correspondents contacted by Meduza — even journalists who have worked in Russia for decades — say they’ve ever met him or have any idea who he really is. Several sources told Meduza that the name might be a collective pseudonym, or perhaps he's a registered correspondent from a respected publication using an alias to earn money on the side by selling “hellish news from Russia” to tabloids that don’t care about quality reporting.
“I've worked in Russia since 1993, and in all that time I've never met him,” says Ben Aris, the former Moscow bureau chief for The Daily Telegraph who now runs bne IntelliNews. “And in the old days, the Moscow press corps was very small and very close. We used to do stories together all the time: Dubrovka, Chechen Wars, Yastrzhembsky pressers, Putin pressers (which used to be open). If you were covering Russia in those days, it was almost impossible not to meet your colleagues. [...] For a long time, I didn't think he existed. I thought it was some Russian speaker in London who was just translating the yellow press, as it was clear that all his stories were coming from the local press.”
Even Meduza's sources in Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry say they aren't sure who William Stewart is, despite the fact that he’s officially accredited to work in Russia and is listed on the ministry’s website as the Moscow bureau chief for The Daily Express. The ministry's official spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, told Meduza that she hasn't communicated with Stewart personally, “but he's known in the Foreign Ministry's press center by the staff who draw up foreign correspondents' entry and work documents. He's accredited to attend briefings. [The ministry's Information and Press Department] has also responded to his inquiries.”
Unlike every other accredited foreign journalist in Russia, Stewart is listed by the Foreign Ministry without a contact telephone number. The only personal information is an apartment address at Korolev Prospekt, where he’s also registered The Daily Express’s Moscow bureau since at least 2004, and an unnamed email address at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Competition for the bullshit crown
Will Stewart is in fact a thoroughly real albeit deeply private person. He’s totally absent from social media, and not a single outlet that publishes his work has his photograph. Nevertheless, the “Companies House” UK corporate registry lists him as the director of a company called “East2West Limited,” registered in January 1996, which corresponds to when Stewart first appeared in the Russian Foreign Ministry's records as a foreign correspondent. (After repeated attempts to contact him, Stewart told Meduza that he's actually worked in Moscow since 1992.)
East2West Limited is listed as the owner of nearly all the illustrations included in Stewart’s articles, though most of these images aren’t original work but screen captures from reports aired on Russian television or photos available publicly on social media from the individuals who feature in the news stories. For example, in Stewart's article for The Sun about a police officer from Mytishchi named Dmitry Prischenko who kidnapped a wealthy businesswoman, several photographs attributed to East2West clearly bear the logo of the Russian Telegram channel Mash.
East2West Limited is listed as the source for many of Stewart’s articles, which are then reprinted in newspapers around the world. In early 2019, a Reddit thread appeared with the question: “Does anyone know of this Russian news agency, East2west? If so, how reliable are they? [...] All I managed to piece together is that it is supposedly run by a Will Stewart whose mobile phone number is listed as Moscow based; the vast majority of news pieces that I found who sourced East2west were on the gruesome, macabre or bizarre side. [...] It seems very odd to me, as an outsider in this field, that so many media outlets would use the reporting of a news agency that looks like an online ghost.”
In the thread, another Reddit user responded: “[...] I was very disappointed with the number of supposedly serious news sites here in Brazil (where I live) and in the rest of the world — especially in Great Britain — that quoted one or another Russian vehicle followed by such ghost agency. It's really worrying. But, if you allow me, in these times of today, in which there is haste and despair to post a news before the competing sites, the professional [journalist] is under such intense stress that he prefers to believe in citations without checking them.”
East2West Limited’s work model resembles another news agency described by BuzzFeed in 2015 as “the king of bullshit news.” In 1997, a British journalist named Michael Leidig registered an agency called “Central European News” (CEN) and a sister outfit called “EuroPics,” hiring a network of stringers who search local news outlets in various countries, including China and Russia, for strange, tragic, or simply wild stories like the kind that Will Stewart writes, and then translates and resells the content to other outlets, in roughly the same way as Stewart.
For example, in 2014, The Daily Mail published an article titled “Finally, proof that Justin Bieber IS unbearable: Russian fisherman saved from bear attack when ringtone featuring one of the pop brat's songs scares it away.” With multiple texts that CEN sold to competing news outlets, BuzzFeed showed that the agency changed the original stories through “exaggeration, embellishment, and outright fabrication.” For example, the news about the averted bear attack was first reported by Komsomolskaya Pravda, which mentioned nothing about Justin Bieber. (The fisherman in question was saved when his phone randomly scared off the bear by speaking the time aloud in a computerized voice.) Leidig tried to sue BuzzFeed for libel, but lost.
The Kremlin's killer mice
Will Stewart owes his phenomenal productivity to the fact that articles featuring his byline are actually written by a whole team of Russian journalists employed at his agency, East2West Limited, where Meduza tracked down former staff who have actually met him in person. Stewart didn't respond to Meduza's questions about how many Russian staff his news agency employs, but he said he works with “superb freelance journalists in Russia and other ex-Soviet and eastern European countries,” adding that “a number have gone on to great jobs in the Russian media and I am proud of this, as I am that three became Chevening Scholars in the UK studying journalism before furthering their careers.”
One former employee who worked for Stewart until 2011 described the following workflow at the agency: “We had several stringers working for us who started monitoring the news every morning. The focus was on politics, any amusing stories, and key figures of interest to the UK: [soccer player Andrey] Arshavin, [billionaire Roman] Abramovich, then [Prime Minister] Tony Blair, [Kazakh leader Nursultan] Nazarbayev. Well, and trashy headlines like ‘Killer Mice in the Kremlin Towers.’ And Will would go through this and pick the most interesting topics and just dig some more. He puts a lot of thought into the work, and he shows great attention to detail. He’ll spend several days and sometimes several weeks, until the story’s facts line up.”
Former staff at East2West Limited who spoke to Meduza were effusive in their praise of Will Stewart, describing his professionalism, journalistic meticulousness, and deep knowledge of Russia. His first reports from Moscow in the 1990s bear no resemblance to the content he publishes today. For example, in October 1992, he wrote a serious analytical text about President Yeltsin's conflict with Ruslan Khasbulatov, and he wrote an in-depth profile of Alexander Lebed as Yeltsin's potential successor in 1996.
Other journalists familiar with Stewart’s reporting on Russia are more inclined to criticize his devotion to the facts. Oliver Carroll, The Independent’s Moscow correspondent, recalls a story Stewart wrote for The Daily Mail on June 26, 2019, titled “‘It kept me to eat later’: Russian man 'looking like a mummy' is rescued after spending a MONTH inside a bear den after the predator broke his spine and saved him for a future meal.” In the text, citing the website EADaily, Stewart chronicles the suffering of a man from Tuva supposedly named Alexander who endures the nightmare described in the headline. Stewart punched up the original Russian tabloid story with some of his own shocking fabrications, like Alexander drinking his own urine to survive.
The article was a smash hit on social media (The Daily Mail’s website says it was shared 72,000 times), and it also gave the story a second life in Russia, where it was now recirculated as a “report by the foreign press.” After Carroll debunked the text in his own article for The Independent (the emaciated figure in video footage was actually a man in Kazakhstan who suffers from severe psoriasis), even The Daily Mail changed its headline for Stewart’s story to read: “Revealed: Doctor says Russian man 'in bear attack' was actually Kazakhstani suffering from severe psoriasis.” In the revised article, Stewart wrote that health officials in Tuva told journalists from EAST2WEST NEWS that they could not confirm that the Kazakh patient was ever treated in the region. (The Daily Mail does not reveal to readers that Stewart owns EAST2WEST NEWS.)
Financial Times Moscow correspondent Max Seddon remembers another bogus report by Will Stewart. In November 2014, when Seddon was in Europe with BuzzFeed, Stewart wrote an article for The Daily Mirror, citing an unsourced report by the news agency Regnum, where he claimed that a Russian sniper in Ukraine had killed a “British female terrorist nicknamed the ‘White Widow.’” The woman in question, Samantha Lewthwaite, was allegedly the former wife of a suicide bomber in the 2005 London attacks who joined the pro-Kyiv “Aidar” volunteer battalion as a sniper herself after entering Ukraine from Somalia.
Doubting the story, Seddon sought verification from Alexey Toporov, who authored the original Regnum report. As proof, Toporov showed him a photograph of a fake South African passport allegedly recovered from Lewthwaite’s corpse by the Russian sniper who supposedly shot her. The image “exactly matches a file photo of the fake South African passport that authorities in Nairobi say Lewthwaite used to enter Kenya in 2011,” explained Seddon, whose discovery didn’t stop Stewart from writing another article, this time for The Daily Express, with new details about “the death of Samantha Lewthwaite,” once again citing Toporov at Regnum. Stewart told Meduza that he “filed clear health warnings that the Regnum report ‘could not be verified,’ and that the claim over her passport was bogus.” He says the unverified report was published in the first place because “[Lewthwaite] was in 2014 of considerable interest in the UK.”
“As reported by the Western media”
Will Stewart’s articles often breathe new life into stories based on Russian sources, reinvigorating the reports with the authority attributed to “the Western media.” For example, Regnum (the same news agency mentioned above) published an article in August 2016 with the headline “Mirror: Putin Will Open Up Siberia With the Help of Airships,” citing a report titled “See the enormous £23million 'half plane, half airship' which Vladimir Putin plans to build to open up Siberia.” In what Rossiya Segodnya might have coded as a “positive” report, The Daily Mirror wrote that Vladimir Putin “has developed a futuristic plan [...] to open up Siberia to economic exploitation.” The story was featured front and center on the British outlet’s homepage.
Regnum’s report reads: “The Russian Security Council, chaired by Vladimir Putin, adopted a project to build a half-plane, half-airship that is supposed to be used in Siberia’s development. One of these futuristic zeppelins will cost £23 million [$29.5 million]. The airship (working name East2West) is capable of replacing five Mi8 helicopters. These aircraft will connect various points of the Far North with the high-speed railways of the Trans-Siberian network and the Northern Sea Route. The airship should be constructed by 2018.”
If you’ve read this far, you likely won’t be shocked to learn that Russia’s “Siberian zeppelins” do not exist, and Regnum clearly misunderstood the credits published below the illustrations in Stewart’s story that read “Image: East2west.” A reverse search on Google reveals that these images were also published by The Siberian Times that same day in a nearly identical article about plans by the Russian Security Council and the Academy of Sciences to develop remote regions of the country using next-generation airships built by “Augur-RosAeroSystems Holding.” (The Siberian Times credits “RosAeroSystems,” not East2West, with the images.)
Based in Novosibirsk, The Siberian Times publishes articles in English, which Will Stewart frequently cites in his reports. Though the website has no masthead, its known editor-in-chief is a woman named Svetlana Skarbo, who graduated from London’s City University and previously worked at The Daily Express. (According to her biography included in an announcement for a lecture series hosted by the Novosibirsk State University's Journalism Department, Skarbo worked as a Moscow correspondent for The Daily Express from 2001 to 2005.)
In 2015, at a recorded event hosted at a bar in Novosibirsk, Skarbo described what it was like working at an English tabloid: “Imagine that you’re 21, you’re sitting there in Moscow, in the office of the still decent newspaper The Daily Express, and your job is writing press reviews, meaning you’re supposed to sort through all the newspapers published that morning, and summarize the most interesting stories. You’ve got to work with all kinds of sources, from Kommersant to what is today called LifeNews.” Speaking to the crowd, Skarbo recalled how fact-checking a strange story about a pregnant boy from Kazakhstan became an investigation into a real medical bombshell — a rare case of “fetus in fetu” (a developmental abnormality where a mass of tissue resembling a fetus forms inside the body). Her work led to a story that was eventually published by The Daily Express.
Svetlana Skarbo, incidentally, is also listed in the “Companies House” UK corporate registry as East2West Limited’s former director (having officially handed over her responsibility to Stewart in June 2018). Skarbo did not respond to Meduza’s inquiries, but former staff at East2West Limited say The Siberian Times is actually Stewart’s brainchild, and he apparently funds the website using earnings from his bylines in major British newspapers (where his articles often cite The Siberian Times as a source). Stewart deflected questions about his potential links to both The Siberian Times and Svetlana Skarbo, who at the time of this writing has not responded to Meduza's messages.
A red-top humanitarian
British journalist and propaganda expert Peter Pomerantsev is one of the few people who's met Will Stewart. In 2008, when Pomerantsev was also working in Moscow, Stewart helped a Channel 4 crew film a segment about “the fattest boy in the world”: Kabardino-Balkaria's Dzhambulat Khatokhov, who at age seven “weighed as much as a baby elephant.” Pomerantsev says Stewart's shift from serious socio-political issues to sensationalist stories dovetails with the newspaper's descent into tabloid journalism. “[Will Stewart] was nearly The Daily Express's political editor,” says Pomerantsev. “But back then The Daily Express itself was a pretty serious newspaper for the middle class, not associated with the ‘red tops’ like The Sun and The Daily Mirror.” In the end, however, The Daily Express not only adopted tabloid journalism, but quickly surpassed other outlets with its outlandish headlines.
Stewart told Meduza that he doesn't think Rossiya Segodnya's research relates to him personally. “I don’t feel I was center stage in this particular episode,” he said in an email, explaining that his articles named in the report were identified because of their “‘exotic’ headlines” (like this one), which he says were written by his editors. “Many foreign correspondents all over the world are easily accused of negativity or bias,” Stewart said. “Sometimes this happens, too, to Russian journalists working in the UK, as you know. It is likely to occur more in periods of tension, as we have sadly witnessed recently between Russia and Britain. Latvia-based Meduza is sometimes — doubtless unfairly — accused of negativity towards Russia, too.”
Asked why his reporting contains so many gory details and focuses so often on disfigured children, Stewart said he didn't understand the question, adding, “If it is about a girl born without half her face, I am pleased that I helped in a small way to raise money from readers towards her treatment in both Russia and recently the UK.”
Translation by Kevin Rothrock