Looking forward to kicking back for some good old fashioned guilty pleasure in front of Eurovision this Saturday? Not as much as the President of Azerbaijan. His eagerness to use the contest for international relations purposes has been evident since his just slightly hyperbolic description of his nation’s 2011 triumph as ‘a victory for the people of Azerbaijan and the Azerbaijani state.’ Mr Aliyev has since been splashing out on PR across Europe, centring on the lobbying activity of the suitably dystopian sounding Consultum Communications in Germany, but featuring in no small part Britain’s very own Freud Communications and Ketchum.
This activity has been well documented, leading to a series of increasingly bizarre attacks on the Western press, Iran and various other real or imagined enemies by Aliyev. These range from the simply dodgy (“Groundless statements by two organisations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, cause particular regret”) to the downright playground (his denial of Iranian reportage on a supposed gay pride parade happening in Baku was backed up with the statement “Actually there is no word in the Azerbaijani language for a gay parade, unlike in their language”). You’d think with his PR budget he could have bought some better media training.
It shouldn’t come as any surprise that an international cultural event is being exploited for image purposes. From GCSE textbook staples like the 1936 and 1980 Olympic games- vehicles for Nazi and Soviet propaganda respectively- to less well documented examples like Bahrain’s recent use of the Grand Prix as a ‘normalisation’ exercise, the trick is among the oldest and most frequently employed in the book.
What is disturbing, though, is what this says about the power of the neutered modern media. Yes, international and national publications across Europe and the US have covered the fact that there is a PR campaign happening, but solid investigative reports on what that campaign is seeking to cover up are thin on the ground. I don’t want to apply too much gloss to the past, but I feel as though once upon a time there’d have been hacks swarming all over that city, going about the gritty- and expensive- business of uncovering the truth. Newsroom budgets, various international movements in press regulation and other factors make that extremely difficult to do now.
William Lee Adams’s ‘Selling Azerbaijan’ piece in Time- which launched this whole furore- stands as testament both to the continued value of good journalism in the age of the internet, and the woeful lack of frequency with which that quality journalism is employed. A shattering piece in a major publication still deals the kind of clout which no amount of furious blogging can conjure, but each time one runs, we’re reminded of how rare such confidence is nowadays.