On October 14, Russia’s state-owned RIA Novosti news agency published an article on a study conducted by media specialists from the agency’s parent company, MIA Rossiya Segodnya. The study, referred to as Osminog-1 (Octopus-1), found that approximately half of Western reporting on Russia is negative.
On October 23, Meduza, a Riga-based Russian news outlet, published an article reviewing Osminog-1 written by Alexey Kovalev, a Russian journalist and ex-head of InoSMI (a Russian agency that monitors how Russia’s covered in the foreign press). Kovalev found that the study focused heavily on the British press, in fact, British articles made up one third (25,000) of the articles surveyed. Of those articles, most came from two of the U.K.’s biggest tabloids- The Daily Mail and The Daily Express.
British tabloids are known for sensational headlines, not for positive coverage of international events, and the Russian study found that many of these stories portrayed Russia as “exotic,” at best. However, Kovalev found something even more unusual about the articles analyzed in the study--many of them share the same byline.
Many of the articles in question were bylined “William Stewart” or “Will Stewart.” According to Kovalev, he is “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,” Kovalev wrote.“In other words, for this single publication, Will Stewart averaged two articles every weekday.”
What is more, Stewart’s articles tend to come from various Russian tabloids. Meduza reported that Stewart is “a thoroughly real albeit deeply private person” who the Russian Foreign Ministry lists without a contact telephone number, and that foreign correspondents who had worked in Russia for decades had never met him.
Companies House, the United Kingdom's registrar of companies, lists William Ian Stewart as director of a company called East2WestLimited, which is credited with illustrations in his articles.
The MIA Rossiya Segodnya study spurred Russia’s Civic Chamber to call for a “broad public discussion” on the rights of foreign journalists and media outlets working in Russia. Since 2017, the Russian government has moved to restrict some foreign press.
Russia required foreign government-funded media like the Voice of America and RFE/RL to register as foreign agents, after the U.S. government required some Russian state outlets to register as foreign agents in the U.S.
In September, the State Duma alleged it had found evidence that Germany’s publicly-funded broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW) violated laws on political impartiality, threatening to revoke DW’s right to work in Russia.The German broadcaster disputed the finding.
The RIA Novosti study also looked at media in Germany, the U.S., Canada, Japan and France. The U.S.outlets were made up entirely of mainstream publications, such as CNN, the Washington Post, and New York Times. But what Meduza uncovered regarding fully one-third of the study throws into question the results.