John Helmer: russian oligarchs’ black image maker
Filed Under: Business, World | Posted: 09/09/2010 at 4:49AM
Comments | Region: Russian Federation
“The force is strong with him”, and he has clearly chosen the dark side. Controversy and criticism are two key elements of John Helmer’s investigative work. Helmer, 64, is the most feared and ferocious business blogger in Russia. Every post he writes is a lethal bullet shot to the reputations of top Russian companies and executives. A controversial journalist and an ambiguous man of mystery.
Three decades in Moscow
John Helmer, an Australo-america citizen, is one of the few international journalists to have actually lived in Russia for decades (he first settled there in the 1980s). According to fellow journalists based in Moscow, Helmer has some of the best political and business insights in the country, especially for a foreigner.
According to the same sources, it is how Helmer uses his insights that is questionable. The majority of his articles are written with the sole purpose of pointing out misconduct of companies’ executives or highlighting the difficulties they face, most notably in the steel industry.
Helmer is a journalistic sniper, shooting down reputations and credentials. His stories are markedly one-sided and rarely balanced, even when they are based on facts. Although he mostly attacks businessmen, he also regularly goes after Russian officials.
Close to Russian security services?
Helmer’s craft raises many questions in Russia, a country where freedom of speech remains an illusion and where people who speak up are usually silenced quickly.
“Why is he still around?” For the average Russian, there is a simple answer: if a man criticizes some of the most influential people in Russia on a daily basis and yet can live in plain sight in Moscow without being tried, harassed or threatened, that man must be under the protection of the right people.
Two theories exist to explain Helmer’s shady side. The first is that he has strong “acquaintances” among Russian security services (notably the FSB) and that he is used by the Russian government to launch reputational attacks on people and companies prior to official investigations or prosecutions, in order to lay the groundwork for international public opinion. The soviet KGB used the same method to discredit “liberals”.
“Black image maker?”
The second popular theory about Helmer among Russian journalists is that he conceives his journalistic work as “black PR” used by companies to spread biased information regarding their competitors. This is a common practice in Russian business, of which Helmer would only be one international example.
“He is a mercenary, a black image maker”, a Russian journalist said of Helmer. In other words, Helmer is a paid-for mouthpiece who operates far outside the realm of objective journalism and trustworthy reporting.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s American lawyer and lobbyist Robert Amsterdam is even harsher on Helmer, insisting on the fact that he “is much gentler with Vladimir Putin” than with any Russian businessmen he writes about.
Amsterdam notably doubts Helmer’s version of an assassination attempt he claims he has been a victim of from businessman Oleg Deripaska’s hitmen. “The only problem is that all of this information comes only from Helmer himself (…) All I am saying is that it would be good to see the police go on record or some other third party statements on the incident”.
The lawyer, as many people close to Russian business circles, seems to believe Helmer is biased when he talks about Deripaska and Rusal, and about many other Russian businessmen.