Billionaire Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili laid aside the cares of office the other day and invited a select group of TV journalists to his Star-Wars-style residence to tell them that, well, they're no good at what they do.
Ivanishvili, whose speaking style combines the no-nonsense talk of Russian oligarchs from the 1990s with the call-‘em-as-you-see-‘em lexicon of a small-town Georgian man, recently decided to provide free lessons for professionals in various fields. Last week, he spent four hours wagging his finger at a group of policy and economy wonks for getting it all wrong. On October 2, it was the turn of news anchors and producers to get a journalism 101 lesson from him.
Getting in touch with his inner newsman, Ivanishvili pontificated on what journalism is all about and what his irritated guests should really be doing out there. These days “journalists forget about their mission, about their own responsibilities,” the prime minister said regretfully, informing his guests that they are covering the wrong topics, interviewing the wrong people and citing the wrong data.
Referring to a printout (as with the experts), he demanded explanations for the journalists' on-the-air quotes. The constant criticism of the government distracts his team from doing the great job that they do, though it may not always visible, he asserted.
He faulted the group for failing to see all the “wonderful” achievements of his government in the economy field, which in all honesty, with a mere 1.6-percent growth rate so far for 2013 and an official 15-percent unemployment rate, could indeed escape the naked eye.
All journalists hate getting avuncular advice from a public official on how they should be doing their job. And, so, the journalists mostly returned the prime minister’s fire.
Criticizing the government, they said, is their job. “You don’t teach me how to ask questions!" Kavkasia TV show host Aleko Elisashvili blurted back as Ivanishvili grilled him about why he had described the prime minister's plans to quit politics as escapism.
Granted, Georgian television journalism is not exactly a paragon of quality, but the prime minister's lecture -- described as a "master class" by Ekho Kavkaza -- was considered inappropriate by many. Transparency International Georgia, the anti-corruption watchdog, said that his words and tone came close to interference with the work of independent media and that he had better get used to public scrutiny soon.
But the prime minister tells us that he is leaving politics after the October 27 presidential vote -- whither is unclear, but, presumably, to keep an eye on his planned investment in a $6-billion private-equity fund for Georgia. So, perhaps, he did not care about possibly burning his media-bridges before a national election.
At one point in the exchange, Nino Zhizhilashvili, a news anchor on Maestro TV, asked Ivanishvili if he was getting any PR counseling at all before meeting reporters. “Have you maybe thought that this is perhaps not the best form to talk [to the media]?” she asked. Ivanishvili responded that he did not consult anyone and saw nothing wrong with the way he communicates with the media.
Certainly, at his hours-long, mega-press-conferences, Ivanishvili always is keen to argue with a variety of journalists. President Mikheil Saakashvili, by contrast, preferred carefully choreographed meetings with handpicked, friendly journalists.
Nor does it look like the prime minister is finished with his lectures-cum-press-conferences. Up next, by all accounts, will be Georgia's regional media.