Helpdesk Media, an information service set up by a team of Russians and Ukrainians, is a lifeline for those threatened by Putin’s regime. It also has some crucial lessons for journalists in the West
I don’t know whether I’ve mentioned it before, but my favourite quote comes from Kurt Vonnegut. It reads, roughly, as: “Good will triumph over evil, as long as the angels are organised like the mafia.”
I find myself thinking about that line quite a lot these days. Let’s face it, it’s been a good week for despair: the Supreme Court ruling on Roe v. Wade; Boris Johnson’s bombastic claim that he’s looking forward to a third term as prime minister; the Russian bombing of a shopping centre in Ukraine; Covid surging again.
And so I wanted to tell you about the inspiration I’ve taken from an unlikely group of people, in the most unpromising of circumstances, who’ve got organised.
I’m James Harding, I’m the Editor and Co-founder of Tortoise, and in this week’s Editor’s Voicemail I want to talk about Helpdesk Media – a new newsroom in Russian built to serve the tens of millions of people whose lives have been uprooted by Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine or who have been abandoned to lies, disinformation and propaganda – not just there, but in Russia and Belarus as well.
Its founding principle is this: “Truth as an emergency service”. Helpdesk.Media, as the name suggests, offers a different kind of deliberately helpful journalism: it’s an information and advice service for people directly threatened by the Russian government.
And it does two things: it connects people in need with the advice and services they require, whether it’s help with evacuation, psychological support, legal guidance, travel and safety information or simply how, most securely, they can transport their pets. In a localised and hyper-practical way, it’s news you really can use.
And then, building on the information that comes from the community of people that use its services and a network of journalists reporting and verifying that information, it delivers news that’s designed to be visual and easily shareable on social media such as Instagram and Telegram.
It’s been set up by a team of Russians and Ukrainians, some still there, others in exile. Many of them previously worked at Meduza, the Russian news service based in Latvia. And when you meet them – and here’s the full disclosure, we’re trying to help them in our own small way at Tortoise, and I’m on their advisory board – when you meet them, you really do understand what it means to be on the frontline of the battle against disinformation: building an opposition in Russia is so difficult, they’ll tell you, because beyond Alexei Navalny there are so few dissident leaders, because there are so few platforms for dissenting voices. Tracking download numbers, it turns out, is particularly difficult in Belarus, they explain, because it is a country in a category of repression of its own, a country where people delete the apps from their phones before they leave their homes, knowing that the security services might well stop them on the street to check what social media they’re using; rather than collect the data on the people using their news and chat services, the architects of Helpdesk Media explain, they go to great lengths to encrypt and destroy that information.
They’re inspiring, not just because of their courage but their ingenuity too. There are lessons for us, closer to home. At Helpdesk Media, they prize location: as we’ve seen in Ukraine, the experience of the war is very different depending on where you are. They’ve restored a link in journalism – namely, the link between news and information that is an essential service – it’s a link that the western media has largely lost and, with very mixed results, tried to replace with entertainment. And they have shown a way to bridge the gap between journalism and activism, between reporting a problem and trying to fix it – namely, the network effect; what they do is connect.
Most of all, they’ve reminded us that in the noisy arguments we have about the news – the self-serving demands from our politicians for impartiality, the free-speech muffling calls for safe spaces, the rows not about what’s said, but who says it – in those arguments about news we can lose sight of journalism’s simple North Star: the truth. Truth is an emergency service – it’s also an everyday one. And to corrupt Kurt Vonnegut’s great line, “truth will only triumph over evil, if we get organised.”