According to the Wald χ2 statistic, the following individual conditions predict a change in the odds of giving explanatory versus giving evasive answers in Russia. The statistically significant categorical predictor variables were as follows: the accusation being made by a journalist, b = 2.05, Wald χ2 (1) = 2.82, p < .10; the number of articles covering the allegation, b = .06, Wald χ2 (1) = 2.29, p < .10; the accusation being reviewed by the prosecutor-general, b = -2.06, Wald χ2 (1) = 2.42, p < .10.
As shown in Table 3, once again, our findings are in line with mainstream research that has established that the intensity of critical coverage matters in established democracy. The article now shows that this finding applies to Russia’s managed democracy. As hypothesis four proposed, the identity of the accuser matters in Russia. If the accusation is made by a journalist (rather than anybody else, who is not a media representative, be it an incumbent, the opposition, or the public), the chances that the incumbent would give an evasive rather than an explanatory response increase by 4.29. Russian incumbents may be more likely to give evasive responses to journalistic claims because journalistic associations are weak and some media outlets have little credibility as they are thought to be the mouthpieces of wealthy tycoons. Another reason could be that the government selects the most outrageous or the most impotent critics to impart the impression that there are active critics of the government but that they are too outrageous or too unconvincing. It is much easier for the state to deny egregious accusations (that the state has enabled). For example, Zasursky (Zasursky, 1999) suggests that the state allows the nationalist Zhirinovsky to appear in the media because they make the state appear moderate in comparison. If the accuser is an oppositional member, there is no affect on the blame game. Attacking the opposition is less of a priority for Russian incumbents as the opposition poses little serious threats to the elites.
The findings offer some enlightening results regarding hypothesis 5, namely that “incumbents are less likely to deny blame if there is an institutional investigation into the media allegation.” The results reaffirm the purported connection between institutional design and government responses. Both in Germany and Russia, various types of investigations turn out to have a significant effect on blame avoidance strategies. The intriguing part of this result is that, while incumbents tend to take stock of various investigations, their strategies differ, depending on the source of investigation. Thus, parliamentary questions in Germany decrease the likelihood of denying blame by 35%, while investigations by lower courts tend to increase the likelihood of denying blame by 44.07 (!) This finding engenders the speculation that democratic governments are very sensitive to the legitimacy, authority and power of various investigations. They will engage in explanatory tactics only if the body investigating them is powerful enough to produce evidence and witnesses in due time. The most importance difference between the lower courts and parliamentary questions, however, is their public exposure. Thus, incumbents in a democracy would be most likely to switch from evasive to explanatory strategies, not only when there is proof of wrongdoing, but also when the public can witness it.
As for Russia, as expected, the Russian legislative body is too weak to exert any type of influence and change the blame game. A prosecutorial investigation is the only one that matters as it decreases the odds of evasive responses by 11%. If it is true that the prosecutor-general in Russia is mostly under the influence of the powerful president (Greenberg, 2009), then engaging in evasive tactics when investigated by the prosecutor would be a costly option. Discussion and Implications
What have we learnt about practices of account-giving in two very different regime types? To begin with, we found that governments in various regime types have various proclivities to give account of their actions in the media. We were able to confirm the hypothesis that Russian governments tend to adopt more evasive strategies than the German incumbents. In general, German officials tend to explain their policies more often and to accept some blame for it to a greater extent. The findings also show that, irrespective of their political differences, the “volume of allegations” is an important consideration affecting responses both in Russia and Germany. The most common response to public allegations was ‘silence’ in both countries. Regardless of the regime type, incumbents hope that the media storm will die a natural death by ignoring the allegations.
Our statistical results extended theoretical knowledge of some of the contextual factors that were supposed to matter for government responses by testing the significance of two independent variables: the identity of the accuser and the nature of the allegation. In Germany, government strategies are mostly dependent on the type of accusation. Government responses are more evasive in cases of misconduct than in cases of incompetence. The account-giving and account-holding revolves around the issues, the evidence and its interpretation. The additional finding is that German ministers are more likely to explain themselves in the media, if there is a formal investigation of the government. By contrast, the process of account-giving in Russia is affected by the identity of the accuser rather than the type of accusation.
The article outlines two avenues for future research. The first implication is that communication research has been moving in the right direction to think critically about the way to expand the factors that could influence the blame game. If anything, it should perhaps think of even more novel avenues to expand these variables as the factors included in the present analysis are unprecedentedly comprehensive, yet the model for Germany explains only 24.6% of evasive and explanatory responses, and the model for Russia explains 43% of the data. Generally, the debate how to contextualise causal factors has been moving in two directions: expanding the list to account for the context in which the allegation is made, such as the interactions within the network in which the blame situation is embedded, the media “heat” and the reputational effects, and expanding the actor-specific factors, in which incumbents take decisions how to manage blame. Yet, if these two ways of formulating hypothetical determinants of the blame game do not fully explain the evidence, future research should think up additional criteria.
The second implication is that communication research should perhaps be more rigorous about the testing of potential causal factors impacting blame management. The dearth of data is indisputably problematic because, as pointed out, research relies mainly on case studies or aggregate data in single country studies. Aggregate data about media allegations, a full list of contextual factors, and government responses for a prolonged period of time across regime types are very rare. While it is understandable that situations of media accusations are intractable, quantifying them using a consistent methodology across all studies, is crucial. Such an approach presents the only opportunity to move to the next stage of communication research, i.e. linking the causal factors to the blame-avoidance tactics. Otherwise, the fragmentation in communication research produces two parallel universes, one debating the theoretical merits of causal factors and another- quantifying blame tactics.
Of all the contextual factors that matter for government tactics in the aftermath of media allegations, one particularly fruitful area of research would be the interaction between the institutional investigations and the incumbents’ decisions whether to accept or deny blame. The findings showed that Russian government officials were less likely to give evasive responses if the prosecutor general investigates them, while German government officials adapted their responses according to the source of investigation. They were more likely to give explanatory responses to questions posed during parliamentary inquiries, while they were more likely to shut down the allegations if the latter were viewed in a lower court. The article speculated that the public exposure of the various investigative bodies is an important factor in shaping blame avoidance strategies. Yet, future research should examine whether this speculation applies to a larger number of cases in democratic and non-democratic regimes.
The importance of political scandals for democracy is thoroughly investigated in the special subsection on “Political Scandals as a Democratic Challenge” in International Journal of Communication (2018).
2 Khodorkovsky’s statements were recorded in a written form by the author.
3 Kompromat is Russian word for compromising material.
4 Ideally, the classification of government responses would take into account the veracity of the allegation. However, the literature has, to our knowledge, not integrated this factor, probably because it is usually unknown whether the alleged deed is true or false.
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