The Kremlin-backed channel has long peddled propaganda. Its fate should be decided in accordance with the broadcasting codeby Oliver Kamm / March 14, 2018 / Leave a comment
Investigators in protective suits in Salisbury, where Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found critically ill. Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire/PA Images Russia Today, established in 2005, runs eight television channels. One is RT UK, broadcast from London. Its average weekly viewing figure in the UK is tiny. Recent figures from the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board show RT UK had less than 1 per cent of the total audience, and significantly less than the audience for Sky Sports Golf. It doesn’t in principle merit any attention from politicians or from us pundits. But these are strange and dark times. A man and his daughter lie critically ill in hospital because of an attack with a nerve agent of Russian origin, while a police officer was also seriously injured. And Russia Today (known since 2009 as RT, as if that would dispel suspicions that it’s a state propaganda organ) is part of that assault on this country. In her forceful statement to the House of Commons, Theresa May allowed for the possibility that the attack might not have been ordered by the Russian state. That will have struck many as a diplomatic fiction. An innocent party would be eager to explain and assist. Russia’s foreign ministry and its London embassy have, by contrast, vituperatively refused cooperation and failed even to express sympathy with the victims. The poisoning of the Skripals is widely regarded as an act of aggression by a criminal regime with a long record of murdering its critics at home and on foreign soil. The propaganda apparatus of the Russian state is being employed to deride the victims, threaten other critics of the Putin regime and, of all things, spread the noisome conspiracy theory that Britain’s own security services carried out the attack on the Skripals. The English-language arm of Russian state propaganda is RT, along with the purported news agency Sputnik, which has offices in Edinburgh. “RT is not a normal news channel but a megaphone for the most preposterous and pernicious conspiracy theories” These outlets are the embodiment of fake news but the fakery is not just ideological: it’s part of the foreign policy of a rogue state. It’s taken a little while for British civil society to realise this. I first came across RT in 2011, when I went on the BBC News channel to discuss the position of the British government in the Libya crisis. I’d been told that my fellow interviewee would be Laura Emmett, head of the London bureau of RT, and assumed that she would neutrally explain the position of the Russian government. I Googled Emmett and RT and was horrified by what I found. Essentially RT was an outlet for extremism and bigotry, including the fantasies of the 9/11 Truth movement. I alerted James Harding, then editor of the Times, and then ambushed Emmett in the live broadcast. I pointed out that RT is not a normal news channel like the BBC, CNN or even Al-Jazeera but a megaphone for the most preposterous and pernicious conspiracy theories. Within 24 hours, I’d received around a thousand abusive emails (“Slithering piece of trash you are! Why don’t you forget the NWO [New World Order] and come clean. Admit to everyone how you are a little bitch journalist for your slave masters…”). It was my first experience of the Putin regime’s online trolls. I’m glad at least to have advanced (as has my Times colleague Dominic Kennedy) public understanding of what RT is and what it does. By the standards of broadcast journalism, it’s a trivial and almost comically inept operation. You won’t have heard of its newsreaders and reporters; RT UK’s main anchor, Bill Dod, was previously a presenter for Sky Travel and a reporter for the Carlton Food Network. Its interviewees (billed risibly as things like “geopolitical analyst”) are generally not real authorities but obscure malcontents and ignoramuses. They include Holocaust deniers, racists, fascists, fantasists, UFO buffs and a visionary who maintains the Earth is flat. It’s easy to laugh at these people and at RT’s production values. I’ve also never criticised someone just for going on RT, though I’ve refused all such invitations myself. And I am a near-absolutist on free speech. I’ve long defended, including to Jewish audiences, the rights to free expression of such people as David Irving, Nick Griffin and the Dutch anti-Muslim demagogue Geert Wilders (Griffin and Wilders are, not at all coincidentally, among RT’s guests). But RT’s lies are an instrument of state aggression and are in repeated violation of the requirements of the broadcasting code on due accuracy and impartiality. The station has been sanctioned by Ofcom multiple times, the broadcasting regulator. There’s a pragmatic case for allowing it to languish in obscurity, not least to avoid giving any pretext to the Putin regime to persecute British journalists (real ones, I mean) reporting from Russia. But the prima facie evidence is strong that RT does not merit its licence in the UK and the regulators (who are independent of government) have an obligation to enforce broadcasters’ legal obligations. Hence Ofcom revoked the licence of Press TV, the Iranian state broadcaster, in 2012 for repeated editorial violations. Ofcom is rightly looking at RT with continued independent judgment but an urgency born of the outrage in Salisbury. In the meantime, I’m glad that the message has got through even and belatedly to Labour’s shadow chancellor (though not, apparently, the party’s leader) that reputable public figures should not appear on RT. Finally, the Putin regime is short on shame but its paid defenders must now receive the public obloquy they merit.