Russia Today, Put Simply

By Blog Writer Anthony Whittaker

Nigel Farage’s ill-fated moustache may not have been the most significant political casualty of 2016, but the circumstances of its appearance were, perhaps, significant. The prominent Brexiteer and then newly resigned UKIP leader was appearing on RT, a Russian state-backed 24 hour news channel formerly known as Russia Today, when the furry appendage got what was to be its only public outing. Many questioned Farage’s choice of facial hair, but perhaps they ought also to have questioned what he was doing on RT at all.

RT was founded by the Russian government as an international news network in 2005, with the aim of influencing international perceptions of Russia. It was borne of frustration with the supposed pro-Western bias of international journalists reporting on the country. From somewhat amateurish beginnings, it has grown into a heavyweight broadcaster. According to its own figures, it now broadcasts in over 100 countries and reaches 700 million households. It has an annual budget of around £240 million, broadly comparable to the £245 million yearly cost of BBC World Service.

You may think that Russia has the right to set up its own international broadcaster, just as Britain has the right to support the World Service, which still retains government funding despite the majority of its cost being transferred from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office budget to the BBC licence fee in 2014. Yet whereas the World Service sets out to offer “coverage… firmly based on British values of accuracy, impartiality and fairness”, and is widely considered independent and fairly even-handed, RT has come to be recognised as an organ of pro-Putin propaganda, whose tone and content is closely aligned with the policy of the Russian government.

The international community watched on in horror when Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, illegally annexing a large part of the sovereign territory of Ukraine. The annexation remains unrecognised by the UN General Assembly. RT’s coverage, however, echoed the line of Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, that the crisis was in fact “created artificially” by the West for “purely geopolitical reasons”. It also failed to report on the widely attested fact that Russian soldiers had been deployed in Ukrainian territory, a fact which was at that time denied by the Russian government but which Putin has since admitted. It stoked fears of genocide of ethnic Russians by the Ukrainian military as a pretext for Russian intervention in the country. Appalled by RT’s “whitewashed” coverage of the crisis, two of its journalists, Liz Wahl and Sara Firth, and a host, Abby Martin, resigned. Wahl has subsequently described the “primary goal” of stories presented by RT as “to make the US and the West look bad”. The former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry described the channel as a “propaganda bullhorn” for Putin’s administration.

On a visit to its Moscow offices in 2013, Putin observed to RT’s Editor in Chief, Margarita Simonyan that “when we designed this project back in 2005, we intended introducing another player on the world’s scene [to] try to break the Anglo-Saxon monopoly on the global information streams, and it seems to me you are succeeding in this job”. While Simonyan denies that the Russian government has control over RT’s output, her personal office has a dedicated telephone for secure communications with the Kremlin. 

In the UK, RT has been found guilty of numerous breaches of impartiality rules by the media regulator, Ofcom, since its founding. One example is a July 2014 documentary purporting to uncover “the genocide in Eastern Ukraine”, which was found by Ofcom to have “presented a significantly negative picture of the Ukrainian Government and its military forces… with little or no counterbalance or objectivity” and made allegations of political murder by Kiev which were not supported by any of the programme’s own sources. 

You might expect that such a clearly compromised outlet would be given short shrift by Britain’s political establishment, but far from it. No less than 10 MPs have appeared on the channel in the past 2 years, accepting substantial sums of money for doing so. Mike Freer, Conservative MP for Finchley and Golders Green, was paid £1,000 per hour for two appearances, while fellow Tories Jonny Mercer and Nigel Evans, and Labour parliamentarians David Lammy and Rosie Duffield, were also paid to appear. Other politicians happy to be associated with, and paid by, RT have been George Galloway, the Respect MP, who was paid £100,000 to front his own show, and the former SNP leader, Alex Salmond, whose new chat show has recently debuted on RT.

Farage has appeared on RT on many occasions, both with and without his moustache. So popular is he with the broadcaster that he, like Salmond, was offered his own show. It’s perhaps easy to see why: in 2014 Farage said the EU had “blood on its hands” and had provoked Russia in respect of Ukraine. When asked about his relationship with RT last year, Farage said that “they are a broadcaster with an audience. They may well have a political agenda, but you can’t ignore them”. This emollient stance on the question of impartiality can be contrasted with his fiery criticism of the BBC: in a tweet last July he described himself as “sick to death of the blatant anti-Brexit bias of the BBC”.

When misinformation is thought to be as legitimate as independent journalism, it has already succeeded in its purpose. The more our politicians appear on RT, the more credible it appears to the public as a source of information. That should be reason enough for them to steer well clear.

Sources and Further Reading:

Image: @Wikimedia Commons 

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