'RT America': The One News Outlet For Which Trump Retains An Unexpected Affinity
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
For all of the vitriol Donald Trump aimed at the press during the campaign, there's one news outlet that he and others in his inner circle seem to be comfortable with. It's RT America, originally known as Russia Today. In the U.S., it's widely seen as a propaganda arm of the Kremlin, which owns and funds it. NPR's David Folkenflik looks at RT's ties to the incoming administration.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: American TV networks are broadcasting searing tales from the Syrian city of Aleppo, home to some of the worst fighting in that country's civil war - this from ABC News.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ABC NEWS")
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: This is one of the biggest humanitarian crises in the world and one that the next American president will have to deal with on day one.
FOLKENFLIK: A different tenor prevails at RT America.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MARIA FINOSHINA: But we start with Aleppo of course.
PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASSAD: Yeah.
FOLKENFLIK: RT's Maria Finoshina landed a rare interview with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and she offered a sympathetic hearing.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
FINOSHINA: But the Western politicians and Western media have been largely negative about your army's advance. Why you think this is happening? Do they take it as their Rome defeat?
FOLKENFLIK: RT America has a modest audience, exploring stories of dissent, injustice and poverty within the U.S. that it says American news outlets ignore. Former MSNBC host Ed Schultz joined the network back in January.
ED SCHULTZ: Our mission is to be fair and factual, to go deeper than the soundbite of 20 seconds, to have a broader scope and to get both sides.
FOLKENFLIK: Schultz made a mark as an outspoken liberal on radio and MSNBC for years. He is now RT America's chief news anchor.
SCHULTZ: And I'm very proud of the fact that I anchor a newscast that does just that.
FOLKENFLIK: Many American analysts call RT's work outright propaganda for a country now accused of trying to tamper with the 2016 presidential elections.
JAMES MILLER: RT has played a key role in sort of advancing a narrative that the Russian government is fundamentally trustworthy, whereas the American government is fundamentally untrustworthy.
FOLKENFLIK: James Miller is managing editor of The Interpreter, a site covering Russian foreign and domestic policy.
MILLER: RT sort of kicks up dust on stories like what's going on in Syria. They don't as much convince people that their version of the story is true as much as they do sort of implant doubt as to whether or not the truth can be known at all.
FOLKENFLIK: Liz Wahl was a correspondent, an anchor for RT America for several years. Over time, she says, the network increasingly amplified the Kremlin's agenda in places like Ukraine and Syria.
LIZ WAHL: We were not meant to deliver the truth but to skew what was happening there. I think RT is just part of a greater Russian disinformation machine.
FOLKENFLIK: Wahl ultimately resigned live on the air. Several figures with ties to Trump have appeared on RT's shows, such as Trump's incoming national security adviser, retired General Michael Flynn, a former military intelligence chief.
Last December at a banquet celebrating RT's 10th anniversary in Moscow, Flynn sat next to RT's top editor and just two seats away from Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Flynn participated in a Q&A there, an appearance for which he was paid by RT.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MICHAEL FLYNN: First of all, thank you so much for inviting me and having me here.
FOLKENFLIK: Trump himself appeared on RT back in September on former CNN talk show host Larry King's program.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LARRY KING NOW")
DONALD TRUMP: The media has been unbelievably dishonest. I mean they'll take a statement that you make which is perfect, and they'll cut it up and chop it up.
FOLKENFLIK: Trump's camp said he was misled into thinking he was just speaking for King's podcast, yet Trump has praised Putin lavishly and repeatedly as a decisive leader and as a counterpoint to President Barack Obama. On MSNBC, Ed Schultz mocked conservatives for making a hero of Putin. Here's what Schultz told me this week.
SCHULTZ: I view Putin as a protector of the country. There's been a lot of bad history and a lot of bad actors on Russia in the past, and I think that he doesn't want to repeat that history. And I think that's his concern.
FOLKENFLIK: Schultz has also previously called Donald Trump a racist. Now...
SCHULTZ: He is the change agent that America has been looking for.
FOLKENFLIK: For now, the incoming American president is enjoying a warm reception from the Russian president's American news channel. David Folkenflik, NPR News.
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Russia’s RT Network: Is It More BBC or K.G.B.?
LONDON — The London newsroom and studios of RT, the television channel and website formerly known as Russia Today, are ultramodern and spacious, with spectacular views from the 16th floor overlooking the Thames and the London Eye. And, its London bureau chief, Nikolay A. Bogachikhin, jokes, “We overlook MI5 and we’re near MI6,” Britain’s domestic and foreign intelligence agencies.
Mr. Bogachikhin was poking fun at the charge from Western governments, American and European, that RT is an agent of Kremlin policy and a tool directly used by President Vladimir V. Putin to undermine Western democracies — meddling in the recent American presidential election and, European security officials say, trying to do the same in the Netherlands, France and Germany, all of which vote later this year.
But the West is not laughing. Even as Russia insists that RT is just another global network like the BBC or France 24, albeit one offering “alternative views” to the Western-dominated news media, many Western countries regard RT as the slickly produced heart of a broad, often covert disinformation campaign designed to sow doubt about democratic institutions and destabilize the West.
Western attention focused on RT when the Obama administration and United States intelligence agencies judged with “high confidence” in January that Mr. Putin had ordered a campaign to “undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process,” discredit Hillary Clinton through the hacking of Democratic Party internal emails and provide support for Donald J. Trump, who as a candidate said he wanted to improve relations with Russia.
The agencies issued a report saying the attack was carried out through the targeted use of real information, some open and some hacked, and the creation of false reports, or “fake news,” broadcast on state-funded news media like RT and its sibling, the internet news agency Sputnik. These reports were then amplified on social media, sometimes by computer “bots” that send out thousands of Facebook and Twitter messages.
To many Americans, the impression that RT is an instrument of Russian meddling was reinforced when its programming suddenly interrupted C-Span’s online coverage of the House of Representatives in January. (C-Span later called it a technical error, not a hacking.)
Watching RT can be a dizzying experience. Hard news and top-notch graphics mix with interviews from all sorts of people: well known and obscure, left and right. They include favorites like Julian Assange of WikiLeaks and Noam Chomsky, the liberal critic of Western policies; odd voices like the actress Pamela Anderson; and cranks who think Washington is the source of all evil in the world.
But if there is any unifying character to RT, it is a deep skepticism of Western and American narratives of the world and a fundamental defensiveness about Russia and Mr. Putin.
Analysts are sharply divided about the influence of RT. Pointing to its minuscule ratings numbers, many caution against overstating its impact. Yet focusing on ratings may miss the point, says Peter Pomerantsev, who wrote a book three years ago that described Russia’s use of television for propaganda. “Ratings aren’t the main thing for them,” he said. “These are campaigns for financial, political and media influence.”
RT and Sputnik propel those campaigns by helping create the fodder for thousands of fake news propagators and providing another outlet for hacked material that can serve Russian interests, said Ben Nimmo, who studies RT for the Atlantic Council.
Whatever its impact, RT is unquestionably a case study in the complexity of modern propaganda. It is both a slick modern television network, dressed up with great visuals and stylish presenters, and a content farm that helps feed the European far right. Viewers find it difficult to discern exactly what is journalism and what is propaganda, what may be “fake news” and what is real but presented with a strong slant.
A recent evening featured reports of Britain refusing to condemn human rights violations in Bahrain and a “mainstream media firestorm” over Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s chats with the Russian ambassador to the United States. Other reports included the “liberation” of Palmyra by the Syrian Army with “the support of the Russian Air Force;” an interview with former British ambassador to Syria and a United States critic, Peter Ford; and a report about a London professor decrying the fall in British living standards.
There are “clickbait” videos on RT’s website and stranger pieces, too, like one about a petition to ban the financier George Soros from America for supposedly trying to “destabilize” the country and “drown it” with immigrants for a “globalist goal.”
Mr. Bogachikhin and Anna Belkina, RT’s head of communications in Moscow, insist it is absurd to lump together RT’s effort to provide “alternative views to the mainstream media” with the phenomena of fake news and social media propaganda.
“There’s an hysteria about RT,” Ms. Belkina said. “RT becomes a shorthand for everything.”
For example, she says, while RT was featured heavily in the American intelligence report, it was largely in a seven-page annex (of a 13-page report) that was written more than four years ago, in December 2012, a fact revealed only in a footnote on Page 6.
She flatly denies any suggestion that RT seeks to meddle in democratic elections anywhere. “The kind of scrutiny we’re under — we check everything.”
For RT and its viewers, the outlet is a refreshing alternative to what they see as complacent Western elitism and neo-liberalism, representing what the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov recently called a “post-West world order.”
With its slogan, created by a Western ad agency, of “Question More,” RT is trying to fill a niche, Ms. Belkina said. “We want to complete the picture rather than add to the echo chamber of mainstream news; that’s how we find an audience.”
Nearly all the mainstream media came out against Mr. Trump during the campaign and much of the news coverage about him was negative, she said.
“This is why we exist,” Ms. Belkina said. “It’s important to watch RT to hear alternative voices. You might not agree with them, but it’s important to try to understand where they’re coming from and why.”
A French legislator, Nicolas Dhuicq, who has appeared on RT and went to Russian-annexed Crimea in 2015 as part of a delegation of French legislators, said that RT’s aim was “to make the voice of Russia heard, to make the Russian point of view on the world heard.”
Still, Mr. Dhuicq said, “the impact of RT, in my opinion, is very low.” He added: “There is enormous paranoia when we imagine that RT will change the face of the world, influence national or other elections.”
Afshin Rattansi, who hosts a talk show three times a week called “Going Underground,” came to RT in 2013 after working at the BBC, CNN, Bloomberg, Al Jazeera and Iran’s Press TV. “Unlike at the BBC and CNN, I was never told what to say at RT,” he said. There have been two cases of RT announcers quitting because of what they said was pressure to toe a Kremlin line, especially on Ukraine, but not in London, Mr. Rattansi said.
Michael McFaul, a Stanford professor who was the United States ambassador to Russia during the Obama years, said that RT should not be lightly dismissed. “There is a demand in certain countries for this alternative view, an appetite, and we arrogant Americans shouldn’t just think that no one cares.”
But there is a considerably darker view, too. For critics, RT and Sputnik are simply tools of a sophisticated Russian propaganda machine, created by the Kremlin to push its foreign policy, defend its aggression in Ukraine and undermine confidence in democracy, NATO and the world as we have known it.
Robert Pszczel, who ran NATO’s information office in Moscow and watches Russia and the western Balkans for NATO, said that RT and Sputnik were not meant for domestic consumption, unlike the BBC or CNN. Over time, he said, “It’s more about hard power and disinformation.”
The Kremlin doesn’t care “if you agree with Russian policy or think Putin is wonderful, so long as it does the job — you start having doubts, and of 10 outrageous points you take on one or two,” he said. “A bit of mud will always stick.”
Probably more important than RT, Mr. Pszczel said, are Sputnik and local language outlets sponsored by Russia, like the Slovak magazine “Zem a Vek,” known for its conspiracy theories. Sputnik is the largest source of raw news in the Balkans, he said, “because it’s a free product in local languages.” And “then they set up some friendly association, at some small university, which holds seminars, and then a number of strange websites start promoting the product, like an industrial marketing operation.”
But RT is also helpful in another traditional Moscow effort: making friends with useful people, and not just Mr. Assange, Mr. Pomerantsev said. “RT made Mike Flynn feel good after losing his job” as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, he said, paying him a reported $40,000 to come to RT’s anniversary celebration in Moscow and sit near Mr. Putin. And Mr. Flynn, for a time, was national security adviser of the United States.
Mr. Nimmo of the Atlantic Council noted RT’s small reach in Germany, where Angela Merkel, a Putin critic, is facing a tough re-election fight, and where there are up to 3.5 million Russian speakers. “I strongly suspect that RT Deutsch has a trivial effect compared to Russian-speaking Germans watching Russian television,” he said.
Stefan Meister, who studies Russia and Central Europe for the German Council on Foreign Relations, agreed that “we shouldn’t overestimate RT. The main success of the Russians is the link to social media through bots and a network of different sources.” That network, he said, is “increasingly well organized, with more strategic and explicit links between sources and actors — Russian domestic media, troll factories, RT, people in social networks and maybe also the security services.”
“Open societies are very vulnerable,” Mr. Meister said, “and it’s cheaper than buying a new rocket.”
RT is part of the reality of the 21st century, Mr. Pomerantsev said. “Everyone will do it soon. It’s the world we have to live in.” Hacks and leaks are much more disruptive, he said. “If you can take out the electrical grid in Ukraine, that’s scary. It’s hard to get too scared about Larry King on RT.”
Mr. Pomerantsev agrees with Ms. Belkina that RT is not inventing popular mistrust about Western democracy. “The Russians are about sowing mistrust about institutions that is there already, feeding it,” he said. “How do we make our institutions more trustworthy?”
How Russia spreads disinformation via RT is more nuanced than we realise
The £200,000 fine handed out by Ofcom to the TV network RT (formerly Russia Today) for repeatedly breaching impartiality rules over its coverage of the Skripal poisoning is a powerful reminder of the tactics Russia employs to manipulate public opinion in the west. The daily deluge of disinformation produced by RT and Sputnik is a vital component of the tactics that other authoritarian regimes are seeking to replicate.
Monitoring and measuring the output of these state-controlled broadcasters is vital to understand how hostile nations are attempting to influence audiences around the world by utilising fake news, disinformation and propaganda. A detailed analysis of the output of state-controlled media often reveals a fundamental disparity between Russian-owned outlets in the UK and the rest of Europe when comparing them to established news organisations. The volume of coverage, framing of coverage, and average engagement with that coverage is, at times, widely disparate.
Their coverage of the European elections in May focused on the success of populist parties like the Brexit party
I’m the CEO of Zinc Network, a communications agency that looks at social issues including disinformation and gets some of its funding from government contracts. Our research at the State Owned Media Analytics and Research programme has shown us that RT sometimes dedicates a disproportionate amount of time to pushing certain stories – such as the coup in Venezuela or the leaked memos from the British ambassador about Donald Trump. Why does this matter? Audiences for these channels in the UK are relatively tiny. Their online reach is dwarfed by domestic news outlets such as the Guardian, Mail Online and others. But their influence, especially on key issues, often belies their size. For example, RT’s coverage on the Venezuela coup attracted an average of 2,558 engagements (retweets, likes or shares) per online article, more than the BBC’s 1,780 engagements per article.
And evidence is mounting to suggest they routinely disseminate stories designed to sow division in the west and pursue the foreign policy goals of the governments that back them, consciously or otherwise. According to a report published by the Policy Institute at King’s College London, (Weaponising news: RT, Sputnik and disinformation), RT and Sputnik distributed no fewer than seven conspiracy theories about the Skripal poisoning. The report also found that claims made by Russian state media about the country’s advanced weaponry were reported as fact in UK newspapers without verification. It is difficult to demonstrate the extent to which this influences public discourse, but measuring the online activity of state media is a useful way to start.
The methodology employed by these news organisations poses a series of questions for policymakers. If they are being used to destabilise civil society and widen social fissures, then what is the right response? They devote a disproportionate amount of coverage to stories that claim to show the divisive effects of immigration. Their coverage of the European elections in May focused on the success of populist parties like the Brexit party, while for the most part ignoring a surge in support for the Greens and other non-traditional parties on the left. Why is it that state-controlled media portrayed the results as a populist backlash against the European project, which, according to this narrative, seeks to suppress national identities and usurp nation states? Does it matter that they encourage UK citizens to question the veracity or impartiality of the news they consume from traditionally reliable sources?
None of this is new. Media organisations have always asserted the cultural values of the organisations that own or control them. Some argue that much of the output of the BBC World Service is an exercise in soft power. Like the overwhelming majority of its consumers, the BBC takes it for granted that democracy is a “good thing” and seeks to promote it. But the BBC is publicly funded, not government-controlled – that is a clear distinction. Government might, and does, seek to exert pressure – but it cannot dictate an editorial line. The same cannot be said of Russia Today, China Daily, Iran’s Press TV or the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRC), which operates in a democratic country that is becoming more illiberal by the day.
States will always use all the tools at their disposal to protect their national interests and pursue foreign policy objectives. But if the modus operandi of state-controlled media is to delegitimise institutions and sources of authority in the eyes of a section of the wider public, undermine social cohesion by amplifying divisive voices, draw attention to examples of western hypocrisy, and promote narratives of fear and uncertainty, then how do we respond?
Disinformation does not consist solely of fabricated news stories, Photoshopped images or wild conspiracy theories presented as fact. It is often more nuanced, more sophisticated – and more effective – than policymakers or the public realise. Only by monitoring and measuring their influence can we develop strategies to counter their growing power and reach.
Robert Elliott is the CEO of Zinc Network, a strategic communications agency tackling complex social issues, including disinformation
24-hour Putin people: my week watching Kremlin ‘propaganda channel’ RT
The top story on the 9am news on RT – the Kremlin-backed English-language television channel formerly known as Russia Today – is about the EU’s renewed approval for a weedkiller produced by Monsanto. It includes rather elaborate coverage of a small-looking protest outside the European parliament, and excerpts from a debate on the safety or otherwise of glyphosates. On the strength of this opening five minutes, I might once have been tempted to conclude that it was a slow news day, but on RT every day is a slow news day.
According to its detractors, RT is Vladimir Putin’s global disinformation service, countering one version of the truth with another in a bid to undermine the whole notion of empirical truth. And yet influential people from all walks of public life appear on it, or take its money. You can’t criticise RT’s standards, they say, if you don’t watch it. So I watched it. For a week.
Following the Monsanto report, there is a roundup of anti-terrorist measures being implemented across Europe for the Christmas period – concrete barriers positioned outside Christmas markets, wrapped up like giant presents, that sort of thing – followed by a warning from newsreader Rory Suchet that 100% safety is “impossible to ensure”.
Suchet, the son of former ITV newsreader John Suchet and the nephew of actor David Suchet, has been working for RT since 2009. The offspring of well-known people feature often on RT. Sophie Shevardnadze, who presents Sophie & Co, is the granddaughter of former Georgian president and Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze. Tyrel Ventura, who presents Watching the Hawks on RT America, is the son of wrestler-turned-politician Jesse Ventura. His co-host is Oliver Stone’s son Sean.
Russia Today was launched in 2005. Svetlana Mironyuk, the director of state-run RIA-Novosti, the news agency that oversees the channel, said at the time that western perceptions of Russia came down to three words: communism, snow and poverty. “We would like to present a more complete picture of life in our country,” she said.
But Russia barely figures in RT’s coverage; its main stories tend to concern the Middle East, or European infighting or social injustice in the US. Its overarching narrative is a tale of the west’s unrelenting decline. Its regular financial programme is called Boom Bust. On the Keiser Report, former US stockbroker Max Keiser says that “Donald Trump is helping to ease America into being a second-tier country, and I think that’s the most responsible thing he could do”. He suggests that Americans will have to learn to live on $3,000 or $4,000 a year, “or give in to your Chinese overlords”. His guest agrees with him. On RT, everybody agrees with everybody.
When Russia does make the news on RT, the Kremlin has little to worry about. Earlier this week, the main story was about a possible blanket ban on Russian Olympic athletes implicated in the doping scandal. Over the course of the day, reports repeatedly cited a “persistent lack of evidence” for a state-sponsored doping regime and sought to characterise the whole scandal as a western propaganda exercise aimed at undermining the next Russian presidential election. Foreign governments deploying disinformation to influence elections – where do they get this stuff?
That day’s BBC Radio 4 lunchtime news did carry a brief report about the upcoming Winter Olympics, but it was about security concerns in South Korea; it didn’t mention the doping scandal at all. That is probably because the doping scandal wasn’t really news that day. Four Russian athletes had been banned for life the previous week; an announcement on further bans was still a week away. The McLaren report, which offered firm evidence that Russia operated a state-sponsored doping regime, came out last year.
RT’s stated mission is to offer an “alternative perspective on major global events”, but the world according to RT is often downright surreal. Fringe opinion takes centre stage. Reporting is routinely bolstered by testimony from experts you have never heard of, representing institutions you have never heard of. A later update of that Christmas terrorist story gave ample airtime to “political commentator” Graham Moore, who turns out to belong to something called the “White Pendragons” and whose most recent YouTube posting on “civic nationalism” has garnered just 177 views at the time of writing, including mine.
On Crosstalk, RT’s flagship discussion programme hosted by an American in a bow-tie called Peter Lavelle, one regular participant, Victor Olevich, is described as “a leading expert at the Centre for Actual Politics”. A Google search for “the centre for actual politics” produces precisely one hit – from a previous Crosstalk transcript.
That is not to say the channel is peopled entirely by nonentities: lots of present and former UK politicians from the left and the right turn up on RT regularly. Nigel Farage has been on; so has Ann Widdicombe. George Galloway co-hosts a chatshow with his wife. The Commons register of interests shows that, in the past two years, MPs including David Davies, Rosie Duffield, Mike Freer and Nigel Evans have been paid up to £1,000 an hour to appear on RT programmes. Former Scottish leader Alex Salmond recently launched his own programme. And it’s not just politicians: Larry King and Stan Collymore both make programmes for RT. Germaine Greer and Peter Tatchell have appeared on it, along with a number a journalists who write for, among other publications, the Guardian.
Some MPs, notably David Gauke, have refused to speak to RT. David Lammy has resolved not to appear on the channel in future. But David Davies (the Monmouth backbencher, not Brexit minister David Davis) has defended his appearances on the satirical show Sam Delaney’s News Thing. “The News Thing has given me a fair chance to explain my opinions on Brexit, immigration and transgender issues, for which I am grateful,” he told the Observer this month. “Sadly, I have not received the same courtesy from the British Broadcasting Corporation.”
To be fair, much of what one sees on RT is pretty harmless, or at least inconsequential. Over the course of a week, I watched one debate on gender issues that seemed fairly sensible, even mildly enlightening. “The annoying thing about RT is that some of the reporting is very good and genuine,” says Misha Glenny, the author of McMafia. “The trick is trying to differentiate that from the propaganda. The Russians have moved on since the days of Pravda, the Soviet Communist party newspaper, or Radio Moscow International during the cold war – at least then you knew it was all guff, coming out of the Ideological Secretariat. RT is designed to confuse and muddy the waters. That mixture of genuine and guff leaves you baffled and disoriented, which, I guess, is the point.”
In 2010, RT America was launched, followed by RT UK in 2014. Certain programmes are made under these auspices in Washington and London – and some RT America shows turn up on RT UK – but much of the time you are getting RT International programming from Moscow. Many of the British and American reporters on its roster have been with the channel since 2005; some were recruited straight from journalism school. According to a 2010 article in the Columbia Journalism Review, even from the beginning these inexperienced recruits were paid six-figure salaries for five days’ work a fortnight.
While the exact nature of the relationship between RT and the Russian state is never made apparent, critics say it cannot be overplayed: for them, RT is the Russian state. The channel’s defenders – almost exclusively people who work for it and appear on it – say they are free from the Kremlin’s influence and unafraid to speak truth to power. But in the US, RT America has been obliged to register as a foreign agent. RT UK has been reprimanded by Ofcom a dozen times for lack of balance.
Peter Pomerantsev, author of Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, about Putin’s Russia, and now a senior visiting fellow in global affairs at the London School of Economics, was in Moscow working in television when Russia Today first started hiring graduates from Britain and the US. “The people were really bright, they were being paid well,” he says. But they soon found they were being ordered to change their copy, or instructed how to cover certain stories to reflect well on the Kremlin. “Everyone had their own moment when they first twigged that this wasn’t like the BBC,” he says. “That, actually, this is being dictated from above.” The coverage of Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008 was a lightbulb moment for many, he says. They quit.
There are clearly varying levels of independence at RT. Larry King’s shows are produced by his own company, Ora TV. Galloway’s programme is preceded by a warning that “the views and opinions expressed in the following programme do not necessarily coincide with those of RT”. But some of the channel’s reporters have complained of interference and bias. In 2014, RT America newsreader Liz Wahl resigned on air over the channel’s coverage of the Crimea crisis. Later that year, correspondent Sara Firth also quit after tweeting: “We do work for Putin. We are asked on a daily basis, if not to totally ignore, then to obscure the truth.”
One open question is: who is watching RT, besides me? The service claims to have access to a worldwide audience of 700 million people – you can get it online, on Sky, Freeview or in almost any hotel – but RT has never released actual UK viewing figures. The most recent figures available from the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board gave RT a weekly reach of 413,000 viewers for the week 13-19 November (compared with 4.4 million for Sky News, and 7.3 million for BBC News). That is an audience share of 0.02%. But RT is big on Twitter and YouTube. “Its social media is much more important than the channel, because no one really watches that,” says Pomerantsev.
If you went by its adverts, you might initially think it was viewed exclusively by people who are desperate to buy gold bullion, over-50s travel insurance or funeral protection policies. But if you watch long enough, you will also see ads for Samsung, Maltesers, Whiskas and Extra gum. Evidently these brands think there is someone out there to sell to.
The basic cycle of RT’s schedules is simple: the news comes every hour at the top of the hour, followed by some sort of analysis or documentary at half past. Even for a rolling news channel, it is insanely repetitive. The news reports often barely differ from one hour to the next, and its regular programmes – Going Underground, Crosstalk, On Contact, The Keiser Report – are broadcast with numbing frequency, and updated infrequently. In one 24-hour period, I caught the same documentary – about a mysterious sleeping sickness affecting residents of a former mining town in Kazakhstan – three times. It was made in 2015.
RT is never more surreal than when the topic is RT itself. On a recent edition of Crosstalk, the panellists discussed RT America’s new status as a registered foreign agent. “Civil liberties groups, the mainstream media, they’re all silent on this,” said one. “Where is the ACLU [the American Civil Liberties Union]? This is a blatant infringement of free speech!” Everyone else, as usual, concurs. Even I agree that the ACLU’s lack of interest in the case is telling, but perhaps not in the way they think.
In response to accusations a few weeks ago that the channel is a mere propaganda mouthpiece for Putin, Sam Delaney mounted an odd stunt on his satirical show. He produced what he called “Putin’s Lie Machine” – a vintage computer prop with blinking lights that churned out “fake news” headlines, challenging MP Michael Fabricant to guess whether they were true or not. It wasn’t remotely satirical, or even slightly funny (as you might imagine, Fabricant was no help), but it did treat the accusations against RT as if they were too preposterous to address head-on. And they are not preposterous.
More than outright lies, RT deals in moral equivalency. Its defenders don’t deny bias; they deny the possibility of objectivity. They say western media is equally biased. They liken RT to state broadcasters such as the BBC, France 24 and al Jazeera. They say other news channels have been sanctioned by Ofcom. It’s a triumph of cynicism: we’re all just as bad as each other.
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