Alex Massie

Alex Salmond’s defence of Russia Today is inexcusable

Alex Salmond's defence of Russia Today is inexcusable
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On his RT television show this morning, Alex Salmond shrugged-off criticism that, by working for the Russians, he has reduced himself from erstwhile statesman to useful idiot. Look, he said, RT is no different from the BBC, ITV or Sky. It is regulated by Ofcom and so, “by definition”, cannot be a “propaganda station”. 

“I hold no brief from the Kremlin, nor am I required to have [one]” Salmond said. “No-one has tried to influence the contents of this show in any way, shape or form whatsoever.”

But then they don’t need to, do they? Not when, as evidence of his editorial freedom, Salmond is happy to offer a platform, as he did this morning, to expert analysts such as Annie Machon. Machon, a former MI5 officer and former partner of fellow-officer-turned-conspiracy-nut David Shayler, has carved out a doubtless lucrative niche as a peddler of fantastical conspiracy claims. She has argued, for instance, that British intelligence was intimately involved in the death of Princess Diana and that, on 9/11 the Pentagon was hit by an American missile, not a plane

Well, it’s always important to ask questions isn’t it? After all, who knows what the official record of events is hiding from you? And that is the essence of RT’s operating style. It is not a normal television station because the intended audience is not actually watching it on their television sets. The point of the TV programmes is to create clips that can then be put on YouTube and disseminated online. That in turn renders the question of its broadcasting licence somewhat moot; the main distribution vehicle is not covered by Ofcom just as Sputnik Radio, another stream in the Russian arsenal, exists as an online-only station. 

In any case, the point of programmes such as Salmond’s is to provide a veneer of plausible respectability to a state-sponsored propaganda outlet. As Dmitry Kiselev, the head of Russia’s state news agency, chuckles “If we do propaganda, then you do propaganda too”.

RT’s editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan, cheerfully admits that RT is a weapon. In 2012, she told an interviewer that Russians needed RT for “the same reason” that “the country needs a defence ministry”. During the 2008 conflict with Georgia, she noted, “The defence ministry was fighting with Georgia but we were conducting the information war and, what’s more, against the whole western world”. Lessons were learnt from that conflict, Simonyan said in 2013. “It became absolutely clear to everyone why this is needed, why we need such a thing as an international television channel representing the country.” RT would henceforth concentrate on growing its international audience “and of course we’ll make use of that”. 

That doesn’t mean everything on RT is fake or false, merely that what is true is not important and what is important is often not true. Members of parliament and other commentators who agree to appear on RT are being used even if they do not recognise the fact. 

One such poor fool is Lembit Opik, the former Liberal Democrat MP whom I last encountered, albeit many years ago, playing “The Sash” on a tin whistle in a Dublin pub. We discussed RT and Alex Salmond’s show on Radio Scotland this morning. 

“What’s your filter?” Opik asked, deploring what he termed my circular arguments criticising RT. But since he argued RT wasn’t duping anyone because he, Lembit Opik, is nobody’s idea of a dupe this seemed a cheeky line of reasoning. 

In any case, I pointed out, the Russians are happy to admit RT is not a normal television station. They make no secret of their ambitions, nor of the manner in which RT is a small but important part of their wider information offensive; the latest in a long-line of Kremlin-sponsored “active measures”. 

If there’s no truth and if everyone is crippled by their own “filter” then there’s no hierarchy of opinion or reason or evidence either. Every view has the same weight so who’s to say what’s really true? Indeed, since the truth cannot be established there’s no need to go searching for it. 

The peculiar genius of Russia’s information war lies in its wink-wink knowingness. Russian television outlets are happy knowing their viewers know much of the output is fake. But, they smirk, if this is fake – and look how easily this stuff is produced! – then mightn’t the BBC be equally fake? Russian interests are advanced on several fronts; if you buy the crap, that’s fine, but if the crap simply makes you think other people must be peddling crap then that’s fine too. 

“Liberal democracies don’t succeed in international confrontations by sacrificing their dearest held values of freedom of speech,” Alex Salmond said today. Indeed not, though a corollary might also be appended noting that freedom of speech, such as that enjoyed by Alex Salmond, imposes no duty to make that speech in the service – witting or not – of the Kremlin regime. Salmond can, indeed should, say whatever he likes but choosing to do so on RT is revealing and an entirely voluntary exercise on his part. 

Setting-up shop on RT was a disgraceful thing to do in the first place; staying there now, after all this, is inexcusable. This, I should add, is not just my view. It is one shared by any number of SNP MPs and MSPs. No wonder the party Salmond led for so many years washes its hands of him, noting that he is just an ordinary private citizen. Private, yes, but also stupid. 

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.