John Osullivan

Russia Today is Putin’s weapon of mass deception. Will it work in Britain?

It looks like a news channel. It talks like a news channel. It says whatever Putin wants

Russia Today is Putin's weapon of mass deception. Will it work in Britain?
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Anyone making the journey to Westminster by public transport will be confronted by a series of posters warning them about the state of British media. The word ‘redacted’ is in large letters, and readers are advised to look up a website for ‘the ad we can’t show you here’. If you do, you see a picture of Tony Blair advocating war. ‘This is what happens when there is no second opinion,’ the webpage says, advising people to ‘question more’. This is how Russia Today, the Kremlin’s fast-growing English language broadcaster, is selling itself: as the challenger to an out-of-touch establishment. At a time when there’s a widespread distrust of political elites, it’s not a bad line.

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Russia Today advert at Westminster Tube station.[/caption]

Unlike rival broadcasters, Russia Today — or RT as it has rebranded itself since 2009 — has a growing -budget; President Putin himself is said to have intervened to protect it against cuts. The network now claims a worldwide audience of 700 million, a figure the old Voice of Russia could only dream about. It is widely present in social media, having 1.4 million subscribers on YouTube, for instance. And it has achieved a largish cult following on the fringes of the left and the right in the West. Its audience seems to believe in RT’s marketing message — that the network covers the stories which the mainstream media ignores, such as Occupy Wall Street or WikiLeaks scandals.

But there are, of course, stories that Russia Today is not keen on covering — such as the reality of Russia today. Take this week’s economic crisis, which Anne Applebaum writes about: the plunging rouble, the forecast of a recession, the accelerating exodus of capital as investors head for the hills. The story was the fourth item on RT’s business page — under the heading of ‘Business Snaps’. The main news page, however, led on the vote by the French parliament to recognise a Palestinian state. The Russian politics page had only one financial story — a reassurance from President Putin that Russia won’t demand an early debt repayment from Ukraine because it doesn’t want to cause Kiev difficulties. And that was that. In short, something like Miss Prism’s instructions had gone out as editorial guidance: ‘The fall of the rouble you may omit or at least downplay. It is somewhat too sensational for a young network.’

Not that financial stories were avoided entirely. The UK page opened with a long story headlined ‘Anti-Austerity Protesters Besiege Downing Street Over “Disastrous” Economic Policies’. But this was less a report than an advert, written in advance, for the ‘People’s Assembly… a self-declared non-political campaign group… which rejects reactionary rhetoric peddled by austerity advocates etc., etc.’ This was vigorous stuff, accompanied by lively illustrations and helpful links, but it suffered from a familiar confused logic, arguing that the Tories had plunged Britain into a penal austerity by indulging in massive overspending and rising debt.

Still on finance, there was a link to a video of RT’s star financial columnist-anchor in London, Max Keiser, who held a freewheeling debate with his co-anchor on the not-very-burning question of whether the UK is about to lose its treasured position as a haven of political and economic security for investors (short answer: yes), interleaved with weird giggly speculation about what drugs George Osborne was on. Keiser is a fun anarchist provocateur with a background in finance and media who mixes financial analysis with aggressive hell-za-poppin’ humour. His views on Russia’s currency troubles — a major financial story of the day — would have been original and, just maybe, enlightening. He doesn’t shrink from denouncing bankers as terrorists. But he didn’t deal with the topic.

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Posters from RT's advertising campaign[/caption]

That’s par for RT’s course today. It began somewhat differently in 2004 as an international news network aiming to be similar to the BBC or CNN, with the insertion of local stories showing Russia in a good light. That was acceptably defensive (and inoffensive) PR, but it buttered no parsnips. Besides, the Putin regime was embarking on a more aggressive foreign policy, and as part of Putin’s information apparatus, RT was inevitably dragged along in its wake. The turning point is generally agreed to have occurred in 2008, when Russia provoked the Georgian government into an attempt to recover its lost province of Ossetia and promptly responded with an invasion and occupation of parts of Georgia. RT gave Putin cover with a jingoistic campaign that denounced the Georgians as genocidal. That campaign in turn now looks like a dry run for RT’s reporting and commentary on the Ukrainian crisis, which depicted the Kiev government as bloodthirsty neo-fascists intent on ethnic cleansing etc. — while depicting actual bloodthirsty neo-fascists (and Russian soldiers) in eastern Ukraine as peace-minded democrats.

If that were all, RT would be as ineffective as Radio Moscow used to be. Simple ideological abuse alerts people that they are being manipulated. But as Peter Pomerantsev explains in his forthcoming book on modern Russia, Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, what makes RT more insidious is that it has most of the external features of legitimate western journalism:

Russia Today began to look and sound like any 24/7 news channel: the thumping music before the news flash, the earnest pretty newscasters, the jock-like sports broadcasters. British and American twentysomethings straight out of university would be offered generous compensation packages, where in London or Washington they would have been expected to work for free. Of course they all wondered whether RT would turn out to be a propaganda channel. ‘Well, it’s all about expressing the Russian point of view,’ they would say, a little uncertainly.

RT does cover genuine reports about legitimate stories, seriously and without obvious bias, which makes it seem at times like any other news network. Not everything is a façade of lies. But RT is about a great deal more than that — and less.

Western journalism is sometimes biased, usually unconsciously, but it is actuated by some concern for the truth which in major news organisations results, for example, in formal rules about sourcing. These rules are constantly examined and updated. Complete cynicism about such matters is rare and punishable — see, for instance, the fate of Stephen Glass, who invented stories out of whole cloth for the New Republic. But when Pomerantsev met the managing editor of RT in his office, he was told: ‘There is no such thing as objective reporting.’ And that mission statement goes far beyond a humble acceptance that reporting cannot overcome every bias; it treats the truth as something malleable in theory and determined by authority in practice.

A number of those American and British twentysomething recruits have discovered that unpleasant reality in the course of their reporting. Abby Martin, the host of RT America, protested on air at the support that RT gave to Russia’s invasion of Crimea. Reporter Liz Wahl resigned shortly afterwards for the same reason. Staci Bivens, another RT reporter, said that she had been ordered by editors to write a story arguing the absurd case that Germany was a ‘failed state’. (She refused, which led to her leaving the network.) Overall, past and present employees of RT described a workplace in which reporters and commentators might write original stories only to find them rewritten by senior Russian editors — not to clarify or correct them, but to suit obvious Kremlin interests.

Some of these editing decisions are very transparent in their intentions. RT is an enthusiastic reporter of almost any protest against fracking anywhere, reflecting the interest of the Russian state and Gazprom in discouraging competition and keeping energy prices high. More generally, its underlying pose is that while Russia is far from perfect, the West as a whole is just as bad, and the US a great deal worse — the fountain of all bad things.

Thus the network tries to highlight stories that show western countries in a bad or hypocritical light, such as the riots in Ferguson (though here the American media are giving RT stiff competition) or the deaths in the National Health Service. Or to tailor coverage to please and accommodate ‘protest’ groups such as the People’s Assembly or some extreme Eurosceptics — groups that would normally never be found in the same cheering corner — in ways that draw them into a conspiratorial anti-western outlook: thus, ‘cuts’ in UK public spending are the fault of Wall Street and the war in Ukraine was started by the European Union. Or, at the extreme, to embark on old-fashioned Soviet-style disinformation as in a recent report on Spanish-language RT that hinted the US might be behind the Ebola outbreak; or the attempts by RT to blame the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner on Kiev.

All this is then presented to the world with considerable professionalism, some sharp sarcastic wit on occasion, and clever rhetorical techniques that turn the West’s own arguments inside out. As David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, put it: ‘RT is darkly, nastily brilliant, so much more sophisticated than Soviet propaganda.’

People are beginning to agree with Remnick that the ‘Russian point of view’ is generally Putin’s point of view. Now the British regulator Ofcom has reached the same conclusion: last month it accused RT of serious breaches of due impartiality and threatened sanctions against it. Margarita Simonyan, RT’s editor-in-chief, gave a nastily brilliant RT response: ‘We accept the decision of Ofcom to have held, in effect, that a government’s viewpoint must always be reflected and given due weight when it is criticised in the reporting of major political controversies.’

Those like me who are uncomfortable with official regulation of the media but nonetheless see RT as an example of Putin’s ‘weaponisation of information’ (as Pomerantsev and Michael Weiss name it in a recent report for the Institute of Modern Russia) need not despair. Networks and newspapers have a natural incentive to subject RT to sharp criticism as it is. That’s already happening — and fortunately in the Guardian, which has influence with RT’s anti-establishment and anti-American audience. Young journalists are already finding that a spell at RT is a handicap in getting jobs elsewhere. And though lying sometimes works, repeated lying — however darkly brilliant — is a recipe for lost viewers and listeners. The time will come when RT has to confine its clever inventions to a captive market: Russians.

John O’Sullivan is Director of the Danube Institute and a Fellow of the National Review Institute.