24 hour global news viewers may have noted a new broadcaster creeping up on its more established rivals recently. RT (formerly named “Russia Today”) boasts that it has risen to become the third most watched news channel in the UK after the BBC and Sky, ahead of better known rivals such as CNN and Al-Jazeera. It claims to reach 630 million people worldwide, more than 28% of all cable subscribers, and to be available in more than 2.7 million hotel rooms.
RT advertises its output as covering “the major issues of our time for viewers wishing to question more” and that it “delivers stories often missed by the mainstream media to create news with an edge”. As this claim suggests, RT’s recent rise to greater prominence in the 24 hour news market owes much to its attempts to lure in viewers who are disillusioned by the economic travesties of capitalism, the conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the insufficiently critical coverage of them by the established Western TV news media.
Such viewers should beware of falling into RT’s trap, which risks warping their perspective and, in the case of those who are active participants in movements such as “Occupy” and “Stop the War”, discrediting their principled stand. Their concerns that the likes of the BBC and CNN’s coverage of crucial global issues is tainted by their susceptibility to Western governmental and corporate influence may be justified. But RT is absolutely not the place to go for an alternative perspective.
Rather than being a genuine independent voice, RT is a pet project of Russian President Vladimir Putin that is funded and directed by his government. Putin has long been attuned to the power of television to control the flow of information and the political agenda. One of his first acts on becoming president in 2000 was to seize control of Russia’s independent TV channels in order to ensure unchallenged, favourable domestic news coverage for his regime. But this ruthless step still left Putin unable to control the foreign news media’s reporting on his destruction of Russian democracy, brutal human rights abuses and rampant corruption. His frustration at this situation led him to set-up Russia Today in 2005. The purpose of RT is to disseminate positive propaganda about the Russian government and to attack those countries that Putin deems most active in opposing his abuses.
In many ways, RT represents an updated version of standard Soviet/KGB practice from the Cold War era. Just as in the old days when the KGB used to infiltrate honourable, anti-establishment movements in the West, such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), the Kremlin now seeks to exploit alternative entities across the political spectrum from Occupy to UKIP to subvert the West.
In theory, there is value in having an outlet for the different perspectives on major global issues that appear in some of RT’s less ludicrously slanted output. There are grounds for arguing that the failure of the Western TV news media to challenge adequately the capitalist interests that caused the global economic crisis has contributed to the financiers largely getting away with it. And there is scope for more questioning of, for example, the compatibility of drone attacks with international human rights standards.
The problem with RT is that its flagrant hypocrisy wholly discredits its coverage of these issues. Despite its extensive coverage of “Occupy Wall Street” and the economic crisis in Europe, it makes no mention of Russia being the embodiment of crony capitalism, with massive inequalities of wealth and epic levels of corruption that have seen Putin and his associates steal billions from the Russian people.
RT’s highlighting of protests in the West also contrasts with its minimal coverage of pro-democracy and anti-Putin rallies in Russia, the organisers of which RT’s Editor-in-Chief, Margarita Simonyan, once tweeted would “burn in hell”. Nor does RT’s stated desire to “question more” run to querying the flagrant human rights abuses perpetrated against Putin’s opponents and the ordinary people protesting against him or the numerous unsolved murders of fellow journalists who have fallen foul of the Russian authorities.
Not that this hypocrisy matters to RT. As its Deputy Head of News, Alexei Kuznetsov, admitted in a recent article by Oliver Bullough in the “New Statesman”, the point of RT is not to report the news accurately but “to get the Russian perspective out”. The Russian perspective to which Kuznetsov refers, it should be clear, is that of the Putin regime, not the nation as a whole. And the cynical impression the regime is seeking to propagate is that everywhere is as bad as Russia, thus rendering criticism of Putin’s abuses and corruption unjustified.
Fortunately for people living in democratic countries, particularly those of us who oppose our current governments and criticise the prevailing economic structure, not all states are the same as the one presided over by Putin. The UK political system may not be perfect but it is possible to enjoy the human rights to protest and free speech without ending up in jail or the cemetery. We also benefit from press freedom and, in the case of TV news, an honest attempt at impartiality. For all of the BBC’s faults, not least its tendency to relativise issues by bending over backwards to seek “balance”, no-one could argue rationally that its primary objective is “to get the British perspective out”.
Viewers, and particularly supporters of movements that seek to challenge the prevailing political and economic system in the West, should beware of RT. The channel may be correct in claiming that it shares enemies with you in the shape of Western governments and corporations. But, in this case, your enemy’s enemy is emphatically not your friend.