17 November 2017

Alex Salmond: a portrait of degradation

By John Lloyd

Russia Today, which this week showcased its newest acquisition, a talk show hosted by Alex Salmond, is the most accomplished English language propaganda channel in the world.

Other global news services – BBC World, the German Deutsche Welle, the EU’s Euronews, France 24, the US’ CNN – try to adhere, to a “fair, balanced and impartial” approach. CCTV, China’s global English channel, is pro-Chinese, but its bias is understated. Even Qatar’s Al Jazeera English (Al Jazeera Arabic is a propaganda channel) more or less attempts objectivity.

RT is not like that. Margarita Simonyan, the channel’s director, told the German magazine Spiegel in 2013 that “there is no objectivity – only approximations of the truth by as many voices as possible”. Further, she sees her channel as a weapon: she told the arts programme Afisha that RT was a weapon in a propaganda war – “there is not a single international foreign TV channel that is doing something other than promotion of the values of the country that it is broadcasting from…when Russia is at war, we are, of course, on Russia’s side.”

Thus when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, RT followed  the line taken by  President Vladimir Putin –  that the Georgian army had attempted “genocide” in its province of South Ossetia, which Russia had controlled; and that the then Georgian President, Mikhail Saakashvilki, was a “psychopath”.

In 2014, a Malaysian airliner MH-17 crashed within the area of eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian-sponsored rebels, killing nearly 300 people, crew and passengers, most of whom were Dutch citizens. Subsequent inquiries by the Dutch Safety Board and a Dutch Joint  Investigation Team produced evidence that it had been shot down by a Russian made BUK surface to air missile, transported  from Russia in the days before the crash and fired from a field within the rebel-controlled area.

Russian news media put out a series of “alternative facts”, including one set which argued that the plane had been filled, by the CIA, with corpses and detonated over the territory. RT eschewed the more outlandish theories, but broadcast a documentary saying that no one had proven anything about the accident. The coverage prompted one reporter in the London bureau, Sara Firth, to resign, saying that “it was the most shockingly obvious misinformation…appalling…where there are families waiting to be informed.”

Oliver Bullough, one of the finest writers on Russia, wrote in the New Statesman that RT’s coverage is relentlessly shaped to give a particular impression – using real events to do so. Thus from its coverage of the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011, Bullough writes, “you might gain the impression that the only thing that is saving the Obama administration from collapse is police oppression of the dissidents”.

As Simonyan indicated, truth, balance and neutrality is not the point. But nor is propaganda of the old type – as grim declarations of inevitable collapse and North Korean-type insults of western leaders. Instead, RT does two contradictory things: it lines itself up with all the other global broadcasters and says they all have their own versions of the “truth” – while at the same time it implicitly endorses Russia’s view of events as the truthful version.

This is quite cynical: in an address in 2013 to journalism students  at Moscow State University, the Deputy Minister of Communications Alexei Volin said that “we should give students a clear understanding: they are going to work for The Man, and The Man will tell them what to write, what not to write, and how this or that thing should be written. And The Man has the right to do it because he pays them.”

This is a step lower than Soviet journalism: it at least was written in the name, and sometimes in active support, of an ideal, horrible as was its practice for most of the Soviet period.

The Man pays them to further his interests in supporting these forces, in Europe and in North America, which are hostile to the established democratic order. Funds flowed into the European nationalist-populist parties: as this is written, more information emerges that Russia funded pro-Brexit forces in the UK. The far right is favoured, and so is the far left. A US intelligence services report out early this year says that the channel is “Kremlin financed”, and obscures its links to the Russian government. Its renaming as RT from Russia Today is one sign of that obscuring.

This is the channel which now presents Salmond – leader of the Scottish National Party from 2004 to 2014, first minister of Scotland from 2007 to 2014, who had likened the BBC’s coverage (“propaganda”) to that of Pravda. His hiring is of a piece with the other presenters and regular guests – George Galloway, Julian Assange and Seamus Milne, the strategy and communications director to Jeremy Corbyn. The aim is to provide a platform for views which seek to weaken Western governments and which, as with Galloway, Assange and Milne, are admiring of Russia.

Salmond disdains the BBC. He regards it as “institutionally biased”, especially in its coverage of the 2014 referendum; he complained that Andrew Marr had, in an interview, cast doubt on the ease with which an independent Scotland would be accepted as a member by the European Union; and he attacked the coverage by the then political editor, Nick Robinson, as a “disgrace”.

He joins RT as part of a strategy of compensation for his resignation from the Party’s leadership in 2014, and his loss to the Conservatives of his Westminster seat of Gordon, just north of Aberdeen, earlier this year. As his new post was celebrated at a lavish RT party in Central London, he was manoeuvring to become the chairman of Johnston Press, publisher – among more than 200 other newspaper titles, mainly in England – of The Scotsman, Scotland’s much diminished, Edinburgh-published daily: Salmond has said that he will make it more “pro-Scotland”.

His bid, in partnership with Christen Ager-Hanssen, the Norwegian investor who now has the largest share in Johnston Press, will if successful push The Scotsman, 200 this year, into being a shill for the SNP. It’s a fate sketched out, in a full page editorial by the Scotsman’s editor, Frank O’Donnell, who wrote last week that it was “highly unlikely” that Salmond would “restrict his involvement to monthly business meetings… alarm bells should start to sound for editorial independence”.

Scotland already has a pro-SNP daily – The National, founded in 2014 by Newsquest. Its quality is low, as is its circulation (below 10,000 in 2016): it has the merit, however, of being frank about its affiliation. A Salmond-controlled Scotsman would not be so obvious, but its editor would have to reflect the chairman’s thinking on independence and on politics generally. It would be nationalist by stealth.

And on Russia? Salmond expressed admiration of Putin in 2014, saying in an interview that “he’s restored a substantial part of Russian pride and that must be a good thing”: he also commented that he believed that the  country’s “intermesh with business and politics are difficult to admire”.

This is exactly the right tone for an RT presenter to take. It is the pose of one who has, judiciously, examined the event or the individual in question, expresses dissent or reservations on some issues – but on the main issue, admiration. In Putin’s case, the Russian president’s  restoration of national pride is, for Salmond, the main issue: he would see himself in the same light.

His career on RT will be unlikely to end in a crisis of conscience over the channel’s coverage of world events: not just because it will pay him a high fee and give him a platform, but because he, like Simonyan, cannot see the difference between it and channels like the BBC. RT is there, in the end, to do the Russian state’s bidding: their journalists, as Deputy Minister Volin put it, must do what “The Man” tells its journalists to do: and the Man is, ultimately, Vladimir Putin.

The BBC has biases; makes mistakes; can be bland. But its Charter, its tradition, its training and its journalists’ own pride in their work together with the vigilance of both the viewers and the parliament, enforce an effort to get it right. It fashions its output so that a reasonable person of whatever view could accept that the reporting, usually, is a sketch of the truth, done in good faith – all that impartial journalism can attain, and when attained, a large, indeed a necessary  contribution to a democratic, civil state.

In a debate in the New York Times, the blogger Glen Greenwald, a passionate supporter of Edward Snowden’s leaks from the US’ National Security Agency, claimed that journalists “all intrinsically perceive and process the world through subjective prisms” and thus objectivity was a chimera.

Bill Keller,  then the Times’ executive editor, replied  that “I believe that impartiality is a worthwhile aspiration in journalism, even if it is not perfectly achieved. I believe that in most cases it gets you closer to the truth, because it imposes a discipline of testing all assumptions, very much including your own.”

This is as good a short definition of impartial reporting as any. It is one that Salmond scorns: no questioning of assumptions for him, in this new, degrading phase of his life.

This piece was first published in the Scottish Review

John Lloyd is FT Contributing Editor and Senior Research Fellow, Reuters Institute, University of Oxford