The Grenfell Tower fire in London in 2017 claimed 71 lives. It was a horrific tragedy and a colossal failing of public safety. If you were to watch a three-part film on YouTube titled Failed by the State: The Struggle in the Shadow of Grenfell, you’d learn that it was also an exemplar of the “cruelties of global capitalism”.
The documentary, presented by a former resident of the block, includes an interview with Lily Allen, the pop singer. That should in itself be a warning signal of its heedlessness for truth. Allen claimed in an interview for Channel 4 News in the days following the fire that “off-the-record numbers” she’d been given by firefighters and the police put the death toll closer to 150. She had no grounds for uttering this falsehood or for her calumnious assertion that the government – hapless and incompetent on this appalling issue as on much else – was trying to “micro-manage” people’s grief.
In fact the Grenfell documentary comes from a stable that is well used to misrepresentation and falsehood, as it’s a subsidiary of the Russian state propaganda outlet RT (formerly known as Russia Today). You wouldn’t immediately know that it’s a production by RT because the media organisation that made it is remarkably coy about the fact. It’s called Redfish.
As The Times reported this week, Redfish specialises in creating youth-friendly films, which go straight to YouTube, depicting western democratic societies as dystopias that are in a state of collapse. Many of these films purport to cover the UK, including such titles as Death by a Thousand Cuts: The Great NHS Sell–Off and Children of Austerity: Poverty in 21st-Century Britain. Neither viewers nor (in at least some cases) interviewees are alerted to the fact that Redfish is a creature of the Kremlin.
As a strategy for purveying propaganda this has pragmatic merits. The names of RT and Sputnik, the agency based in Edinburgh, are now irredeemably tarnished. I immodestly take some credit for this myself. I believe I was the first British journalist to state on-air (in a BBC discussion with the head of RT’s London Bureau) that RT is not a normal news organisation but an instrument of lies and preposterous conspiracy theories. I’ve detailed its malfeasances, malpractices, fakery and promotion of Europe’s extreme right. My newspaper has been indefatigable in reporting RT and Sputnik’s operations and serial violations of regulatory obligations. So now Russian propaganda tries another tack. Legitimate news organisations should be relentless in exposing the provenance of Redfish and public figures should be deeply wary of it.
Ever since the Bolshevik coup against an emerging constitutional democracy in October 1917, Russian state propaganda — in the Communist and the post-Soviet eras — has been targeted at winning the assent and even loyalty of the more credulous segments of Western societies. Under Stalin, a procession of Western intellectuals — including H.G. Wells, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, and the US vice-president Henry Wallace — were gulled by propaganda into believing that the Soviet Union was a new civilisation rather than a totalitarian nightmare-state. In the digital age, the Putin regime can convey its propaganda more widely and the message is essentially alike. This is that the Kremlin is bent on peace and that Western societies are characterised by scarcity, inequality, racism and misery.
Of course, all of these social evils can be found in Britain and other Western democracies. These are flawed societies which, in my partisan opinion, could be improved by more radical redistribution, greater openness to immigration, and a more European model of welfare. But these failings pale before the pathologies, bigotry and murderous repression of modern-day Russia, and the grotesque human-rights abuses of Putin’s foreign policy. Redfish is yet another attempt by an autocratic regime to change the subject, and to do so through subterfuge rather than open debate.
Redfish has already tricked some of its contributors as well as all of its audience. Owen Jones, the Guardian columnist, is briefly interviewed in one of the films, yet says he had no idea of the film crew’s connections. To his credit, Jones has a policy – as I do – of not appearing on RT. To get him to talk on Russian state propaganda requires dissimulation.
Hence I’m writing this, as one more warning of the frauds practised by Russian state propaganda. I append a warning that I’ve ritually made for many years. If you are a talented young person who is ambitious for a career in journalism, you should at all costs avoid Redfish, just as you should RT and Sputnik. To have these entities on your CV will guarantee that you never get an interview, let alone a job, at a genuine news organisation. The risk to your self-respect, let alone your career, is too great to ignore.