Vladimir Putin’s regime murders critics, harasses opposition parties, poisons dissidents, locks up protesters, assassinates journalists, represses gays, invades neighbouring states and annexes their territory, shoots civilian airplanes out of the sky, interferes in the electoral processes of democratic states, and aids the unspeakable campaign of civilian slaughter waged by Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
With a record like this, the Russian president has an incentive to shut out scrutiny and spread disinformation. And he does. His tools include the English-language state propaganda organs Russia Today (RT) and the Sputnik agency. These purported news outlets are agents of a hostile foreign power; civil society as well as democratic governments should say so and treat them accordingly.
I believe I was the first UK journalist to spot what was going on with RT in London. Initial coverage of the station was indulgent. An admiring profile of its new London bureau, published in The Independent in 2009, described RT as “young, fearless and feisty”, having been “freed of the shackles of Soviet-style journalism”. I recalled this a couple of years afterwards when I was invited by BBC World to talk about foreign policy with another guest, Laura Emmett, head of RT London.
In preparation, I looked at the station’s output and was appalled. It presented as straight news stories the most fevered conspiracy theories, including the infamous calumny that the 9/11 attacks were the work of the US government.
I told James Harding, then editor of The Times, what I’d found and then ambushed Emmett with it live on-air. I felt slightly sorry for her; judging by a brief chat in the green room, she was a likeable recent languages graduate with no journalistic background who’d been sucked into something beyond her experience. I pointed out on the programme that RT was not a normal news station like the BBC, CNN or even Al Jazeera, but a state propaganda channel venting preposterous and pernicious conspiracy theories. Within a few hours of the broadcast, I’d got around 1,000 emails – many from people whose first language was clearly not English – telling me I was, inter very much alia, the spawn of Satan and an agent of the Rothschilds.
This was my first taste of the operations of Russian state propaganda and its army of online trolls. Ever since, I’ve kept an eye on the output of RT and Sputnik and periodically written about it in The Times and (with particular reference to RT’s promotion of neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers) the Jewish Chronicle. What I didn’t foresee was that, as social media has become more important in the way that people read and watch news, outrageously fabricated stories would become more potent in their consequences.
Genuine news organisations are subject to independent (not government) regulation; in Britain, the relevant bodies are the Independent Press Standards Organisation and Ofcom. The regulators’ remit does not extend to social media sites whose standards of veracity and factchecking are minimal and whose campaigns of abuse against specific journalists (notably Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC political editor) appear to me to constitute incitement.
In this new anarchic system, RT has fortuitously found a place. It has the trappings of a normal news channel but not the substance, ethos or ethics. The same is true of Sputnik. You don’t need to take my word for it: ask the people who’ve worked there. Sara Firth, a London-based RT correspondent for five years, resigned in protest at the channel’s coverage of the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in 2014. RT had suggested Ukraine was responsible; this was, said Firth, “the most shockingly obvious misinformation and it got to the point where I couldn’t defend it any more”.
Liz Wahl, a Washington-based RT anchor, resigned live on-air declaring she could not “be part of a network funded by the Russian government that whitewashes the actions of Putin”. Andrew Feinberg, who resigned as Sputnik’s White House correspondent, wrote an essay for Politico a few weeks ago explaining his dilemma working for a propaganda network: “I realized that it didn’t matter how hard I worked or how aggressively I pushed back at the strictures my bosses were putting on me—as long as I was working at Sputnik I’d be contributing to the spread of disinformation and propaganda, even if I wasn’t actively writing it myself.”
Putin’s foreign policy aims to disrupt and if possible sever the system of alliances that Western democracies built up in the decades after the defeat of Nazism. It’s had extraordinary recent success, exemplified in the vote for Brexit and the election of President Trump, who disdains the international institutions in which the US has voluntarily subsumed its power: the UN, Nato, the World Bank, the IMF and the World Trade Organisation. At the margin, Russian state propaganda has had an effect. David Coburn, an MEP for the UK Independence Party, unabashedly states: “RT gave UKIP publicity when nobody else would.”
The same goes for other far-right and racist organisations in Europe: the Front National in France, the British National Party (which has praised RT for its “commitment to truth and balance”) and the Alternative for Germany. Unsurprisingly but commendably, President Macron declared in May– with Putin standing beside him – that RT and Sputnik behave not like press outlets but “like agents of influence and propaganda” which spread “serious falsehoods”. Macron said he would never give in to that.
Nor should the rest of us, in punditry, politics or other walks of life. Since my encounter with its London bureau, I’ve adopted a consistent policy towards RT. I’ve never criticised someone specifically for going on RT but I’ve declined all such invitations myself. (The subjects were not ones on which Putin has a propaganda stake. Once I was asked to talk about the Israel-Palestine dispute, which is a subject I’m not close to and have rarely written about. Another time the subject was the European economy.) I’ve explained each time to the hapless employee extending the invitation the reasons for my stance. I don’t consider RT to be a normal news channel, as evinced by the fantasists, fraudsters, genocide deniers, UFO buffs and obscure malcontents who make up their staple list of “expert pundits”.
And there’s the nub of the issue. RT’s slogan is “question more”, to which you can only hoarsely laugh. There is no questioning and no debate. RT and Sputnik are propaganda stations. Their targets are not only western institutions and alliances but the very foundations of modern Western civilisation: reason, science, tolerance, liberal political rights, and sexual equality. To that end, RT and Sputnik package as comment and news the outpourings of a very motley array of cranks.
I won’t dignify these people by naming them and you won’t have heard of them anyway because RT and Sputnik are the only places where they could go. One of its pundits has contributed an essay to RT’s website arguing that the Earth is flat. Another is shortly to go on trial on a charge of malicious communication. Another devotes his life to uncovering the purported conspiracy of the Bilderberg group. All appear to be convinced that their failure to make a mark in journalism, or indeed in life, is due to a conspiracy of their enemies. Some appear to exhibit symptoms consistent with mental disorder (and I say this carefully and without judgment, having myself suffered and recovered from mental illness).
It’s to RT that some members of the shadow cabinet who are not conspicuously well informed (that’s Richard Burgon, the shadow justice secretary) go to answer easy questions. These are politicians from the Labour Party, which – of all the historic ironies – was vital in establishing the Nato alliance and supporting social democratic parties and free trade unions being crushed by Stalin.
RT has repeatedly been found in breach of the broadcasting code by Ofcom for misleading and biased coverage of conflicts in Ukraine and Syria. Well, what would you expect of a propaganda station whose purpose is fakery in the service of autocracy?
It’s past time that regulators cracked down on RT and that civil society treated it appropriately, with ostracism, in the same way and for the same reason that civilised people avoid giving any sustenance to the BNP or the Front National. Young journalists in particular should know this. RT and Sputnik are eagerly scouting for talent: if you go there, for an apparently responsible role, it will not be a stepping stone in your career but the end of it. Western democracies, and the free press on which they depend, shouldn’t stand for this anymore.