An oasis of free speech or the mouthpiece of Putin? Steve Moss looks at the RT television news channel, one of the alternative sources appearing on Freeview.
I’ve found myself in the past watching Russia Today (rebranded as RT) and thinking their coverage was pretty good. Then they would report that Pussy Riot were funded by the USA (!). Oh! I forgot they did this sort of thing.
It’s sometimes easy to forget about the pro-Putin propaganda when the rest of their coverage is in tune with your own political leanings. We take for granted that the BBC is part of the State machinery and biased towards the establishment point of view much of the time, but are other stations any different?
RT has high viewing figures in the UK and USA and is the most-viewed news channel on YouTube. It is popular for its apparently radical content but do people (myself included) watch it just because they already agree with the message and prefer its bias to another station’s bias? Does it merely confirm rather than challenge its viewers’ beliefs?
Its obvious anti-American slant seems like a refreshing change after watching the BBC, and produces some interesting news items, but as we might expect from a network that claims to be offering a ‘Russian perspective’ on global events, Russian policy is not held up to the same high levels of scrutiny.
The extensive coverage of the Occupy movement in the USA was in stark contrast to the limited exposure it got on the BBC News, but at the same time they were condemning any grassroots protests in Russia.
As with the BBC, RT is state-funded and not overly keen on biting the hand that feeds it. Half of its start-up budget came from the state, and the other half from banks and companies friendly to the government.
The creation of RT was a part of a larger PR effort by the Russian government to improve the image of Russia abroad. Putin said that while the intention was to create an independent news channel, “certainly the channel is funded by the government, so it cannot help but reflect the Russian government’s official position on the events in our country and in the rest of the world one way or another.”
Impartiality seems a lot to hope for in light of this, and in fact RT’s response to accusations of bias is not to claim it is unbiased, but to insist that everyone else too was biased. Basically, objectivity is a myth, and it is better to be honest about that than to hide behind specious claims of presenting the truth.
However, you will search in vain for any direct criticism of Vladimir Putin on RT. In comparison opposition activists are commonly given very negative coverage. RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan tweeted, after protests in the lead-up to the March 2012 presidential election, that protesters should “burn in hell”.
Some former employees claim that they were given strict guidelines on what they could and couldn’t say about Russia. Even those who were otherwise believers in RT’s mission were uncomfortable with the heavy-handed message control.
This is of course not to say that any of the alternative broadcasters were any more objective. In 2014, Washington D.C. anchor Liz Wahl resigned on air after a question was censored from an interview about Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, although the previous day Breaking The Set host Abby Martin told her viewing audience that she was against the intervention. Possibly, as a prominent highly visible presenter, she has more leeway in her views than most.
The American media is, unsurprisingly, very hostile towards RT. This is despite its own corporate and government ownership. Nevertheless RT has successfully recruited a number of American journalists to its ranks. One of the most popular amongst these is Max Keiser, a very entertaining presenter and provocateur, although somewhat less strong as an interviewer, often dominating his guests.
Other positives are that RT’s documentaries are very well made and informative, and that dissident voices are treated as credible and not invited on just to be ridiculed, as often happens on the BBC. The discourse is central, not spin and over-rehearsed media skills. This often makes for challenging broadcasting, particularly on unfamiliar topics, as it doesn’t dumb down like mainstream channels, but encourages the viewer to go away and do their own research if they don’t understand.
Any alternative voice can only be a positive thing, presenting perspectives you never hear on other stations. Although this can sometimes lead to fairly ‘out-there’ conspiracy theories being promoted and people with pretty unpleasant affiliations being given airtime.
The bias in their coverage of domestic Russian news is pretty hard to ignore, but I tend to take the opportunity to put the kettle on whenever they begin reporting on home affairs. Most viewers have the sense to expect any channel funded by the Kremlin to be poor on Russian news items, but this doesn’t mean it can’t be interesting on other countries. There is no denying that RT does carry some strong and challenging items, but it is a good idea, as with any other news outlet, to keep in mind what they aren’t telling you and that it is unwise to get all your news from one source.