Russia's RT is contesting the very meaning of 'truth'

America Abroad
RT van

Since launching in the UK in 2014, RT (formerly Russia Today) has been on the offensive against its supposed antagonist: the BBC.

The first attack came straight out of the blocks, in an allegation that the BBC had faked footage of a chemical weapons attack in Syria, among the several to this date perpetrated by the Assad regime. In RT’s version of events, BBC TV producers had staged the strike, either in cahoots with state actors or complicit in their schemes.

Britain’s independent media regulator, Ofcom, judged this and other RT programs at the time to be in breach of impartiality and severely sanctioned the network. The current affairs series in question, called "Truthseeker," was cancelled amid the fallout. Impartiality is a standard enshrined in the broadcast code that Ofcom is charged with enforcing. RT has been careful to remain within the gray areas of that code since.

RT’s mantra and slogan is to Question More" — the BBC and others say there is a trend to their questioning, intended to stir disaffection with the state and divide society. Unsurprisingly, the BBC has remained RT's arch-nemesis. Allegations that the BBC is a mouthpiece for the West have been commonplace on RT. 

Additionally, RT revels in reporting scandals at the BBC, no matter how minor. RT see muckraking their competitor as righteous, or at least an act of defense and deny that this is calculated to chip away at confidence in the institution.

It is worth noting that RT’s audience — as Coda Story reported — are frosty on the BBC and Western media too, with a large number reasoning that at least RT is “honest about lying.” 

Prime Minister Theresa May is clear in her own mind. In a speech before the House of Commons she compared the work of RT with other Kremlin subterfuge:

“[Russia is] seeking to weaponize information, employing its state-run media organisations to plant fake stories and photoshopped images, in an attempt to sow discord in the West and undermine our institutions.”

Her address in March came after the attack in England of former KGB spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. The attempted murder made international news, resulting in sanctions against Russia from the UK, US and others.

RT challenged the official account of the British authorities while introducing a myriad of alternative theories as to what happened.

Ex-London Mayor Ken Livingstone has long been disillusioned with politics and media in Britain, after having his reputation ruined through investigations into suspected cronyism and antisemitism. A frequent RT interviewee, he called British press and politics merely “lies and smears,” all of it “conservative controlled." Chomskyite documentarian John Pilger, another RT regular, weighed in with his assertion that it is “fact” that the whole affair was a “carefully constructed drama.”

Professor Tim Luckhurst is a former BBC journalist and now head of University of Kent’s Centre for Journalism. He says RT “is determined to sow confusion” and “challenge fact-based news reporting.” It does so in “an attempt to create chaos by suggesting there is no such thing as objective truth, rather there are simply dozens of competing narratives.” It is comparable with the established theory for Russia’s own enigmatic brand of foreign policy, or hybrid warfare.

“When RT does precisely what President Putin’s foreign minister is doing, one should not be surprised. It is doing that because it is Russian policy and it follows Russian policy. The BBC is more often criticized for not following the policy of the British government.”

Since the spy poisoning, RT UK’s activities have invited fresh investigation by Ofcom. Meanwhile, commentators have been attacking politicians, mainly on the left of the spectrum, for ever appearing on the network. They reason it lends false credibility and makes it hard for casual viewers to properly distinguish RT UK from "honest" media. Labour Party MP John McDonnell got a grilling on BBC television from the veteran Andrew Marr:

Marr: “One very clear thing that you could do is stop appearing on Russia Today, which has been described by one of your own ministers as a Kremlin propaganda vehicle.”

McDonnell: “I think that's right now and that's what I'll be doing. ... I can understand why people have up until now because we've treated it like every other television station, we have tried to be fair.”

But Luckhurst says that’s exactly how we should treat them. Prejudice simply stokes RT, so it is a matter best left for the non-partisan Ofcom.

“The way to treat broadcasters in a democracy is to allow them all to be regulated, by the established regulator which exists for that purpose. In other words, RT will be treated exactly the same way as the BBC: Does it achieve due impartiality in its coverage of politics? Is what it broadcasts objectively true? These are the standards to which Ofcom holds all broadcasters, and therefore for RT to be treated in the same way is actually an extremely convenient weapon for the government. Will it reach those standards? I suspect it may not.” 

That doesn’t mean that the question has been solved in the Houses of Parliament.

A week and a half after the poisoning incident, MPs Chris Bryant and Stephen Doughty presented both sides of the argument in response to May’s speech. Doughty demanded review of RT’s license to broadcast in the UK, with a more immediate ban on their feed into the Palace of Westminster, asking “why should we be watching their propaganda in this Parliament?”

Bryant called on May to “remain true to our values.” He added, “we’ll hear opinions that are against us, but we also believe in the rule of law and democracy.”

During the Cold War, the BBC’s broadcasts behind the Iron Curtain were hindered — though unsuccessfully — by Soviet radio jamming. It's a little easier now to block satellite TV and internet browsing. If Parliament bans RT UK, Russia has threatened to expel the BBC.

For now, May isn’t keen to see cultural diplomacy scrambled by an imposed silence. With the BBC drafted once more into an “information war,” one might hope that the best remedy for bad speech is indeed more speech. 

Editor's note: PRI also produces and distributes PRI's The World, in collaboration with the BBC World Service.

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