This week, Alex Salmond agreed to host a show on Russia Today, and in doing so betrayed the very principles by which everyone in UK politics ought to abide. Why are people defending him?
To best sum up my feelings on RT and those on Twitter who are willing to defend it, an anecdote: there’s a line from Have I Got News For You that I really enjoyed. I find satire, most of the time, to come across as really smug. I respect what Private Eye does, but I don’t always find it massively funny. (Likewise with McSweeney’s – and I’m probably halfway to being its target audience.) Ian Hislop is trying to explain something to Louise Mensch, who is being her usual intransigent self, and he just gives up. He splutters ‘I can’t be bothered. It’s just so obvious.’
That, more or less, is how I feel when I see people of all stripes defending Russia Today on Twitter. You have the Labour left, who insist that Williamson and Burgon going on is totally fine, and people on the right who are quite Brexit-ey talking up RT as an alternative to ‘the mainstream media’. Now, distrust in media is at a high point, but this column will deal with the most pernicious argument – that RT is a state broadcaster, just like the BBC, so what’s the difference?
Well, let’s look at what Russia Today is alleged to be. James Clapper, the former US director of national intelligence, described RT as “a mouthpiece of Russian governmental propaganda.” For much of 2015, graduate students at Columbia School of Journalism took part in the RT Watch project, monitoring RT’s broadcasting and writing all about it on their tumblr blog, ‘RT Watch’. A quote from one of the people involved in the project is utterly damning – “you’ll find ‘experts’ lacking in expertise, conspiracy theories without backing, and, from time to time, outright fabrication for the sake of pushing a pro-Kremlin line.”
Since 2005, Ofcom has ruled 14 times that RT breached the broadcasting code in Britain, including on issues such as due impartiality and graphic images. There were two breaches last year – one for bias against the US and the west in a show that described NATO as the “ultimate backdoor for American hegemony in Europe”, and another for breaching impartiality rules in claiming that the Turkish government was overseeing the genocide of the Kurdish community.
I’ve written in defence of sincerity before – see me here – and the overwhelming cynicism of those who seek to defend the veracity and moral standpoint of Russia Today is actually emotionally moving in the most enraging and tragic way. RT serves as the propaganda arm for a state that is alleged to routinely murder journalists and poses as journalism in the process. Russia, according to Freedom House, has a press freedom score of 83 – where 0 is most free, and 100 least free. So how to defend it? Whataboutery. What about the UK? What about the awful stuff we do? What about the BBC? That’s just another state broadcaster, right?
The fact is, the crimes of the UK ought not to be overlooked, but two wrongs rarely make a right. The cry of ‘get your own house in order first’ has become the last stand of the morally bankrupt and the intellectually bereft. I have no problems discussing the issues with the UK – foreign policy, domestic policy, bring it on. Chances are, we’ll share ground. But if your kneejerk response to critique of RT is ‘what about…’ then the fact is, you don’t actually give a shit about whatever comes after those two words – whatever comes after is just a convenient patsy which allows you to change the subject.
Then there’s the ‘the BBC is a state broadcaster too! Line. The context of the two couldn’t be more different. Freedom House gives the UK a score of 25 – and much of that is due to our libel laws being fairly tough on defendants. The BBC is an internationally recognised purveyor of real news – verified by various independent studies and independent bodies. There is a difference between a programmer funded by the taxpayer and a propaganda channel. That people like Salmond and Williamson pretend that there isn’t speaks volumes. You must either be incredibly dishonest to yourself, incredibly naive, or utterly morally vacuous to pretend that RT is the same as the BBC. I have little idea which of those titles applies to each of the UK politicians appearing on RT, but I’d like to see them applied more vigorously and more often.