As the British authorities debate whether to ban the propaganda channel of a savage imperialist power, Russia Today is making a decent first of banning itself. Workers have been walking out for a week. The invasion was too much even for staffers who had spent years demeaning themselves by licking the boots of a dictatorship.
Even if Sky and YouTube had not effectively closed the channel by pulling it from their platforms, RT would have faced extreme difficulty in continuing to broadcast from London, one ex-staffer told me. About half his former colleagues had quit, including large numbers of production staff the Russians needed to keep the channel on air.
One had a Ukrainian family and was sick at the slaughter his paymasters had unleashed on his relatives. Others were British workers, who had joined because they were lost in conspiracy theory, or had fallen for the old lie that all journalism was propaganda so where was the harm in working for Russia? That or they enjoyed the transgressive thrill of lying for money and lying about the Syrians their masters murdered.
A few were just young workers in the gig economy desperate for any kind of paying work in a media business that is brutally hard to get a start in. RT offered my contact employment without the need to work for nothing on an internship, and rather naively he took it
He quickly learned where the power lay. RT hired relatively credible people to ‘do the research’ and invite guests to appear on the programme. Pro-Corbyn activists, who could be relied on to blame the West for any crime. Nigel Farage and Tory rightists, who admired Putin for hating the EU as much as they did. Anyone would do as long as they could ‘paint the UK in a bad light’.
The British bosses in the studio were not impressive. One was falling-off-his-chair drunk for much the time – perhaps it was his way of coping with what he had become.
My contact would write questions for the presenters. They were vetted and rewritten from above. The line was set ‘mostly by people you rarely met and worked away from the studios’ or ‘overseen in Russia’.
At first he wondered why Putin bothered. Hardly anyone was watching. Then he realised ‘our purpose was to be a skeleton service’. Russian propagandists drive clips up the YouTube rankings. Search for any topic the Russians were interested in, and the hope was the first video you hit would be an RT propaganda report.
My contact was lucky. He hated what he was doing and got out before the invasion. A kindly editor took pity on him and made him a proper journalist.
The broadcast regulators at Ofcom never understood that Russia Today is not a news organisation. Whatever else its staffers were – and I have plenty of names for them – they were not journalists. We call the press the fourth estate for a reason, and however cravenly some Tory political reporters suck up to Johnson or left-wing commentators tug the forelock to Corbyn, you cannot call yourself a journalist if you are not independent of state control.
I spoke to retired Ofcom officials and asked how on earth the propaganda service of a hostile foreign power met its requirement that broadcast ‘news in whatever form, must be reported with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality’. There had been no public or parliamentary debate on abolishing the legal requirement for impartial news, I said. The quango had just taken it upon itself to rewrite the law and let lies flourish.
The best explanation I could get from the officials I interviewed was that at the time Ofcom had given RT a broadcasting licence, its regulators had simply not understood that the TV station would mutate into a content provider for social media trolls and bot factories. They thought RT would just be a tiny station and could not cause harm.
Now the RT story seems over. The Russians have closed their British and American studios and thrown some of the most abject people ever to call themselves journalists out of work. But RT still has a UK broadcasting licence and the question remains: should the Russians be allowed to keep it?
This is not a dispute about freedom of the press. RT is not a part of the press. I sympathise with the argument that we should show the values of a free society by tolerating its presence. But we should be clear about what we are doing. We are tearing up our broadcasting rules to suit a hostile foreign power. As we do it, we are not tolerating a ‘different take’ or minority point of view, we are tolerating the state-funded promotion of the propaganda of sworn enemy of European freedom and, for this is not mentioned often enough, Russian freedom too.
When wholly innocent Russian footballers and athletes cannot play their sport, there seems to me to be no good reason why we should.
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