Russia’s state-owned international news channel, RT (formerly Russia Today), celebrated its tenth birthday in December 2015 with a promotional video that showed Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief, in Soviet uniform, inspecting her staff at their Moscow HQ. The camera swept past Lyuba, a cleaning lady who ‘takes her orders direct from the Kremlin’; there was an ‘embedded’ journalist reading from a teleprompter in Arabic against a green screen, while others pretended to be Syrian fighters; foreign presenters were locked in a cell and British anchor Kevin Owen was handcuffed to his chair in the studio. This self-mockery was a riposte to critics who view RT as Kremlin propaganda. Vladimir Putin used the birthday to re-emphasise RT’s core objectives after a decade of catch-up in public diplomacy (see Winning hearts and minds): ‘It is vital that our voice and yours are heard... not just by politicians, but also and especially by ordinary citizens throughout the world.’
Russia took Ukraine’s Orange revolution of 2004 as evidence that western NGOs were meddling in its backyard. Recognising that it lacked international influence was a turning point in Russia’s foreign policy, and in 2005 it created the Russia Today group. Simonyan told the Financial Times: ‘The initial idea was to make the [English-language] channel only about Russia. It became clear very quickly that this idea was doomed to failure ... if our audience is [only] Kremlinologists and Russia watchers, then that’s very few people’ (1).
During Russia’s war against Georgia in 2008, RT went on the offensive because it considered mainstream western media one-sided. RT’s mission then developed into a ‘global’ media organisation that could promote a ‘different vision’ of events. The network became increasingly international: an Arabic service, Rusiya Al-Yaum (now RT Arabic) was launched in 2007; a Spanish one in 2009; channels were set up in the US (2010) and the UK (2014) as well as German and French online services. An RT France channel is scheduled to go live later this year.
RT’s expansion has been generously funded by the Russian state; it now has offices in 19 countries and 2,100 employees. According to a 36-country Ipsos survey in March 2016, 70 million people a week watch RT, a smaller audience than BBC World News, but ahead of Deutsche Welle and France 24. With eight million viewers each week in the US and 36 million in Europe, RT is the fifth largest international broadcaster in these key markets. Since its launch, its budget has grown from $31m to $310m, nearly a quarter of Russia’s state funding of media. The channel has adapted quickly to online life, fully exploiting viral digital technology (including webcasting and 360° video). It runs many social media accounts and promotes itself on YouTube as the ‘most watched news network’ with ‘over 4 billion views’ on RT’s combined YouTube channels. The CNN model — ‘up-to-the-minute’ responsiveness, infotainment — remains its benchmark for production style. RT’s flagship discussion programme CrossTalk is directly inspired by CNN’s Crossfire (which went off air in 2014). It regards the recruitment of former CNN star presenter Larry King in 2013 as a major coup.
RT sees itself as an alternative to western ‘mainstream media’, and has identified 50 organisations it regards as key competitors (2). ‘We wanted to break the monopoly of the Anglo-Saxon mass media in the global flow of information,’ Putin said on a visit to RT’s headquarters in June 2013. According to Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, ‘the issue [for RT] is not so much promoting Russia’s position as questioning the unanimity of western positions, relativising the western interpretation of events.’ The channel’s slogan is ‘Question more’.
The broadcaster is open about its political affiliation and untroubled by the tension that dogs western journalists on international channels: there is a political requirement to broadcast news compatible with the national interest as perceived by the stakeholding state; there is also an ethical principle that requires a perceptible degree of independence to avoid appearing merely propagandist (3). When the BBC’s director general Tony Hall announced an expansion of the World Service in November 2016, he described ‘a confident, outward-looking BBC which brings the best of our independent, impartial journalism and world-class entertainment to half a billion people.’ Marie-Christine Saragosse, head of France Médias Monde, said in December 2016 that France 24 (funded by a television licence fee and by the state) was ‘not a government channel.’
RT shrugs off this dilemma and accepts its links with the Russian state. In a heated exchange, Anissa Naouai, the American presenter of RT’s In the Now show, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that she had no difficulty with the Russian government’s use of RT to address the ‘problem of Russia’s negative image’: ‘People know where our funding comes from. Do we show more of a Russian perspective? Of course we do, because that’s the perspective that’s being sidelined. But it’s an absurd question coming from someone that’s propagated the line of the State Department for over 15 years.’ (Amanpour covered Kosovo for CNN in the 1990s when her husband James Rubin was State Department spokesman.) RT bosses see international news as a place where different master narratives can coexist: ‘Have you seen many examples of objective coverage?’ Simonyan asked Spiegel Online in August 2013. ‘There is no objectivity: there are as many approximations of the truth as there are potential voices.’ She preferred to celebrate pluralism rather than claim impartiality.
The channel pays particular attention to events rarely featured in the western media; it continues to cover the war in Afghanistan, where bombing by the US-led coalition gets scant coverage. It also regularly features the war in Yemen, overshadowed on other networks by Syrian news. On 10 February, RT International’s news led with British press revelations (4) about ongoing arms sales to Saudi Arabia, in spite of the accidental bombing of a funeral in Yemen that killed 140 and injured hundreds.
RT’s editorial policy has several key points: promoting a multipolar world and defending sovereign values, criticising Atlanticism and US hegemonic aspirations and condemning ‘Russophobia’. RT draws on a diverse roster of contributors from veterans of the Club de l’Horloge (a French right and far-right association) to US pacifists. Political guests on SophieCo (‘Questions that stick. Answers that matter’) have included the co-president of Germany’s Die Linke in the Bundestag, Sahra Wagenknecht; Michael Flynn, briefly Donald Trump’s national security adviser; Austrian far-right presidential contender Norbert Hofer; French Socialist and former foreign minister Hubert Védrine; and French Front National leader Marine Le Pen. SophieCo also features politicians from regional powers such as Pakistan’s former foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar, Turkey’s ex-president Abdullah Gül (Justice and Development Party, AKP) and an Iranian nuclear negotiator. It avoids crude censorship in its coverage of Russian politics; the anniversary of the assassination of Russian opposition figure Boris Nemtsov was mentioned on the news.
RT International’s editorial line does not mirror those of local sites and channels, but adapts to the existing media line in countries where Russia wants to extend its influence. RT America is critical of neoliberalism and neoconservative diplomatic policy, markedly different from the editorial line of the major US cable channels, from CNN to Fox News. The Keiser Report (‘Markets! Finance! Scandal!’) show criticised Trump’s appointment of former Goldman Sachs bankers as advisers and cabinet members. US intelligence chiefs seem not to have picked up on this anti-Wall Street tone, as they have accused the channel of supporting Trump. The accusation needs to be heavily qualified: RT’s main aim was to criticise presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (whose unilateralist tendencies worried the Kremlin) by emphasising her neocon links and covering, in partnership with WikiLeaks, the issue of her emails, and those of her adviser John Podesta.
Several leftwing talk-show hosts on RT America have expressed anti-Trump views. Journalist Ed Schultz openly backed Bernie Sanders and interviewed him several times during the Democratic primaries. Chris Hedges, a 2002 Pulitzer prize winner and friend of Noam Chomsky, in his programme On Contact (‘“dissident voices” missing from the mainstream media’) interpreted Trump’s win as a sign of ‘the massive repudiation of the neoliberal policies of the ruling political and financial elites’ but warned that ‘civil liberties, already seriously eroded or eradicated, could give way to a more naked and draconian police state.’ RT America, true to its ‘anti-system’ stance, has given airtime to minority candidates from the Green Party and Libertarian Party, who rarely appear on competitors’ shows.
In the Middle East, a media battlefield for international broadcasters this century, RT Arabic has criticised the instability that followed the Arab Spring (encouraged by Al Jazeera) (5), and condemns the military interventionism of western powers in the region, which the US Congress-funded Alhurra channel downplays.
Criticism of US interference in other countries is a favourite topic of RT’s Spanish service, prominent in Mexico, Argentina and Venezuela. The channel broadcasts an anti-imperialist, anti-neoliberal message that resonates with the Latin American left, which RT openly supports. Researcher John Ackerman, who has a regular slot on the channel, said the substantial vote for Lenín Moreno, heir apparent to Ecuador’s head of state Rafael Correa, in the first round of the presidential election in February 2017, proves that ‘the cycle of progressive governments in Latin America is not over.’ RT talks of ‘economic war against [President Nicolás] Maduro’ in the context of Venezuela’s economic woes, placing full responsibility for the crisis with the opposition. The question of the government’s role in ‘poor financial management’ was raised on RT’s El Zoom,however.
RT bosses see international news as a place where different master narratives can coexist
RT’s French site, in common with its other European operations, has a much more conservative profile, with little coverage of economic and social issues and a focus on security matters. For every feature on unemployment in 2016, there were 17 on terrorism (compared to two in Le Monde and 1.7 in Le Figaro) (6). RT has given greater coverage to the minor candidates in the presidential race than the rest of the media, though this favours the Gaullist, sovereignist Debout la France! (France Arise!) candidate, Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, over Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France Insoumise (Unsubmissive France) (7). The same applies in the UK, where the then UKIP leader Nigel Farage appeared on RT 17 times between 2010 and 2014 (8), long before the Brexit campaign.
In the French presidential election, RT’s French site has not ignored (the allegedly pro-Russian) François Fillon’s legal difficulties, nor his opponents’ protests. It has covered the charges of misspent EU expenses against Marine Le Pen, though it prominently features her lawyers’ statements and FN press releases. There is a complete Le Pen press conference on the RT site detailing her vision for foreign policy (a sign that her position finds particular favour with RT); in it, she mentions her desire to ‘re-dock Russia with the European continent.’
Emmanuel Macron, the En Marche! candidate, gets the least favourable treatment, in keeping with RT’s anti-neoliberal stance. The site has called his ‘anti-system’ position ‘an absolute swindle’ (as ‘dismayed economist’ and RT guest Dany Lang put it). But, however objectionable the abuse of Macron by two Republicans on RT’s online news service Sputnik, it hardly amounts to the ‘persecution’ alleged by Macron, who speaks of the threat of the ‘red menace’ from Russia (9).
A taste for protest
RT has a taste for protest, particularly dramatic images of clashes with the police, smashed windows or fires, which can be recycled in ‘best of’ countdowns featuring ‘shocking videos’. In the US, it has covered major social movements such as Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter and the anti-Trump marches. Such images emphasise the fault lines in western societies. The website has featured farmer Cédric Herrou’s battle to defend migrants in the French-Italian Roya valley as well as the ‘Oui, on est chez nous’ (This is our land) campaign in Hénin-Beaumont, Pas-de-Calais, by FN activists, fictionalised in the film Chez Nous by Lucas Belvaux. Liberal democracies are portrayed as being near chaos or even ‘civil war’. RT often covers industrial accidents — a fire at the Flamanville nuclear power station, respiratory poisoning due to a gas leak at Hamburg airport — presenting them in a style that encourages viewers’ anxiety. It’s a way of nuancing the technological gap between Russia and western Europe and the US, a central issue for Russian elites.
When Russia is involved in a strategically important conflict, RT becomes a tool of war communication, as CNN did for the US during the Iraq war. It then turns into a willing international conduit for the official version of events. In Syria, where RT has often given a platform to Bashar al-Assad, the outcome of the battle of Aleppo crystallised the deep antagonism of the war of information between Russia and the West: after the Syrian army retook the city, RT showed people celebrating in west Aleppo, while most of western media focused on the humanitarian situation in the eastern districts (see Hélène Richard, Covering Aleppo). RT invited a former British diplomat to comment on the ‘inevitable civilian losses’ during the liberation of Mosul by US-backed Iraqi forces.
NATO opened a Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence (Stratcom) in Riga in January 2014. Though it has scarcely distinguished itself through its regard for the truth, especially during the war in former Yugoslavia, NATO has now set itself the task of ‘fact-checking’ Russia’s ‘information campaigns’ to deconstruct them. RT has responded by launching its own FakeCheck site. Its targets have included the Oscar-winning documentary short, The White Helmets, about Syrian rescue workers in the country’s rebel zones. It accuses the organisation of having links with jihadist groups and drew attention to its western sources of funding. The RT team is skilled at turning criticism to advantage. At the end of the birthday video, Simonyan addresses the viewer directly: ‘So is that how you imagined us? You were right. That’s exactly how we work.’