This piece was published in The Big Issue in April 2012.
You Haven’t seen Russia Today yet? It’s worth a look. You’ll find it somewhere in the three-digit nether regions of Sky and Freeview.
This is not supposed to be an unalloyed plug for the channel, merely an invitation to the curious. For while there is something temporarily mesmerising about seeing international events from Moscow’s perspective, it is hard to imagine a large, loyal audience building in Britain, where we look for restraint and balance in our TV news (if not from our forcefully partisan newspapers).
Watching RT is a journey into the outer reaches of journalism. It’s news Jim, but not as we know it – a bit like landing on a Bizarro World version of Fox News. Everything looks, sounds and feels like a typical 24/7 discussion-heavy American news channel, but an insidious anti-Americanism infiltrates all discussion. The presenters, mostly dark-haired young women untroublesome to the eye, talk with a casual disdain about US economic big-wigs like Ben Bernanke and Tim Geithner as if these men were altogether mad.
Perhaps they are. But even if the viewer is sympathetic to RT’s invitation to “question more” and its desire to offer an “alternative to the mainstream”, the hosts’ lines of argument are often too strange or difficult to follow. Max Keiser – the channel’s most intriguing agent provocateur – recently led a 15-minute tirade on all the ways Somalia is on a sounder economic footing than America. He believes the US dollar is dying.
Provocative from the outset, RT was launched in 2005 as an English-language news network. Funded by the Russian government, it now has Arabic and Spanish channels and bureaux in London, Delhi, Paris, Tel-Aviv and Washington DC.
It has become commonplace to dismiss the whole shebang as Kremlin propaganda, a digital-age update of Pravda, the legendary state-controlled newspaper of Soviet communism. Does it really comprise a major part of the Putin government’s PR agenda?
Editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan scoffs at the conspiracy theories and explains why she does not believe the notion of objectivity is worth straining for.
“It’s a Russian viewpoint,” she says. “What you see depends on where you stand. It’s obvious watching international channels like the BBC or Al Jazeera that these channels see the world through the eyes of their countries, and so are spreading the perspective of their countries – British, French or whatever. The BBC might say it is objective and its viewpoint is not necessarily British, but it is. It’s important to have different views of the world so no one of them dominates.”
Appointed in 2005 when she was just 25, Simonyan spent time as a student in the US. She is the youngest head of a global news channel. Is it possible for her network to retain independence while funded by government?
“No less than the BBC World Service. BBC World Service is funded by the Foreign Office. We are funded from the budget of the Russian Federation, approved by the Russian parliament. Not even once has anyone from the parliament or the department of foreign affairs come to see us about editorial policies.”
The hypocrisy of the West is a familiar RT refrain. Indeed, the obsession with highlighting the flaws in western foreign policy and poking sticks at the currently precarious authority of Wall Street means there is scant coverage of life inside Russia, beyond the odd lifestyle documentary and updates on the latest government position.
In a further irony, many of the pundits and experts are North American, men with rather too colourful ways of looking at the world to appear on CNN. Last year, underground radio talk-show host and New World Order theorist Alex Jones was given leeway to vent his conviction that Osama bin Laden’s body was not dumped in the Indian Ocean.
Simonyan describes all the accusations of anti-Americanism as “funny”, keen to point out the treatment Russia receives in the western media as a repressive oligarchy. “I always want to say, when was the last time you heard anything positive about Russia on American TV? One of their candidates, Mitt Romney, said Russia was the number-one foe of America. And we’re talking about anti-Americanism?”
“I’m happy we give people whom the mainstream media ignore an opportunity to get their voice heard,” she continues. “Our audience is happy about it too… [they are happy they can hear] the questions raised by experts some of the other media prefer to call ‘fringe’. A lot of people are starting to understand the world is not as one-sided as they are used to seeing it, and they are starved for the other side.”
The latest combative personality given free reign at RT is WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. His first interview in a 12-part series starred Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasral- lah. It was a rather tepid affair – certainly no Frost/Nixon – but the promise of more “iconoclasts, visionaries and power insiders” is intriguing and impressive, perhaps because our own centre ground-obsessed political discourse is often restrictively narrow.
RT would appear to be gaining an audience in Europe and the US that is minded to believe the very worst about their own governments. The network is keen to talk up its global reach of 480 million potential viewers (though average viewing figures in the UK are not made known) and its claim to a total view count on YouTube of around 700 million.
Russian media expert and LSE scholar Gregory Asmolov is impressed by RT’s ambitious expansion online and describes Simonyan as a “talented editor” working with a “very professional” team. “I would assume there is no direct regular engagement from the Kremlin, but certainly there is a concept being followed, a general editorial policy that justifies the government funding,” he says. “You cannot avoid the judgement… that it reflects the interests of the Kremlin.”
“It’s legitimate to have a different perspective and agenda than conventional western news channels,” he adds. “Al Jazeera has been successful by doing so. The difficulty for them is that if they go too far, then people will stop taking RT very seriously in some places – in Washing- ton for example, but elsewhere too. In my opinion there is too much focus on the West, even more so than when the channel started… people will expect coverage of [inside] Russia in a more complicated and interesting way.”
Luke Harding, the Guardian correspondent expelled from Russia last year for unflattering coverage, says it is naive to believe the network offers truly open debate. “It has a bit more latitude than domestic news in Russia, which is very strictly controlled,” says the author of Mafia State.
“But [RT] is government owned and state-controlled. The people who run it are all crazy fans of Putin and would never do anything critical of the regime. Its mission is to bash the West, and America in particular. The idea that Russia’s human rights record could be wrong and the war in Iraq could be wrong doesn’t come into it. Comparisons with the BBC are rubbish – on RT you have one person saying something anti-American and then another person saying the same thing. There’s just no balance at all. I generally find it rather funny. Most Moscow correspondents watch it for the comedy value.”
Simonyan is unapologetic about watching what western news channels are doing and heading the opposite direction. While many networks have focused on the brutality of the Assad regime’s crackdown in Syria, RT has presented the violence as a conflict in which both government and rebel opposition bare responsibility.
The channel’s coverage of the Russia-Georgia war of 2008 was heavily criticised for highlighting South Ossetian casualties and not the actions of Russian soldiers in Georgian villages. Simonyan cites it as one of the channel’s finest hours.
“We saw we were the only voice airing the other view when everyone else had decided what was going on. I thought to myself: this is what we are for, this is how it should be. We are the different voice and we should be proud of that. Our Occupy Wall Sreet coverage is also something I’m very proud of – we started showing those pictures and getting those people on air when they weren’t anywhere with the mainstream media.”
If geopolitics in the 21st century is to be shaped by the battle over information, it is hard to write off Russia Today as an irrelevancy. The network is driven by a desire to play a bigger role.
“When you become entirely happy with the quality of what you’re doing you should leave,” says Simonyan. “I always we feel we can do better, more and so on. You’ll be hearing from us. There is a plan.”