The world is struggling to cope with Covid-19 and misinformation is the disease’s greatest ally, but Russia’s first global news network is – literally – having a laugh.
As the global death toll from the virus reached 69 million and Russia hit 25,000 cases a day, RT (formerly Russia Today) marked its 15th anniversary by releasing comic promotional videos bizarrely celebrating its reputation as a state propaganda vehicle.
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In Green Menace, the English-language channel mocks the West’s handling of the pandemic and its irrational fear of Russia. Shot in the style of an alarmist Cold War campaign, it shows citizens in showers being cleansed of RT content using “brainwasher” soaps branded “BBC”, “Fox News” and “CNN”.
“If you get exposed to RT-activated waves, decontaminate your mind,” says the solemn voiceover. A mother is shown wearing a face mask, but over her eyes not her mouth.
RT also released They’re Crazy About Us, a satire of Western criticism of its role as a Kremlin mouthpiece that fabricates without compunction. Pointedly labelled “deep fake”, it depicts Donald Trump complaining that RT “manipulate better than anybody has ever manipulated”. It lampoons the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, obsessing over surveillance by RT staff who “work 24/7”.
This is not normal behaviour from a global news network. The Russian channel is unrepentant, 18 months after the UK media regulator Ofcom fined it £200,000 for seven breaches of impartiality rules over its reporting of the Salisbury poisonings and the Syrian conflict. RT’s journalistic reputation was undermined by an interview with the suspected poisoners, who claimed to be members of the fitness industry on a tourist visit to Salisbury Cathedral.
While RT’s reach on UK television is small, its primary purpose is to have impact online. Its provocative video clips have drawn four million subscribers to its YouTube channel and earned six million followers on Facebook, where RT finds traction for a narrative attacking Western elites.
In a birthday message, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, praised RT’s commitment to “the universal laws of fair, professional and free journalism” and said: “We couldn’t have imagined how drastically this project would change the news agenda.”
This autumn, RT journalists were flown from Russia to help the pro-Moscow Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko by propping up state-backed media after Belarusian staff went on strike during national protests. “Weaponising News”, a study last year by the Policy Institute at King’s College London, analysed 12,000 articles from RT and the Russian state-backed news site Sputnik and found that they “deploy a range of tactics to project Russian strength and construct news agendas”.
The Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has called for Ofcom to “look again” at licensing RT, which he accuses of “Kremlin-backed disinformation”. Censorship is not the answer. It’s not unhelpful to know Moscow’s position if we recognise it. The same goes for state-backed news from Beijing, Istanbul and Paris.
Displaced politicians welcome RT’s alternative viewpoint to existing media. Its admirers include former presidents Evo Morales (Bolivia), Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Brazil) and Rafael Correa (Ecuador), an RT presenter. Former Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond also has his own show.
Another RT fan is Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, who appears on the channel to speak out for Julian Assange and criticise the US and British establishments. Waters joked last week that RT should “go on subverting all our institutions and fixing our elections”.
RT’s journalists occasionally produce fine journalism, particularly covering breaking news in Russia. The network was nominated for Emmys for its reporting of the Moscow superjet crash of 2019, which left 41 dead, and for coverage of the Kemerevo shopping mall inferno in 2018. But this network lives for undermining Western states.
Last December, hackers planted Correa’s RT interview with the exiled Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont on the website of the Spanish public TV network +24.
“We don’t know who did it but it was beautiful,” gloated Margarita Simonyan, RT’s editor-in-chief. This week, she again teased critics who suspect RT of dabbling in dark arts. “Dear foreign intelligence services: sleep easy tonight. I promise that we’re taking a day off from meddling.”
Back in 2009 on a visit to London, Simonyan told me she was part of a new generation of post-Soviet journalists and that her mission was “to let the world hear a Russian point of view”.
She was 29, dressed in a leather jacket and jeans, and already running a global TV network. She insisted that the Kremlin “doesn’t at all” interfere with RT’s agenda and that, in any case, the international coverage of the BBC perfectly dovetails with British foreign policy.
But in 2020 the pretence seems to have gone, replaced by a brazen assertion that global news is just a tool in what Rudyard Kipling called “the great game” of diplomacy. At least we know where we stand.