By Dr Precious Chatterje-Doody, The Open University
YouTube has blocked access across Europe to Russia’s state-funded international broadcasters, RT (formerly Russia Today) and Sputnik – including to the UK. The decision follows the announcement on February 27 of expanded sanctions against Russia by the European Commission, which saw RT, Sputnik and their subsidiaries, banned across the EU. These moves come amid increased concern about the potential for these networks to spread harmful disinformation about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Controversy about the content of RT and Sputnik is nothing new. Various UK politicians responded to RT’s reporting on the 2018 poisoning of the Skripals in Salisbury with calls for RT’s license to be rescinded. The calls have intensified this time round. Leader of the opposition Keir Starmer, foreign secretary Liz Truss, culture secretary Nadine Dorries and Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon have all recommended that RT should be investigated by the UK’s independent media regulator, Ofcom, or banned outright.
The UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, has asserted the principle of political non-interference in broadcasting in the UK, while simultaneously encouraging vigilance from Ofcom. RT responded to these politicians’ interventions by questioning the UK’s commitment to free speech.
Research has shown that RT’s output varies widely by platform. On the one hand it has produced critically acclaimed special reporting and award-winning online projects. On the other, it has been sanctioned multiple times by Ofcom – usually for coverage not considered “duly impartial”, and most recently to the tune of £200,000 for its coverage of the war in Syria and the Salisbury poisonings.
There are some patterns in how its coverage plays out. RT usually gives strictly factual – albeit heavily curated – news coverage that prioritises sources and perspectives that correspond with Russian interests. These are made more relatable with commentary from NGOs, alternative news websites, or fringe political parties from across the US, UK and Europe, where RT is broadcast. Facts or fragments of facts are woven into narratives that don’t necessarily follow logically. As my recent book charts, favoured narratives often stray into the realm of conspiracy theories.
But on matters directly related to Russia’s immediate national interests, RT’s reporting sometimes becomes “materially misleading” (the most serious category of breach). Examples include its reporting of the 2008 Georgian war and the 2014 Crimean annexation.
This pattern has been evident in recent days, where RT’s coverage has boosted Kremlin talking points. As the story of Russia’s military involvement broke on RT on February 24, broadcasts applied the Kremlin’s preferred euphemism of a “special operation” in Donbas, rather than an invasion of Ukraine.
Coverage skewed towards the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, well after they had ceased to be the main focus of the combat operations. For example, RT News displayed maps that labelled the whole wider Donetsk and Luhansk areas as their respective “People’s Republics” – even though prior to Russia’s offensive, separatists had administered only somewhere around one-third of these regions.
RT also bulked out its coverage over the invasion period with special features focused on civilian life in the separatist regions over the past eight years. These have focused on Kremlin-friendly pro-independence accounts.
RT’s Ukraine coverage claims moral justification for Russia’s actions. This has included reporting unsubstantiated Kremlin claims of a “genocide” of Russian speakers in the east – while marking this clearly as a quoted allegation and also covering Ukraine’s allegations that Russia is planning genocide.
RT dutifully reported the Kremlin’s assertion that its goals were “demilitarisation and denazification”. These repeated narratives that the Russian government has for some years used to try to delegitimise the Ukrainian establishment with an association with the far right. Ukraine does display problematic levels of official tolerance for its far right – and one of its military units, the Azov Regiment, infamously has neo-Nazi links. But given that Ukraine’s most recent presidential election result was a landslide in favour of Volodymyr Zelensky – a Jewish speaker of the Russian language – it gives the lie to the claim that this is a “Nazi regime in the middle of Europe”.
RT’s Ukraine coverage has also repeatedly insinuated that Russia’s actions have a legal basis. Troops came in response to an official request for assistance, they involved precision strikes on military, not civilian, targets – and the Ukrainian people will be able to decide what comes afterwards.
In fact, the officials calling for Russian assistance were those installed in the Donbas with Russia’s support. It is widely documented that Russian shelling has damaged civilian infrastructure and caused civilian casualties. And it is established that the Ukrainian people voted by a big majority for the political leadership they currently have.
Should it be banned?
But while RT’s coverage of the war is biased towards Russia and clearly misleading, a UK ban could be counterproductive. RT’s UK audience is small – and the lessons of the Skripal saga show that RT’s audience doesn’t necessarily buy its line. And if Ofcom’s regular procedures were circumvented, this would give RT a chance to talk about “western” bias on social media platforms not subject to UK regulation.
Most significantly, though, a UK ban on RT would open the way for tit-for-tat measures against the BBC in Russia. This was how Russia punished Germany’s DW network earlier this year after Germany banned RT Deutsch. BBC Russian is a valuable and trusted source for people attempting to access alternatives to Russia’s information.
That’s not to say that RT will emerge from this invasion unscathed. The network has been hit by a wave of staff resignations, plus the demonetisation, and now Europe-wide blocking of its content on YouTube, and a string of DDoS attacks where a huge number of small packets of information are sent to websites and servers from multiple sources, creating an information overload which overwhelms the system. RT’s aim may be to shape public opinion, but it looks like the tide is turning.