Russia Today. What About Tomorrow?

Regulator rebukes RT channel. But does that really hurt them?

Images of people covered in blood, with gashes and burns on their bodies, standing or lying down on the floor. A voiceover commentary follows: “The British Broadcasting Corporation is accused of staging a chemical weapons attack.” This was part of the Truthseeker program that RT, formerly Russia Today, aired several times on 23 and 24 March 2014 in the U.K.

The channel, an international broadcast operation of the Russian government, alleged that the publicly funded British broadcaster BBC had staged a chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime in Syria. It stated as fact that the BBC fabricated a report of an atrocity in Syria as well as an interviewee’s speech. It also alleged that the fabrication led to a “massive public investigation” that found the BBC guilty of entirely fabricating an atrocity.

The main broadcast regulator in the U.K., Ofcom, found these allegations groundless and on 21 September 2015 sanctioned RT, afirst in a lengthy clash between Ofcom and RT in Britain. In the past, Ofcom found RT in breach of the UK broadcast regulations on more than 10 occasions on a spate of issues, including lack of impartiality, illegal use of graphic images and advertising-related problems. It warned RT that it would take action if the station broke the rules on impartiality again. It has done so  now.

But the punishment Ofcom imposed on RT, in spite of RT’s representatives expressing their “shock” with the regulator’s verdict, is a balmy slap on RT’s face. As a remedy, the Russian channel is required to air two “clear statements” about Ofcom’s decision.

(Too) Engaged Journalism

The BBC story is part of a series of programs on the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria that the Ofcom report found to be misleading or biased. Ofcom, in a statement dated 21 September 2015, said that RT breached the British broadcast code four times in three programs. In another Truthseeker edition, RT reported that the Ukrainian government backed a genocide in eastern Ukraine. Truthseeker was scrapped in summer 2014, without any official explanation from RT’s management. All of its content was wiped off the RT’s website.

Ofcom and RT have been at loggerheads for some years now as complaints from viewers against RT’s blatantly propagandist coverage have piled up. Last March, Ofcom announced that it launched an investigation into the late-night Crosstalk program aired on 23 December 2014, which featured a bevy of anti-western comments. It was the sixth investigation into RT’s coverage. In 2014, Ofcom investigated RT’s coverage of the Malaysia Airlines crash in Ukraine – however, it concluded that coverage wasn’t biased.

RT, which airs internationally, started broadcasting in the U.K. back in 2006. It launched a U.K. dedicated channel in the fall of 2014.

Ofcom is legally bound to react to complaints about broadcasters from any citizen in the U.K. They can be related to programs, adverts, sponsorship or product placement, subtitles, journalists’ harassment or issues related to technical reception of programs. The complaint procedure is simple. Citizens can lodge their grievance online and Ofcom must take them all into consideration. The regulator can impose a slew of sanctions on broadcasters ranging from a warning, the mildest of all, to the request to air a retraction, to the revocation of the broadcast license, the most serious of all. RT in the UK has a license to air via TV Novosti, a non-profit organization fully funded by the Russian state. Its global budget for 2015 is likely to reach GBP 250m, a hike of nearly a third compared to last year.

Freedom of Biased Expression

RT has repeatedly spurned all accusations of slanted coverage, arguing that they offer a different view on current affairs than Western European and American media.

Margarita Simonyan, RT’s editorial head, back in 2014 said that Ofcom is “unhappy with everything about us.” She argues that independent observers appearing on RT, including American and British scholars, experience horrid attacks in the media. She said that many RT employees grew tired of these constant attacks.

RT has found defenders since its war with Ofcom began. Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who broke the Snowden surveillance story in 2012, harshly criticized the way RT is treated in the U.K. He wrote in the Intercept, an online publication funded by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, that “all media outlets composed of and run by human beings are “biased”, and that certainly includes the leading British outlets, which rail against Russia.” Mr Greenwald argues that media objectivity doesn’t exist.

That might be true, although many journalists will vigorously refute this opinion. It is also true that other governments sponsor soft power through television. But that doesn’t mean that they’re all the same, as governments are not the same. A simple fact: in the U.K., viewers can openly complain about programs and media; in Russia, they can’t.

But in spite of Ofcom’s recent sanctions, RT’s days in the U.K. are not over. Sources at  Ofcom knowledgeable of the RT investigations say that the channel is likely to comply with the latest verdict. “The [incriminated] programs had far more impact at the time than a retraction now,” one of the sources said. “They want to stay here, so they will adjust.”

RT doesn’t want a full confrontation because they know their license could be taken away. At the same time, Ofcom abhors the prospect of removing RT from of the country's screens as that could unleash the chorus of freedom of expression fundamentalists.

The station also has solid legal advice. They use the services of Harbottle & Lewis, a London-based legal shop that advises broadcasters on production investments. The company also advises the Royal Family on broadcast issues. It also represented in the period 2013-2016 the Russian Investigative Committee, the top prosecution office subordinated to the president Vladimir Putin, in the enquiry over the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, a former officer of the Russian security service critical of Mr Putin’s regime. Mr Litivinenko was killed by poison in a London hospital in 2006.

Harbottle & Lewis decline to make any comment for this story.

With all this backing, RT is likely to stay on screens in Britain. They might only temper their stance on events.