As Russian troops entered Ukraine on Thursday, viewers of the RT news channel learned a new vocabulary.
Rather than an invasion, the Russian actions were described on air as a “special military operation”. Instead of seizing another country’s territory, viewers learned that troops were trying to “liberate” land from Ukraine on behalf of two Russian-backed breakaway states.
And if there was any doubt about the justification used by Vladimir Putin for his war, then British RT presenter Rory Suchet – the son of former ITN journalist John Suchet – explained to viewers that the objective was to “defend the Donbass” against Ukrainian aggression.
The Kremlin-funded 24-hour news channel, which has long reveled in its own outsider status, has again come under scrutiny in the UK for its willingness to follow the government’s narrative Russian. Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer has demanded the revocation of RT’s broadcasting license, telling the House of Commons that the organization formerly known as Russia Today was Putin’s “personal propaganda tool”. He added: “I see no reason why he should be allowed to continue broadcasting in this country.”
However, it has also raised concerns about the initiation of a media deportation battle with Russia, which expelled BBC Russian correspondent Sarah Rainsford last year.
“There’s too much attention on the TV channel – its impact is minimal,” said Professor Stephen Hutchings of the University of Manchester, who is writing a book on Russian media focusing on RT. “The television channel has almost a symbolic value. They cannot claim to be an international broadcaster like CNN and BBC without a TV channel. But really, their most impactful output is online and on social media and YouTube.
Media regulator Ofcom, which in extreme circumstances can revoke TV channels’ licenses, is actively monitoring RT’s output for possible breaches of the broadcasting code. But there is no ban on broadcasting partisan news in the UK, as long as viewers are also exposed to alternative viewpoints – the same rule that allows a channel like GB News to broadcast with a bias of right.
Kevin Bakhurst, Ofcom’s chief content officer, told the Guardian he had no “substantial evidence” that RT was directly controlled by a foreign state, which could force it to surrender its license. He insisted it was perfectly legal for UK TV stations to have the worldview of the country they were funded by: “You would expect that. However, they must abide by the broadcasting code.
It was RT’s failure to live up to these standards in its coverage of the Salisbury poisonings that landed it a £200,000 fine from Ofcom in 2019 – but deciding where to draw the line is an art rather than a science. The regulator also takes viewers’ expectations of a channel into account when considering how to apply its rules – essentially assuming that if you watch RT you expect to see a point of view strong pro-Russian reflected in its cover.
There are also bigger forces at play. It is expected that if RT is taken off the air in the UK, the BBC’s Russian services will soon be taken down by the Kremlin – the same fate that befell the broadcaster. German public Deutsche Welle when the German media regulator pulled RT earlier this month. . In any event, nothing would stop RT from continuing to produce content online for UK audiences, free from regulation, while pretending to have been silenced.
Bakhurst said Britain’s media regulator would take this into account when reviewing any law enforcement activity: “We’d be mad not to think of the wider implications, not just for BBC journalists based in Russia but also for Ukraine.”
This has led BBC sources to fear that scrapping RT’s broadcast license may be unnecessary, given RT’s low viewership in the UK. The channel took the unusual step of withdrawing from Barb’s audience rating system at the end of 2019. However, RT’s final audience figures suggested it was only reaching around 79,000 Britons per day and the average viewer watched for less than a minute – giving it an audience comparable to an obscure satellite movie channel.
It has increasingly become a pariah outlet struggling to book politicians and traditional guests. Former Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, who has hosted a show on RT since 2017, said this week he would stop doing the show ‘until peace is restored’.
Hutchings said his research found that RT often had more diverse views than its critics acknowledged – but that changed in times of crisis. “When Russia’s interests are seen to be at stake, everyone comes behind the approved central narrative. A small group of elite media executives meet weekly with the Kremlin and they agree on the overall agenda and then this is passed on to the chief information officer who will translate it into a set of narratives.
He said while the “Kremlin determines the narrative” of RT, if Ofcom suspended the channel’s UK broadcasting license due to political pressure, it could be counterproductive. “It’s playing the Russian game. We are a company that claims to follow due process.