Steer clear of Russia Today if you are serious about human rights

So-called ‘alternative’ media should be viewed with no less scepticism than the mainstream.

The word ‘alternative’ attracts like a magnet significant numbers of people regardless of the context in which it is used. Look, for instance, at alternative medicine: ‘alternative’ means no evidence of a remedy’s usefulness; yet homeopathy, the most popular alternative treatment of them all, has thousands upon thousands of dedicated and at times fanatical adherents.

A similar trend prevails in the gathering of news, where crank media organisations have successfully broken into the mainstream by portraying themselves as ‘alternative’ sources of information.

The most notable example is probably RT (previously Russia Today), with its strapline encouraging viewers to ‘question more’.

Part of RT’s success in the UK (it boasts half a million weekly viewers) is down to its ostensibly critical coverage of British politics. It gave coverage to the British Occupy and anti-cuts movements far in excess of that provided by the BBC and other domestic stations, and it regularly features critical programming on Western anti-democratic abominations such as Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

The station has also in the past given a platform to prominent left-wing commentators such as Ken Livingstone, Owen Jones, the Stop the War Coalition and various members of the recently formed Left-Unity party. All have been invited onto RT to lament the British establishment and detail the extent to which the poor are under the cosh as a result of the coalition’s austerity programme.

No doubt those who agree to appear on RT believe they are justified in doing so if it allows them to give the British establishment a proverbial kicking. After all, is the BBC not just as much an arm of the British state as RT is of the Russian authorities?

Yet under a veneer of concern for the plight of Britain’s poor, RT is engaged in a wholesale misinformation campaign aimed at bolstering the authority of Russian President Vladimir Putin and discrediting enemies of the Russian state at home and abroad. Just as with the now disgraced Press TV, Western commentators who appear on RT are unwittingly giving succour to a homophobic autocracy which behaves in a far more undemocratic and demagogic manner than our own government could ever dream.

Unlike the BBC, which is governed by an at least nominally independent Royal Charter and which is in most matters quite truthful, RT is a subsidiary of the recently defunct RIA Novosti, the successor to the Soviet Information Bureau (Sovinformburo), which was wholly funded by the Soviet and then Russian governments.

To get a sense of the importance Mr Putin attaches to the propaganda value of RT, last year the Russian President vetoed finance ministry plans to reduce RT’s annual funding of more than $340m (£250m); he also congratulated the station on its successful efforts to “break the monopoly of Anglo-Saxon media on the world’s news”.

Putin abolished RIA Novosti earlier this month, replacing it with a new international agency called, coincidentally, Russia Today (the choice of name for the new agency can hardly be a coincidence, noted the BBC’s Russia correspondent Stephen Ennis). Putin’s spokesperson said the creation of the new organisation was needed because Russia required more propaganda. The President also appointed as head of the new agency Dmitry Kiselyov, a notorious anti-Western chat show host who is quoted as saying that gay people killed in a car crashes should have their hearts buried in the ground or burnt as they are “unfit for helping to prolong anyone’s life”.

The new agency will be a “huge machine for propaganda in the West”, tweeted liberal website editor Roman Fedoseyev in response to the announcement. It seems likely that the newly-formed agency will merge with RT to an even greater degree than its predecessor RIA Novosti.

Despite the wholesale evidence that RT is no ordinary news broadcaster, Western commentators continue to appear on the station. They usually justify this by citing one or all of the following reasons:

Anti-imperialism or pacifism

Because RT has a vested interest in making the West look bad, it appeals to people who see a British or American hand behind every global catastrophe. In answer to the question ‘who is to blame?’, RT’s automatic response is always ‘the West’, making it an attractive platform for erstwhile anti-imperialists to bemoan American foreign policy. The fact that Russia has its own imperial agenda is overlooked in the same way that some opponents of military intervention in Syria were guilty of ignoring the intervention of the Russian armed forces and Hezbollah.

Such an analysis can only ever be half correct, and is akin to looking through a pair of 3D spectacles with one eye closed.

All media is biased therefore RT is no worse than any other station

This is a bit like saying that because all democracies are imperfect living in Britain is the same as living in North Korea, or that multiparty elections are no better than elections featuring a single candidate.

In reality RT is a very different beast to the BBC.

As Eric Lee recently noted, when RT describes itself as ‘news with an edge’ it literally means the edge of a Russian bayonet. The stories RT focuses on are “invariably ones in which the West, and in particular the USA, comes out looking bad”. When RT turns its attention closer to home the progressive mask drops, however, and is replaced by “the strident tone of late-Stalinist Soviet propaganda”.

The BBC may be embarrassingly dull at times, but its reporting of foreign and domestic affairs is a great deal more truthful than its Russian counterpart.

RT offers a platform to criticise the coalition

In reality there is nothing to stop a person criticising the British government on the BBC or on commercial stations such as Sky. The former outlets certainly don’t have editorial policies forbidding criticism of the government, and I have appeared on both Sky and the BBC to do just that. Like it or not, in appearing on RT one is unwittingly endorsing the loathsome regime propaganda which appears alongside agreeable anti-coalition programming. Whether it is ostensibly for the purpose of espousing the case for socialism/anti-austerity/anti-conservatism (delete or insert as appropriate), the result of appearing on the station is to bolster one of the most reactionary governments in the world (one that is currently whipping up a tidal wave of prejudice against gay people).

In sum, steer clear of RT if you are serious about human rights, democracy or socialism, however tempting it might be to see your face on the tele. So-called ‘alternative’ media should be viewed with no less scepticism than the mainstream.

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