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25 February 2022

RT is irrelevant — banning it would just give Putin propaganda

It would lead to retaliation, and the BBC's ability to broadcast in Russia is far more important.

RT — the channel formerly known as Russia Today — is a journalistic and ethical travesty, too often deployed to broadcast apologia for a murderous dictator. No one should appear on it, no one should work for it and absolutely no one should trust it. In 2019 it was fined £200,000 for a “serious breach” of impartiality during reports of the Skripal poisoning.

That doesn’t mean that the UK should ban it.

The possibility of a ban was renewed yesterday when Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, said that the media regulator Ofcom should reassess whether RT was allowed to broadcast in the country. There would certainly be some merit to shutting it down — RT has routinely breached Ofcom rules and has faced significant fines for breaching rules on impartiality. The regulator has always stopped short of banning RT before, however, and the timing would be dire if it were to do so now.

The first reason is that it would look — and risk being — politically influenced. The UK is a country in which the government doesn’t get to decide what is and isn’t broadcast, and Ofcom, despite a running public row over the appointment of its new chair, is an independent body. If Ofcom were to act now following Truss’s comments, it could easily be spun by Russia as the kind of media interference in which the Kremlin so frequently engages. It is generally foolish to hand an easy propaganda win to your adversaries.

A second reason is that a broadcast ban would be largely meaningless. RT attracts an extremely limited regular viewership (in 2017, it accounted for 0.04 per cent of the UK’s total TV audience). As a television channel, its political influence within the UK is zero. On the rare occasions its content is seen and involved in debates, it is when it appears online, usually via social media. Ofcom doesn’t (and shouldn’t) govern what information British citizens can access online and so a broadcast ban would be largely irrelevant to RT, in practice.

The final argument against banning RT is by far the most important, though, and is one made by Eliot Higgins, founder of the investigative website Bellingcat: if RT was banned in the UK, Russia would almost certainly retaliate by banning the BBC in Russia. The BBC’s ability to report and transmit there is infinitely more valuable than RT’s continued presence on the UK broadcast spectrum is harmful.

It would be sheer folly to give Vladimir Putin a pretext to act against the BBC. It can only be to the good that governments are looking for more ways to give Russia’s autocratic rulers the pariah status they deserve — economically, culturally and in whatever other ways are possible. But that must be done judiciously, and a ban of RT would be anything but. It doesn’t deserve the attention that banning it would bring. RT belongs where it usually lives: entirely outside our thoughts.

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