After a decade of controversies and censures from regulators and MPs alike, the inevitable has happened: RT — the Kremlin-backed broadcaster formerly known as Russia Today — has had its broadcast licence revoked by the regulator, Ofcom.
The move is certainly not difficult for Ofcom to justify. RT has been fined for breaching broadcast impartiality rules on multiple occasions. Among its offences, it broadcast a disgraceful interview about the Salisbury poisonings claiming that those responsible had just been in town to see the famous church steeple. Ofcom also cited Russia’s draconian new laws against what it dubs “fake news” as part of the reason why it had taken action now, rather than at some earlier junction (Russia’s laws are actually a sanction against publishing or broadcasting anything that contradicts the Kremlin’s official line).
There is no real free speech issue to be cried about here. There are strict rules governing UK broadcasting licences, and RT has breached them again and again. The UK’s internet space is largely unregulated, and RT remains free to publish whatever content it wants, which will — for now at least — remain entirely accessible to UK users. We might not like that, but that’s how things work in a free country.
The question that is worth asking is one of tactics: was it a savvy decision to ban RT from the UK’s broadcast TV airwaves? This might be a somewhat unfair question to ask of an independent regulator who, on paper at least, should simply consider the rules, but it is a question we can ask ourselves as a society.
First of all, it’s worth noting that being banned by Ofcom has done absolutely nothing to affect RT’s actual reach: Sky, cable providers and Freeview had all already delisted the channel of their own volition. Even before that, RT’s actual reach on TV was minuscule, with its average viewing share being around 0.04 per cent — a mere rounding error away from zero.
RT’s influence (which is still virtually nil) comes from its online presence, something it has long boosted by trying to present itself as the outsider that great powers are trying to censor. As far back as August 2014, months after Russia first invaded Crimea, RT was running an aggressive ad campaign saying, “In case they shut us down on TV go to RT.com for the second opinion”. RT has traded off a persecution complex, and a sense of giving the “real” news the Man doesn’t want you to hear, for a long time. It is practised in capitalising on the kind of move Ofcom has just made — and Russia and its useful idiots will be able to draw a false equivalency between what Ofcom has done and what Russia’s “fake news” law does.
Such a comparison is of course nonsense: Russia’s law threatens people with up to 15 years in prison for saying the truth instead of the Kremlin line, while the UK has merely blocked one form of media transmission. Offensive as it may sound, however, Ofcom’s decision will be used to say that “both sides” are engaging in censorship. That’s before Russia even considers further retaliation.
Realistically, revoking RT’s licence was probably the only choice Ofcom had in the circumstances. That doesn’t, alas, mean it was a good one.