Alex Salmond is far from the first anti-establishment politician to have decided RT (as Russia Today has rebranded) is a good place to air his views – but he may one of the most perfectly suited to the Kremlin–backed news channel’s agenda.
The former Scottish first minister’s talk show will be airing on what has of course become a regular platform for politicians pitching themselves as outsiders. That includes everyone from Nigel Farage to Jeremy Corbyn.
For some supporters of the latter, RT’s slogan “question more” reflects a noble mission to challenge the orthodox narratives of a western media that has often failed to hold the powerful to account, from the Iraq War to the global financial crisis.
RT has lent legitimacy to its operation by hiring some good journalists and doing decent reporting in areas where those western powers should be coming under more scrutiny. When the topics it takes aim at have little bearing on the strategic interests of Russia, it even manages to deliver what might be considered balanced programming. Just don’t expect an unbiased analysis of what’s going on in Eastern Ukraine or Aleppo.
But the problem with RT isn’t primarily the pro-Vladimir Putin propaganda it churns out in between occasional acts of journalism. More worrying is the way its output fits into the broader goals of Russian disinformation.
Traditional conceptions of propaganda imagine a concerted effort to convince the public to believe in something. But modern Russian information warfare is as much about convincing populations to doubt everything. The purpose is to undermine consensus, to weaken the ability of Russia’s global competitors to take action by leaving their populations divided.
That is why the recent expose of Russian activity on Facebook in the US found Russian-backed accounts pushing seemingly contradictory political views. It’s not about whether the Black Lives Matter movement or the white nationalists end up victorious, but about ensuring they keep fighting and leaving a beleaguered middle unsure of what to believe from and about either side.
And that brings us back to Salmond. As the leader of Scotland’s push for independence, he was very literally at the head of a movement designed to divide the UK. Russia may not have a great deal of interest in the national identity of Scots, or the economic and social arguments that drive much of the independence movement. But it sure as hell would like to see the UK smaller and less united.
Almost as importantly, the independence movement, and Salmond himself were deeply divisive. The anger on both sides, and Salmond’s ability to be both outrageous and devious in pursuit of his cause, helped drive one of the axes of polarisation that characterises and splits modern Britain. He also has one major advantage over Nigel Farage – unlike the Ukip leader he is not seen as a figure of the right. His particular dividing line cuts straight across the ideological spectrum. There’s also the added bonus that large numbers of those who support Salmond are deeply hostile to the BBC, an institution that has not only traditionally been the most trusted source of news in the UK, but through its entertainment programming regularly manages to bring the population together.
Much of the criticism of Salmond’s deal with RT assumes that he will become a puppet of a Russian propaganda effort. Amid the panic about Russian interference in various aspects of the democratic process on both sides of the Atlantic, that’s no surprise. But like much of that debate it misses the point of Russia’s forays into western media both online and over the airwaves. Salmond doesn’t have to say a thing about Russia to serve RT’s goals. All he has to do is remain the divisive, polarising figure he’s so far proved to be.