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Inside Russia Today: counterweight to the mainstream media, or Putin's mouthpiece?

Up to 2.5m Britons watch the Kremlin-funded TV channel, which is so strongly critical of Western governments it's known as the "anti Fox News". But does it have a blind spot when it comes to Russia's own failings?

In December last year, a small vigil took place for Julian Assange outside the Ecuadorean embassy in London. Tom, one of the two people taking part, discussed world politics while he stood on the curb holding a banner demanding that Assange be freed and wars ended. Tom did not trust journalists – his name may not be Tom, as he was reluctant to have his existence advertised in the “mainstream media” – but he was happy to talk.

After a while, I asked where he got his news. “RT,” he said at once. Seeing my look of confusion, he clarified: “Russia Today. You should watch it. It gives another perspective to what you get on BBC and CNN. They always show up the Americans on human rights, and they love the bankers’ crisis.”

You may not know RT, but Tom is not alone in watching it. According to the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board, which compiles UK viewing figures for television stations, between two and a quarter and two and a half million Britons tuned their tele - visions to RT during the second half of last year. It is, it boasts, the most popular news channel in Britain after the BBC and Sky. Its YouTube feed has more than 740,000 subscribers and over 970 million views. Not bad for a channel its detractors dismiss as a Kremlin propaganda mouthpiece – it is statefunded through the Russian Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communications.

At a time when western media sources are losing money, and even the BBC has been forced to cut its budget by 20 per cent over the next four years, RT’s financial health will allow its voice to become ever more prominent. Moscow correspondents frequently speculate which western journalists will move to RT when their own outlet goes bust.

In October last year, Putin personally intervened to block a finance ministry proposal to cut RT’s funding. The channel will receive more than £250m this year, approximately the same sum as the BBC World Service received from the British government in 2011- 2012. And where the World Service will lose its direct government funding from 2014 and be paid from the licence fee instead, thus squeezing its budget, Putin will keep RT healthily supplied with cash.

In January I visited the new RT offices in Moscow, eight storeys high and clad inside and out in the channel’s corporate colours of green and grey. Dozens of smart vans, each tagged with the RT logo, were lined up in the snowy car park. Inside were three cavernous, adjoining state-of-the-art studios for the English-, Spanish- and Arabic-language services. Lights hung in the gloom above the presenters’ heads, illuminating the remotecontrolled cameras that moved silently from position to position. Off-camera, journalists huddled over their screens, preparing scripts for the groomed presenters.

RT now has more than 2,000 employees, up from just 300 at its launch. The channel has started broadcasting in HD and it has launched a video news agency. At present the station does not broadcast in Russian, but it is revamping its Russian-language website. All these changes signal its ambition.

The rise of RT reflects important changes in how people get their news and how that news is funded. Along with its rivals – the Qatari-funded al-Jazeera, the Iranian-funded Press TV, the Chinese-funded CCTV – it represents an effort to undermine the standard western model of news reporting, at a time when major media companies are coming under tight budgetary constraints.

On first viewing, RT is just another 24-hour news channel: the same glossy-lipped presenters, the same graphics, the same global reach. But watch it for a while, or sift through its offerings on YouTube, and you realise it is following a very different track.

Through an editorial policy of letting pretty much anyone on air and with cash backing from the Kremlin, it has become a televisual home for disaffected viewers in the west, a refuge for the Occupy and hacktivist generation, which believes that its own countries’ TV stations are in the pocket of corporate interests. Margarita Simonyan, RT’s editor-in-chief, is even prepared to call it the “anti-Fox News”.

Its strand The Truth Seeker – presented by Daniel Bushell, a posh Brit whose on-screen style appears to owe a significant debt to Brass Eye’s Chris Morris – reported on Barack Obama’s re-election last November, as all channels did. RT put in for an interview and, as expected, its request was refused. Its next step was less orthodox. The Truth Seeker created Legobama, a Lego figure of Darth Vader whose head had been replaced with that of a black Lego character. RT jerkily stopmotion- animated it and made it answer questions on drone strikes in a poor imitation of the president’s accent.

Max Keiser’s weekly Keiser Report specialises in lambasting the western banking system, often describing government responses to the financial crisis as “genocide”. Following the British government’s decision to remove child benefit from higher-rate taxpayers, Keiser commented that George Osborne would “sacrifice his child . . . throw the child into a volcano if it meant getting a good deal on a derivative”.

In comparison, the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who last year hosted a series of interviews on the channel with global rebels, including the Hezbollah leader, Hasan Nasrallah, came across as rather conventional. His interviewing style was gently probing, if not quite hardball.

For the more extreme end of inter - rogation, viewers should seek out Peter Lavelle’s CrossTalk, where the guests are encouraged to “jump in any time you want” and do, often making the discussion degrade into barely comprehensible shouting. Producers slyly undermine their guests with banner headlines contradicting whatever they are saying, and Lavelle throws in hand grenades of controversy if things are going too smoothly.

The right-wing British commentator Douglas Murray was unprepared for Lavelle’s approach when he appeared as a guest in 2010 to discuss France’s burqa ban. Visibly baffled throughout the programme, he lost his temper when Lavelle dropped in an offhand remark about the 11 September 2001 hijackers not being fundamentalists.

RT has long specialised in publicising alternative “truther” interpretations of the 9/11 attacks and even ran a lengthy investigation called “911 reasons why 9/11 was (probably) an inside job”, but Murray appears not to have known this and wrote of his confusion for the Daily Telegraph. “I leave it to readers to work out why the Russians would want to be pumping this kind of filth around,” he concluded. It is a good question.

Granted, delving too deeply into the logic of Putin’s actions is not always wise. His unquestioning support for the Syrian government is disturbing, and his backing of a ban on American adoptions of Russian children (in retaliation for a US law that bars Russian violators of human rights from entering the United States) is inexplicable. Shortly after New Year, he won a photo opportunity by granting Gérard Depardieu Russian citizenship to help him avoid rising income taxes in France – at the cost, presumably, of the permanent alienation of the French president, François Hollande.

But given that RT is a long-term funding priority, it plays a significant part in how Putin wishes to run his country. He gained control over Russian television early in his tenure as president, driving out the media magnates Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky, taking over their channels and winning favourable coverage as a result. RT was his attempt to do the same to the world.

The channel was launched as Russia Today in 2005 (the name change to RT came four years later). It had long angered Putin that western journalists insisted on concentrating on human rights abuses in Chechnya, arrests of leading businessmen, the erosion of Russia’s democratic institutions, and its endemic corruption. The country was not as bad as it was being painted, officials said, and creating RT would give them a canvas of their own.

“Russia is a major country and a massive country, so it needs to make its position known to audiences all over the world,” Margarita Simonyan told Reuters at the time. Simonyan had previously worked as a Kremlin reporter for state television, one of the most high-profile media jobs in the country, and so had shown her reliability. Nevertheless, it was quite a promotion; she was 25 when she was appointed to the new post. (Simonyan long ago learned to use sarcasm to deflect speculation about her rapid rise, remarking in a recent blog post that she is sad no one nowadays thinks she is anyone’s mistress. “I’m getting old,” she lamented.)

Although she sounds like an American because she spent a year in New Hampshire as a schoolgirl, Simonyan decided that her channel should speak the Queen’s English. She advertised in the Guardian for journalists and Moscow was flooded with young, enthusiastic Brits, mostly straight out of journalism school, who were trained in presenting, editing, reporting and all the other skills necessary for running a television station. Laura Smith, who is now RT’s London reporter, was part of that first intake, leaving a job at a law firm to join the channel. “I had a twoweek training course and it was only by chance that the training course I went on was for on-camera people rather than newsroom people,” she told me. “Two weeks before, and I would have been in the newsroom. It was all a bizarre chance.”

Smith and her fellow new arrivals, together with Russian veterans, got the channel up and running in December 2005 and it has been broadcasting ever since. Around that time, the Kremlin also brought in the PR consultancy Ketchum to improve the country’s image, and among its consultants was Angus Roxburgh, a former BBC journalist who has written about his experiences working for Putin in his book The Strongman, published in February this year.

“My guess – or interpretation, really – is that they were getting pissed off with the bad publicity that Putin had already attracted and decided, in time-worn Soviet style, to ‘combat’ it with a channel of their own,” he told me. “That fits certainly with the impression I gained working with them that they wrongly believed the ‘message’ could be improved without changing the reality.”

In its early years, RT struggled with presenting a Russian slant on the news that was both truthful and interesting, and its own reporters will confess it could be dull. A study by the BBC’s monitoring unit at the end of its first month remarked that its reports “lack a sense of spontaneity and urgency customary with the regular, unscripted updates on rolling news channels . . . bureaucrats and even ministers may be fair game for criticism, but the president is beyond reproach”.

The channel stayed that way for its first three years and not many people tuned in – but all that changed in August 2008, when Russia and Georgia went to war over the disputed enclave of South Ossetia. Many westerners were aggressively courted by Georgian politicians. “Today we are all Georgians,” wrote Senator John McCain, then running for the US presidency, as he tried to turn this squalid little war into a campaign booster.

Russian journalists fought back, taking their lead from Putin, who labelled the Georgian campaign to regain South Ossetia “genocide”. They portrayed the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, as a psycho - path encouraged by the west. The truth that later emerged (not least from a European Union investigation) was inevitably somewhere in between, but RT had come into its element. With banner headlines proclaiming mass slaughter, RT relentlessly pushed Russia’s insistence that its intervention was for humanitarian reasons.

Some western channels, particularly Fox News, were hardly less biased in covering the war. RT repeatedly aired a Fox interview in which two South Ossetians from California tried to thank the Russian government but were cut off by the anchor. Fox’s many detractors could watch the take-downs on YouTube, which started carrying RT in 2007. Simonyan’s channel began to win a whole new audience.

“This was probably one of the first stories that really got the international audience and mass media to pay attention to RT in a big way,” Simonyan told me in an email (she was not in Moscow when I visited RT). “As soon as the fighting broke out there was a mainstream media consensus on what was going on, who were the good guys and the bad guys, in a way that made the facts on the ground seem incidental . . . Back then we faced a lot of international criticism for our coverage, but when the EU commission report came out several months later, it debunked the mainstream narrative and exposed how multilayered the situation really was.”

Having won this new audience, RT invested heavily in western advertising to expand its reach further. This included a poster campaign in 2009-2010 that juxtaposed Barack Obama and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with a question: “Who poses the greatest nuclear threat?” Another poster overlaid an M16-bearing US soldier and a masked man holding a rocket-propelled grenade and asked: “Is terror only inflicted by terrorists?” RT stoked the controversy by claiming that the posters had been banned from US airports, and perhaps they had.

Aside from the reporting of South Ossetia, Simonyan named two other stories that made her particularly proud. First was RT’s coverage of the Arab spring; it was notably more cautious than western channels in its reception of the rebellions in Libya, Egypt and elsewhere (a position which, no doubt coincidentally, was identical to that of Putin, who is opposed to any foreign intervention but his own). Second was its reporting on Occupy Wall Street, the story that cemented RT’s position with a new generation of rebels in the west.

RT proudly boasts that it was the first TV channel to cover the US protesters’ attempt in September 2011 to seize New York’s financial district, which it splashed on the first day under the headline “America’s Arab spring?”.

A later report began: “It is now day 12 of the Occupy Wall Street protests. While they continue to garner minimal attention from the mainstream media, it’s clear the protests are growing in strength and number.” It then aired an exclusive interview with a young woman who had been pepper-sprayed by police officers. “The police brutality had really taken me off guard. There was little distinction between protester and journalist. Press credentials meant nothing during these rallies,” its correspondent Lucy Kafanov later said in a press release issued to mark the Emmy award nomination that RT won for its coverage.

RT does not lie, but it is selective about what facts it uses. Indeed, from its coverage of US politics, you might gain the impression that the only thing saving the Obama administration from collapse is police oppression of dissidents. “Several well-respected individuals have recently warned on the possibility of a severe social crisis erupting in the United States,” RT warned on 21 January, basing its conclusion on quotes sometimes more than six years old. Its relentless focus on Washington’s opponents has, however, won the channel their gratitude.

Its coverage of Britain is similarly slanted towards marginal voices. Ukip’s Nigel Farage is a regular guest, as is George Galloway of Respect. In a recent edition of The Truth Seeker Galloway was described simply as “a UK member of parliament who’s raised millions for victims of war”. Neither Farage nor Galloway responded to my request to comment, but Loz Kaye, the leader of the UK Pirate Party and another occasional guest on the channel, was more forthcoming.

In the 2011 Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election, Kaye won just 0.3 per cent of the vote and would have come last, had it not been for the Bus-Pass Elvis Party. RT treats him with the same respect as it would the leader of any party, however, and has invited him on air at least nine times to comment on internet rights and civil liberties. Perhaps helped by its support, Kaye’s share of the vote rose in the 2012 Manchester Central byelection to almost 2 per cent.

“I won’t deny that it’s very useful that there is a channel that’s very interested in alternative voices,” he said. “It would be foolish to deny they don’t have a particular view which is obviously very critical of the US, but I think that’s legitimate. I’m very critical of a lot of what the US is doing myself. But I don’t think anyone could accuse me of joining a Kremlin project.

“It’s a lot more complex than people give it credit for. People within the hacktivist community have been very vocal on the Pussy Riot case, for example. A lot of us were aware of them long before the mainstream politicians defended their cause.”

RT’s controversy-fuelled approach is reminiscent above all of Fox News, another wealthy news organisation that likes to rail against the “mainstream media” as if that were a category that did not include itself. However, when I asked Simonyan if it was fair to call RT a kind of “anti-Fox” or “Fox News in the mirror”, she refused to rise to the bait. “The anti-Fox moniker might be occasionally fitting in the US market, though worldwide RT isn’t defined by its position vis-à-vis any one specific network. Comment and opinion are important, yes, but we always remain focused on getting the facts right, not ignoring them,” she wrote in English. “We’re not courting controversy – apparently ‘controversy’ is something you get if you simply report on any story in a way that’s different from how the rest of the international media is covering it.”

Curiously, shortly after Simonyan finished replying to my emailed questions, she sent a rather less nuanced message in Russian to her 63,000 Twitter followers (4,000 more than Russia’s foreign ministry).

“A British journalist that interviewed me today said that in the world they call us the anti-Fox News. I hadn’t heard this, but I agree,” she wrote, ending with a little smile.

We know why Fox News does what it does – it is profitable, and its reports influence politics in the United States and beyond. But why advert-free, publicly funded RT should feel so well placed to stir debate outside Russia remains something of an enigma, particularly given that the issues it highlights are often those on which Russia is most vulnerable to criticism.

Russia is aggressively capitalist, with astonishing inequalities of wealth and rampant corruption. Male life expectancy lags behind that of countries such as Bangladesh. The state prosecutes opposition activists such as Pussy Riot, and 30 journalists have been murdered with impunity in the country since 1992. In July, it adopted a law allowing the government to force websites offline without a trial.

And yet, RT campaigns on all these issues in other countries. This is not to say it does not cover dissent in Russia. It reported on the Moscow protests in the winter of 2011-2012 – but Simonyan tweeted that the organizers would “burn in hell” and the reports lacked the detail of its work on Occupy. That is a pattern that holds true for almost all matters that affect both Russia and the west.

Take how it reported on two suicides in January this year: that of the US internet freedom advocate Aaron Swartz, charged with hacking into an academic database, and that of the Russian activist Alexander Dolmatov, who faced prosecution for participating in an unsanctioned protest.

RT’s The Big Picture ran a sombre tribute to Swartz who, it said, had inspired so many others to become involved in his cause. “For the rest of us who still believe as Aaron did in a free and open internet . . . we can only hope he provides the same sort of spark in death as he did in life,” the programme’s host, Thom Hartmann, said. Other video reports on the death carried such headlines as “US government haunts activists like Swartz, ignores banksters and prison torture”, “American Gulag” and “Threshold of tyranny passed”.

Dolmatov killed himself after the Nether - lands refused his application for asylum and he faced deportation to Russia for trial. This suicide rated just a single mention on the RT website.

It is inevitable that many of the western activists who appear on RT face criticism for lending their voice to such a one-sided project. Most of them ignore it but Assange felt he could not. Before his chat show aired last year, the WikiLeaks founder gave a long interview to RT to explain why he had chosen it as a partner.

He remarked that RT had supported his cause for many years and that it had a good audience in the US, implying it was a useful vehicle for his message. As for people who thought he was getting into bed with the Kremlin, they had misunderstood.

“I think it’s a pretty trivial kind of attack on character. If they actually look at how the show is made: we make it, we have complete editorial control. We believe that all media organisations have an angle, all media organisations have an issue,” he said. “RT is a voice of Russia, so it looks at things from the Russian agenda. The BBC is a voice of the British government. Voice of America is a voice of the American government. It is the clashing of these voices together that reveals the truth about the world as a whole.”

This has long been RT’s line, too. In June 2011 it broadcast a programme called War on RT?, in which it quoted Glenn Beck, then a host on Fox News, calling it “the Pravda of today”, and also National Public Radio, which warned RT viewers against thinking it was a normal news network: “Just because it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck doesn’t make it a duck.”

RT responded, not by saying it was unbiased, but by insisting that everyone else, too, was biased. The programme’s host suggested that, in sum, objectivity is a myth and it is better to be honest about that than to hide behind specious claims of presenting the truth. For RT’s Russian employees, working for the channel thus becomes a patriotic project.

“When you come to the office, you have to understand why you do what you’re doing, not just because they pay you the money, but there’s also a sense of trying to get successfully or less successfully the Russian perspective out,” Alexei Kuznetsov, deputy head of news, told me as we sat in a small office next to the main studios. “It’s the voice of my country that’s being heard worldwide and that’s what makes me proud. Working for other news agencies, when you’re local hire, it’s just basically work for money, full stop. Here you get the sense that you’re actually doing something very important for your nation, and you’re trying to make your country popular, you’re trying to make your country recognisable.”

I asked Laura Smith, the London correspondent, if she worries about working for a channel that so merrily pushes a government line. “I don’t see myself as working for a government organisation. It never comes into what I do at all,” she said. “And I think the project itself – the RT project, taken in isolation – is excellent, and that’s all I’ve got to say about that.”

Her job was to find people not being given access to the media and to see what they had to say. She wanted RT to be watched in combination with other channels so that viewers could gain the broadest possible perspective. She seemed sincerely troubled that some viewers might be consuming it in isolation. “I think that marginal voices should be given some kind of airtime,” Smith said. “We’ve had a long relationship with Ukip, for example . . . Sometimes I meet people at demonstrations who say, ‘Oh, I watch RT, and it’s our only source of information about the world,’ and I find that quite worrying.”

As to what exactly it is for, there can be no doubt that Putin believes that controlling a medium gives power over content. At a press conference just before Christmas, he was slightly thrown when a question from a Los Angeles Timesreporter concerning the ban on US adoptions was greeted by applause from the assembled journalists.

“I understand that you work for the Los Angeles Times, and not for Pravda or Izvestia, and that you have to take a certain position,” Putin said, revealing himself – at least when it comes to propaganda – to be the unreconstructed KGB agent that his enemies always say he is. That is where to look for an expla - nation of RT. Deep into his 14th year in power, the president appears to have given up on improving Russia. Instead, he funds RT to persuade everyone else that their own countries are no better.

Oliver Bullough’s latest book is “The Last Man in Russia: and the Struggle to Save a Dying Nation” (Allen Lane, £20)