If you wanted expert commentary on the politics of the Middle East, would you turn to Nick Griffin? You wouldn’t? That makes you different from a television channel that you may not have seen, but that has millions of viewers in the UK alone and has clocked up more than a billion views online.
It’s RT, founded in 2005 and known till 2009 as Russia Today.
RT is a danger and a disgrace to the quality of public discourse and the values of critical inquiry. I’ve declined to appear on it but I did go on BBC World in 2011 with Laura Emmett, RT’s London bureau chief.
She was expecting a debate on Libya. I took the opportunity of pointing out that RT was, contrary to appearances, not a normal news organisation such as the BBC or CNN but a state propaganda channel that gives an outlet to conspiracy theorists of the most preposterous and pernicious character. Our exchange went viral on YouTube and I’ve had hundreds of abusive emails from outraged RT loyalists.
RT is the mouthpiece of the Putin regime, which imprisons protesters and murders journalists. Not all interviewees on the programme are equally disreputable but they include noisome extremists and ignorant cranks.
Here is how one interview on the station’s website begins: “The people didn’t see Syria as perfect before the civil war, but it was a secular, tolerant state, which will be lost if Islamist rebels prevail, European MP Nick Griffin, who [is] in Damascus with a fact-finding delegation, told RT.”
Treating the leader of a far-right, racist party as just another interlocutor makes a kind of sense if you’re a station that subordinates news values to the needs of an autocracy.
It’s far from atypical. Richard Falk, the UN Special Rapporteur, used RT to accuse Israel of committing genocide against the Palestinians. Ban Ki-Moon, the UN Secretary General, has condemned Falk’s “preposterous” comments disputing al-Qaeda’s responsibility for 9/11. So how does RT bill Falk? It calls him “an ethnic Jewish expert in international law”.
The concept of expertise is highly elastic in RT’s usage. I laughed when George Galloway MP, who has a regular programme on RT, recently introduced an obscure English blogger who speaks no foreign languages as a “regional expert” on Ukraine.
But it’s not funny. RT has the trappings, but not the values, of a news channel. Its reporting (and not only its commentaries) parrots the official line of the Putin regime.
Russian annexation of Crimea is absurdly justified with reference to the West’s supposed hypocrisy in supporting Kosovo’s independence.
Liz Wahl, an American anchor for RT, resigned on air this month in protest at the station’s support for Putin’s illegal war. It was a principled decision against a monolith of misinformation. Anastasia Churkin, RT’s New York correspondent, this month railed against John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, without disclosing that she is the daughter of Russia’s ambassador to the UN.
As a former RT employee told the New York Times anonymously, that undeclared conflict of interest “is a perfect example of something a credible network simply would not do”.
RT viewers will likewise have no idea of the fringe status of RT’s sources and interviewees, who include such figures as
David Ray Griffin, the principal theorist of the 9/11 Truth movement.
When irrationalism is treated with respect and even deference, atavistic forces aren’t far behind.
Hence Griffin’s contribution to the pro-Assad message of Russian foreign policy and of RT, its reliable conduit.