Resignations shine unwelcome light on to Russia Today

Many screens - one voice. EPA/Sergei Ilnitsky

For a TV network which wants to become a household name to millions around the world, Russia Today has certainly generated a lot of publicity in recent days as it broadcasts about the political crisis in Ukraine. The problem for RT is almost all of that publicity has been negative.

First, Abby Martin, an American presenter based in the network’s Washington bureau, finished her show Breaking the Set by savaging Russia’s intervention in Ukraine.

I can’t say enough how strongly I am against any state intervention in a sovereign nation’s affairs … what Russia did is wrong … Military intervention is never the answer, and I will not sit here and apologise or defend military aggression. Furthermore, the coverage I have seen of Ukraine has been truly disappointing from all sides of the media spectrum and rife with disinformation.

RT’s official statement in reply claimed that “contrary to the popular opinion, RT doesn’t beat its journalists into submission, and they are free to express their own opinions,” and sent Martin to Crimea to “give her an opportunity to make up her own mind from the epicentre of the story”.

The anchor has refused to go to Crimea and says she stands by everything she said, repeating that she is against any foreign state intervention in a sovereign nation’s affairs.

A couple of days after Martin’s critique of Russia in Ukraine, her colleague in RT’s Washington bureau, Liz Wahl, said on air that she was resigning because of the RT coverage Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. She said:

I cannot be part of a network funded by the Russian government that whitewashes the actions of Putin. I’m proud to be an American and believe in disseminating the truth, and that is why, after this newscast, I’m resigning.

This time the RT’s official statement was a bit fiercer, calling Wahl’s decision “self-promotional” and emphasising the distinction between Martin’s role as an opinion host and Wahl’s as a newscaster.

RT’s editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan wrote a long post in her private blog, claiming that it takes “a lot of courage” to work for the RT these days, with the network and its journalists “constantly bullied” by media from other countries. She wrote of the “schadenfreude” shown by other world media at the resignations.

Window on Russia

When it was set up in 2005, RT set out to provide a “Russian view of the world” while improving the country’s image abroad. At first it was talked up as a potential competitor to CNN, the BBC World Service and Al Jazeera. With an estimated budget of around US$300m, the network broadcasts in English, Spanish and Arabic and has an audience (according to the network’s own statistics) of more than 500m people in 100 countries.

From the very early days, RT set out to highlight issues it (and Russia in general) thought were not prominent enough in the international media – often issues that were critical of the Western political and economic system. Thus, Julian Assange hosted a show from the Ecuadorean embassy in London for 11 episodes. RT also hired Larry King, almost as soon as he retired from CNN, claiming that on the Russian network he would be able address issues he hadn’t covered before.

King told Daily Beast recently that he wouldn’t accept censorship from RT:

If they took something out, I would never do it. It would be bad if they tried to edit out things. I wouldn’t put up with it … As long as they don’t, as long as they’re carrying stuff critical of them, I’ve got no problem with it … You may not like what Russia’s doing now, but I’m really a party removed.

Another quite distinctive feature of the network has been its fondness of scandals and conspiracy theories. The Keiser Report specialises in revealing “shocking scandals behind the global financial headlines”, for example, and the network has run a number of documentaries airing allegations about political and economic conspiracies running the global economy. RT also has a fondness for “climate change conspiracy” stories.

On the other hand it is important to note that the network’s coverage of international and Russian affairs is often balanced, as when it covered the protests in Russia over the past winter and gave a voice to environmentalists after the arrests of the Greenpeace activists and to LGBT leaders who spoke up against anti-homosexuality laws.

But at other times, when the issue is thought of as critical to Russia’s international diplomacy (the 2008 invasion of Georgia, for example, or regarding Syria over the past three years), RT – which, importantly, is mainly viewed outside Russia – often takes an openly pro-Russian line, excusing this by insisting that they show the positions which others don’t.

Accordingly, RT will refer to the “coup-imposed government in Kiev”. It has highlighted anti-Maidan, pro-Russian demonstrations and rallies in Eastern Ukraine. RT has taken to referring to “Crimean self-defence squads” (these are also known, less formally, as “polite people” and “little green people” because of their uniforms.

Next: an agency

Later this year, in addition to the television network, RT will launch an international news agency, producing news in various languages in competition with Reuters and Associated Press. The new structure will comprise some of the offices and staff of the RIA Novosti news agency and the radio network Voice of Russia, with further new bureaus and foreign hubs (sometimes in cooperation with local partners). Simonyan will oversee the new agency as editor-in-chief.

RT is part of a push by Russia to make its voice heard and its position clear. Under Putin, the country now lays claim to wielding “heavier international weight” in what is often referred to here as a “multi-polar world”. And RT is central to the defence and promotion of Russia’s views and values – conservative views and values which are directly contrasted with the liberal and “decadent” values held in Western countries and by the Western media. But it’s important to weigh up whether Russia is not employing too many hard-line measures in its soft power mechanisms.