The Kremlin-funded, English language news channel RT (formerly Russia Today), had an awkward summer, with several resignations over its editorial policies and controversial reporting on the crisis in Ukraine. As it makes a new attempt to win over Western audiences, Andrea Peycheva explores RT’s chequered history.
Much has been said about Russia’s media – that is controlled by the state, spreads propaganda, and is another tool for authorities to “keep the situation under control”. But is that really the case?
In September this year RT issued a poster campaign in London called “Second Opinion”, criticising notable politicians such as Tony Blair and George Bush. One month prior, the service formerly known as Russia Today made its debut in the US. The aim of the campaign was to reveal to the public the consequences of not “questioning” or asking for a “second opinion”, namely RT’s. The campaign addressed the Iraq War and the ways in which the western media reported on it. The posters, however, were described as provocative and propaganda
According to RT, the campaign “aimed at bringing attention to the importance of having a real diversity of voices in the global news media space, and to posit RT as the place to go for alternative viewpoints on current events”. The posters attracted a lot of media attention both in the US and UK, including from outlets such as The New York Times and The Huffington Post.
RT is an international cable and satellite television channel owned by ANO TV-Novosti. Officially founded in 2005 by former media minister Mikhail Lesin and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin spokesperson Aleksei Gromov, it was created with the intention of changing Russia’s reputation from one based on communism and poverty to a more balanced and modern one. The channel aimed at presenting Russia more completely, and providing a Russian point of view over international news. Officially, it is an autonomous nonprofit organisation funded by the federal budget of Russia through the Federal Agency on Press and Mass Communications of the Russian Federation.
Yet what seems at first glance to be a rather noble appeal to diversity of opinion has a rather complicated background. RT – the main foreign-language Russian news service – has been repeatedly accused of spreading propaganda and anti-western attitudes. Russia Today now has a vast global reach. Putin is about to increase its $300 million budget by 40%. The channel broadcasts in three of the main global languages – English, Arabic and Spanish. A German broadcasting channel recently began functioning and a French one is supposed to start soon. As a result, RT has the capacity to reach maybe 600 million people.
What’s more, it seems that the leading Russian media channel might be on the offensive in an attempt to stay on the air. It experienced a series of resignations thirds summer: Opinion reporter Abby Martin from its American network spoke against Russian invasion of Crimea and news anchor Liz Wahl resigned as a sign of protest on how events are being reported. Yet the stakes for the Kremlin could not be higher. All this is happening at the same time as the Ukrainian crisis, Western sanctions and the disastrous shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines plane over Ukraine.
The campaign itself provides a lot of material for analyses – it could serve both as a very aggressive PR strategy, since reportages from the channel on the UK and the US are highly negative, trying to depict the two countries as oppressive and filled in with violence. At a time when Russia’s budget is being strained buy Western sanctions and a falling oil price, its deep resources could come to be viewed as controversial.
With its poster campaign RT might be making a desperate trial to win over the Western audience by publicly scandalizing leading political figures and their approaches to international affairs. Educated, open-minded and well-informed Western citizens should not fall for such passive-aggressive PR campaigns by RT or whichever media outlet without themselves seeking a little more information on what RT is really up to.