#PutinAtWar: RT Under The Microscope

UK regulator probes seven Russia Today broadcasts for bias

Logos of Ofcom, left, and RT, right. (Source: OfcomRT)

On April 18, the British communications regulator, Ofcom, announced that it had launched investigations into seven programs broadcast by Kremlin outlet RT since the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury on March 4.

Ofcom’s duties include ensuring that all broadcasters licensed in Britain observe standards of accuracy and impartiality. RT has repeatedly been featured in Ofcom investigations in recent years, with a number of findings both for and against the channel. @DFRLab assessed the background here.

While the outcome of these investigations remains to be seen, Ofcom’s latest announcement is a significant development. It greatly increases the number of RT broadcasts under investigation, and raises the question of whether the Kremlin station’s license may, in the long term, be in peril.

In this post, we analyze the announcement and its implications.

Surge after Salisbury

Ofcom’s initial statement connected its announcement to the Skripal poisoning; an accompanying fact sheet went into more detail. As @DFRLab has reported, pro-Kremlin outlets went into high gear after British Prime Minister Theresa May blamed the attack on Russia, casting the blame on many other actors, especially Britain. Ofcom wrote:

“Since the events in Salisbury, we have observed a significant increase in the number of programmes broadcast that we consider warrant investigation as potential breaches of the Broadcasting Code. We have opened seven new investigations.”

Ofcom provided a list of the programs in question, confirming that the reference to “seven investigations” can be taken to mean “investigations into seven specific broadcasts.”

Ofcom list of the seven investigations. (Source: Ofcom fact sheet, paragraph 10)

In each case, the investigation was based on the question of “due impartiality.” Section 5.1 of the UK’s Broadcasting Code states that “News, in whatever form, must be reported with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality.”

Ofcom’s advice on the code defines “due impartiality” in the following terms:

Ofcom’s definition of “due impartiality.” (Source: Ofcom Broadcasting Code, Section 5)

In essence, the concept of “due impartiality” can be understood as the journalistic practice of giving sufficient coverage to significant voices — such as the two sides in a political debate or international controversy.

Most of RT’s previous violations of the Broadcasting Code over the past four years concerned a failure to preserve due impartiality (findings in 2014 on Ukraine, 2015 on Ukraine and Syria, July 2016 on Turkey and December 2016 on NATO). A number of accusations of the same failure were rejected in November 2016, March 2017 and April 2017.

@DFRLab has previously written on RT’s editorial and reporting policy, putting the Ofcom findings in the broader context of RT’s behavior.

The shows

Five of the shows listed by Ofcom in the latest announcement are available online; the others were news bulletins.

It is not the intention of this article to assess the likelihood of whether any one of the shows violated the standards: that is Ofcom’s task. We describe the shows here as an indication of the subject matter which Ofcom is studying, and the questions which it might ask.

Two of the investigations concern “Sputnik,” an RT show hosted by former British politician George Galloway. (This should not be confused with the Kremlin’s online platform, Sputnik, even though — confusingly — the name of Sputnik’s parent agency translates as “Russia Today.”)

Screenshots from RT’s “Sputnik” show, episodes 219 and 222, archived on April 18, 2018. @DFRLab has decided not to include direct links to RT articles in this reporting, as we do not wish to amplify their message. Direct links to the original can, in each case, be found in the archived version. (Source: RT)

The first episode, broadcast on March 17, featured an interview with former Kremlin advisor Alexander Nekrassov on the “events which have put Britain on a collision course with Russia” (that is, the Skripal affair). The second, on April 7, interviewed “independent researcher” David Morrison on the “fiasco of the British government’s handling of the Salisbury spy poisoning affair.”

A different RT interview series, “Going Underground,” had two broadcasts found guilty of violating impartiality standards in July 2016 for failing to duly cover the Turkish government’s viewpoint in programs which featured interviewees accusing Turkey of genocide. In this case, Ofcom’s focus will presumably be on whether Galloway’s interview technique gave due coverage to the UK government’s portrayal of the Skripal case.

One investigation concerns an interview with presenter Oksana Boyko from the “Worlds Apart” series on April 1. This focused on the Skripal case, and its reported similarity with the murder of former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko. Boyko’s introduction ran as follows:

“The British authorities explicitly cite the poisoning of the former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London as a circumstantial evidence in the Skripal case. The Russians did it before, they will do it again — that’s the essence of the UK allegations against Russia. But doesn’t London itself have capability, intent and motive for this kind of national character assassination?”

Again, given the single-interviewee format, Ofcom is likely to focus on the question of whether interviewer or interviewee gave due coverage to the British government’s perspective.

Finally, two investigations concern episodes of “Cross Talk,” an RT format which features several commentators discussing a news topic. The episode on April 16 featured regular pundits Mark Sleboda and Dmitry Babich, discussing the recent Western air strikes on Syria with host Peter Lavelle.

Lavelle introduced the segment with the statement, “The US-led attack on Syria is a gross violation of international law. Furthermore, Western publics still have not been presented with evidence that the Syrian state used any chemical weapons. A new phase of the Syrian proxy war has needlessly been opened up. Another war of choice.”

Screenshot from the April 16 edition of “Cross Talk;” note the caption, which is a variation on Lavelle’s introductory statement. Archived on April 18, 2016. (Source: RT)

RT’s website did not list an episode for April 13. It did, however, list one for April 11, again on the Syrian crisis. This, again, featured a Lavelle introduction, which ran as follows:

“The drive towards war against Syria is unmistakable. The pretext is still another alleged chemical attack. As usual, no evidence is presented. As usual, conclusions are drawn before an independent investigation. But this time there is a difference. Syria can defend itself and it has powerful allies. We live in very dangerous times.”

CrossTalk was the subject of an Ofcom finding in December 2016: the show was found to have breached impartiality standards for commenting at length on the NATO summit of June 2016 without adequately representing NATO’s point of view. Given the latest two programs’ focus on Syria, Ofcom’s attention is likely to be on whether the justifications presented by those countries which launched strikes were adequately treated.

The list is interesting, in that it does not solely focus on the Skripal case, nor on one particular program. All the earlier findings focused on individual shows — news reports, in the 2014 finding; a documentary series called “The Truthseeker,” in 2015; “Going Underground” and “Cross Talk,” in 2016.

License question

This is of particular importance in a broader question, which is Ofcom’s view of RT’s license. In a separate statement on March 13, Ofcom said that it would review whether RT could be considered “fit and proper” to hold a license if the UK government ruled that Russia had conducted an illegal use of force against Skripal. The UK government did so on March 14.

Ofcom’s mandate includes the power to terminate a broadcaster’s license if it is found to be not “fit and proper.” The April 18 statement explicitly linked the seven investigations to this question of RT’s fitness to broadcast:

“In relation to our fit and proper duty, we will consider all relevant new evidence, including the outcome of these investigations and the future conduct of the licensee.”

The invocation of the “fit and proper” clause is an extremely rare one. Ofcom has only twice revoked broadcasters’ licenses for being found to be not “fit and proper”. One concerned a long series of pornographic offenses, the other of incitement to violence and terrorism.

Ofcom’s statement also took pains to point out that it views this as an extreme step: “This is a major interference with freedom of expression, as it prevents the broadcaster from broadcasting and restricts the number of voices being heard and the range of programming available to audiences. Ofcom considers that the threshold for finding a broadcaster not fit and proper to hold a broadcast licence is, therefore, high.”

It also set out its approach:

“In this particular case, in our view, the most appropriate way to consider whether [RT’s owner] TV Novosti is likely to act in a fit and proper way is to consider its broadcasting conduct and on this — as set out above — we are concerned about a number of potential breaches of the Broadcasting Code.”

The launch of the seven investigations should not, therefore, be taken as signalling the beginning of the end for RT’s UK operation. It is noteworthy for the range of programs considered, and suggests that Ofcom is taking the question of RT’s license extremely seriously, but it also confirms that license revocation would be an option of last resort.

The statement also promised to publish its findings “as soon as possible.” Earlier Ofcom cases have taken months to complete, and the current statement suggests that RT’s behavior during that period will be important in judging its ongoing fitness.


Ben Nimmo is Senior Fellow for Information Defense at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

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