Big ruling from UK regulator could bring RT big trouble
On December 20, the United Kingdom’s Office of Communications, the country’s telecommunications industry regulator more commonly known as “Ofcom,” found Kremlin broadcaster RT guilty of violating impartiality rules seven times in a six-week spell and raised the possibility of sanctions.
State-funded RT has claimed that it is editorially independent, but its Editor-in-Chief, Margarita Simonyan, has previously compared it to the Russian Army and spoken of it as “waging the information war” against the West. Ofcom’s ruling provided detailed evidence of repeated violations of journalistic standards on issues of core concern to the Kremlin, suggesting how that “information war” is conducted.
Each violation occurred between March 17, 2018 and April 26, 2018, at the height of two major events: the Skripal poisoning in the United Kingdom and chemical weapons use by forces loyal to Russian ally Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
This post sets out the top takeaways from the Ofcom ruling. Background on Ofcom is provided at the end of this article.
1. Big Trouble
The ruling puts RT in the frame for potentially serious legal repercussions. Ofcom confirmed that it was “minded to consider… a statutory sanction” over the case, which it regards as a “serious failure of compliance.” Any decision would go through a legal process that would likely last several months.
Ofcom has a range of sanctions within its power. The least stringent option is to order a broadcaster not to repeat a program. It can also order the broadcaster to issue a correction or a summary of an Ofcom finding; impose a fine of up to £250,000; or shorten, suspend, or revoke the broadcaster’s license. The final option is extremely rare, having only been used three times in history.
In 2015, Ofcom found RT guilty of a “serious breach” of impartiality rules in a single program and ordered it to broadcast a summary of the decision. The latest statement did not hint at what level of sanction, if any, might be appropriate, but said that any sanction would be “proportionate and fair, taking into account all the relevant circumstances, the Licensee’s representations and any relevant previous cases.”
RT said it was “extremely disappointed” with the Ofcom finding, stating:
“It appears Ofcom has failed to fully take on board what we said in response to its investigations and, in particular, has not paid due regard to the rights of a broadcaster and the audience.”
2. Big Decision
The ruling was an unprecedented blow for RT. Over the past four years, the broadcaster has had ten programs found guilty of violating standards of accuracy and impartiality (@DFRLab described them here). The latest ruling added another seven, all committed in a six-week period from March 17, 2018, to April 26, 2018.
RT’s earlier record on accuracy and impartiality was, itself, relatively poor. Its record on other issues, such as use of bad language, was on a par with or even better than other broadcasters. For example, between January 2014 and December 2017, UK broadcaster Channel 4 and US broadcaster Fox News each had three findings against them on accuracy and impartiality.
To have seven violations over just a six-week period in a single finding is extremely rare.
The unusual nature of the finding was reinforced by its presentation. Usually, Ofcom presents its finding in a bulletin published on alternate Mondays. The RT findings took up an entire 190-page bulletin, released three days after the regular bulletin, indicating both the complexity and the extraordinary nature of the case.
3. Kremlin Interests
Seven programs were found guilty of violating standards of impartiality; all concerned issues of strategic interest to Russia.
Two covered the poisoning of former agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in March. Four concerned events in Syria, especially in the wake of the Douma chemical attack, in April. The last concerned accusations that the Ukrainian government systematically glorifies Nazis.
In each case, RT failed to observe “due impartiality” by emphasizing the Russian government’s view of proceedings and by not providing adequate coverage of its critics. Several times in the bulletin, Ofcom found that RT had failed to give the Kremlin’s rivals a duly impartial hearing.
“The lack of any viewpoint representing that of the Ukrainian Government meant that the serious accusation of the glorification of Nazism at a state-wide level in Ukraine went unchallenged, and consequently viewers were not provided with a duly impartial report about this issue.” — Ofcom Bulletin, p. 180.
RT’s earlier violations of the obligation to preserve due impartiality fit the same pattern. They concerned its reporting on Syria and Ukraine, together with its content on Turkey in 2016. All of these violations tended to emphasize the Kremlin’s position and underplay those of its critics.
4. Russia First, Balance Second
In its correspondence with Ofcom, RT owner TV-Novosti argued that “RT must be able to broadcast a Russian perspective as a counter to the western narrative.”
The reference to countering “the western narrative” resembles the comment by Editor-in-Chief Simonyan that RT “was waging the information war against the entire Western world” during the Georgian conflict of 2008. It places RT in the realm of geopolitical competition, rather than broadcast journalism, which, under Ofcom rules, has to be able to report multiple narratives in a balanced way.
On one occasion, RT’s talk show CrossTalk featured a pro-US commentator, the former US Ambassador to Syria Richard Murphy. The host’s presenter repeatedly interrupted Murphy, including by shouting at him.
Ofcom contrasted this behavior with the treatment of the other two guests.
“[Murphy’s] contribution to the debate was significantly undermined by the fact that he was interrupted by the presenter and given little opportunity to respond fully to the presenter’s increasingly vigorous and aggressive challenges. This contrasted markedly to the manner in which the presenter treated the other two contributors, who we considered were allowed to express their views at length and often with the clear endorsement of the presenter.” — Ofcom Bulletin, p. 96.
5. Ofcom Impartiality
Not all the findings went against RT. Ofcom’s bulletin included three cases where it had initially suspected RT of violations but subsequently concluded that the broadcaster had been within its rights.
This fits a broader pattern of even-handed treatment. As @DFRLab has already written, on a number of occasions between 2014 and 2017, Ofcom rejected complaints against RT, including three broadcasts listed in November 2016 (pages 104–105), three listed in March 2017 (page 34), and an unspecified number referred to in April 2017 (page 105).
In each bulletin, Ofcom stated that these individual programs “did not raise issues warranting investigation.”
6. Struggling for Voices
One repeated complaint that RT’s parent company, TV-Novosti, made, was that it is struggling to find pro-Western commentators to come on the show.
Ofcom quoted TV-Novosti as saying that it had received “37 refusals” to invitations to pro-Western commentators to join its shows (Bulletin, pages 29, 38, 45, and 53) and complaining of “dozens of declined invitations from speakers who could have expressed British, American or Western view” (pages 111 and 119).
This echoed a comment made by Simonyan in October 2017, when she complained that “It’s hard for us even to find a stringer” (local temporary reporter) in the United States because of negative reports about the broadcaster.
These comments suggest that awareness of RT’s role in Kremlin messaging is increasing and that the broadcaster is finding it harder to operate.
As the United Kingdom’s national telecommunications regulator, one of Ofcom’s many tasks is to enforce standards in television and radio broadcasts.
The standards cover a range of issues, including protection of public decency and of minors. Section Five rules that “news, in whatever form, must be reported with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality.”
Ofcom’s task is to make sure that broadcasters follow the rules.
Ben Nimmo is Senior Fellow for Information Defense at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
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