It was reported on Tuesday that Ofcom, the British media regulator, was viewing the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal as relevant to the “fit and proper” test that all holders of UK broadcast licenses must pass to operate a TV channel. RT UK, the Russian state-funded channel, was the channel in question. Failing this test could potentially result in RT’s broadcasting license being revoked.
There is no doubt that RT is a damaging influence in the Western world. The channel unashamedly pushes a pro-Kremlin line that at times strays into straight propaganda. In 2008, RT correspondent William Dunbar resigned from his post after he was prohibited from reporting on Russian airstrikes on civilians during the South Ossetia War. The aftermath of the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in 2014 by Russian-backed Ukrainian separatists saw headlines such as “Why was MH17 flying through a war zone where 10 aircraft have been shot down?” and “Malaysian airplane tragedy is a wakeup call to the Ukrainian government to stop what it is doing”. It is for this reason, as well as the recent resurgence of Russia as a threat to British security, that John McDonnell called last week for Labour MPs to stop appearing on RT, although this position was later muddied by Jeremy Corbyn.
But, as much as the presence of RT is uncomfortable, banning it would, far from quashing the presence of Russian propaganda on British soil, actually widen its reach. A good example which illustrates this principle is Innocence of Muslims (2012), an amateur anti-Islamic film which caused protests in Arab and European countries leading to the deaths of fifty people. The film was deliberately provocative and deeply offensive, depicting the prophet Muhammad as a paedophile and bloodthirsty murderer. Strong reactions from the Muslim community were exactly what the film was designed to achieve.
But it was only when a two-minute segment of the film was aired on Egyptian TV channel Al-Nas that its message began to spread. A clip of the show was viewed 400,000 times on YouTube, and three days later the US Embassy in Cairo was invaded and its American flag torn down. The fact that there was a reaction was understandable (although its magnitude can be questioned), but it is important to remember that what led to the video being viewed ten million times was not any effort by its creators to promote it, but the actions of those who were vehemently opposed to the message it spread. The decision to show Innocence of Muslims on TV transformed the film from being a fascination of a small group of fringe far-right groups to a subject of worldwide protest, and therefore greatly increased its outreach.
The same principle can be applied to RT. The Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board report for February 2018 found that the average UK citizen watches RT for a grand total of one minute per week, with the channel receiving a 0.04% audience share. It would hardly be commercially viable without receiving funding from the Russian government. What most increases awareness of RT and the arguments it pushes is not anything the Kremlin does, but attention from more mainstream outlets, such as the furore over the launch of Alex Salmond’s chat show.
A legal battle over the ability of RT to broadcast in the UK would undoubtedly push the channel into the daily news agenda. The BBC, with its rigid institutional commitment to be free of bias, would be forced to air the arguments of the Kremlin to millions of British people who might not have otherwise heard them. Vladimir Putin and his regime would be able to paint themselves as victims, and insist that the British claim to be the upholder of human rights and freedom was clearly bogus, given the proposed censorship of a press organisation.
This would not be entirely unjustified. John Whittingdale, Conservative MP for Maldon, urged Theresa May in the House of Commons on Thursday to “not give any pretext, however unjustified, for the Russians to take action against the BBC and other free media outlets”. The response of the Prime Minister lamented the Russian government’s inability to accept a free media, but Whittingdale was right to imply that banning RT would appear ludicrously hypocritical when the UK is attempting to portray itself as a bastion of human rights and free speech. Doing so would give the Russians the excuse they need to expel BBC World Service reporters — a small, but significant, hit to British soft power (Russia has, in fact, threatened to ban all British media if RT is taken off the air).
Indeed, this seeming doublethink might plausibly have the effect of winning Putin’s regime sympathisers beyond the small group currently doubting the overwhelming evidence in favour of Russian involvement in Skripal’s poisoning (whose number includes Jeremy Corbyn). The relative degree of national unity over this issue shown in a Sky Data poll on Thursday is welcome, but fragile, and would probably be threatened more by an attempted ban of RT than the mere presence of the channel in a small corner of the British media.
This piece was deliberately not entitled “Why RT shouldn’t be banned”. As serious as the consequences of a ban would be, they are unlikely to factor into the decision of the independent Ofcom, who are more concerned with whether the holder of a broadcast license is “fit and proper”. Therefore, whether RT keeps its license depends on whether Ofcom considers the owners of RT, ANO TV-Novosti, to be sufficiently linked to the crimes that the Kremlin is overwhelmingly likely to have committed. But it is worth stating the basic principles of freedom of speech which should underline any assessment of the UK media landscape regardless. A revocation of RT’s license would boost Putin’s narrative and validate anti-Western sceptics. It almost seems contradictory to do so, but if the channel stays on air, we should be thankful.