United Kingdom

Bold & different

Print edition : March 20, 2015

Russian President Vladimir Putin during a visit to the RT broadcasting centre in 2013. Photo: www.kremlin.ru

Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of RT. Photo: AP

RT, the London-based Russian state-funded broadcasting channel, is the new kid on the block that established players ridicule and fear because it does not play by established rules and is on a winning spree.

As the new kid on an overcrowded media high street, the London-based broadcasting channel started by RT (formerly Russia Today) five months ago has not been the most-welcomed entrant. Not because it is bold, adversarial and opinionated—many sections of the media claim they are all that and more—but because it is bold, adversarial and opinionated and seen as pro-Russia in its editorial positioning.

Not surprising then that the channel—which, since last November, has been offering five hours of dedicated and rather lively London-focussed programming from its well-positioned 10th floor office overlooking the Thames on Millibank Road—was received with a barrage of criticism even before it could get off the ground. Everything was wrong about this upstart channel, indignant media pundits decided in their columns, not least because it is seen as the offspring of its detested parent, the main RT broadcaster in Moscow. The criticism was varied and from across the media spectrum (with one media commentator from a staid establishment paper even pouring scorn on its advertisers and their products). The channel was upbraided for reporting on London, and then for not reporting the “good news” on London; it was pilloried for serving as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “mouthpiece”; and some of its journalists were mocked (by name) as being the substandard castaways of the mainstream British media. Here was an entity that had aggressively pushed itself onto Western media’s home turf but would not play by the rules of the old boys’ club. Worse still, it did not base its international reportage on the generally accepted premise that Russia is expansionist abroad and authoritarian at home.

The overall negative media response to RT London was not entirely unexpected, even in this country with its time-tested tradition of free and pluralistic media. Britain can boast of the presence, in the past and now, of a substantial segment of dissenting, anti-establishment, and adversarial media voices—from old and established print publications of an earlier era to the plethora of special-interest newspapers, websites and radio stations of today. Indeed, the most credible of dissenting media voices still come from within the establishment press itself, even though the space for against-the-editorial-grain commentary is fast shrinking.

Why the wariness then with respect to RT? Perhaps because this competitor does not quite fall into the usual profile of the home-grown anti-establishment media set-up. Rather, it is a new player but in the big league, a foreign-owned state-entity which is flush with funds, and one which already has a major footprint across 35 countries in Europe. It also comes with a distinct editorial stamp as its editor-in-chief, the young and dynamic Margarita Simonyan, often acknowledges. It is supposed to be President Putin’s special-interest channel, and is reportedly up for an infusion of £250 million this year, more than what the financially beleaguered BBC can hope for.

Further, the popular viewer base of RT is growing steadily, which suggests that it must be getting something right. It claims over two billion YouTube views, outperforming its competitors like CNN, Al Jazeera and Euronews several times over. No amount of money or propaganda can sustain a media outlet’s survival over the long haul. RT’s news programming and its reportage by skilled journalists reporting from the ground is resonating with a certain kind of viewer in Britain—one who does care how Russia under Putin is conducting itself.

The entry into and consolidation of RT in the United Kingdom, therefore, is an interesting case study of the determinants of media survival and growth in a mature media market at a time of great technological transformation of media platforms.

The main RT channel was launched in 2005 and the broadcaster was registered as a non-profit organisation. TV-Novosti, the company that owns RT, is funded through the Russian Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communications, making it a state-funded public media service. It has English, Arabic, Russian and Spanish language versions. The company has a United States version, RT America, launched in 2010. The company claims to reach more than 500 million viewers in 100 countries.

In its bright and spacious offices, the journalists Laura Smith and Afshin Rattansi, the presenter of the popular programme “Going Underground”, talk to me about the channel, its programming, and the allegations of being pro-Russia. They argue that RT’s news programme goes against the grain of the existing broadcast culture, and, more often than not, most other outlets are not interested in the stories they follow. Their accessibility to news sources is not constrained by the fact that they are from RT. “We don’t give the endless political gossip from Westminster that many channels do,” says Rattansi. His programme takes a hard but informed look at issues that matter—the impact of austerity measures, for example, or the discussion around the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

More recently, the RT team made a spirited defence of their channel in the face of criticism by the newly appointed head of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), Andrew Lack. In an interview to The New York Times, Lack, whose agency oversees all U.S. government-funded international media, said: “We are facing a number of challenges from entities like Russia Today which is out there pushing a point of view, the Islamic State in the Middle East and groups like Boko Haram.”

Outraged that a representative of the U.S. should go on record putting “a news organisation that provides a fresh perspective on the events in the world” in the same league as “extremist, terrorist groups that had taken thousands of lives”, Margarita Simonyan demanded an explanation from Lack, the BBG, and The New York Times.

“Journalists are not terrorists. RT journalists, like their colleagues around the world, risk their lives every single day to report on events from conflict zones. In fact, RT correspondents are often the targets of the exact terrorists and extremists with whom they are presented to be on a par by Mr Lack and The New York Times,” Simonyan said, adding, “RT is outraged that the new head of the BBG, which in essence represents the U.S. government, expressed such views, and that the U.S.’ ‘newspaper of record’ published these remarks without any challenge or any attempt to provide balance in their report.”

The quick riposte is very much part of the RT stamp. In this case, it took the opportunity presented by a bumbling U.S. official to rally support and defend itself, both on its channel and online, not just on this specific issue but in relation to broader criticism of RT’s alleged reporting biases. However, apart from a few notable voices of support—the U.S. Society of Professional Journalists, the International Press Institute, WikiLeaks and Javier Couso, a leftist European Parliament member—the influential British media did not speak out against this irresponsible attack on a professional news channel.

But, despite the scorn and criticism heaped on its programming, RT’s five main channels on YouTube have now racked up more than two billion views in total, outperforming all other international news networks, a press release from the channel says. It has outperformed CNN three times, Al Jazeera 2.4 times and Euronews by 3.6 times.

It has also surged ahead of its competitors by the total number of YouTube subscribers. With 2.5 million followers, RT beats BBC News 5.2 times.

The dedicated channel of five hours of exclusive programming out of the London office of RT comes at a time when relations between not just Russia and the U.K., but between Russia and the Western world have, after the Ukraine crisis, touched rock bottom. It is widely perceived as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “soft power” thrust. While there is no doubt that the channel does give the Russian view and position, this is, if anything, its strength, as it balances the stridently anti-Russia media offerings that other channels so assiduously put out.