Magazine article The Spectator

Moscow Calling

Magazine article The Spectator

Moscow Calling

Article excerpt

Russia Today's mission to subvert the West from your living room

Anyone making the journey to Westminster by public transport will be confronted by a series of posters warning them about the state of British media. The word 'redacted' is in large letters, and readers are advised to look up a website for 'the ad we can't show you here'. If you do, you see a picture of Tony Blair advocating war. 'This is what happens when there is no second opinion,' the webpage says, advising people to 'question more'. This is how Russia Today, the Kremlin's fast-growing English language broadcaster, is selling itself: as the challenger to an out-of-touch establishment. At a time when there's a widespread distrust of political elites, it's not a bad line.

Unlike rival broadcasters, Russia Today -- or RT as it has rebranded itself since 2009 -- has a growing -budget; President Putin himself is said to have intervened to protect it against cuts. The network now claims a worldwide audience of 700 million, a figure the old Voice of Russia could only dream about. It is widely present in social media, having 1.4 million subscribers on YouTube, for instance. And it has achieved a largish cult following on the fringes of the left and the right in the West. Its audience seems to believe in RT's marketing message -- that the network covers the stories which the mainstream media ignores, such as Occupy Wall Street or WikiLeaks scandals.

But there are, of course, stories that Russia Today is not keen on covering -- such as the reality of Russia today. Take this week's economic crisis, which Anne Applebaum writes about: the plunging rouble, the forecast of a recession, the accelerating exodus of capital as investors head for the hills. The story was the fourth item on RT's business page -- under the heading of 'Business Snaps'. The main news page, however, led on the vote by the French parliament to recognise a Palestinian state. The Russian politics page had only one financial story -- a reassurance from President Putin that Russia won't demand an early debt repayment from Ukraine because it doesn't want to cause Kiev difficulties. And that was that. In short, something like Miss Prism's instructions had gone out as editorial guidance: 'The fall of the rouble you may omit or at least downplay. It is somewhat too sensational for a young network.'

Not that financial stories were avoided entirely. The UK page opened with a long story headlined 'Anti-Austerity Protesters Besiege Downing Street Over "Disastrous" Economic Policies'. But this was less a report than an advert, written in advance, for the 'People's Assembly... a self-declared non-political campaign group... which rejects reactionary rhetoric peddled by austerity advocates etc., etc.' This was vigorous stuff, accompanied by lively illustrations and helpful links, but it suffered from a familiar confused logic, arguing that the Tories had plunged Britain into a penal austerity by indulging in massive overspending and rising debt.

Still on finance, there was a link to a video of RT's star financial columnist-anchor in London, Max Keiser, who held a freewheeling debate with his co-anchor on the not-very-burning question of whether the UK is about to lose its treasured position as a haven of political and economic security for investors (short answer: yes), interleaved with weird giggly speculation about what drugs George Osborne was on. Keiser is a fun anarchist provocateur with a background in finance and media who mixes financial analysis with aggressive hell-za-poppin' humour. His views on Russia's currency troubles -- a major financial story of the day -- would have been original and, just maybe, enlightening. He doesn't shrink from denouncing bankers as terrorists. But he didn't deal with the topic.

That's par for RT's course today. It began somewhat differently in 2004 as an international news network aiming to be similar to the BBC or CNN, with the insertion of local stories showing Russia in a good light. …

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