Ukraine crisis: Could Russia Today turn you into a Putin propagandist?
The network’s coverage is so biased that its presenters are walking out. Archie Bland tunes in to the other side
On Monday, Russia Today presenter Abby Martin made use of her editorial independence to make a fervent speech about her opposition to the Moscow government’s intervention in Ukraine. On Wednesday, another host, Liz Wahl, resigned on air, explaining that she could not be part of a network “which whitewashes the actions of Putin”.
I watched, then, with beady eyes for any sign of wavering loyalty to the RT message. I saw none. (That may have partly been because Abby Martin had skipped her show to be interviewed by Piers Morgan instead.)
The reality was somewhat unexpected: unremitting boredom. Watching more than half an hour of rolling news is never good for you; the breathless tone and churning speculation conjure a sharp sense of killing time in a Sheraton hotel room before a business meeting. RT, though – to use its proper title – does something else again. RT does endless, grinding repetition. It’s like Fox News if Fox News didn’t care about selling ads.
An hour on RT is split into 30 minutes for news and 30 minutes for a presenter-driven strand of the sort that Mr Morgan has just lost. Here is how a typical hour went today, with only slight variation for presenter or pundit.
First up, it goes without saying, is Ukraine. We begin with the Crimean parliament’s vote to join Russia, a momentous development that warranted top billing but not much in the way of reporting. More substantially dealt with is a suggestion, repeated over the phone by an Estonian minister to EU foreign affairs chief Cathy Ashton, that the snipers who killed so many protesters in Kiev were cynical opposition plants.
Presenter Marina Dzhashi walks us through some sketchy back-of-an-envelope ballistic reconstructions that purport to show that all the sniper fire came from opposition areas. I stare at her hard, wondering if there will be any hints of a looming defection to liven things up a bit, but Dzhashi stays resolutely on message.
Then it’s on to a segment called Propaganda Watch, which is exactly as dreary as it sounds. Presenter Gayane Chichakyan is so tired of the lies that the MSM is feeding the sheeple. She, too, is excited about the sniper story, and uses her anti-propaganda slot to inflate the Estonian minister’s words from rumour to “evidence”. Why is it not being better covered elsewhere? Well, she says darkly, “it doesn’t fit into the narrative, does it?”
In a way, the Ukrainian stuff is the least of it. It is, after all, a massive story. The second half of the news is far stranger, cherry-picking a couple of yarns that are almost random except that they paint an ugly picture of the West – the arrest of David Cameron’s aide Patrick Rock over child porn allegations being one, an obscure tale of a deadly New Jersey gas explosion being the other. Again, they are repeated ad infinitum, such that the news seems to roll less than it does to plod.
The break is stuffed with trailers for presenters who, we keep being told, question everything and are afraid of nothing, with the possible exception of the consequences of insulting Vladimir Putin. This set of wannabe Bill O’Reillys, whose shows fill the second half hour, are fatally stymied by a lack of resources: instead of the kinetic impatience that we’re used to, everything gets done to death. Business presenter Erin Ade, the poor thing, has to spend 20 minutes interrogating a bloke who thinks we’ll soon be paying our bills with gold ingots.
Neatly emblematic of it all is Worlds Apart, a show which promises fearless debate but instead features a pro-Kremlin presenter haranguing an academic. The Ukrainian government wasn’t elected, the host says. Of course it wasn’t, the academic, Dr Angela Stent, replies – it’s an interim body, set up in a huge hurry. And the summarising caption appears below: Stent: US now supporting interim government which wasn’t elected democratically.
Thank goodness someone is here to keep the narrative from going off the rails.
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