Why has the UK banned RT?

Ofcom rules Kremlin-backed channel not ‘fit and proper’ to hold broadcasting licence

Joe Sommerlad
Friday 18 March 2022 12:38
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Nigel Farage is ‘knighted’ on Sam Delaney’s RT show in March 2017

UK media regulator Ofcom has moved to revoke the broadcasting licence of Russian state-funded TV station RT UK in light of the war in Ukraine.

Ofcom said it did not consider RT (formerly Russia Today) able to comply with impartiality laws in Britain given the current circumstances and its close ties to the Kremlin, declaring it was no longer “fit and proper” for it to hold a licence because the regulator “cannot be satisfied that it can be a responsible broadcaster”.

The channel swiftly hit back, accusing Ofcom itself of being a “tool of government” and “robbing the UK public of access to information”.

The EU banned the channel on 1 March, prompting Sky to drop it from its UK package and Google to block its presence on YouTube.

Those moves were applauded by culture secretary Nadine Dorries, who said it meant Russian president Vladimir Putin’s “polluting propaganda machine” would have “severely restricted access into British homes via our TV screens”.

Foreign secretary Liz Truss warned the House of Commons on 2 March that blocking RT altogether was likely to mean Russia would retaliate by moving against the BBC, preventing its people from “hearing the truth” about what was really unfolding in Ukraine, which has seen cities surrounded and shelled over the last month and forced 3m people to flee the country as refugees.

The Kremlin’s communications watchdog Roskomnadzor restricted access to the BBC website just two days on from Ms Truss’s remarks in response to the corporation bringing back its shortwave radio service in Ukraine and Russia to give civilians on the ground access to impartial information about the conflict.

Availability of the site was at just 17 per cent of normal levels in Russia as a result of that move, according to internet censorship tracker Globalcheck, before Moscow blocked the BBC News website entirely on 16 March, along with 31 other international media outlets, as part of Mr Putin’s attempted crackdown on “hostile” coverage in order to silence nascent protest movements at home.

“I think this is only the beginning of retaliatory measures to the information war unleashed by the West against Russia,” Kremlin foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova threatened on Telegram.

RT was founded in April 2005 by TV-Novosti, an autonomous NGO owned by Russian state-owned news agency RIA Novosti, and began broadcasting on 10 December that year, quickly growing to make itself available in English, Spanish, German, French and Arabic around the world.

In October 2014, RT UK began broadcasting from Millbank Tower in central London, running four hours of its own programming per day to compliment offerings from its parent, its lineup going on to include regular chat shows featuring the likes of George Galloway and Alex Salmond.

The channel was immediately accused of being a mouthpiece for the Russian government, its routine denials doing little to dissuade suspicious media commentators.

Speaking shortly after its launch, former BBC director of global news Richard Sambrook commented: “Editorially its line is clearly one that is being driven by the Kremlin agenda. It’s a surprising move to focus resources on the UK. It’s not a commercial proposition, therefore the main purpose must be to gain influence. It’s about soft power for the Kremlin.”

This map shows the extent of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

RT’s content has attracted controversy ever since.

Even before the UK arm’s launch, the network’s international correspondent Sara Firth, based in London, resigned in July 2014 in opposition to its coverage of the MH17 plane crash, in which a passenger flight between Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur was shot down over Ukraine, leading to the deaths of all 283 passengers and 15 crew.

Ofcom found RT UK in breach of its impartiality rules over its coverage of the Ukrainian government’s war against separatist insurgents in the Donbas in 2014 and the Russian military’s involvement in the Syrian civil war in 2015, upholding a complaint made by the BBC after RT attacked a Panorama documentary, “Saving Syria’s Children”, and claimed the corporation had faked evidence of a chemical weapons attack.

It also ruled in December 2018 that no fewer than seven RT UK programmes on the Salisbury nerve agent attack that spring – in which Russian former intelligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with Novichok in the Wiltshire cathedral city – had breached its guidelines, a verdict the channel said it was “extremely disappointed” with and which required it to pay a £200,000 fine.

Despite repeated questions over RT’s motivations and editorial conduct, British politicians from across the political spectrum have appeared on its programmes to offer their point of view, including Labour shadow foreign secretary David Lammy, senior Tory MP David Davis and former Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable.

Brexit cheerleader Nigel Farage was also a regular guest between 2016 and 2017, even appearing in an instalment of 3 March 2017 in order to be “knighted” with a plastic sword by a six-year-old girl wearing a toy crown and cape.

This week, Mr Farage denied an allegation by Labour MP Chris Bryant that he had received £548,573 in appearance fees from RT in 2018.

“Mr Bryant, in 2018, I did not receive a penny from Russia Today,” he said in a video posted on Twitter. “In previous years, I’d done a couple of bits for them. I decided it wasn’t suitable for me.”

Mr Farage dismissed the MP’s call for his sanctioning as “outrageous” and called him a “paranoid Remainer”.

The Independent has a proud history of campaigning for the rights of the most vulnerable, and we first ran our Refugees Welcome campaign during the war in Syria in 2015. Now, as we renew our campaign and launch this petition in the wake of the unfolding Ukrainian crisis, we are calling on the government to go further and faster to ensure help is delivered. To find out more about our Refugees Welcome campaign, click here. To sign the petition click here. If you would like to donate then please click here for our GoFundMe page.

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