Boris Johnson bows to pressure and orders review of Russia Today licence

PM says ‘free speech’ important – but reveals culture secretary has requested review

Adam Forrest
Wednesday 23 February 2022 12:16 GMT
Boris Johnson says Ofcom will review Russia Today licence

Boris Johnson’s government has bowed to pressure and asked media regulator Ofcom to review the broadcast output of the Russia-backed RT channel.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer called on the government to tackle the “propaganda” put out by the channel, formerly known as Russia Today, and ask the watchdog review its licence.

The prime minister revealed at PMQs on Wednesday that culture secretary Nadine Dorries had now “asked Ofcom to review that matter” – though he also cited the importance of “free speech”.

Mr Johnson said: “We live in a country that believes in free speech. I think it’s important we leave it up to Ofcom, rather than politicians, to decide which media organisations to ban – that’s what Russia does.”

However, Ms Dorries’ letter to Ofcom, shared at PMQs began, took a quite different tack. The culture secretary urged the regulator to take “timely and transparent” action against RT.

The culture secretary said the channel was “demonstrably part of Russia’s global disinformation campaign” – saying it was “essential” that the UK limits Russia’s “ability to spread propaganda at home”.

“I have concerns that broadcasters such as RT, whom Ofcom have found to have repeatedly breached the Broadcasting Code in the past, will also look to spread harmful disinformation about the ongoing crisis in Ukraine,” Ms Dorries said in her letter to Ofcom chief Melanie Dawes.

Ms Dawes replied: “We will not hesitate to take swift action where necessary … It would not be acceptable for any of our licensees to broadcast one-sided propaganda.”

In 2019, Ofcom fined RT £200,000 for its failure to observe “due impartiality” in seven news and current affairs programmes, including its coverage of the war in Syria and the Salisbury nerve agent attack.

Sir Keir told the Commons on Wednesday that RT was president Vladimir Putin’s “personal propaganda tool” and said he could see “no reason why it should be allowed to keep broadcasting in this country”.

Mr Johnson made at jibe about Alex Salmond’s work with RT after SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford attacked the government over the “sewer of dirty Russian money has been allowed to run through London for years”.

The prime minister responded: “His indignation is a bit much coming from somebody, whose very own Alex Salmond is a leading presenter, as a far as I know, on Russia Today.”

Lib Dem MP Jamie Stone asked Mr Johnson whether he agreed it was “an absolute disgrace” that Mr Salmond “sees fit to broadcast his half-baked views week after week” on RT.

The former Scottish first minister is no longer in the SNP, having formed the Alba Party last year. He has faced criticism for continued to broadcast his The Alex Salmond Show on RT.

Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon said on Wednesday it was “unthinkable” that her predecessor still has a show on RT, as she also urged Ofcom to examine the channel.

The SNP leader told STV News: “I’m appalled at Alex Salmond’s continued involvement with RT,” adding: “It’s a matter for Ofcom, but … I would certainly encourage Ofcom to look at that very, very seriously and closely indeed.”

Ms Sturgeon went on to say that no SNP MPs or MSPs should appear on the broadcaster.

Anna Belkina, RT’s deputy editor-in-chief, said UK politicians “are now openly and brazenly interfering in institutions they have long touted as supposedly independent and wholly free from political pressure, exposing their self-proclaimed commitment to such values as free speech and regulatory independence as nothing but a sham”.

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