The poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal was not the work of the Russian state; it was “a complete set-up”. Theresa May had “found this one issue that can boost her”. The attempted murder in a Salisbury restaurant was “a provocation intended to worsen relations even further between Russia and the West”. Whoever was responsible “did it knowing that Russia would almost certainly be blamed”. Britain is “still at war in Iraq and threatening war with Russia”.
These were not the words of Jeremy Corbyn – an easy enough mistake to make – but the farrago of casuistry that has greeted viewers of RT in recent days. Nominally a 24-hour news channel, RT began life in 2005 as Russia Today, a Kremlin-funded “alternative” to the BBC and CNN. In truth, it was a cynical tool for fomenting political instability under the guise of telling the stories Western media would not touch because they were too close to their governments. (The chutzpah is intentional, a mischievous nod to Russian black humour.)
At first, RT seemed mad but harmless. Its schedules were filled with lurid tales of UFOs, secret societies and government plots. To watch RT was to tune in to a world where The X-Files was a documentary and Dan Brown a historian. But while its tabloid news values allow RT to build an audience, its strength lies in polysemic propaganda.
RT has no fixed ideological stance like Fox News or MSNBC, the noise factories that represent the right and left corners of US primetime politics. It is a more promiscuous partisan, deploying the old Soviet trick of latching on to local grievances and posing as dissent.
To that end, it exploits domestic political controversies and injustices (real and confected) to foster anger, division and mistrust of government, authorities and fellow citizens. It glides seamlessly from railing against austerity and Iraq to poking wounds over refugees and the high-handedness of Brussels. The guest list veers from the far-left to the alt-right and every flavour of conspiracy theorist imaginable.
The object is to place sneering air quotes around the facts and promote distrust and disunity. The threat any domestic figure poses to Britain’s political harmony or territorial integrity can be gauged by the frequency of their appearances.
In 2011, I wrote my master’s thesis on Russia Today. I concluded that it was not a news channel but an arm of Russian foreign policy. As such, it should not be afforded the same protections as the legitimate journalism it makes a mockery of. There is a compelling case for banishing RT from the airwaves. Russia should be allowed to poison neither our people nor our minds.
There is a precedent for such action. In 2012, Ofcom revoked the broadcast licence of Press TV, an Iranian outfit that operates in much the same manner. The regulator ruled against the Tehran agitprop station after it refused to pay a £100,000 fine for airing an “interview” with Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari. Bahari had been seized by Iranian authorities while covering the 2009 elections and was threatened with execution if he did not read from a scripted confession of Western media villainy.
At the time, I thought this a mistake. I was young and stupid and going through a dogmatic libertarian phase for which Ayn Rand had much to answer. The state should not be in the business of putting even the most obnoxious paranoia-peddler out of business, I thought. Better to let the public see anti-Western propaganda for what it was. We would win because liberal values were objectively superior.
This was the hubris of youth and misplaced idealism. Liberalism is not a cricket match; we are under no obligation to show good sportsmanship to our enemies. If we do, we may end up with a bat to the head.
With this in mind, Britain should adopt a policy of active intolerance towards Russian propaganda networks like RT and its fellow-traveller, Sputnik. In the case of RT, the preferable outcome is licence withdrawal, but there are other measures worth considering: such as requiring British-based Kremlin media shills to register as agents of the Russian state, and levying a surtax on earnings derived from employment or freelance work for RT or Sputnik – including that done by those useful idiots who take a fee for appearing as pundits.
Propaganda can work both ways, too. Just as authoritarian states can use it to undermine free countries, we can disseminate content unhelpful to the Kremlin and its allies. Britain should recapture the spirit of Radio Free Europe with a populist Russian-language news outlet that gives a voice to the domestic opposition, exposes government corruption and, perhaps most importantly of all, noisily satirises Putin’s regime and Moscow’s neo-nomenklatura.
Boris Yeltsin was fond of an old Russian saying, klin klinom vyshibayut, which finds its closest English parallel in the idiom, “fight fire with fire”. As this new Cold War heats up, we should adopt it as our motto.
Stephen Daisley is a columnist for the Scottish Daily Mail