This week, Britain’s broadcasting regulator Ofcom published the results of ten investigations into the Kremlin-funded broadcaster, RT. Seven of its programmes were found in breach of Ofcom’s impartiality rules, demonstrating what the regulator considers to be a ‘serious failure of compliance’.
Ofcom is now considering serving RT with statutory sanctions. These could range from a mere requirement to make corrections on air, to the full revocation of RT’s broadcast licence. RT has the right to make written and oral representations first, but there’s no doubt this ruling is significant.
Yet, to understand how this episode will play out, context is vital. Ofcom launched its investigation at the height of the Salisbury poisoning crisis, following calls from MPs to rescind RT’s UK broadcasting license. Most of the offending broadcasts aired on RT UK between March and May 2018 and relate to the Skripal affair.
Given that until 2018, RT fell foul of Ofcom no more frequently than other broadcasters, the network has already suggested that the decision to investigate was ‘influenced by the current political climate’. But RT regular programmes like Sputnik and CrossTalk – both of which have been identified as in breach – have always dealt in outrageous provocation. To single out recent editions of these programmes for sanction seems somewhat arbitrary. The wider context – in which Russian domestic media toes its government’s line – renders RT’s position hypocritical. Nonetheless, the claim that RT is being politically persecuted rather than objectively regulated will likely recur in RT’s PR strategy for the fallout.
The volatile diplomatic relations between the UK and Russia have engendered mutual mistrust and impact upon the dispute between Ofcom and RT in several ways. First, there is the question of trust that goes well beyond RT and Russia: How much trust should audiences place in news outlets, and to what extent do media regulators trust audiences to protect themselves from harm and undue influence? RT and Ofcom contrast vividly in these respects.
RT presents its audiences as empowered viewers who approach news critically. Despite a ‘relatively small’ UK audience, RT believes that its viewers deliberately seek out RT’s ‘avowedly Russian position’ and are unlikely to be ‘ambushed’ by its content. RT states that impartiality guidelines drawn up by Ofcom in 1954 aren’t relevant to this media environment. Ofcom, however, is required to ‘protect audiences from harm’, including by guaranteeing ‘due impartiality’.
Second, how much trust should we place in media regulation? RT moderated its Salisbury coverage following the announcement of the investigation, and this indicates the value of Ofcom. The network somewhat re-balanced its output on the incident and avoided the hysterical excesses of Russia’s domestic broadcasters. Ofcom also reports that RT UK has ‘run compliance workshops’ for its staff. However cynical RT’s motivations, this indicates that due impartiality regulation enhances the quality of what British audiences see. The same cannot be said for audiences in Russia.
However, as RT points out, ‘due impartiality’ is elusive. It complains about a particular difficulty in pinning down what qualifies in Ofcom’s eyes as the ‘appropriate expression’ of alternative perspectives on controversial issues. RT protests that it followed Ofcom’s advice in providing alternative views via on-screen graphics. Yet Ofcom identified numerous occasions when alternative perspectives were not given ‘due weight’. Ofcom’s Code allows for programmes to be dominated by one political view if a countervailing opinion is offered in ‘linked’ programmes broadcast ‘relatively contemporaneously’ with the original material. RT claims this is much too vague and makes planning a rolling news channel impossible. The Ofcom investigation feeds a popular narrative that portrays governments as colluding with the ‘experts’ entrusted with interpreting complex mysteries like ‘due impartiality’ on our behalf.
Our third cycle of mistrust also emerges from RT’s response to Ofcom charges. RT repeatedly cited high numbers of experts who declined invitations to appear and balance the biased views on the Salisbury poisoning expressed by the main guests. Such refusals, whilst justifiable, reinforce RT’s reliance on expertise of dubious provenance which, in turn, confirms its status as a purveyor of misinformation. Yet, RT has proven adept at exploiting its pariah image, as with its ingenious ‘Missed a Train? Lost an Election? Blame RT!’ poster campaign.
Within hours of Ofcom’s investigation being released, Russia’s own media regulator announced an investigation of BBC programmes available in Russia’s territory. The unfortunate vicious cycle of the ‘information war’ thus continues. It is driven by the downward spiral of inter-state suspicion and hostility, but it is also played out in the context of mutual mistrust between states, media and citizens. Ofcom should ensure that their sanctions against RT do not undermine their own legitimacy, and RT would be wise to comply with UK broadcast regulations.
Vera Tolz and Marie Gillespie from Reframing Russia for the Global Mediasphere: From Cold War to ‘Information War’, also contributed to this report