State-funded English language news channel RT has found itself at the centre of international attention recently, with its reports on the crisis in Crimea accused of being less than impartial. Monocle goes behind the scenes.
Rory Suchet is explaining how the world works and I am struggling to keep up. Over the past 30 minutes he has given his views on the war in Iraq, the war on terrorism, the role of the cia, the influence of corporations on American media, why the Arab Spring took place, discussed in great detail the nefarious nature of US-funded NGOs, outlined the real reasons behind the conflict in Syria (it’s to do with China, apparently) and all the while emphasising how much he enjoys working for a news channel where he can say what he wants and doesn’t “have to kowtow to anyone”.
We are in Moscow, sitting in the studios of RT, the news channel formerly known as Russia Today, which is funded by the Russian government. It is early afternoon and outside a light snow shower has covered the car park in several inches. A small snowplough is clearing the way for a RT-branded news van to make its way out into the city.
Inside the studio Suchet, RT’s main news anchor, has just finished his shift: presenting 30 minutes of news and analysis at the top of every hour to a global audience. Set up in 2005 to provide a Russian voice in a media landscape dominated by western media groups, RT has morphed into an increasingly loud presence. It is on air in more than 100 countries with a potential reach of 644 million – it is right there on your TV next to Al Jazeera, CNN and the BBC. Exactly how many of those hundreds of millions are even aware of RT’s existence, let alone tune in, is difficult to work out. But RT can point to growth online that suggests it has found an audience.
Suchet is RT’s equivalent of NBC’s Brian Williams, the BBC’s Huw Edwards or CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. He is dismissive of his rivals, speaking ominously of the “financiers” and “corporations” who really control the western media. It is all, he says, part of the “military-industrial complex” and muses how some people believe “there is too much Jewish money in America”.
Then he explains why he has doubts about what happened on September 11: “You know, Adolf Hitler said ‘if you want to make people believe something you’ve got to make the lie so big that it’s impossible not to believe it’. If you want to create something you just have to make it massive… There’s such a huge amount of disinformation out there, it’s just absolutely incredible.”
When Russia Today launched it struggled to gain an audience. A focus on Russian stories on an English language channel was, perhaps unsurprisingly, not a ratings winner. As Margarita Simonyan, the channel’s 33-year-old editor-in-chief, puts it, “If I see a channel called Belgium Today and it’s all about Belgium and Belgian news, am I going to watch it?” In Simonyan’s telling, RT – as the channel became known – would aim to cover the stories the rest of the world’s media ignored. Rather than pushing an overtly anti-western agenda, it would position itself as anti-mainstream, allowing it to tap into a larger well of potential viewers who feel ill-served by the bigger players. Through accident or design it has alighted on a formula that works perfectly.
“It was pretty obvious to us that the mainstream media is pretty much all the same,” says Simonyan from behind the desk on the top floor of RT’s offices in an industrial district in east Moscow. She glances up at the bank of a dozen television screens in front of her. “We thought this cannot be satisfactory. There must be people out there who think there is more to the world than this.”
RT now has some 2,000 staff, of which 1,000 are editorial, including 100 at its studios in Washington DC and around 20 or so at its new studios in London. One-third of the editorial staff, like Suchet, is international. Not all of them are as loyal to Simonyan’s vision as Suchet. In recent weeks, as the crisis in Ukraine became the world’s biggest story, RT has come under fire not just from outsiders but from its own presenters. Abby Martin, an American host of a programme called “Breaking the Set” denounced Russian military action in Crimea. Then Liz Wahl, a news anchor on RT America, resigned live on air.
“It’s fair to say the channel has had an unprecedented level of attention,” says Ivor Crotty, an Irishman who now runs the channel’s social media networks. “Unless you’ve got quality process in place you’re going to crack under pressure.”
That hasn’t happened, he says, for a very simple reason. “We haven’t had to change a word. The facts are the facts.” Some of the facts found on RT are slightly different from the facts found on other channels – nowhere more so than in the channel’s coverage of Ukraine. While western reporters found Russian troops in Crimea, RT saw only “self-defence forces”. While western reporters cited concerns over the validity of the referendum, RT saw only happy Crimeans coming home to Mother Russia.
And while western reporters saw the events in Ukraine as a largely peaceful uprising against a corrupt president willing to sanction the killing of his own people, RT reported it as a “coup” and the new government as “fascist”. To back up this point the same edit of footage – the throwing of a Molotov cocktail, a man with an axe, a grinning fat neo-Nazi – is shown every time Kiev is mentioned.
All of these views, it is worth pointing out, chime with the opinions of President Vladimir Putin. Simonyan baulks at the description of RT as the “Kremlin-backed news channel”. Deutsche Welle and France 24 don’t face the same criticism, she correctly points out. I suggest this may be because they allow voices critical of their own government on air. She waves her hand. “They were saying this about us before we even started.”
Yet her employees struggle to find examples of stories they have run on RT that President Putin would be unhappy with. Crotty exhales and looks at the ceiling. “I’d be hard pressed to give you one off the top of my head,” he says eventually. Suchet is similarly nonplussed. “Um, I can’t think of anything off-hand.” At RT’s new London studios chief reporter Laura Smith thinks there was a British MP who said something but she can’t recall the exact details.
Based on the 16th floor of Millbank Tower along the banks of the River Thames in Westminster, RT’s new studio is based in the heart of the British establishment. Smith peers out of the floor-to-ceiling plate-glass window to the London skyline beyond. This will be the backdrop for her live dispatches once the studio is fully open. The Houses of Parliament rise up in middle distance but there is a non-descript grey building in front of it. “That’s MI5,” Smith says.
Smith’s journey to RT is similar to many of her western colleagues – Russophiles first, journalists second. She was writing press releases for a Moscow law firm; another we meet, Anissa Naouai, had been studying theatre in Moscow. RT is the only news organisation for whom they have worked.
Simonyan emphasises the importance of using different experts to those found on other channels. George Galloway, the sole far left British MP, is often called on for analysis of the UK; Manuel Ochsenreiter, the editor of nationalist German magazine, Zuerst!, is a regular contributor on German issues. The western voices are a bulwark against the pro-Kremlin allegations. Look, RT says, it’s not Russians criticising the west – it’s Brits and Americans.
While Suchet may argue he has to “kowtow to no one”, many other journalists working in Moscow would disagree. In the past few weeks many independent news outlets in Russia have been muzzled. The editor-in-chief of the popular website Lenta.ru has been fired, independent news channel Dozhd has been taken off the major cable networks and three news sites have been banned.
Suchet isn’t convinced. “When people say there is a clampdown on the media I say that’s utter nonsense.” He is similarly dismissive of claims that freedom of speech is under threat in Russia. “How did the government allow all these demonstrations and protests to occur in the past couple of years? There was no clampdown there.”
Lots of those people were arrested though, weren’t they? “I didn’t see lots of people being arrested. If there were some physical troublemakers, if there were some who were upsetting the peace then perhaps they were detained, but I’m not aware of anyone being arrested, no.”
It would be easy to dismiss Suchet’s views as irrelevant to the legitimacy of the news channel were he not so prominent, or if RT wasn’t a channel that has more than a passing interest in conspiracy theories. A recent episode of RT’s The Truth Seeker claims that the BBC faked a film about Syria to promote military intervention, argues that some western reporters are actually Nato intelligence agents and the CIA has infiltrated CNN – all in just 13 minutes. Even Martin, whose on-air comments on Russian “military aggression” brought so much attention to RT, appears to fits in rather well. On Breaking the Set she has talked about her “many unanswered questions” about September 11 and how Israel uses “Hitler’s methods”.
Some of the international staff are uncomfortable with how far RT has veered towards the fringes. Smith voices unease about the “9/11 thing”, while Crotty admits that some of the claims on The Truth Seeker are “quite frankly bananas”. Naouai, who begins a new programme later this spring, says she hopes to spend time on issues like corruption in Russia that RT’s news programmes “can’t focus on”.
According to Simonyan, the real problem is the western media. “Never ever have I seen or heard a word – and I watch them every single day – that would be critical of the position of their countries.” It is a bold claim and one that, whatever one thinks of the quality of CNN or BBC, is difficult to back up. Simonyan is adamant. “They would have a presenter and three experts and all four of them would be saying the same things. All four of them for god’s sake.” Later that day RT screens a discussion show called CrossTalk about the situation in Crimea. All four of them are saying the same thing. The more time one spends watching RT and speaking to their editors and reporters the trickier it becomes to have a rational discussion. It’s not that our opinions are different; our facts are different. We cannot even agree on what the facts are.
The problem, Simonyan believes, is when certain news channels refuse to even acknowledge stories that threaten the reality they have tried to create. “It doesn’t really fit into their picture of the world. It doesn’t go in line with their narrative, so [they think] let’s sort of find why it shouldn’t matter, let’s find a reason why we should ignore it. It’s just outrageous. Unbelievable.”
And for the first time all week I feel that there is finally something we can agree on.
Three stories you will have missed if you weren’t watching RT:
A peaceful Sunday in Simferopol: “Contrary to expectations, security in Crimea has actually become more stable. As the far right calls for violence in social networks continue, Crimean locals give out sandwiches and tea, sing songs and pose for photos with self-defence forces.”
Humanitarian crisis looms: “An estimated 675,000 Ukrainians left for Russia in January and February, fearing the ‘revolutionary chaos’ brewing in Ukraine, Russia’s Federal Border Guard Service said.
Media ‘staged’ Syria chemical attack: BBC’s “total fabrication from beginning to end” of Syria “atrocity”.
Three more television stations with a different take on the news:
Funded by the Iranian government, Press TV paints Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in a positive light and broadcasts a stream of anti-Israel stories.
China’s state broadcaster airs in English all over the world (see Monocle issue 12). In Africa it has bought prestige by hiring well-known local presenters.
The Doha-based news channel is funded by Qatar, which has been known to use its Arabic network to back up its foreign policy (see Monocle issue 43).