Russia Today UK Is Bad News – but Even Tyrants Have a Right to Free Speech

This is a cross-post by James Snell

This essay, originally published elsewhere, is perhaps a little more optimistic in tone than I am minded to be at present. But nevertheless, the point stands: RT and the like will continue to spread absurdity and to promote extreme views in any form so long as they range themselves against liberal democracy. Perhaps the very strength of liberal democracy – genuine pluralism – could precipitate its eventual failure.

RT, formerly Russia Today, the state-funded broadcasting arm of that expansionist European nation, has recently launched a British subsidiary. If the thought of Putin’s own propaganda operation descending upon our media landscape does not give you a small frisson of trepidation, you’re probably part of its target demographic.

Through the proliferation of what it terms an ‘alternative’ narrative, RT has become a focal point for self-described sceptics. The network attracts a viewership so desperate for a non-conformist approach to what some see as the one-sided, corporate-heavy media situation in the West that these viewers cease exercising their collective critical faculties and become credulous.

Where else but RT’s American arm would you hear elaborate conspiracy theories hinting that, for example, the Ukrainian government brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) over Eastern Ukraine on July 17th, 2014; or that Jang Song-Thaek, the executed uncle of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un, was, in a line taken directly from Pyongyang, ‘factionless human filth’? (It has also come to my attention that RT has its own ‘Illuminati correspondent’. Fair-minded readers can come to their own conclusions on this one.)

The catalogue of its contributors and guests represents a disturbing coming together of the ultra-Right and the far-Left (George Galloway, who represents and advocates on behalf of both, has his own show). For RT, this televisual trait has history. As Michael Weiss and Peter Pomerantsev demonstrate in their recent reportThe Menace of Unreality: How the Kremlin Weaponizes Information, Culture and Money, Russia’s international broadcaster has form in broadcasting the ramblings of some rather suspect guests:

Some RT “experts” have backgrounds in extremist or fringe groups that would make them ineligible for other channels: RT has presented Holocaust denier “Ryan Dawson” as a human rights activist, and neo-Nazi Manuel Ochsenreiter as a “Middle East analyst.”

But this is no ordinary gathering of assorted whackos and crazies; it is in fact a sophisticated, internationally operated multimedia empire, with a reported annual government stipend of over $300 million.

To many people, the prospect of allowing the state-funded broadcaster of a nation where journalists are routinely murdered for asking too many questions to transmit unimpeded might seem counter-productive.

Some – sensibly, it must be stated – view the expansion of RT and its affiliates into Western spheres as an informational disaster on the brink of occurrence. People like Kyle Orton, a talented analyst of foreign policy and a personal friend of mine, see RT as a pawn in a Kremlin propaganda machine which is whole-heartedly committed to spreading malicious distortions and disinformation to a willing, gullible section of Western society.

He is right, of course, and that is one of RT’s primary aims. But I tend to see such happenings in a more optimistic light. Much like talk of a new Cold War – and attendant metaphors of Lenin punching through the glass case of his Moscow mausoleum from the inside, ready to finish what he started – doom and gloom on this front seems a little overblown. (Having seen Lenin with my own eyes – and marvelled at his otherworldly plasticity – I can certainly testify to my own doubt of the likelihood of him rising from death itself and once again fighting for the principles of Marx.)

In being transmitted more specifically to British audiences, the Russian line as propounded by RT will be exposed to more criticism, for one, as the agents of corporate oligarchy come up against the other side of the way liberal society treats its media. In free, liberal nations such as ours, you are free to expound whatever dogma or ideas to which you subscribe, but you cannot expect to be free from censure or criticism in the process.

With a wider remit and a wider audience for RT, it is likely that the insidious disinformation of the Russian state, described by General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s leading military commander, as ‘the most amazing information warfare blitzkrieg we have ever seen in the history of information warfare,’ will be viewed and considered by more people than ever. While this may initially create fear, or even the frisson I mentioned earlier, there are reasons to be hopeful.

Yes, RT is bad, but maybe by exposing its partisanship and the many flaws in its approach to a wider range of people, we might be able to defuse some of its negative potential. If our arguments for liberal democracy were not good enough to stand up to this sort of naked political manoeuvring, that is the point at which we should begin to worry. Disinformation of this kind thrives when free speech is not extant, where there is not the marketplace of ideas that we so patently require and expect in the West.

The arrival of Putin’s propaganda channel may be bad news – but even the media arms of corrupt, expansionary oligarchies deserve the right to free speech. This free speech must be granted, but it should be granted with hope – and not without a little irony.