There is, I’m quite confident, no TV channel in the UK as unintentionally informative as RT. If you want to really understand a section of the British political class, it has become a must watch. Not, admittedly, for what passes as its insight. The politics of RT, rebranded from Russia Today in a half-hearted effort to disguise its Moscow connections, are predictably boring. Once you’ve watched one broadcast, and noted its core anti-western reflex, you’ve watched them all.
But it does provide a good guide as to who in British politics, if the conditions are right, will shill for tyranny.
RT is, and always has been, a propaganda network. It exists not to inform, but to further the interests of its paymaster, the Putin regime. There’s no need to take my word on this. RT’s editor in chief, Margarita Simonyan, set out its function in a pair of interviews with Russian media in 2012 and 2013. Russia needed RT, she argued, “for about the same reason as why the country needs a Defence Ministry”. She added that using “the information weapon” RT has been “conducting information war against the whole Western world”. It’s scarcely a surprise that Ofcom recently fined the channel £200,000 after it “failed to preserve due impartiality” when covering the Salisbury novichok poisoning and Syrian civil war.
Given RT is self-evidently a tool of the Russian state, run by a far-right regime that ruthlessly suppresses internal opposition, it’s a wonder any Briton is prepared to make an appearance. But shockingly, many do. Not just from the authoritarian right, where there would at least be a smidgen of ideological justification, but from right across the spectrum. If anything the hard-left, a section of which is prepared to defend the Putin regime while damning its British co-ideologues as fascists, predominates.
In 2017 disgraced former London Mayor Ken Livingstone urged the channel to “sail on telling the truth that you believe”. Jeremy Corbyn, a frequent guest, recommended the channel on Twitter in April 2011 advising: “Try Russia Today. Free of Royal Wedding and more objective on Libya than most”. Last month the New Stateman’s Grace Blakeley, a prominent Corbynite talking head, appeared on the channel to have a cosy chat about the evils of capitalism. Shortly after, Moscow police were arresting pro-democracy protestors in the Russian capital.
But, as much as I’d love to be able to claim otherwise, it isn’t just left-wingers that are the problem. Welsh Conservative MP David Davies made four appearances between September and December 2016 on ‘Sam Delaney’s News Thing’, for which he received £750 an hour. When challenged by a Guardian reporter he doubled down, commenting “The News Thing has given me a fair chance to explain my opinions on Brexit, immigration and transgender issues, for which I am grateful. Sadly, I have not received the same courtesy from the British Broadcasting Corporation”. Precisely why a Putin-linked broadcaster was prepared to give time to his views on Brexit and transgender rights is not a question Davies appears to have seriously considered.
Nigel Farage, before he became Brexit Party leader, was another frequent guest. This is scarcely surprising. For someone whose response to Russia’s partial invasion of Ukraine in 2014 was to claim the European Union had “blood on its hands” for encouraging Ukrainian protestors, the appeal was obvious. The standard line from abusive relationships, that the physically strong can’t control their actions when defied by the weak, was recycled. This association did at least produce one of the most bizarre moments in British television history, when Farage was ‘knighted’ live on RT by a young girl after Theresa May refused to convey the honour officially.
So why do so many Brits, very few of whom share the Putinite ideology, make RT appearances? Certainly they pay generous appearance fees. Prior to the 2016 Brexit referendum I was working in Parliament for a Conservative MP, who was offered a not insignificant sum to go on an RT show for an hour. To her credit, she had a policy of rejecting all RT appearances, so the offer was turned down.
But I don’t think it’s just the money, our politicians aren’t simply being brought and sold for Moscow gold. In many cases, I suspect it’s a question of ego. Give a politician the chance to sound off on their favourite topics from a plush TV studio, looking terribly important, and you’d be surprised who will fall into the trap. For some, the shock isn’t that they are prepared to sell out, but that they are prepared to sell out for so little.
On 8 December 2018 Shahmir Sanni, the Brexit ‘whistleblower’, tweeted a pertinent warning. Russia, he asserted, has “infiltrated our democracy”. He was indisputably right. Earlier this month he made his own appearance on RT. To paraphrase Harvey Dent, if you’re involved in politics for long enough, at some point you’re going to turn into the villain. I can understand why some consider an appearance on RT or Press TV, the Iranian equivalent, to be innocuous. But I also have no doubt they’re wrong. RT is, by the admission of its editor, Putin’s weapon in the struggle against western liberal-democracy. Any appearance, even if only to discuss butterfly conservation, legitimises it.
The ultra-nationalist zealots who run Moscow think the western model is decadent and corruptible. It would surely be better if British politicians and commentators would refrain from handing them ammunition for this belief.