PUTIN’S LY­ING MA­CHINE

RE­VEALED: Rus­sia’s spew­ing out ruth­less pro­pa­ganda from a Moscow-funded TV sta­tion – based right here in the UK

Scottish Daily Mail - - News - By Neil Tweedie

The 16th floor of Mill­bank Tower, and Vladimir Putin is pump­ing out truth — of the Rus­sian kind. here, a team of jour­nal­ists en­joy­ing com­mand­ing views of the Palace of West­min­ster, the London eye and Thames house, home of MI5, are busy at com­puter ter­mi­nals and video mix­ing desks, pre­par­ing bul­letins and pro­grammes and telling the news Krem­lin-style.

State-of-the-art equip­ment al­lows for slick, so­phis­ti­cated graph­ics that mimic the out­put of re­spectable in­ter­na­tional news broad­cast­ers such as the BBC, CNN and France 24.

But there is noth­ing re­spectable about Rus­sia Today, known by the more friendly acro­nym RT, whose UK of­fices these are.

From the tower block in which New Labour moulded the news agenda 20 years ago, an­other agenda is be­ing ped­dled, one serv­ing a for­eign master with no love for Bri­tain.

RT is a di­rect mouth­piece for the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment, its global op­er­a­tions funded by the Krem­lin to the tune of some £200mil­lion yearly, part of a me­dia cam­paign waged re­lent­lessly to un­der­mine con­fi­dence in democ­racy and sow dis­cord in coun­tries re­garded by Moscow as ad­ver­saries.

In her speech at the Lord Mayor’s ban­quet in the City of London on Mon­day, Theresa May mounted an out­spo­ken at­tack on Pres­i­dent Putin’s ‘fake news’, ac­cus­ing the Krem­lin of ‘weapon­is­ing in­for­ma­tion’.

In one of the strong­est ver­bal at­tacks on Rus­sia in re­cent years, the Prime Min­is­ter warned: ‘We know what you are do­ing.’

RT is a for­mi­da­ble op­er­a­tion, broad­cast­ing to some 100 coun­tries via satel­lite tele­vi­sion and the in­ter­net, and now fea­tur­ing tai­lor­made pro­gram­ming for U.S. and UK view­ers, as well as ser­vices in French, Span­ish and Ara­bic. But this is not about in­for­ma­tion — it’s about dis­in­for­ma­tion.

RT is just one com­po­nent in what Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence refers to as an ‘ac­tive mea­sures’ cam­paign so ef­fec­tive that it may have in­flu­enced to a sub­stan­tial de­gree the out­come of the 2016 U.S. pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, pro­pel­ling Don­ald Trump into the White house at the ex­pense of hil­lary Clin­ton.

Be it RT broad­cast­ing on mul­ti­chan­nel tele­vi­sion or its sis­ter news agency Sputnik, which has an of­fice in ed­in­burgh, on the in­ter­net, be it so­cial me­dia cam­paigns on Face­book and Twit­ter, or the hack­ing of emails be­long­ing to Mrs Clin­ton, there is but one end. And that is the fur­ther­ance of Putin’s for­eign and do­mes­tic aims.

RUS­SIA Today’s diet is a cu­ri­ous mix. Out­landish con­spir­acy the­o­ries pro­moted by cranks mas­querad­ing as se­ri­ous com­men­ta­tors vie with more sub­tle cov­er­age push­ing the Rus­sian line on Syria, Ukraine and else­where.

Wik­ileaks founder Ju­lian As­sange, Amer­i­can philoso­pher and so­cial com­men­ta­tor Noam Chom­sky and for­mer Bay­watch bomb­shell Pamela An­der­son have all graced RT’s pro­grammes at some time or an­other. hosts in­clude the vet­eran po­lit­i­cal mav­er­ick Ge­orge Gal­loway and, cu­ri­ously, for­mer CNN flag­ship in­ter­viewer Larry King.

Now there is a new star in Putin’s me­dia fir­ma­ment.

For­mer First Min­is­ter Alex Sal­mond is to host a new dis­cus­sion pro­gramme on RT cov­er­ing pol­i­tics, en­ter­tain­ment and busi­ness.

Mr Sal­mond jus­ti­fies his ac­cep­tance of ‘Moscow gold’ by point­ing out that no fewer than 50 Labour MPs, 37 Con­ser­va­tives and 17 SNP mem­bers have ap­peared on RT in the past two years. And he prom­ises ‘to­tal edi­to­rial con­trol’.

But po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents — and sev­eral fel­low SNP politi­cians — have at­tacked his de­ci­sion to con­sort with Putin as an ‘as­ton­ish­ing lack of judg­ment’.

SNP leader Ni­cola Stur­geon said she would have ad­vised against the deal — had she been con­sulted.

In the look­ing-glass world of RT, ac­cu­racy is a flex­i­ble com­mod­ity. At one time or an­other, we have been told that 9/11 was an inside job per­pe­trated by the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment, and that the BBC stage-man­aged a bo­gus chem­i­cal at­tack in Syria to dis­credit the regime of Rus­sian ally Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad.

We’ve also been in­formed that the Malaysian air­liner downed by a mis­sile over east­ern Ukraine in 2014 with great loss of life was the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the Ukrainian gov­ern­ment and not, as is gen­er­ally ac­cepted, the work of Rus­sian­backed separatists.

The U.S. congress has been hear­ing this month about the ex­tent of ‘ac­tive mea­sures’ in­structed by Putin in early 2016 to in­flu­ence the race for the White house, fu­elled by his fear and dis­trust of Mrs Clin­ton.

The U.S. in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity has judged with ‘high con­fi­dence’ that Putin did in­deed order a cam­paign of main­stream me­dia, so­cial me­dia and hack­ing to in­flu­ence the U.S. vote. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has sub­se­quently been dogged by al­le­ga­tions of col­lu­sion with Moscow, fu­elled by dis­clo­sures of links be­tween the Rus­sians and the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign team.

Last week, Trump ap­peared to ac­cept an as­sur­ance by Putin that he had or­dered no such cam­paign, say­ing his Rus­sian op­po­site num­ber was ‘in­sulted’ by such a sug­ges­tion. But the U.S. Pres­i­dent has since rowed back on his re­mark, reaf­firm­ing his con­fi­dence in his own in­tel­li­gence ser­vices.

The sharp end of the Krem­lin’s global dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paign is to be found in the In­ter­net Re­search Agency in St Peters­burg, colour­fully known as the Troll Fac­tory, where young op­er­a­tives labour to hack sites, cre­ate bo­gus news sites and pump out fake news and so­cial me­dia mes­sages.

ATWeeT in March from this Troll Fac­tory (or an­other very sim­i­lar setup) — so it is be­lieved — sought to stoke racial ten­sions in the UK by fea­tur­ing a woman in a hi­jab speak­ing on her mo­bile phone and ap­par­ently ig­nor­ing a vic­tim of the West­min­ster Bridge ter­ror­ist at­tack.

In fact, the woman had been trau­ma­tised by the in­ci­dent and was phon­ing her fam­ily to tell them she was safe.

The bo­gus tweet, which went vi­ral, pur­ported to come from a res­i­dent of Texas un­der the Twit­ter han­dle South Lone Star, but had been gen­er­ated by Rus­sian in­ter­net trolls. Such trolls also posted anti-im­mi­gra­tion and pro-Brexit mes­sages around the time of the eU ref­er­en­dum.

Items on RT and Sputnik, which usu­ally com­mand only small au­di­ences, are turbo-boosted on so­cial me­dia in con­certed cam­paigns which at­tract hun­dreds of thou­sands of views.

RT’s TV au­di­ence in the UK is tiny — less than one per cent — but its real power lies on YouTube, where its out­put is en­joyed by some two mil­lion sub­scribers. View­ers are ini­tially lured to watch it by video footage of tsunamis and other dra­matic vis­ual events, which may then lead them on to

more po­lit­i­cally sen­si­tive items.

Mar­garita Si­monyan, edi­tor-in­chief of RT, is quite un­apolo­getic about the TV sta­tion’s ul­ti­mate loy­al­ties. ‘The word “pro­pa­ganda” has a very neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tion, but in­deed, there is not a sin­gle in­ter­na­tional for­eign TV chan­nel that is do­ing some­thing other than pro­mo­tion of the val­ues of the coun­try that it is broad­cast­ing from,’ she says. ‘When Rus­sia is at war, we are, of course, on Rus­sia’s side.’

Si­monyan is one of nu­mer­ous RT ex­ec­u­tives with close links to the Moscow es­tab­lish­ment. In re­cent years, her in-tray has filled with com­plaints from the Bri­tish me­dia reg­u­la­tor Of­com, ac­cus­ing RT’s op­er­a­tion of re­peat­edly vi­o­lat­ing rules on im­par­tial­ity and pro­duc­ing broad­casts on Ukraine, Syria and else­where that are ‘ma­te­ri­ally mis­lead­ing’.

Yet lit­tle is done to curb its ac­tiv­i­ties. ‘The most egre­gious vi­o­la­tions by RT tend to oc­cur when it is cov­er­ing con­flicts, such

as Ukraine and Syria, in which the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment is di­rectly in­volved,’ ac­cord­ing to Ben Nimmo of the At­lantic Coun­cil think-tank.

Founded in 2005, RT was tasked specif­i­cally by Putin, a for­mer KGB of­fi­cer, with end­ing ‘Anglo-Saxon’ hege­mony in in­ter­na­tional broad­cast­ing. Part of ac­tive mea­sures is ‘de­com­po­si­tion’, which in­volves the de­struc­tion of per­sonal rep­u­ta­tions and the co­he­sion and in­flu­ence of tar­get na­tions.

This can be seen in Scot­land, where RT’s sis­ter or­gan­i­sa­tion Sputnik, which broad­casts on the in­ter­net from its bureau in Ed­in­burgh, pro­duces sto­ries aimed at un­der­min­ing the Union and the Bri­tish Tri­dent nu­clear de­ter­rent, based at Faslane on the Clyde.

RT it­self has been anx­ious to draw par­al­lels be­tween the na­tion­al­ist move­ments in Scot­land and Cat­alo­nia, sto­ries aimed at keep­ing the in­de­pen­dence de­bate alive here.

A di­min­ished UK with no nu­clear force is, of course, a prime aim of Putin and his in­ner cir­cle, 70 per cent of whom are drawn from the ranks of the in­tel­li­gence ser­vices.

To add a ve­neer of re­spectabil­ity, RT has re­cruited Bri­tish jour­nal­ists, in­clud­ing Rory Suchet, son of for­mer ITN news­reader John Suchet.

But it is un­der­stood that RT is find­ing it in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to re­cruit ex­pe­ri­enced jour­nal­ists in the West be­cause of its rep­u­ta­tion as a Krem­lin mouth­piece.

There is a sim­i­lar prob­lem with guests, most main­stream politi­cians in Bri­tain now pre­fer­ring to keep their dis­tance.

Jeremy Cor­byn, a reg­u­lar face on RT be­fore his elec­tion as Labour leader, now largely avoids the sta­tion, de­spite the al­legedly pro-Rus­sian sym­pa­thies of his spin doc­tor, Seu­mas Milne.

But Shadow Lord Chan­cel­lor and Left-wing MP Richard Bur­gon is a reg­u­lar guest, as are Ukip’s Nigel Farage and Ju­lian As­sange, who broad­casts via video link from his refuge in the Ecuadorean London em­bassy. Some MPs have even re­ceived fees to ap­pear, in­clud­ing Labour’s Chris Wil­liamson and Rosie Duffield and Tory David T.C. Davies, the back­bench MP for Mon­mouth (not to be con­fused with the Brexit Sec­re­tary), who be­tween them re­ceived £3,000 in to­tal ac­cord­ing to the Regis­ter of Mem­bers’ In­ter­ests.

Why elected mem­bers feel it is ap­pro­pri­ate to profit from ap­pear­ing on a for­eign pro­pa­ganda sta­tion is un­clear.

There is cer­tainly dis­quiet among some of those who have worked for RT about its edi­to­rial stan­dards.

Sara Firth, a Bri­tish jour­nal­ist, re­signed from RT af­ter be­ing pres­sured into twist­ing the story of the shoot­ing down of Malaysian flight MH17 to blame Ukraine rather than a Rus­sian sur­face-to-air sys­tem op­er­ated by pro-Rus­sian rebels. ‘Our cov­er­age of the MH17 plane dis­as­ter was the fi­nal nudge,’ she ex­plained fol­low­ing her res­ig­na­tion. ‘I’d been re­ally unhappy for a long time at RT. I just couldn’t do it any more.

WE WERE run­ning an eye-wit­ness ac­count that made an ac­cu­sa­tion against Ukraine and we had a cor­re­spon­dent in the stu­dio who was asked to pro­duce some­thing about a plane that had been shot down at some point in the past, and had been the fault of Ukraine.

‘In other words, to sug­gest that the Ukrainian gov­ern­ment had form for do­ing such a thing.

‘I’ve been in that po­si­tion my­self be­fore, where you’re asked to bring up some piece of ob­scure in­for­ma­tion that im­plies some­thing that fits with the RT agenda. And you think, well, it’s not out­right ly­ing but it has no re­la­tion to what’s hap­pen­ing and shouldn’t be run at a time when a story of that size is break­ing — a news story that is so sen­si­tive. It’s ab­hor­rent and in­de­fen­si­ble.’

Niko­lay Bo­gachikhin, RT news chief in London, was un­apolo­getic dur­ing a BBC in­ter­view when speak­ing about the chan­nel’s Mid­dle East cov­er­age.

‘We are bring­ing sto­ries that mat­ter from the Rus­sian per­spec­tive,’ he ex­plained. ‘Rus­sia is a big player. The Rus­sian view of the sit­u­a­tion [in Syria and Ukraine] is so much dif­fer­ent from the Western vi­sion.’

Mr Bo­gachikhin de­nied that RT re­ceives calls from the Krem­lin de­mand­ing that it adopts a par­tic­u­lar edi­to­rial line. Re­gard­ing Mr Cor­byn, he ex­plained: ‘Jeremy was quite a fre­quent guest and we val­ued and trea­sured his commentary al­ways. But we now try not to call him be­cause ap­pear­ing on RT is seen as very detri­men­tal. We see now that ev­ery­thing to do with Rus­sia is toxic. This is sad be­cause we would like to have some an­tiRus­sian voices, some de­bate.’

Mr Nimmo of the think-tank At­lantic Coun­cil ar­gues that Rus­sia’s pro­pa­ganda cam­paign is aimed as much at a Rus­sian au­di­ence as a Western one, por­tray­ing Western democ­racy as weak and rot­ten, and, in par­tic­u­lar, play­ing on im­mi­gra­tion fears.

Hil­lary Clin­ton be­came a prime tar­get for Putin, he says, only when she backed anti-gov­ern­ment protests in Rus­sia while U.S. Sec­re­tary of State, deeply of­fend­ing the Rus­sian pres­i­dent. Last year’s elec­tion tam­per­ing can be seen as Putin’s re­venge.

THE OF­FICE of the U.S. di­rec­tor of na­tional in­tel­li­gence, in its as­sess­ment of Rus­sian at­tempts to ma­nip­u­late the U.S. elec­tion, said of the sta­tion:

‘The rapid ex­pan­sion of RT’s op­er­a­tions and bud­get and re­cent can­did state­ments by RT’s lead­er­ship point to the chan­nel’s im­por­tance to the Krem­lin as a mes­sag­ing tool and in­di­cate a Krem­lin-di­rected cam­paign to un­der­mine faith in the U.S. Gov­ern­ment and fuel po­lit­i­cal protest.

‘The Krem­lin has com­mit­ted sig­nif­i­cant re­sources to ex­pand­ing the chan­nel’s reach, par­tic­u­larly its so­cial me­dia foot­print.’

RT is now an es­tab­lished part of the me­dia land­scape and it is not go­ing away.

On the 16th floor of Mill­bank Tower the RT func­tionar­ies are beaver­ing away be­hind their screens. And it can mean no good for the coun­try that of­fers them a home.

Pic­ture:ALAMY

Moscow mouth­piece: RT boss Mar­garita Si­monyan with Putin

Moscow call­ing: RT’s London bureau broad­casts an agenda dic­tated by Putin

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