Salmond’s decision is foolish, but he is not a Putin puppet
to Patrick Harvie have been hastily distancing themselves from RT and Sputnik, for which they have given interviews in the past. They don’t want to be collateral damage. But the former First Minister is made of sterner stuff and insists he is not peddling a Kremlin line. So where does RT come from? According to the former BBC journalist Angus Roxburgh, who briefly worked for Mr Putin’s press spokesman Dmitry Peskov, it all goes back to the “colour” revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan between 2004 and 2005. The Kremlin believed – with some justification –that the US State Department was tacitly assisting the democracy campaigners in their efforts to overthrow pro-Russian leaders like Ukraine’s Viktor Janukovych. Vladimir Putin was convinced that the cold war was resuming.
The Kremlin believed, again with some justification, that Russia’s image as portrayed on global TV channels like CNN and the BBC in these years was as the oppressor – as if it were still run by the Communists. The Kremlin could not afford to fall behind in what Mr Peskov called “political technology”. And so in 2005, Russia Today was born: an Englishlanguage TV news channel modelled on CNN and the BBC. It was financed by $30m directly from Mr Putin and run from the headquarters of RIA Novosti, the Russian state news agency in Moscow.
Unlike the BBC, RT is under direct political control and is not an independent broadcaster. However, Mr Putin is media-savvy enough to realise that an old-style, cold war propaganda vehicle like Radio Moscow is old hat.
Soft power means promoting Russia’s interests by hiring genuine journalists, often from the West, and allowing them freedom to report stories so long as they’re from a “broadly Russian perspective”. Russia Today’s mission statement was: “There’s more to Russia than communism, snow and poverty”. During the South Ossetia war in 2008 between Russia and Georgia, it challenged Western news reports that blamed Russia for launching hostilities and insisted that Georgia fired first – a claim later upheld by a European Union inquiry. .
Lately, the station has been rebranded as RT with the strapline “Question More”. RT gave extensive coverage to the Occupy movement and the campaign against the bedroom tax in the UK. It has attracted a following among left-wingers and Scottish nationalists who mistrust the “establishment” BBC. Jeremy Corbyn used to be an RT contributor. It has specialised in hiring anti-establishment figures like Julian Assange, who had a show on RT in 2012, the former Respect MP, George Galloway, and Mr
Salmond, who has been commissioned to provide a weekly chat show via his company Slainte media.
There is no dispute that RT is an arm of the Russian state and never criticises Mr Putin at home or abroad. However, that doesn’t mean that all of its journalism is valueless – any more than every story in the Daily Mail or on Fox News is untrue. Many journalists see little difference between working for RT and working for right-wing proprietors like Rupert Murdoch.
The difference, of course, is that RT is an extension of a regime that places little value freedom of expression, human rights and effectively censors most domestic news.
Like many journalists, I’ve done interviews for RT, mostly promoting my books. I don’t any more, in common with those Scottish politicians who are all now avoiding the station. But I’m not entirely sure boycotting any news outlet, even a Russian one, makes a great deal of sense. Provided you know where it is coming from, and provided your interviews are not distorted, appearing on RT is really no different from appearing on Fox News or Al Jazeera. Moreover, if the Russian state broadcaster is prepared to air the views of politicians and journalists who don’t support the Putin regime, then that is surely to be encouraged.
However, it is one thing doing the odd interview for RT; quite another to allow your personal brand to be identified with it. Mr Salmond can answer for himself, but I think it’s a mistake for the former leader of the SNP to present a weekly programme on RT – even though he has editorial freedom. He’s right that RT is a legitimate station with a licence to broadcast in the UK, regulated by Ofcom. However, Mr Salmond has made himself a easy target for his political opponents as a “tool of the Kremlin”, “Putin’s friend”, “useful idiot”. These are attacks the SNP really could do without. Nicola Sturgeon has made very clear that she does not approve of her predecessor’s choice of medium.
Mind you, if Mr Salmond’s programme starts doing items on Ukrainian nationalism, the independence movement in South Ossetia, and the suppression of human rights in autonomous Russian territories, I will certainly retract any criticism. And I will certainly be watching.