Sal­mond’s de­ci­sion is fool­ish, but he is not a Putin pup­pet

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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.

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