Alex Salmond’s new television venture has already caused controversy.
The former First Minister’s chat show is broadcast on RT UK (previously Russia Today) which has led to criticism from politicians and commentators across the political spectrum.
One such criticism came from Labour MP Ian Austin. As part of a Twitter post, he argued that RT was a tool used to promote pro-Russian views around the world.
Is all the fuss around the Russian TV network justified? Ferret Fact Service looked at Austin’s claim and found it to be Mostly True.
RT is a television news network which launched in 2005. Its stated aim is to “cover stories overlooked by the mainstream media, provide alternative perspectives on current affairs, and acquaint international audiences with a Russian viewpoint on major global events.”
It was conceived by and remains funded by the Russian state, but positions itself as similar to the BBC.
Its UK arm RT UK was launched in October 2014, which is available on Freeview to most UK households.
Alex Salmond is not the first British political figure to have a show on the channel. Former Labour and Respect MP George Galloway has a weekly programme, and former deputy Prime Minister John Prescott has guest hosted on the channel. Prominent politicians including Jeremy Corbyn and Vince Cable have been interviewed on RT.
But is the network a propaganda operation for Putin’s Russia?
An often-cited US intelligence report called the channel “the Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet”, and found it to be a factor in alleged Russian influence on the 2016 presidential election. RT was forced to register as a foreign agent in November 2017.
The report included RT as part of “Russia’s state-run propaganda machine” alongside its domestic media and a “network of quasi-government trolls” operating on social media.
A network of 600 pro-Russian Twitter accounts monitored by the Alliance for Securing Democracy regularly shares RT content.
RT was launched to improve Russia’s image abroad. A Columbia Journalism Review article said Russia Today was “conceived as a soft-power tool to improve Russia’s image abroad, to counter the anti-Russian bias the Kremlin saw in the Western media.”
“When we designed this project back in 2005 we intended introducing another strong player on the world’s scene, a player that wouldn’t just provide an unbiased coverage of the events in Russia but also try, let me stress, I mean – try to break the Anglo-Saxon monopoly on the global information streams,” he said.
While stressing the editorial independence of the channel, Putin admitted that “certainly the channel is funded by the government, so it cannot help but reflect the Russian government’s official position on the events in our country”.
The channel has featured on a list produced by the Russian government of core organisations of strategic importance.
Media freedom in Russia has been widely criticised. Free press campaigners Reporters Without Borders said “the climate has become increasingly oppressive for those who try to maintain quality journalism or question the new patriotic and neo-conservative”.
Its 2017 World Press Freedom Index ranked Russia at 148th out of 180 countries and categorised the situation for journalists there as “Difficult.” The UK was categorised as “Satisfactory” and came in at 40th.
Freedom House designated the Russian press as “not free”, describing Vladimir Putin as “a trailblazer in globalizing state propaganda”.
Since it began broadcasting in the UK in 2005, RT has been the subject of criticism from regulators Ofcom for showing a lack of impartiality during broadcasts.
It has been found in breach of Ofcom rules 14 times. This includes a breach of impartiality rules over Russia’s involvement in Ukraine. It was also reprimanded for broadcasting claims about the BBC’s Syria footage.
There is no evidence that Salmond’s show on RT is subject to editorial interference from Russia’s government, and the programme is produced by the former First Minister’s own production company, Slainte media. Salmond told the BBC he would “have total editorial control” over the programme.
The first episode was broadcast on November 16 and featured an interview with Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont.
Verdict: Mostly True
While there is no suggestion that Salmond’s show will be editorially compromised by Russia Today’s association with the Russian state, there is clear evidence that the media company is used to espouse pro-Russian views and breached impartiality guidelines. Vladimir Putin admitted RT “cannot help but reflect the Russian government’s official position”.
Ferret Fact Service (FFS) is a non-partisan fact checker, working to the International Fact-Checking Network fact-checkers’ code of principles. All the sources used in our checks are publicly available and the FFS fact-checking methodology can be viewed here. Want to suggest a fact check? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or join our community forum.
Ian Austin MP did not respond to a Ferret Fact Service request for evidence.
Photo courtesy of Alex Salmond Show.