Everything You Need To Know About Russia Today UK
RT UK is the newest part of a Kremlin-funded news network with a budget to match the BBC World Service. It's already facing the possibility of Ofcom sanctions for its lack of impartiality. BuzzFeed News investigates why Russia Today set its sights on the UK.
Two weeks after its launch, RT UK is already Britain's most controversial TV channel.
The new channel, which was launched on 30 October on satellite and digital TV, is the UK-specific version of RT, which was launched as Russia Today in 2005. A Kremlin-funded and -controlled Russian news network aimed at audiences outside Russia, RT broadcasts in English, Arabic, and Spanish, and has been accused by observers and former employees of at best presenting a narrow interpretation of world events, and at worst pushing a pro-Kremlin agenda at the expense of impartial reporting.
While it is tempting to dismiss RT as irrelevant, it claims to reach 600 million people, including via its digital platforms, and has a bigger annual budget than the BBC World Service.
RT UK may also be the first TV news network to launch while under threat of being taken off air – but it doesn't seem to mind.
UK viewers have been able to see RT's main English-language channel – which broadcasts from Moscow, London, and Washington, D.C. – since it launched as Russia Today in 2005. Now RT UK is broadcasting about five hours of original live and pre-recorded content every day from its studios on the 16th floor of London's Millbank Tower.
The UK's media regulator, Ofcom, is watching carefully.
Ofcom says RT's main channel has breached its legally binding Broadcasting Code on nine occasions. There are seven ongoing investigations into more alleged breaches, including a failure to be impartial — as is required by the code — and the use of graphic imagery in the wake of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over Ukraine. (RT's treatment of that story that prompted London-based reporter Sara Firth to quit in July).
Ofcom issued its latest warning last week, saying that further breaches by RT "may result in further regulatory action, including consideration of a statutory sanction". That action could include a fine of up to £250,000 and, in extremis, the revoking of its UK broadcasting licence.
RT issued a long rebuttal to Ofcom's claims and published a blog post calling on the regulator to apply the same test to other British news broadcasters.
We at RT want to reassure our commitment to Ofcom requirements and state that our channel is devoted to continuing to abide by these requirements. But it also remains to be seen if other British broadcasters would be able to pass the monitor's impartiality test, or if other broadcasters will stick to the same rules and conditions, which is currently hardly the case.
RT positions itself as an outsider in the UK market. It made these ads in August to emphasise its stated mission to reject what is sees as a pro-war, pro-Western media orthodoxy, and plastered them around New York City and then in London ahead of the RT UK launch.
Almost immediately, RT claimed the ads were turned down by outdoor ad agencies in London for being too "political in tone", saying they were told the agencies believed they violated the 2003 Communications Act, which bans political advertising.
RT went ahead and instead ran a series of billboard ads playing on the alleged censorship. One used the slogan "REDACTED" to show what happens to news when it's censored.
Another read: "In case they shut us down on TV, go to rt.com for a second opinion."
They were later uploaded to a page on rt.com that has now been shared 4,500 times so far.
RT hasn't named the agencies involved but has insisted that multiple vendors rejected the ads for placement on phone booths and on the London Underground.
The UK Advertising Standards Authority told BuzzFeed News it had not banned the ads or even received a single complaint about them.
"It's not that it's purposefully setting out to breach Ofcom rules – they just don't know what the Ofcom rules are," said a former RT employee who asked to remain anonymous because they currently work elsewhere in the industry.
The source told BuzzFeed News that the station would see any sanction under the Ofcom code as an act of censorship.
The insider also described working at RT as a "chaotic experience", with a lack of senior editors or lawyers to overlook editorial content.
"There's no safety net in place to catch editorial content that might not be up to standard; there's nothing. A couple of times when we actually had legal issues with stories that we flagged before we ran them, it would go to Moscow and through a very shady process of 'We'll check with our lawyer in Moscow.'"
The source said it was "amazing" there had not been more regulatory breaches in the UK.
Do RT journalists get told what to say? It's not that simple. The source said:
So it was a frustrating experience a lot of the time. There's this idea that RT is a direct Kremlin-involvement project, and it is a Kremlin project, of course, but on a daily basis you're not feeling that.
The difficulty comes when those stories are then taken out of context and then I suppose overstated. It's a great story, you've done it, you've packaged it, and then they've run it removing context of the wider situation and it's just started to become something it wasn't.
That's when you get the very uncomfortable situation where you've obviously become complicit in misrepresenting a story.
On its opening night, it looked like any other news channel: There was the authoritative host, the expensive studio, the seasonal poppy even.
But its news agenda was clear to see.
Its top story that night was the BBC's decision not to include the Green Party in televised party leader debates in the run-up to next year's general election. It's a story that was covered across many news outlets, but not as a top item.
Russia is frequently criticised by UK politicians for failing to ensure a free and fair democratic process, but stories like these help to show that, even in the UK, people think opposition parties aren't given fair treatment.
Here he rejects the notion that there has been a recent increase in "Russian spying incidents", and claims the Daily Mail's sources for this are "retired Polish generals".
Just as Western critics attack Russia's pro-Kremlin media, RT likes to argue that there's a pro-government agenda in the UK too.
Clark also touched on another important part of this story – that whatever you might say about RT, people are watching it.
"If you look at the neo-con critique, it's that RT is just a crude propaganda channel, or crank voices, lunatics and idiots," he said. "Well, if that's true, then why are more and more people tuning in?"
If you look at the viewing figures, that might not seem so. Figures from the Broadcast Audience Research Board (BARB), from 27 October to 2 November, state that the main global RT channel was watched by 395,000 people in the UK, 0.7% of the total weekly viewing audience.
Some 108,000 people watched the channel on average each day, meaning it has marginally fewer viewers than S4C, the state-funded Welsh-language broadcaster, and slightly more than The Africa Channel. (BARB doesn't have RT UK stats yet.)
RT's approach highlighting Western ills aligns with growing cyncicism over London's political class and the UK public's desire for an alternative voice — most visible in the swelling support for UKIP. That draws an audience, as well as staff.
The former staffer told BuzzFeed News that RT journalists buy into the idea of challenging the mainstream news agenda, on top of accepting serious salaries:
I think people are on board with that and that's why it attracts so many young people. Of course there's the money and the opportunity. The fact that you're hired by them, if you're a young journalist, you get offered a job. It's a great salary.
It's a great opportunity and their mission statement and aim does seem very noble. Definitely a lot of people at RT do believe that. Certainly, no one was going off every day and writing propaganda, that's ridiculous.
Who appears on RT UK? Leanne Wood, leader of the Welsh party Plaid Cymru, was interviewed on RT UK in its first week, and senior Green Party members have appeared too.
The Greens, who were refused the chance to take part in next year's general election leadership debates by major broadcasters, are keen to seek publicity where they can.
UKIP leader Nigel Farage, a confessed fan of Vladimir Putin, has appeared on RT 17 times since 2010. Marginalised political groups with a distaste for a perceived political consensus appear to have no qualms about who pays RT's bills and ultimately calls the shots.
George Galloway MP already has his own show and gets invited on RT UK as a pundit.
Some political journalists are boycotting the channel and urging others not to appear.
But others are happy to appear and see it as a legitimate news outlet.
And when it comes to actual viewers, there are certainly some who feel RT is a welcome breath of fresh air compared to the usual suspects in UK news.
The channel is made possible by the extreme wealth of the Russian state.
RT employs more than 2,500 people internationally, with more than 50 in the UK office — and the company says more UK hires are planned.
RT's UK holding company, Russia Today TV UK Limited, registered at an address in Hertfordshire, holds £623,000 in cash and has outstanding liabilities of £919,000 and assets worth £1.2 million, according to accounts filed in July.
In the bigger picture, RT UK is part of a push from Russian propagandists to increase the country's influence and visibility in Western democracies.
Sputnik was formed from the remains of news agency RIA Novosti, which shut down last year.
The site is publishing news daily and the radio is up and running, but its plans are ambitious: By 2015 it will broadcast in 30 languages, with more than 800 hours of programming going out to 130 cities, an announcement claimed.
As with RT, Sputnik's mission is to reach a "global audience of billions who are tired of aggressive propaganda promoting a unipolar world and want a different perspective", the station said.
Meanwhile, CNN Russia has been forced off air, it's rumoured that the editor-in-chief of Russian newspaper Kommersant was pressured to stand down, and an independent magazine editor has received a written warning for using bad language.
So what will become of RT UK?
Its future is uncertain: Many don't consider it a legitimate mainstream broadcaster because of its backer, and its very existence may be under threat. But there are certainly Britons who share the channel's prejudices and concerns.
It has endless resources, and a focus on telling a different kind of story than those being told by the encumbent broadcasters. Like Russia's president, RT is a cunning propagandist, and it's keen to build its identity as an outsider shunned by the "neoliberal" elite who says things "they" don't want you to hear. In a fragmented UK media world, with political apathy all around, it could be a potent mix.
If it can stick to the broadcasting rules long enough to survive, its goal of becoming the UK's third TV news network might not be as far-fetched as it seems.
RT has been in touch to say it has the potential to reach 700 million viewers, based on the number of households with satellite and cable subscriptions it reaches around the world, not 600 million as we originally reported.
RT UK launched on 30 October. An earlier version stated that its launch date was 2 November.