Should the UK government ban Russia Today? Research suggests it should not “shut up and go away”

Is banning Russia Today the right response to Russian aggression? Dr Rhys Crilley, Research Associate in Global Media and Communication at the Open University, tells us why RT shouldn’t just “shut up and go away.”

The poisoning of former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia on a Sunday afternoon in Salisbury has led to an escalation in tensions between the UK and Russia. One hundred and fifty Russian diplomats have been expelled from the UK and its allies, and as Moscow has responded in kind, relations between Russia and the UK have been described as being ‘worse than the Cold War’.

In the latest development, UK chemical weapons experts have stated that they have been unable to verify that Russia is to blame for the poisoning of the Skripals. Despite this, MPs have demanded action against the Russian state, and have raised the possibility of banning RT (formerly known as Russia Today) from broadcasting in the UK. The chair of the House of Commons foreign affairs select committee has even said it is ‘time to crack down on RT’ and has accused RT of conducting ‘information warfare’ on UK soil.

I currently work as a researcher on the Reframing Russia project, and our research into RT suggests that it would be counterproductive to ban RT. Whilst the channel has been sanctioned by OFCOM for misleading coverage of events in Ukraine and Syria, claims that RT is effective as a propaganda arm of Putin’s regime are rarely grounded in evidence and are based on dubious assumptions about the media’s effects. In the USA for example, RT has recently had to register as a foreign agent due to its alleged role in influencing the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. However, the intelligence dossier that informed this decision is fundamentally flawed; mainly because it equates and conflates the content of RT’s broadcasts with influence on audiences.

Our AHRC-funded research provides the first comprehensive insights into RT’s content and how audiences respond to it.  Preliminary findings are remarkably relevant for ongoing discussions about banning RT in the UK.

Through social media analysis and interviews with people who watch RT on television or engage with it online, we’ve found that RT’s audiences fully recognise that RT has a ‘pro-Russian’ bias but many consider this to be true of most, if not all international news channels. Not only are people aware that RT reports favourably on Russia’s actions; they choose to watch and engage with RT online because of this.

Whilst RT’s TV broadcasting figures may be lower than other international broadcasters such as CNN and the BBC, RT has a popular online presence across a diverse range of social media platforms. Recently, RT has won awards for the educational merit of digital projects such as 1917LIVE which re-enacted the Russian revolution as if it was happening in real time on social media.

Through this savvy use of social media RT attracts a young audience who feel that ‘Western’ media often fail to provide sophisticated analysis of Russian affairs and of Russia’s policies and actions on the world stage. In this sense, we have found that certain groups of people are turning to RT in order to find ‘the Russian view’ on current affairs.

The majority of our respondents engage with multiple news sources, of which RT is just one. Our research participants indicate that this behaviour is driven by several factors, including a recognition that news reporting is often subjective even when it strives for objectivity. Here, our respondents have also spoken about a dissatisfaction with legacy news media outlets like the BBC and how they’re perceived to be ‘establishment mouth-pieces’ that fail to report on issues that are important to them.

RT audiences are of course diverse but another common pattern in response is dissatisfaction with what is referred to as ‘mainstream media.’ The people we have spoken to so far want to watch and engage with RT because it offers an alternative view on global politics.

More research is needed to better understand RT’s audience but while the British Defence Secretary has suggested that ‘Russia should go away and shut up,’ banning RT would do little to address people’s desire to seek out alternative sources of news.

When it comes to foreign policy we need more than soundbites and decisions that go against the UK’s commitment to a free and impartial media. Indeed, if OFCOM were to ban RT at the behest of the UK government it would play into Putin’s hand, and only serve to support RT’s repeated mantra that the ‘West’ is hypocritical when it comes to freedom of speech.

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