Media censorship, broadcast funding, and The World According to Russia Today

The discussion, chaired by Al Jazeera English Listening Post presenter Richard Gizbert, began by exploring claims in Pekel‘s film that the channel deliberately distorts key news relating to Russia: the Ukrainian revolution; the downing of MH17; the recent murder of Russian opposition figure Boris Nemtsov.

“Propaganda as we’ve known it seems to have morphed,” said Gizbert. “Rather than attacking a point and coming up with one single alternative narrative, often times the idea is to throw a bunch of stuff at the Western narrative and see what sticks. They use the channel in the same way as fighter pilots use flares – to distract and confuse any incoming flak.”

Peter Pomerantsev, author of Nothing is True and Everything is Possible – a book about working in Russian media – said Russian propagandists and military strategists had long used conspiracy theories as a device to confuse their enemies.

“The main principle is to disorganise the enemy by spreading confusion and conspiracies in any form,” he said. “It’s an old theory of propaganda – you do something to get viewers, the conspiracy theorists, the far-left viewers, then you seed disinformation when you need to.”

Ben Judah, author of Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In And Out Of Love With Vladimir Putin, said alternative narratives such as those championed by RT had taken on a life of their own online. By tapping into audiences sceptical of the official version of events, he said, the channel had begun to erode notions of a single, objective truth.

When an audience member posed a question about RT’s high ratings in America (the station is the second most popular foreign news channel, second only to BBC World), Richard Gizbert commented on Americans’ growing dissatisfaction with popular news channels since 9/11, and RT’s unmistakable image as a young company offering an aesthetic and content altogether different from the norm.

“Russia Today is beaming out into the West, and what it’s beaming out through its programming is this idea that there is no fundamental truth, that there is no such thing as news (…) RT is entering our self-doubt and that’s why it’s effective,” said Judah.

Dutch film-maker Pekel said he had set out wanting to explore whether this approach meant RT could be considered a journalistic channel.

“What caught my eye was that when it’s about Russia you don’t see any criticism from the channel itself (…) Maybe we have to ask the question of whether Russia Today is actually a journalistic channel.”

Some audience members questioned the film’s view of Russia Today, suggesting that the issues raised by Pekel are not unique to Russian media, but are evident in news reports by American channels like Fox News and ABC. Challenged by audience members over why the film included just one current RT employee, Pekel said many had not been granted permission from the channel’s Moscow head office to talk to him on camera.

“I personally wish there were more people from RT in the film. I agree that it would have been more balanced. But if we didn’t get the possibility I still think it’s an important film to make,” he said.

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