Ofcom And RT: The Background
Reviewing the Kremlin’s TV station and Britain’s TV regulator
Relations between the United Kingdom and Russia have hit the lowest point since the end of the Cold War, and Kremlin broadcaster RT (formerly “Russia Today”) is one of the main bones of contention.
British MPs have called for RT’s UK broadcasting license to be reviewed; Russian officials have threatened sweeping reprisals against the British media, a few days before Russia’s presidential election.
On March 13, the UK’s telecommunications regulator, Ofcom, which licenses all broadcasting in Britain, issued a statement that suggested it could review RT’s license, “should the UK investigating authorities determine that there was an unlawful use of force by the Russian State against the UK” in the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury on March 4.
“As the independent UK broadcasting regulator, Ofcom has an ongoing duty to be satisfied that broadcast licensees remain fit and proper to hold their licences.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry was swift to escalate, threatening that “not a single British media outlet” would be allowed to work in Russia, if Ofcom were to decide that RT was no longer considered “fit and proper.”
RT quoted Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, who said, “I can tell you right now that not a single British media outlet will be working in our country if they shut RT down.”
At the same time, and without apparent irony, RT ran an outraged story claiming that Twitter users had accused the British government of ignoring freedom of speech.
A troubled relationship
As @DFRLab has previously reported, based on comments made by RT’s own editor-in-chief, RT’s mission is essentially military in nature, “waging the information war” on behalf of the Russian government in a manner analogous to the army.
By contrast, one of Ofcom’s tasks is to ensure that all broadcasters operating in the UK stick to the standards set out in the Broadcasting Code. It is independent of the government, but accountable to parliament. The standards cover a range of issues, including the protection of minors, prevention of public harm and disorder, decency and fairness.
Crucially for any study of journalism, Section Five of the Code concerns accuracy and impartiality, and states:
“News, in whatever form, must be reported with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality.”
Any member of the British public can complain about a program to Ofcom; in such cases, Ofcom will investigate the complaint against the criteria set out in the code, publishing its findings in a fortnightly bulletin.
RT commentators often allege that the station has had fewer findings against it than major British broadcasters. This is numerically correct: the total number of Ofcom findings against, for example, the BBC is higher than the total number of findings against RT.
However, this defense misses a crucial nuance: in terms of journalism, the relevant articles of the Broadcasting Code are Sections Two (harm and offense, including materially misleading the audience) and Five (due accuracy and impartiality).
When it comes to those two articles, which are the essence of journalism, British broadcasters have maintained a low level of violations. The findings against them have tended to cover other areas, such as the inappropriate use of bad language when children may be watching.
On those crucial counts, RT has had significantly more programs found guilty of violating the code.
- In November 2014, Ofcom found that four RT bulletins had violated Section Five by failing to give due coverage to the Ukrainian government’s viewpoint, in RT’s coverage of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
- In September 2015, in a particularly damning report, Ofcom found RT guilty of violating Section Five in two programs which accused Ukraine of committing genocide and other atrocities; violating Section Two by “materially misleading” the audience, in a program which covered allegations that the BBC had staged a chemical attack in Syria; and treating the BBC “unjustly or unfairly” in the Syrian program.
- In July 2016, Ofcom found two RT programs guilty of violating Section Five by failing to give due coverage to the Turkish government’s viewpoint, in a series of interviews with Kurdish activists who accused Turkey of genocide.
- In December 2016, Ofcom found an RT talk show guilty of violating Section Five by broadcasting a discussion of NATO’s Warsaw summit which failed to give due coverage to NATO’s point of view.
These findings form a pattern. The November 2014 case was not the first.
“We noted that this Decision followed three previous published decisions in which Ofcom found that TV Novosti breached Section Five of the Code. As a result of the most recent of those decisions, we requested that the Licensee attend a meeting to discuss compliance with regard to its due impartiality. Therefore, as a result of the current case, we are putting TV Novosti on notice that any future breaches of the due impartiality rules may result in further regulatory action, including consideration of a statutory sanction.”
In an indication of how infrequently broadcast violations are expected, RT was summoned to another remedial meeting in December 2016, only just over two years later.
“Given that Ofcom has recently recorded a number of breaches of Section Five in RT programmes, Ofcom is requesting that the Licensee attend a meeting to discuss its compliance in this area.”
Moreover, the subjects of the flawed RT broadcasts were not random ones. RT violated standards in its reporting on Ukraine, while Russia was in conflict with Ukraine; it violated standards in its reporting on Syria, while Russia was supporting the government side in the civil war.
RT’s violations in 2016 concerned Turkey and NATO, at times when the Kremlin’s relationship with both was at a very low ebb.
As we have written before, these findings tend to confirm the words of RT’s editor in chief, that RT should be viewed as akin to the Russian Ministry of Defense, fighting on behalf of Russia in times of conflict, rather than conducting bona fide journalism.
By contrast, Ofcom is noteworthy for its balance. On a number of occasions over the same 2014–17 period, it rejected complaints against RT, including three broadcasts listed in November 2016 (pages 104–105), three listed in March 2017 (page 34), and a number listed in April 2017 (page 105).
In each bulletin, Ofcom stated that these individual programs “did not raise issues warranting investigation.”
In May 2017, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov even pointed to the regulator as proof that RT had a clean bill of health.
“As for Sputnik and Russia Today, not long ago Britain’s Ofcom was dealing with similar accusations. It did not find any violations of journalistic ethics.”
It would not, therefore, be credible to accuse Ofcom of an anti-RT bias.
Ofcom’s treatment of RT has been balanced. It has found the broadcaster guilty of violating standards on several occasions, described in exhaustive detail in the respective bulletins, but has also cleared it of wrongdoing on several others.
That evident balance also implies that Ofcom’s behavior has been editorially independent, and based on the merits of each case. Its recorded dealings with RT have been on the basis of public complaints or Ofcom’s own research; the number of programs found guilty of violations has been on a par with the number which were cleared. This is not the behavior of a government “censor,” as Lavrov called it in 2014.
By contrast, Ofcom’s findings show that RT’s behavior has not been independent. Its violations of journalistic standards came at times when Russia was in conflict, and were delivered in ways which reinforced the Russian government’s narrative. Such behavior is incompatible with bona fide journalism.
Ofcom is unlikely to make any hasty rulings on RT. Its statement said that it would “carry out our independent fit and proper assessment on an expedited basis,” if the UK government ruled that Russia had used force against it unlawfully; given that Ofcom regular proceedings can take six months or more, this need not suggest a hair-trigger response. This, in turn, would suggest that any Russian retaliation against British media may also come slowly — after Sunday’s presidential election in Russia.