Russia Today hits back: People who accuse us of fake news are damaging journalism

RT talked about Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in a full and frank interview

RT denies it influenced the US Presidential election in favour of Donald Trump and says it has never received any editorial instruction from the Kremlin

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Just weeks after Russia Today was accused by America's Director of National Intelligence of leading an 'influence campaign' against Hillary Clinton during last year's US election campaign, the broadcaster has now been accused of publishing 'fake news' to undermine French Presidential election candidate Emmanuel Macron. 

The claims are just the latest in a series of negative headlines for RT, with critics suggesting its editorial policy is dictated by the Russian Government. Some have accused it of being nothing more than a propaganda tool for Vladimir Putin and a persistently meddlesome presence in international affairs.

In light of these claims, talkRADIO spoke to RT's communications director Anna Belkina, and invited her to respond to the allegations levelled at RT over recent months. 

Here is her interview, in full.

There’s been a lot of criticism of RT in recent weeks: first, the accusations of leading an ‘influence campaign’, now these claims of fake news. What are your initial reactions to such criticism?

I’d say that if we’re talking about the DNI report, what we’re seeing is that of all the criticism of RT that is in there, that pertains to the 2016 election, the only indictment of what we did wrong was that we criticised Hillary Clinton’s track record.

Half the report is background on RT that is at least five years out of date. The only specific criticism levelled at RT by the report is that we criticised Hillary Clinton’s track record. Apparently, in their view, that was not ok! That’s a nasty attack on journalism.

There is nothing in that report that challenged RT’s work on a factual basis, there was no single example of ‘fake news’.

We’re seeing something that is both similar, and yet different, with regards to the French election story right now. Different, in a sense that the conversation is about ‘fake news’ – but we’re looking at these comments and this term and are seeing that [the term ‘fake news] is just being thrown around by anybody who doesn’t agree with a particular opinion.

It’s being thrown at anything that might be unfavourable rather than being used for what it’s supposed to be – reporting that is not fact-based. That in itself is damaging to the cause of journalism and the fight against fake news.

When you start labelling any unfavourable report as fake news, the term loses all meaning.

Is there an element of hypocrisy in the global media coverage of RT?

Yes. I think even the terms that are applied to any aspect of RT’s expansion, or just the work that RT does, as opposed to when the exact same things are done by other players - they’re framed entirely differently.

We’re not saying ‘shun British voices, shun American media.’ Their point of view has a place in the global conversation. They have a platform, we have a platform. Anybody can only benefit from this diversity of viewpoints. RT completes the picture of current events in global news with fact-based reporting.

Meanwhile the mainstream media is shouting down anyone who disagrees with a particular narrative – ‘let’s remove from the conversation anything that we disagree with. Let’s reframe anything to suggest that only what we’re doing is this noble fight.’

What is your relationship to the Kremlin, in terms of editorial?

RT is entirely editorially independent, it is an autonomous non-profit organisation. It is publicly funded just like the BBC, Deutsche Welle etc. It’s funded from the budget of the Russian Federation as France 24 is funded by the French state budgets.

Can you understand that this might raise concerns?

We’re extremely transparent. Our budgets are published annually, it’s on the front pages of Russian and foreign media, we’re very clear. It’s never been a secret. If anything there’s been a mythology built up around RT trying to create this menacing, opaque image.

Has the Russian government ever interfered in your print or broadcast coverage?

No. There is an understanding that RT only has a credibility with a global audience if it is independent and covers a range of opinions.

And, it is only in the last couple of years that we’ve seen Russia very much front and centre of international stories, but that wasn’t really the case until then. Most of RT’s coverage up until then had little to do with Russia. We have to create news coverage that’s interesting, diverse and engaging for a global audience.

Just today [February 14] you’ve published a story suggesting Russia is currently experiencing its best period since the 1917 revolution, citing a survey. Do you understand why people might be cynical of that kind of claim?

Well that story was based on a survey, and reported that one in three Russians feel the current era is the best period of the last 100 years. Are we supposed to say that the people of Russia are wrong to respond to an independent survey in the way they did, about their own country?

This is part of the reason why RT exists: to bring a deeper understanding of Russia to the world. There’s long been a particular way of writing about Russia.

As one example, there was the myth of the ‘dying bear’ repeated over and over, even when Russia was enjoying a decade of demographic resurgence, outperforming its neighbours.

We want to set the story straight because often coverage from outside has no semblance to reality.

But those critics will point to the economic recession, the alleged maltreatment of minority groups…

Of course not everything is rosy, and RT will cover all kinds of stories, including the less flattering aspects.

Our goal is to make sure people have a more complete picture of Russia and that it’s not this kind of portrayal that you get in a 30-second foreign news bulletin.

Has anything changed at the station since the controversy surrounding Abby Martin’s criticism of the Crimea invasion live on air?

As we said at the same, we don’t beat our journalists into submission, there are people on RT with a very wide range of opinions and that’s what we try to reflect in our coverage. That was the case before and that is the case now.

It is claimed RT published 'fake news' against French Presidential election candidate Emmanuel Macron

You have been accused by Ofcom of bias in relation to your coverage of the Ukraine crisis in 2014. Do you admit there was some bias in the reporting then?

This is a very big, umbrella type of a statement to make.

There was a particular Ukraine story we took off air almost immediately, we did it weeks before we even heard from Ofcom.

RT is paid attention to so much, and is so scrutinised compared to other channels. But our particular issues become the story.

Have you changed your policy since that Ofcom complaint?

We have very rigorous editorial policies. We removed the story weeks before an Ofcom complaint was even raised. But, because of the media scrutiny RT receives, we are not free to make any kind of good-faith error.

Do you think that in light of the criticism of Vladimir Putin, RT is seen as fair game by extension?

Not necessarily. There was a resistance to a different voice from the very early days.

Any time there is a different opinion, there is a tendency to block it out. We see it with a lot of local dissenting voices as well. It’s harmful for everybody involved, including the people who are doing it. You cannot block out reality.

But do you think Donald Trump’s election, and his perceived closeness to Mr Putin, has ramped up the criticism?

I’d say there’s definitely been a lot more coverage of Russia in this election cycle.

For a long time, since way back in the Soviet days, Russia was a “bogeyman” kind of an actor. Any time there is a need to create an enemy, you can link back to Russia, and now RT – which in turn builds up the mythology around RT.

Some of the criticism of RT during this election cycle has been bordering on the absurd.

What is RT’s stance on Donald Trump?

We don’t have a stance on Donald Trump just as we didn’t have a stance on Hillary Clinton. This was criticism levied on us by the DNI report.

We try to bring something fresh to an international audience but we try to provide balanced reporting. I think there are a lot of question marks moving forward [surrounding Mr Trump] and RT and Russia, like the world’s media, are waiting to see.

You have defended Jeremy Corbyn in the past. What’s your view on him?

We don’t have a stance on Mr Corbyn, but here’s another example of how we approach any kind of international coverage. There was a lot of dismissive coverage and attitudes that we saw from the establishment press with regards his candidacy in the early days. We looked at the story and thought ‘hmm, there’s something more there.’ And we were correct.

But his polling figures are even worse now. How was RT correct?

We don’t have an editorial policy on any political figure, including Corbyn. We don’t have a political stance.

We’re simply asking ‘what is the side of the story that isn’t being explored?’