Two weeks ago the news channel Russia Today (RT) launched its UK service and became available to British viewers via the cable. RT is funded by the Russian state and targets non-Russian viewers outside of the Russian Federation. It is generally recognised as an instrument of Russian soft power and part of the overall efforts of the Russian government to influence public opinion overseas.
The RT’s arrival on the UK media scene has generated an outpouring of commentary in the British press. Most notably, British media regulator Ofcom threatened RT with regulatory action. Ofcom charged that RT’s coverage of the conflict in Ukraine violated impartiality rules and expressed concerns that the channel “would want to present the news from a Russian perspective.” This, according to Ofcom, violated the rules of UK broadcasting, which must preserve “due impartiality … in particular, when reporting on matters of major political controversy.”
The central concept of Ofcom’s charges against RT also happens to be the murkiest one, for the term “due impartiality” is never explicitly defined. Yet, if Ofcom’s case against RT is to make sense, a clear definition of what it means is very important, especially given the particular context of the British media landscape. When major UK newspapers come in favour of that or another candidate in the parliamentary elections, they are not flagged for violation of impartiality, although one may argue that national election is probably the most obvious case of major political controversy. Nor did Ofcom express any concerns about the availability of Fox News or MSNBC on UK cable, although each of these channels has a clearly defined position on major international controversies such as, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Given these examples, and in an absence of a definition of what does “impartiality” mean for the purpose of Ofcom regulations, it is hard to understand what exactly are the rules that RT violates.
RT spokespeople argued that Ofcom’s warnings constitute an essentially anti-Russian move and an attempt to silence a new voice that intends to speak truth to power. This explanation however, appears too simplistic. It seems to me that the source of Ofcom’s concern is not impartiality as such, but what kind of impartiality is it. Another key factor in Ofcom’s warning is the emphasis on the links between RT and the Russian government and the repeatedly stated concern that RT is going to represent the Kremlin’s agenda. Ofcom’s overall approach signals that private-sponsored “partiality,” such as the one displayed by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, is considered acceptable. By contrast, government-sponsored “partiality” of Russia Today is perceived as potentially dangerous to British viewers.
Such a fine distinction is a bit disingenuous, for two reasons. First, it obscures the more subtle forms of connections that exist between the government and the press, which allow the former to influence the latter. In fact, Ofcom’s inability to regulate these relationships was at the heart of the recent Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices, and ethics of the British Press. Second, the distinction between “private partiality” and “government sponsored partiality” ignores important chapter in UK’s own broadcasting history. After all, the foreign service of the BBC, most notably its Russian language broadcasting to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, was funded by the British government and functioned as a soft power instrument not dissimilar to contemporary Russia Today.