The news that two politicians who have more than many experienced smear, personal attacks, racism, sexism and political bias should start-up their own TV production company and programme should not come as a surprise. But Tasmina Ahmed-Sheik and Alex Salmond’s decision to launch broadcasting with RT (Russia Today) has met with a wall of hysteria. Chris Deerin used his New Statesman platform to equate it with the fall in public standards of sexual harassment at Westminster and George Foulkes called him a traitor. in that vanguard of civil liberties and freedom, the Daily Express.
This has led to a tribal and binary debate about the BBC versus RT, as if this was the choice we have to make.
The following statements are all true:
The BBC is a highly problematic public broadcaster that has lost much credibility over recent years through coverage and reporting which is seen as partial, biased and, in Scotland, woefully under-resourced.
Programmes like Question Time are widely derided as being partisan constructs rather than current affairs platforms for democratic debate.
Individuals like Nick Robinson, John Humphreys and Laura Kuenssberg are seen as political figures rather than political commentators from people well beyond the confines of tin-hat nationalists.
It is also a state broadcaster, and the coverage of state occasions and omnipresent ‘royal parades’ is laughably and unconsciously deferential…as this neatly dubbed North Korea commentary over footage of Britain’s Royal Family shows …
The BBC is not a single monolithic content provider, instead being made up of contributions from myriad production companies – the content of which is good, indifferent, bad and awful.
The BBC is made up of hundreds of journalists, some great, some awful, some bias some fair-minded. To attack them all, or to treat them like one coordinated actor is childish. Some of their programme is awful, some of it brilliant. Panorama, Eorpa, Blue Planet, Louis Theroux. Strictly. Take your pick.
The point of framing the debate to you have to decide to either ‘back the BBC’ or ‘back RT’ is stupid.
As Gordon Guthrie points out, the BBC broke the story on Priti Patel that led to her resignation. You won’t be seeing that on RT anytime soon, nor have you on any Russian state channels. He asks: “If you think the BBC is the same as RT ask yourself when did Russia state telly last do a story that caused a ministerial resignation – like the Beeb did with Priti Patel?”
It is also true that RT is, in some sense, “the mouthpiece of a regime that murders journalists” as Peter Geoghegan has pointed out.
And we will come to talking about Russia a bit more in a second…
There is also multiple hypocrisy from many frothing at the mouth about Salmond who have willfully ignored the attacks on media freedom in Catalonia or the BBC’s coverage of the constitutional crisis in Spain. At one point the BBC showed Spanish policemen attacking Catalan firefighters with batons – and described it as ‘police jostling with firefighters’.
As Illiam Costain has pointed out: “I get the disquiet about it – but the history of opprobrium is revealing: 2005: RT gets license to broadcast in UK (Lab Gov, no outrage); 2014: Launch of RT UK, with HQ in London (Con/LD Gov, no outrage); 2017: RT to broadcast Salmond programme (former SNP leader, outrage).”
As he points out – RT are either fit to have a broadcast licence, or they’re not.
There is a feeling – particularly about the idea of Salmond engaging in a “coup” at the Scotsman – that the barbarians are at the barricades. Some of Scotland’s really establishment entrenched journalists are so deep-in that they don’t realise how ridiculous this sounds. It’s like saying: “I stand up for the sacred values of journalism by ensuring that pluralism cannot exist.” According to these messengers, political views which are endorsed to the extent that they make up our elected government are considered so beyond the pale that they simply cannot have a role in newspapers.
Russia is an authoritarian state with an appalling record on human rights, assaults on media freedom, homophobia, aggressive military intervention, murky covert black ops, support for sick regimes abroad and violent repression of dissent at home.
This should be said over and over again and neither collusion nor endorsement, however tacit should be tolerated.
The emerging reality about Russian interference in the US election and the Brexit referendum is an attack on democracy that makes raking though Jackie Birds twitter feed look like political infantilism.
In this context Salmond’s media choices look highly ill-judged but it is not he who is the ‘useful idiot’ of Unionist hysteria.
As JJ Patrick has written:
“Nigel Farage, former UKIP leader and MEP, Arron Banks, UK donor and backer of Leave.EU, and Andrew Wigmore, a Belizian diplomat and endeavour partner of both, are the best known of the Useful Fools in the United Kingdom.
All of them are currently under investigation or scrutiny in some way or another, in the both the United States and the United Kingdom – whether it be by the FBI under the Mueller inquiry, the EU over funding frauds, the police because of Breitbart payments to UKIP, the ICO over Leave.EU’s data use and sharing arrangements, or by the Electoral Commission over their receipt of services from controversial data firm Cambridge Analytica and Banks’s own finances.
They are deeply embedded in the establishment of fake and alternative news, proactively working with Steve Bannon – senior in the Trump Administration, Breitbart, and Cambridge Analytica – Russia’s state-led outlets RT and Sputnik, and have even created their own platform, Westmonster.
Alongside this, they are also connected through the use of their own social media bots and Russia’s, to push their messaging – which also ties them to InfoWars – and will become central in the growing calls for inquiries into Russian interference in Brexit.” More at Byline here.
This form of anti-democracy with thinly-veiled threats against journalism has leaked into Britain. Here Arron Banks threatens the exemplary Carole Cadwalladr:
— Arron Banks (@Arron_banks) June 1, 2017
As Patrick reminds us:
“Putin’s Kremlin was built upon the KGB and the blood of organised crime”. He continues: “…we are now living in the wake of a complex hybrid offensive, an Alternative War which saw Russia deploy a new range of psychological and cyber weapons with the assistance of far-right relationships cultivated over years.”
In this context Salmond’s decision is not just morally but tactically wrong. However rotten Britain’s media is, however corrupt Britain’s foreign policy is, doesn’t change that.
As George Monbiot wrote way back in December in 2014:
“Scotland is rudely interrupting the constructed silences that stifle political thought in the UK. This is why the oligarchs who own the media hate everything that is happening there: their interests are being exposed in a way that is currently impossible south of the border. For centuries, Britain has been a welfare state for patrimonial capital. It’s time we broke it open, and broke the culture of deference that keeps us in our place”.
Of course there are ways in which Salmond can silence his critics, by inviting on to his show opponents not just of the British government but of the Russian government, which he may well do.
The choice is not between the voices of the state broadcasters of Britain or Russia but should be about building a democratic independent media.