Ian Austin: Salmond’s shame over TV deal with Russian propaganda outfit

It’s been well over a week since Alex Salmond announced he had signed up to present a show on Russia Today – and I’m still shocked.

It is extraordinary that he would describe the BBC as a “disgrace” but broadcast on a Kremlin-funded Putin-PR channel. What outrageous hypocrisy.

RT is a straightforward Kremlin propaganda outfit. Its central purpose is to promote Putin’s interests and strengthen his murderous kleptocracy, a corrupt dictatorship which locks up, intimidates and even murders opponents and journalists, loots the country and impoverishes ordinary Russians. Decent people who believe in our democracy should give it a wide berth. It really is as simple as that.

The BBC operates to the highest editorial standards of any broadcaster in the world. It is public service broadcasting at its best and it is a mind-boggling contradiction that people who believe they are on the progressive left, and who claim they believe in the ethos of public service, undermine it and attack its staff.

Does the BBC make mistakes from time to time? Of course. And it has proper enquiries to learn lessons and ensure they are not repeated. Do I agree with it all the time? Of course not. But values like impartiality, balance and neutrality are spelt out in the BBC’s charter and are at the heart of its work. Employees are contractually obliged to uphold them. Millions are spent training journalists to the highest standards. Its independence and rigour are valued around the world and held up as examples to which other broadcasters aspire.

Contrast that with RT.

In the same week that Salmond announced his new show, the channel had to register in Washington as an agent of the Russian government because an inquiry by US intelligence agencies showed it relentlessly promotes propaganda on behalf of the Kremlin. An official assessment said “The Kremlin staffs RT and closely supervises RT’s coverage, recruiting people who can convey Russian strategic messaging because of their ideological beliefs.”

Lots of people won’t trust American officials of course, but then they don’t need to take their word for it. Just listen to Putin instead. In 2013 the Russian president said: “The channel is funded by the government, so it cannot help but reflect the Russian government’s official position on the events in our country and in the rest of the world one way or another.”

Putin’s spokesman explained the strategy when the broadcaster’s Kremlin-funded parent organisation was established in 2013, saying: “The tool of propaganda is an integral part of any state. It is everywhere. And Russia should use it as well.”

So it should come as no surprise that RT has been found to have broken Ofcom guidelines at least 15 times or that Twitter refuses to run it adverts. This, after all, is the station that claimed the Ukrainians shot down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 and killed the 298 people on board, broadcast “Eyewitnesses: Kiev army now literally crucify babies in seized towns, force mothers to watch” and even alleged the BBC had “staged” a chemical weapons attack in Syria, a claimed proved false after the BBC complained to Ofcom.

Some people are so convinced their cause is right that the only reason the public could possibly have failed to agree with them is because is because they are lied to by other broadcasters and the press. Patronisingly, they believe people would agree with them if they had not been brainwashed by what they sneer at as the “mainstream media” but what the rest of us call trained and professional journalists. It’s the same for Nigel Farage on the right or people on the hard left and it explains why they all undermine the BBC.

This is becoming a really serious problem as the circulations of newspapers decline and people – especially younger people – increasingly turn to the internet for their news.

I’ve grown used to hearing people insist that something must be true because they read it on Facebook, but how are readers expected to distinguish between proper journalists reporting facts and RT’s warped agenda, let alone the partisan nonsense on websites like Skwawkbox or the Canary?

It’s about time the political mainstream started standing up for serious journalism and public service broadcasting. Freedom of expression is fundamental. That’s one of the many things that makes Britain a much better place to live than Putin’s dictatorship. But let’s challenge this nonsense that RT is a reputable broadcaster on a par with the BBC.

Ian Austin is MP for Dudley North.

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