George Galloway, the abrasive former British MP and leader of the leftwing Respect Party, was once a prolific moonlighter. In 2014 he made as much money working for dubious state-run news broadcasters than he did as a British Member of Parliament. Two years later, after a failed bid at becoming Mayor of London, Galloway has quit his day job. He’s now a full-time pundit, or propagandist, depending on how you look at it. His new employers – far removed from the British people of the constituency he once represented – are, effectively, the Russian, Iranian and Syrian governments and the militant Hezbollah movement. These repressive regimes have found a loyal friend in the loud-mouthed former MP, a self-proclaimed “left-wing” and “anti-war” “activist”. Galloway has worked for Iran’s state broadcaster Press TV, and the Hezbollah and Syrian regime linked news station, Al Mayadeen. He has also joined the likes of Steven Seagal and Julian Assange to become a lieutenant in Russia’s global (dis)information war, disseminated through the increasingly popular television state-funded news network, Russia Today, now known as RT (not to be confused with Rotten Tomatoes or ‘re-tweet’!). What does this veteran British activist and the propaganda arm of the Russian government have in common? Their hatred for the West and a willingness to abide by that ethos no matter who you have to jump into bed with.
Featured image: Ilya Repin’s Sadko in the Underwater Kingdom (1876)
Russia’s new propaganda drive presents observers with a unique phenomenon that is both hilarious and deeply worrying. It is a propaganda born in a world of savvy advertising agencies, sexy television hosts, God-like television personalities, an individualism driven by shrewd consumerism and the noise of the internet, an inherently decentralised medium. As journalist Peter Pomerantsev puts it, why should authoritarian regimes fight the information age and globalization when they can use it to their advantage?
Thanks to the internet, you would have undoubtedly come across Russian President Vladimir Putin and his cult-of-personality status. To some, Putin is a sex symbol, a saintly statesman and the resurrector of Russia’s past glories. Putin is also a television man. His rise and Russia’s current political situation makes more sense if we see him in this light. Even as president, Putin would sit down after the working day and analyse tape after tape of the television news coverage of himself. In the first years of his presidency, the Kremlin was chasing the private television oligarchs out of the country, they set out limiting the reach and scope of nongovernmental organisations and civil society, and ordered the killing (however indirectly) of journalists and opposition figures who had uncovered corruption or were critical of the war in Chechnya, such as Anna Politkovskaya. Politkovskaya, known for her award-winning impassioned reporting, was murdered in 2007. It was never clear who actually masterminded the assassination.
After it was revealed that Politkovskaya was under surveillance by the FSB (the successor to the Soviet security service, the notorious KGB) at the time of her death, the investigation into her killing was quickly closed. It would take authorities nearly eight years and two trials to convict five men for her murder, in 2014, but the individuals that ordered her death remain unknown and free. Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists maintain that the five secondary culprits were arrested and sentenced in order to divert international attention away from a case that, to this day, is still not solved.
In 2005, the Russian government created RT. Margarita Simonyan, RT’s editor-in-chief, said the aim of the new English-language network was to provide a perspective on the world from Russia. She said, “Many foreigners are surprised to see that Russia is different from what they see in media reports. We will try to present a more balanced picture.” RT is a not-for-profit entity that now broadcasts in six major languages. It is very difficult to get reliable information on just how popular RT network is. According to The Daily Beast, the channel has repeatedly over-exaggerated its audience count. The Inter Press Service’s statistics shows that in 2011, RT was second most popular foreign network in the United States, after BBC World. RT is funded and directed straight from the Russian government. Simonyan has admitted that she has a direct-line to the Russian President’s office and meets with government officials on a weekly basis.
Following the lies, mistakes, half-truths, coercion, and messy consequences of the 2003 Coalition invasion of Iraq, citizens in the West have understandably been hungry for the truth and weary of the official narrative. A pop politics has developed where the every-person sardonically or even hysterically mistrusts any foreign policy decision or global current affair that involves the United States and its allies. Obviously, this apprehensiveness about the political elite is age-old, whether it’s in the West or the East (if we can still divide the world as such). However, with the US as the world’s top dog, and with our meme-tastic pop culture, the dissent seems more pronounced, fashionable, and accessible for anyone with a social media account.
I am in no way trying to imply that this criticism is not warranted. It is underlined by an antiimperialist or anti-capitalist presentiment and a weary thinking about policies of the past, which is crucial for a healthy democracy. The Kremlin’s propaganda machine and its proxies, however, have capitalised on the trendy vitriol to expand their interests and advance their own goals. “Giving a voice to the voiceless is, indeed, a noble journalistic mission,” former RT reporter, Liz Wahl wrote earlier this year for stopfake.org. “However, my experience as an RT reporter and anchor was that RT’s main goal is not to seek truth and report it. Rather, the aim is to create confusion and sow distrust in Western governments and institutions by reporting anything which seems to discredit the West, and ignoring anything which is to its credit.”
Especially during and since the war in Ukraine, RT has been criticised for its heavy anti-West rhetoric and a rampant and unabated pro-Putin stance. The cracks have started to show in how RT does business. During the aftermath of the 2014 MH17 plane-downing in eastern Ukraine, Sara Firth, a London-based correspondent for RT, said she became upset about a lack of editorial independence regarding reporting the plane crash, being directed to put the blame on Ukraine and to avoid any questions of Russia’s involvement. “It was the most shockingly obvious misinformation and it got to the point where I couldn’t defend it anymore,” she told the Guardian in 2014. RT’s coverage of the MH17 disaster is one of the most explicit examples of how they operate. The Russian Ministry of Defence would present some wild theory about how the plane was downed; RT would disseminate it with flashy graphics and exclusive interviews with government officials. The theory would subsequently be disproved by independent experts and investigators and, the next day, another outlandish theory that contradicted the last would be released through RT. The cycle would repeat and repeats to this day.
RT fabricated many stories about the crisis in Ukraine in an effort to spread fear and, confusion, and to distract from Russian actions. One of the most outrageous was when one show, ironically named “Truthseeker”, claimed that the Ukrainian Army had crucified young children and babies while forcing their mothers to watch. The story was subsequently deleted. Rosie Gray, another former RT reporter says the channel has repeatedly used fake images or falsely attributed information to create a narrative that sees Putin as the hero of Ukraine. Gray says reporters were forced to act as extensions of their editors and follow instructions to the letter no matter the story. “Correspondents who rejected the leadership’s underlying agenda in their work were reprimanded; those who followed it were rewarded,” Gray wrote for Buzzfeed in late 2014. “Over time, employees learned from these experiences and began to adapt in ways that would be receptive to the Russian bosses.”
For this article I watched a few hours of RT, which is available for those with Sky or whatever and streamable online. I found it quite entertaining (but also tedious and cringeful), just the same as I like to watch MSNBC’s Morning Joe in the wee hours of the morning. The channel presents itself as very edgy and envelope-pushing. Every single story I saw was in some way or another angled in order to show the United States as both a dystopian hellhole and a psychotic conquer that is responsible for all the ills in the world. Some stories are more subtle in their bias. For example, the current heroin epidemic that is sweeping American suburbs is explained away as completely the consequence of the US’ invasion of Afghanistan and because heaps of Mexicans are flooding the border.
Russia’s domestic politics are seldom mentioned. When thousands of Russians marched through Moscow in 2011 to demonstrate against election fraud, RT ignored it and made sure their news was heavily focused on Occupy protesters being rounded up by police in New York. Another story effectively whitewashes the atrocities Russia committed in its small republic of Chechnya by not mentioning them at all in a documentary about post-war Chechnya. During the Ukraine war, RT hysterically blamed Ukraine for the war, declaring that Russia “was forced” to invade its neighbour, “which had been taken over by neo-Nazis”. The channel has given huge chunks of airtime to American actor and Putin fanboy, Steven Segal, who is adamant that the United Nations wants to invade the US.
Other stories are blatant and loud in their misinformation. RT has repeatedly aired some very bizarre segments on conspiracy theories. One example, from the hip youthful “The Resident” show, ran a story titled “Obvi-Illuminati” about how US presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, uses a data analytics start-up company that has a triangle in their logo and whose parent company has a Hebrew name. The conclusion: Clinton is linked to the worldwide Jewish conspiracy. Is this a joke? Are they serious? That is not the point. If it goes against the “mainstream narrative”, then it’s fair game, and, as the axiom goes, all bad press is good press. One of the weirdest RT clips I’ve come across is a live performance of some dude on his laptop playing an electronic song featuring Barack Obama’s spliced voice saying “we’ve killed” children, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, and people on 9/11.
RT has a habit of inviting very questionable experts, such as “World Bank whistleblower” Karen Hudes, who has claimed the Bank is controlled by a “second species”, an ancient race that has different DNA to humans and have some kind of connection to the Jesuits and Jews and have somehow transported the US’ gold reserves to the Vatican. Last year, RT’s go-to expert for German political issues was Manuel Ochsenreiter, the editor of a German neo-Nazi magazine named Zuerst!. Other guests have included a “human rights expert”, Ryan Dawson, who is also a Holocaust denier that claims that Judaism encourages pedophilia, rape and ritual murder. RT’s commercials are also hilarious and sadly ironic. One triumphantly states: “When politicians and the mainstream media work sideby- side, the joke is actually on you. At RT News, we have a different approach.” Rich coming from a news organisation that is directed and funded by the Russian government.
University of Otago’s expert on Russian and European international relations, James Headley of the Politics Department, says RT bases its criticism of the West on an argument of “double standards”, a type of rhetoric coined as “whataboutism” during the Cold War. If Putin is under fire in the international media for anti-LGBT laws, then RT will fill the airwaves with stories about the lack of LGBT rights in the United States. If Russia is condemned by Western governments for violating international law and breaching other country’s sovereignty, RT will make sure its viewers remember the illegal Iraq War. If you criticise Russian foreign policy, they will be quick to point out the United States’ wrongs, no matter how relevant they are to the given debate. Headley says Russia’s defiant stance (as well as the moral high ground that the West undoubtedly likes to stand on) has significant consequences for international peace and cooperation and officials from both sides will find it difficult to conduct diplomacy in this environment.
>Other experts are more worried about the effects of Russian propaganda has on domestic populations, in both Russia and the West. Russian academic and journalist, Mikhail Klikushin, writes “As in America, the Russian public is largely informed by TV shows and other media, which never miss an opportunity to remind viewers that the current occupant of the White House is the world’s biggest villain—but not one to be taken too seriously.” Conspiracy theories and alarmist rhetoric are no longer out in the fringe. They are steering the foreign policy and public opinion of the two most powerful countries in the world, Peter Pomerantsev, an expert on the Kremlin’s misinformation campaign, says. The Kremlin’s narratives spread alarm and distrust, purposely so to destabilise others and strengthen Russia’s position, Pomerantsev claimed in a report for the Legatum Institute.
There is something seductive and special about bullshit. RT represents a propaganda that does not provide one monolithic all-encompassing counter-narrative to the message pushed by Western mainstream media, but instead, pumps out a confusing, contradictory and dissonant mix of narratives; a technique the scholarly filmmaker, Adam Curtis, has called postmodern propaganda. You’ve got your resident neo-Nazis and your resident left-wing radicals, like George Galloway. RT creates a spectacle that provides an already slightly formed putty of information that the viewer can further mould into a narrative they can comfortably accept or at least enjoy. One study, by the Open Estonia Foundation, found that ethnic Russian audiences of television channels like RT find the content “emotionally attractive, because some news you watch [like it’s] an exciting movie. You don’t trust it, but watch it gladly.” Some Russians interviewed in the study said they find they cannot trust both sides of the West/Russia media divide and struggle to form solid opinions about important issues. Pomerantsev argues that the idea of a democratic and unbiased free press is under threat; “If there is a competition between different versions of reality, in other words, the side that is less constrained by the truth may be more likely to win.”
Originally published in Critic