UK-licensed TV service RT, backed by the Russian state, has defended itself against calls for its closure following the poison attack on former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.
In debate following Prime Minister Theresa May’s assertion that it was “highly-likely” that there was Russian state involvement in the incident, she faced repeated calls for her Government to take action against RT.
Former opposition media spokesman Chris Bryant asked: “Can we just stop Russia Today just broadcasting its propaganda in this country,” with fellow Labour MP Stephen Doughty urging the Prime Minister to speak with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to look at reviewing Russia Today’s broadcasting licence, and to speak to the House authorities about blocking their broadcasts in Parliament.
May said the Government would look at the response from the Russian state, confirming that she would come to the House of Commons at the earliest opportunity to look at the range of measures which could be necessary. “I think in relation to the House authorities, as you will be aware, that would not be a matter for me but the House authorities.,” she added.
Another opposition MP, Phil Wilson, asked whether the Prime Minister agreed that there was no place for MPs all sides of the House to appear on the channel, describing it as “a propaganda mouthpiece for the Russian state” which should not be engaged with by any democratic politicians who should think twice before they do so.
“I think we should all be very wary and very careful in looking at media outlets that any individual member of this House chooses to appear on,” responded May. “As I’ve said in response to other questions, this issue of Russia Today is obviously one which is of concern.”
“The Russian news channel RT broadcasts in the UK under licences issued by Ofcom as the broadcasting regulator,” advised a spokesman for broadcasting regulator Ofcom, adding that it had an ongoing duty to be satisfied that all broadcast licensees are fit and proper to hold a licence. “We have heard the Prime Minister’s statement in the House of Commons this afternoon and we await her further statement on Wednesday. We will then consider the implications for RT’s broadcast licences,” said Ofcom.
In a Statement, RT described it as “regrettable” to see RT so quickly proposed to be sacrificed as a political pawn, in one fell swoop doing away with any concept of press freedom in the UK. “RT serves a valuable role in completing the picture of news for its audience, and it has received multiple awards for its journalism,” it noted.
“Such proposals only serve to indicate how much some public figures are willing to turn their backs on their own communities, demonstrating no desire to engage swathes of their constituents through the channels they choose to adopt for their news. This only serves to increase the exact polarisation in society so frequently lamented. We are proud to have a better record with Ofcom than most other UK broadcasters, and any curtailment of RT will ultimately be to the detriment of the British public. It is they who have been turning to RT for years for coverage of vital yet neglected stories and voices, including those of the many MPs and other UK public figures who have been shut out of public discourse by the mainstream media,” it contended.
Ofcom subsequently issued a Statement confirming that it had written to ANO TV Novosti, holder of RT’s UK broadcast licences, which is financed from the budget of the Russian Federation. The letter explained that, should the UK investigating authorities determine that there was an unlawful use of force by the Russian State against the UK, Ofcom would consider this relevant to its ongoing duty to be satisfied that RT is fit and proper.
“The letter to RT said that we would carry out our independent fit and proper assessment on an expedited basis, and we would write to RT again shortly setting out details of our process,” it advised.
In a further response, RT said: “We disagree with the position taken by Ofcom; our broadcasting has in no way changed this week, from any other week and continues to adhere to all standards. By linking RT to unrelated matters, Ofcom is conflating its role as a broadcasting regulator with matters of state. RT remains a valuable voice in the UK news landscape, covering vital yet neglected stories and voices, including those of the many MPs and other UK public figures who have been shut out of public discourse by the mainstream media.”