The normalization of Russia Today [RT]
Incredulity doesn’t kill curiosity; it encourages it. Though distrustful of logical chains of ideas, I loved the polyphony of ideas. As long as you don’t believe in them, the collision of two ideas – both false – can create a pleasing interval, a kind of diabolus in musica. I had no respect for some ideas people were willing to stake their lives on, but two or three ideas that I did not respect might still make a nice melody.
Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum, Vintage: London, p. 95.
Modern politics has always entailed a degree of credulity on the part of policymakers and citizens. We cannot directly experience most political events. We rely on journalism to tell us what is happening, while recognizing those representations are necessarily imperfect. We hope that all journalists try their best, otherwise we cannot be informed and think, vote and act responsibly. In journalists we put our trust and faith. When journalists mislead, intentionally or through error, outrage follows. They have broken the pact. But what happens when a global news organisation promotes incredulity towards journalism and world events? Will audiences succumb to an entirely playful attitude to the truth and see the political ideas and events for beauty they create together rather than their correspondence to reality, akin to the playfulness Italian novelist Umberto Eco suggests? Will Russia’s international broadcaster RT – previously Russia Today – succeed in undercutting the evidentiary basis of political discussion and reduce world affairs to nice melodies that do not take us to events on the ground but that we find curious nevertheless? Or, instead, could RT be dragged into a more mainstream, less radical form of news? Could RT be just another normal media outlet?
A decade ago Al-Jazeera shook up the international news landscape by providing highly professional journalism from an Arabic perspective. Its aim was to provide ‘voice to the voiceless’, covering world events in a way that Arabic publics would find credible, topical and valuable. Al-Jazeera’s popularity highlighted that Arabic audiences’ demands were not being met by existing global or local Arabic news outlets. This had a partially relativising effect. Western broadcasters were forced to reflect on the need to provide multiple versions in multiple languages of the same core events. More importantly, they had to reflect on what this pluralism meant for their claims to objectivity and impartiality. Today RT presents an even more radical challenge. RT makes no effort to be objective. It mocks Western media attempts at impartiality and presents conspiracies as legitimate matters to be debated. It is a radically postmodern broadcaster because it suggests to audiences that there is no truth to be found. All news is propaganda. Those who present truth are lying. Al-Jazeera might have seemed radical and counter-hegemonic once, but, in the eyes of RT, its claims to professional journalism make it another stooge. By this logic, audiences should watch news not to be informed about the world but to exercise healthy skepticism towards any claims to inform. It is no coincidence that one of RT politics shows is called Breaking the Set. RT’s epistemological nihilism demolishes the function of news.
It would be easy to dismiss RT. Its viewing figures are opaque, its impact on public opinion or elite debates unknown. To some of my students it is simply bonkers. Similar things were said about Al-Jazeera when it emerged. Al-Jazeera’s reporting was deemed emotional, more poetic than factual. Some suggested it helped “the terrorists”. While Al-Jazeera has become part of a global mainstream media menu because of its high standards of journalism, it seems unthinkable in 2014 that RT will ever be part of that mainstream. For that to happen, the nature of the mainstream would have to change. The very status of truth, information and verification underpinning world politics would have to change.
Exciting new research by Professor Stephen Hutchings at the University of Manchester throws light upon how RT approaches journalism and truth. (1) In February this year Hutchings was studying RT’s Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics coverage to see whether RT served as a tool of Russian soft power (Hutchings, 2014). Did RT project Russia as an attractive, welcoming and successful country? He found that RT was uniquely skilled at turning daily events and geopolitical narratives into a playful, engaging version of the world that consistently undermined the idea of objective reporting of events.
RT keenly monitored Western conversations about Sochi in order to subvert on-screen anything deemed anti-Russian. The most prominent topics around the Sochi Games were #SochiProblems (to highlight inevitable setbacks in the Games’ organization), LGBT rights, and Putin as a malevolent force. Hutchings found that these topics were reflected in BBC coverage of the games. It added up to a narrative of a corrupt, dangerous Russia, undermining the Olympic spirit at every turn. This provided an easy target for RT. RT depicted Sochi as a typical European city and the Games as peaceful and successful. Unlike London 2012, there were no rocket launchers on rooftops. It contrasted a cosmopolitan, LGTB-friendly Sochi with hostility to gay rights in southern US states. Its presenters were not under the same restrictive social media guidelines as BBC presenters. This allowed them not just to talk about openness and engagement but demonstrate it by entering into polemical debates with audiences on Twitter. In short, it could portray Western mainstream media as a conspiracy pulling the wool over audiences’ eyes.
Midway through the Games, tensions in Ukraine turned to conflict. When the Games finished RT switched from a soft power to ‘information war’ strategy, working closely with the Russian state. RT appeared to receive the leaked phone call scandals direct from Russian intelligence (Hutchings, 2014). One call involved the EU’s voice of foreign affairs, Cathy Ashton, and the Estonian foreign minister worrying that Ukrainian nationalists may have been responsible for the deaths on Kiev’s Maidan Square. Another call involved US Assistant Secretary of State, Victoria Nuland, seeming to confirm US interference in Ukraine’s affairs. RT noted that while the BBC reported the latter, it ignored the former. Alongside this quite traditional narrative subversion, however, RT presenters continued to embrace the continual churn of social media commentary on Russia and Ukraine. Hutchings writes:
[RT] was not to know that an obscure Australian alternative comedy collective would produce a musical ‘rap’ video of the links between the Sochi Olympics and the Ukraine crisis, dubbing the latter, Putin’s ‘Paramilitary Games’, and satirising Russia’s pseudo-imperialistic approach to international relations. But the fact that the second half targeted ‘mainstream media’ hypocrisy … accorded with RT’s own focus on the double standards of western outlets accusing Russia of suppressing independent thought.
RT could treat YouTube videos mocking Russia as resources for undermining Western media and its pretentions to objectivity. This is a risky approach to soft power, Hutchings argues. Engaging playfully with overseas criticism hardly accords with the idea of Russian media control and Putin overseeing the projection of a single narrative about Russian greatness. RT’s embrace of social liberalism to refute accusations of Russian homophobia contradicted Putin’s social conservatism. By presenting its audiences with contradictory perspectives on Russia, RT left audiences with nothing tangible to hang onto other than the fact that politics is full of contradictory perspectives. A nice melody, to return to Eco’s quote, but not a form of news that attempts to inform about events in the world independent of media itself.
There is a mainstream sphere of international broadcasting featuring CNN, the BBC, CCTV, Al-Jazeera and other emerging challengers. RT stands aside and invites audience to ‘question more’. But most people ultimately turn to news to know something; questions must lead to settled versions of events. Politics entails the suspension of incredulity. Policy discussions depend on a basic set of facts around which debate can unfold, however provisional those facts may be. The proportion of viewers content with discussions of conspiracies and debunkings is limited and RT may ultimately be dragged into the mainstream when audiences cannot tolerate news as play or melody alone.
(1) This research is from a larger joint project at the University of Manchester and Open University entitled ‘International Broadcasting, Social Media and the ‘New Cold War’: The Case of Sochi 2014’. The investigators are Stephen Hutchings and Marie Gillespie, and the team includes Ilya Yablokov, Ilya L’vov, Alex Voss and Kenzie Burchell.
Hutchings, S. (2014) ‘Soft Power, Geopolitical Crisis and the Changing International Broadcasting Landscape: Russia Today’s Coverage of the Sochi Olympics and Beyond’. Paper presented at the CRESC Conference on Power, Culture and Social Framing, Manchester, 3-5 September.