RT: Putin's mouthpiece or a home for alternative voices?

Jul 21, 2014

Latest Russia Today journalist quits and accuses channel of 'disrespecting the facts'

Russia Today

British journalist Sarah Firth, who publicly resigned from Russia Today in protest against the broadcaster's coverage of the downed MH17 plane, has placed the station under renewed scrutiny over its approach.

Firth said she quit because of Russia Today's "total disrespect of the facts". In a sarcastic tweet she claimed that RT's style guide says: "It is ALWAYS *Ukraine's fault (*add name as applicable)."

Firth is the latest in succession of Russia Today journalists who have left the network amid claims of impartiality and pro-Kremlin bias. Earlier this year, Liz Wahl resigned live on air over RT coverage of the crisis in Crimea. "It actually makes me feel sick that I worked there," she later told Slate.

Despite the continued criticism, the channel's global audience continues to grow.

When and why was it set up?

The successful 24-hour international news channel was launched in 2005 and broadcasts across more than 100 countries. It was established as a "soft-power tool", intended to improve Russia's image abroad, according to the Columbia Journalism Review.

"Russia is a major country and a massive country, so it needs to make its position known to audiences all over the world," said RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan, when the channel first launched.

How is it funded?

Russia Today is a not-for-profit organisation which is state funded through the Russian Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communications.

Unlike most global media organisations, RT has not faced significant budget cuts since it was established, and President Putin once "personally intervened to block a Finance Ministry's proposal to cut funding", Oliver Bullough reports for the New Statesman.

Because of this, many of the RT correspondents "frequently speculate which Western journalists will move to RT when their own outlet goes bust".

Who watches it?

With over 2.5 million viewers, Russia Today is the third most watched news channel in the UK after BBC and Sky News. 

Which causes does it champion?

RT should be respected because it is a channel "that's very interested in alternative voices", said Loz Kaye, the leader of the UK Pirate Party and a frequent guest. It's been praised for being a "refuge" for the Occupy and hacktivist generation.

Julian Assange, who hosted several interviews on the channel, also defended the broadcaster, saying RT allowed his guests to say things they "could not say on a mainstream TV network", reports the International Business Times.

The world is "so used to hearing voices that agree with them, it is very hard for them to accept a voice that questions them", said Russia Today in response to criticism of one of its programmes.

What's the problem?

Much of the recent criticism directed towards RT has been associated with the channel's coverage of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, with commentators accusing RT of Soviet-style propaganda.

"Russia today does not lie", says Oliver Bullough, "but it is selective about what facts it uses."

The Columbia Journalism review accuses the channel of being "provocative just for the sake of being provocative" and using controversial guests and conspiracy theories to increase ratings.

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