20 December 2018 |Jim Waterson | The Guardian
The Russian-backed news channel RT has been found guilty of seven breaches of the British broadcasting code in relation to programmes broadcast in the aftermath of the Salisbury novichok poisoning last March.
The media regulator, Ofcom, said the channel broke impartiality rules on seven occasions in a six-week period this year. It said it was considering sanctions on the Russian-government backed channel, formerly known as Russia Today.
The regulator investigated 10 programmes broadcast between March and May this year, concluding that seven of them breached rules that broadcasters are required to follow on due impartiality regarding matters of political controversy.
Two of the breaches related to programmes hosted by the former MP George Galloway, a regular presenter on the channel, who cast doubt on the link between the Salisbury poisonings and Russia.
Other breaches include incidents where presenters failed to challenge interviewees over contentious topics and instead appeared to agree with their guest, and programmes and reports about the conflict in Syria that took a resolutely pro-Russian viewpoint without representing alternative views.
“Taken together, the seven breaches represent a serious failure of compliance with our broadcasting rules,” said Ofcom. “We have told RT that we are minded to consider imposing a statutory sanction. The broadcaster now has an opportunity to make representations to us, which we will consider before proceeding further.”
Potential punishments include forcing RT to broadcast corrections, imposing financial fines or, applicable in extreme cases, the removal of a broadcasting licence, which would essentially force the channel off air in the UK.
However, the latter course of action is considered unlikely given that any punishment has to be proportionate and previous impartiality breaches, even on this scale, have not resulted in channels being forced off air.
In its submissions to Ofcom, RT argued it did not breach the rules of due impartiality, in part because its viewers already expected to hear a pro-Russian viewpoint that challenged the “predominant narrative” of the UK government on issues such as the war in Syria and the Salisbury attacks.
“RT has a relatively small UK audience and is avowedly Russian and broadcasting an alternative viewpoint,” it said. “Audiences will not be ambushed by views aired on RT, and will not lack the context in which to evaluate them. RT is not a British broadcaster. Viewers turn to RT with the expectation that they will receive a Russian viewpoint.”
It said any attempt to censor RT, which is one of three news channels available to Freeview viewers, was an affront to freedom of speech.
“On matters that relate to disagreement between the United Kingdom and Russian governments (for instance on Salisbury or Syria), there will be viewers who want to hear the Russian point of view from a Russian channel, unfiltered by a British broadcaster,” it said.
The channel said it disagreed with Ofcom’s conclusions: “RT is extremely disappointed by Ofcom’s conclusions in what were almost all self-initiated investigations into RT by the regulator. We operate under rules outlined by the regulator, and always strive to abide by them.
“It appears Ofcom has failed to fully take onboard what we said in response to its investigations and, in particular, has not paid due regard to the rights of a broadcaster and the audience. We are reviewing the findings Ofcom has put forward and will decide shortly the nature of our next steps.”
RT has increasingly found itself at the centre of public criticism in British public life, with both Conservative and Labour MPs warned against appearing on the network and questions regularly raised in the House of Commons about its output. In July Scotland’s former first minister Alex Salmond was found to have breached Ofcom’s code with his broadcasts on the channel.
Despite the media attention, RT’s viewing figures remain relatively small, reaching just 122,000 British viewers in a typical day and it has a total audience share of 0.02%. By comparison, Sky News reaches 1.6 million viewers in a typical day and the BBC News channel is seen by 2.6 million, according to figures from the ratings agency Barb.