UK's War on RT Is an Attack on Free Speech

OfCom's campaign against RT is not a "counter propaganda" campaign.  It is a campaign to suppress the expression of inconvenient opinions

This post first appeared on Russia Insider

Confirmation that the British broadcasting regulator Ofcom is investigating another complaint against RT is a disturbing development.

Before saying anything further I must declare an interest.  

I am regular guest on RT. I am also a regular guest on Crosstalk, the programme that according to media reports is at the centre of the Ofcom investigation. I have the highest personal regard for Peter Lavelle, who is the programme’s host.

Before discussing this investigation and the issues to which it gives rise, I also however wish to make clear that I have not seen the complaint that is the cause of the investigation or any other document related either to the complaint or to the investigation. Nor have I discussed either the complaint or the investigation with anyone at RT. Nor were RT or anyone working for RT informed of this article or provided with a copy of it before publication. All the opinions expressed in this article are my own and none have been discussed with RT or indeed with anyone else before publication.

So far as I can tell from media reports, the investigation follows a complaint of lack of impartiality on the part of RT and specifically by Crosstalk in discussing the Ukrainian crisis.  

If so then the relevant provision is Section 5 of Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code.  This says, in part: 


To ensure that news, in whatever form, is reported with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality. To ensure that the special impartiality requirements of the Act are complied with.


Meaning of "due impartiality”:

"Due" is an important qualification to the concept of impartiality. Impartiality itself means not favouring one side over another. "Due" means adequate or appropriate to the subject and nature of the programme. So "due impartiality" does not mean an equal division of time has to be given to every view, or that every argument and every facet of every argument has to be represented. The approach to due impartiality may vary according to the nature of the subject, the type of programme and channel, the likely expectation of the audience as to content, and the extent to which the content and approach is signalled to the audience. Context, as defined in Section Two: Harm and Offence of the Code, is important.”

I am not an expert on media law, but this provision seems to me clearly intended to ensure that news content is presented accurately and objectively by a broadcaster.  It does not appear to me to prevent the expression of individual opinions.  That also seems to me clear from reading the rest of Section 5 of the Code.

Crosstalk is a discussion and opinion programme that discusses news, whereas Section 5 seems mostly applicable to news programmes that report news.   Section 5 does not appear to me to limit discussion or analysis of news (the purpose of Crosstalk) provided the news, which is being analysed and discussed, is reported objectively and accurately.  That this is so appears to be borne out by the Guidance Notes to the Code, which say:

"In accordance with a broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression, the broadcaster has the right to interpret news events as it sees fit, as long as it complies with the Code".

To my knowledge the makers of the programme, and Peter Lavelle in particular, always strive for the greatest possible accuracy when reporting facts or news.  As Peter Lavelle has several times said on Crosstalk programmes I have attended, guests have a right to their opinions but not a right to the facts.  

Given so, it seems to me that not only does the complaint upon which the investigation is based have little merit, but it appears if anything to be an attempt to prevent the free expression of opinions, which is contrary to Article 10(1) of the European Convention of Human Rights: 

“Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.”

Moreover the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Handyside v United Kingdom (5493/72) said "Freedom of applicable not only to 'information' or 'ideas' that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population" (Para. 49 of the judgment).

As I have said already, I do not hold myself out as any sort of authority on the Broadcasting Code or on media law in general.  However knowing what I do about the Crosstalk programme and in light of what seems to me to be the applicable law, I can see no logic to this Ofcom investigation.  

The fact however remains that an investigation is taking place.  If, as it seems to me, there is no logic behind it, why is it taking place?

The short answer is that there is a sustained attempt underway to elevate a particular set of opinions about the Ukrainian crisis to the realm of fact so as to delegitimise or even prohibit expression of any conflicting set of opinions that may contradict those opinions that are being invested with the status of fact.  That set of opinions is the one held about the Ukrainian crisis by the present government of Ukraine and its supporters in Britain and the West, these of course being all the major Western governments and media institutions. 

To see how this is so, it is merely necessary to try to imagine a similar Ofcom investigation of a broadcaster that offers a one-sidedly pro-Ukrainian view of the crisis. 

The Western media over the course of the crisis has reported as “facts” that Yanukovych was overthrown as a result of a popular revolution, that President Poroshenko’s election in May 2014 was legitimate, that the role of neo-Nazi and far right groups in Ukraine is marginal, that the Ukrainian military was winning the war in the Donbass in July and early August 2014, that the Russian military is present in large numbers in eastern Ukraine and that it is the Russians and the east Ukrainian militias that caused the peace process launched in Minsk in September 2014 to fail.  

Each one of these “facts” is open to challenge.  On examination they turn out to be not “facts” at all but merely opinions that can be contested in every case: Thus opinion polls show an even split of Ukrainians supporting and opposing the Maidan movement that overthrew Yanukovych; Poroshenko’s election was arguably illegitimate since it took place following an unconstitutional coup that was rejected by people in Ukraine’s eastern regions; the neo-Nazi and far right groups appear to have a disproportionate influence in Ukrainian politics and in the Ukrainian military where they have formed themselves into volunteer battalions outside the chain of command; the Ukrainian military was in reality never close to victory at any stage in the war in the summer of 2014; the German government now disputes US and NATO claims concerning the presence of large numbers of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine; and the true reason for the failure of the Minsk peace process launched in September 2014 is not Russian or east Ukrainian failure to honour their commitments but Ukraine’s intransigent refusal to undertake the constitutional negotiations it committed itself to by the Minsk process.

No Western or British broadcaster would however face investigation by Ofcom for reporting the “facts” (or rather opinions) that I set out above, and none in fact has ever had to, even though these “facts” give a strongly pro-Ukrainian take on the conflict and even though they represent the mainstream of reporting of the conflict by the Western and British media. 

Similarly no Western or British broadcaster has faced investigation by Ofcom for saying that MH17 was shot down by the Russians or by the east Ukrainian militia, even though that “fact” too is not a fact at all (since it is has not been proved) but is as of the time of writing merely an expression of opinion.

That the issue is one of expression of inconvenient opinions rather than of misreporting or inaccurately reporting news or “facts” is shown by the way the British media has recently taken to misrepresenting certain comments made by RT’s chief, Margarita Simonyan.

A recent editorial in the Guardian said this about her comments:

“It is a tactic straight out of Mr Putin’s KGB playbook from the 1970s. Generate a plurality of narratives, so the truth can be obscured. In such circumstances, the very idea that there is such a thing as “the truth” can itself be called into question. “There is no objectivity – only approximations of the truth by as many different voices as possible” is how Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of state-backed Russia Today, puts it. This is weaponised relativism.”

Contrast this with what Simonyan actually said in the interview with Der Spiegel, from which the above quote comes:

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Efforts are made to be objective. But your network only covers one side, offering Syrian dictator Bashar Assad a platform for his political message.

Simonyan: There are people who refer to Assad's political opponents as the "democratic opposition." Even the rebels, however, have raped women and murdered children. Take Saakashvili, for example. He is held up as a hero by the BBC. For others, he represents an oppressor of freedom. There is no objectivity -- only approximations of the truth by as many different voices as possible.”

Where Simonyan says that facts may validly be the subject of different opinions and of more than one interpretation, the Guardian insists only one opinion or interpretation - its own - which also happens to be the mainstream Western one - is valid, and anything else is “weaponised relativism”.

It is not difficult to see how behind this seeming concern for "objective truth" - and the corresponding rejection of alternative opinions and interpretations that contradict it - lies a thinly disguised form of authoritarianism.  To see where that leads, it is only necessary to look at the final paragraph of the editorial:

“Amid the various narratives of “the truth” now being rehearsed by the Russian state, it is necessary to insist upon a reality; on Friday morning Mr Nemtsov was alive, but by the day’s end he was dead. Amid the mischievous misdirection of the Kremlin’s counter-measures, this is, quite simply, the truth.”

That Boris Nemtsov was killed on Friday 27th February 2015 is a truth denied by no one.  The “reality” the Guardian insists on is not that one.  Rather what the Guardian is actually doing (as the editorial read as a whole makes clear) is demanding that its opinion (which is also the mainstream Western opinion) that the Kremlin killed Nemtsov or caused him to be killed be accepted as “reality”.  Any other opinion about the murder is rejected as “mischievous misdirection” by the Kremlin.  This notwithstanding the fact that as of the time the editorial was written no facts had come to light to support the Guardian’s opinion that the Kremlin had caused or was responsible for Nemtsov’s death, and all the facts that have come to light since tend to refute it.

When mere opinion independent of proof or facts is elevated to the level of unchallengeable truth, free expression becomes impossible.  When provisions intended to guard against factual misreporting and inaccuracy, such as Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code, are misused to suppress the expression of inconvenient opinions, it is valid to warn of censorship.  That is the situation we appear to be in now.

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