Russia has promised further crackdowns on British media outlets operating in the country, after UK media regulator Ofcom banned the Kremlin-backed television channel RT.
The Russian embassy in the UK said it was considering how to respond to the decision to remove RT’s broadcast licence: “The Russian side, therefore, reserves itself the right, as per normal international practice, to respond respectively with regard to the activity of British media in Russia.”
The BBC has been concerned that its operations in Russia could be severely curtailed as part of a tit-for-tat retribution move by the Russian state. The corporation has curtailed its Russian-language reporting from within the country but continues with English-language reporting led by Steve Rosenberg, its Russia editor.
RT vanished from British television screens two weeks ago as a result of EU sanctions but the UK media regulator’s decision makes it almost impossible for it to return to the country’s airwaves.
The decision does not stop RT, formerly known as Russia Today, publishing online output aimed at British audiences – which often reached larger audiences than the television channel – because Ofcom regulates only broadcast outlets.
RT faced 29 investigations by Ofcom into specific breaches of British impartiality rules over its coverage of the war in Ukraine. The channel had portrayed the invasion as a peacekeeping mission to protect pro-Russia breakaway states.
But Ofcom said it instead made the unusually quick decision to revoke RT’s licence because of Russia’s introduction of laws that criminalised journalistic output that departed from the Russian state’s narrative, “, especially in relation to the invasion of Ukraine”.
“We consider that given these constraints it appears impossible for RT to comply with the due impartiality rules of our broadcasting code in the circumstances,” the regulator said.
The discussions these events prompt have two levels. The first level is about the situation: is this government intervention or is this a regulator trying to foster trust by offloading a propaganda machine? The second forces us to ask should the government have power over the regulator.
The first level is hard to prove, the government may have pressured. However, Russia Today has always maintained a level of plausible deniability. They fostered a Brexit following during the referendum as it furthered a Russian agenda. However, that was hard to call propaganda given the large amount of support found for Brexit. Now that Russian intentions are clearer, it is easier to prove. Ofcom tries to avoid taking channels off the air to protect freedom of expression. However, this was the point it seems Russia Today took it too far.
However, the second debate is more interesting. Should the government be able to say what we should and should not watch? Instinctually most would say no. In an era of social media and algorithms, it might be laughable that the government could choose what we see. But if the government can choose what we see, it damages our rights… Right? But in the United States, the land where freedom of expression beats out the love of guns, there is a wartime system that allows the government to seize control of communications. Zelensky did just this in Ukraine. It is to control information. In peacetime that is too much power, especially over time. However, in wartime, it is a necessity. The UK has a system too, and under the Broadcasting Act of 1980, the government still has the right to take control over radio and television in times of national emergency. Although, what qualifies is open to interpretation.
Russia Today is not the beginning of this government taking those steps, it would be far more immediate. But we are in an information war. It is something the world has not quite seen before and we should be prepared for more of the same.