The former Scottish first minister’s attempts to show his editorial independence at RT are a shameless ploy – but Labour cannot take the moral highground, laments Robert Philpot
There was something deeply cynical about Alex Salmond’s decision to include a segment on lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans issues during the first episode this week of his controversial new political chat show on the RT television channel.
Formerly known as Russia Today, RT is Vladimir Putin’s mouthpiece in the west. Given the Russian president’s well-documented homophobia, Salmond no doubt thought a discussion on gay rights would demonstrate the editorial independence he claimed last week the show would have.
But the former Scottish first minister is fooling no one. This simply disguises the nature of his new employer. As Dr Jonathan Eyal, associate director of the defence thinktank Royal United Services Institute, suggests: ‘It is simply not true that views contrary to the Kremlin’s are allowed to stand on air. It is not true to suggest it is a platform that is open to everyone.’
In the words of Emmanuel Macron, RT and Sputnik, another Kremlin-backed ‘news’ outlet, act like ‘agents of influence and propaganda’ for Russia’s far-right, authoritarian regime.
Indeed, just this week, under threat of being unable to operate in the United States, RT America finally gave way and registered with the department of justice as a ‘foreign agent’. It did so under legislation first passed in 1938 to combat Nazi propaganda and following January’s US intelligence agencies report which, dubbing RT ‘Russia’s state-run propaganda machine’, accused it of contributing to the Kremlin’s campaign to elect Donald Trump.
Let us not forget that the Russian state whose interests RT advances is one that practises repression at home and aggression abroad. Putin’s Russia murders journalists, jails its political opponents, and persecutes minorities. It has assisted the blood-stained regime of Syria president Bashar al-Assad’s in committing war crimes and repeatedly menaced its neighbours in Georgia and Ukraine.
The broadcasting regulator Ofcom has rapped RT in the past for content that is ‘materially misleading or not duly impartial’ – by one count, it has upheld at least 15 complaints against it. In one of the most egregious examples, Ofcom found RT breached broadcasting rules by claiming that the BBC’s Panorama programme had faked pictures of Assad’s notorious 2013 chemical weapons attack.
Even some RT journalists have found the channel’s content impossible to stomach. In 2014, Liz Wahl, an American news anchor, dramatically announced on air: ‘I cannot be part of a network funded by the Russian government that whitewashes the actions of Putin. I’m proud to be an American and believe in disseminating the truth, and that is why, after this newscast, I’m resigning.’
Salmond, however, appears to have no such qualms. Instead, he is lending the credibility of the office he once held to an outfit utterly undeserving of it. To her credit, Nicola Sturgeon, has both condemned her predecessor’s actions and her spokesperson has announced that Scottish government ministers will not be appearing on Salmond’s show.
Sadly, Jeremy Corbyn can offer no such words. Instead, the Labour leader has stood silently by as senior members of his shadow cabinet – as well as a number of his backbenchers – have repeatedly appeared on RT. But then Corbyn himself once suggested that RT offered more ‘objective’ coverage than the western media.
Whether the former Scottish first minister or a newly elected backbencher, star presenter or humble guest, an appearance on RT offers tacit approval to Putin and all that he stands for; everything, in fact, the Labour party once claimed to oppose.
Robert the brute
There was a neat symmetry to the fact that the news that Australians had voted overwhelmingly to back same-sex marriage came on the same morning that we learned Robert Mugabe had been overthrown. As well as tyrannising and impoverishing his country for three decades, the former president has a long record of gay-baiting. The human rights activist Peter Tatchell repeatedly and bravely attempted to arrest Mugabe on his foreign travels. On one occasion in 1999 he opened the door of Mugabe’s limousine as he attempted to speed off for a shopping spree at Harrods. Tatchell later recalled that the president looked frightened as a 10 year old. Like all vicious bullies, Mugabe was, at his core, a coward.
The ties that do not bind
No parliament can bind its successors or even itself. It is a principle of Britain’s unwritten constitution that any sixth form politics student knows. The government’s attempt to write the date and hour of Brexit into law is thus pointless, cynical and weak – rather like the prime minister who leads it.
Robert Philpot is a contributing editor to Progress, and writes the weekly Last Word column. He tweets at @Robert_Philpot