By David Osland
I can’t reasonably claim to have an informed opinion on RT, not least because I’ve never actually watched it. And given that 998 out of every 1,000 television viewers in Britain habitually give the Russian-sponsored broadcaster a miss, it’s almost certain you haven’t either.
There is much we can surmise from that starting point alone. With a weekly audience share of 0.02% and a political impact no perceptibly greater, its editorial content has never influenced national debate beyond perhaps a Twitter hoo-ha or two.
Detractors insist it exercised deleterious influence on the Brexit referendum through the propagation of disinformation; the salient disinformation was surely UKIP’s lurid poster depictions of Syrian refugees and Vote Leave’s ‘£350m a week for the NHS’ campaign bus.
So shadow culture secretary Jo Stevens’ call for RT’s licence to be ‘reviewed’ – which is an over-cautious way of saying of revoked – cannot really be described as closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. There never was a horse in the stable the first place.
Her secondary charge is that RT represents an insidious Russian bid to wield ‘broader political influences overseas’. Again, nobody has to tune in to the channel to recognise that’s precisely the object of the exercise.
Plenty of countries attempt attempt to influence perceptions abroad. Mostly it’s a waste of money.
As a 1970s teenager with access to a good radio receiver, I recollect the dreary Radio Tirana, famous for the call sign ‘Voice of Marxism-Leninism on the Airwaves’. Let’s just say the endless encomia to Enver Hoxha never positioned it as a compelling rival to the John Peel Show.
The spectacular success story in shortwave was US-backed Radio Free Europe, reaching millions of listeners via a combination of news on nodding terms with truth and jazz programming that turned successive generations of Komsomol cadre on to the greatness of Charlie Parker.
But its funding – sumptuous, by all accounts – was hardly a function of benevolent disinterest on the part of Washington. This was propaganda in the name of soft power.
The big difference is that RT’s reported diet of pro-Kremlin bunkum and convenient dissemblance – which two years ago saw it fined £200,000 for its coverage of the Salisbury Novichok attacks – has failed to generate resonance beyond a minute cohort that somehow seems to like that sort of thing. Let’s leave it at that.
What Labour’s media policy must address is not this glorified outdoor relief scheme for George Galloway and Alex Salmond, competing with hundreds of equally unmeritorious endeavours on the badlands of Freeview.
It’s Murdoch and the Mail. It’s Panorama and Newsnight. It’s this country’s top television journalists, in the middle of a general election, tweeting a planted Tory fib that Labour activists violently assaulted a Tory adviser outside Leeds General Infirmary.
Most of all, it’s the hostility that generated a five-year sustained shock and awe bombardment against a socialist Labour leader, a socialist Labour Party and the prospect of a socialist Labour government.
This sort of bullying has been going on for decades, initially typified by an onslaught on Bennism waged by a united front of red tops and broadsheets in the early Thatcher years, leading inexorably to the ‘It’s The Sun Wot Won It’ defeat of 1992.
Somewhere around that time, Ms Stevens’ predecessor Clive Soley came up with proposals to allow targets a statutory right of reply of equal prominence, together with restrictions on media cross-ownership squarely aimed at the Murdoch empire. If I remember rightly, they briefly became official policy.
All his work was ditched with the advent of New Labour, with Tony Blair’s 24-hour flight to address a News International conference in Australia symbolising first rapprochement and then overt alliance.
After 1997, Murdoch got the free run of Number Ten, to the point where one Blair aide described him as ‘the 24th member of the Blair cabinet’. On numerous occasions, rules were changed or reinterpreted in a manner congruent with his media business interests. He may even have been one of the driving forces behind the illegal invasion of Iraq.
The love-in got cancelled with Blair’s departure from office, with the widespread depiction of Gordon Brown as a malevolent brooding bully and ‘Red Ed’ Miliband as the malign architect of a ‘Marxist’ levy on utility companies, as later adopted by no less an unhinged leftist than Theresa May.
And after 2015 we came full circle; In place of ‘IRA-loving, poof-loving’ Ken Livingstone in his role as ‘the most odious man in Britain’, the Mail felt no compunction about ‘Corbyn, the Kremlin Stooge’ front page splashes and ‘Labour must kill vampire Jezza’ graphics boxes.
Vampire Jezza almost reignited the media question with his ‘change is coming’ video in 2018. But what that change was going to entail, we were never told. And, of course, election defeat meant that change didn’t come.
Nor did his media operation always engage intelligently, fatally preferring alt. left websites of dubious journalistic credentials to any attempt to get the case across with what became simplistically derided as ‘the MSM’.
Kudos to whoever wangled Keir Starmer the recent VE Day front page splash on the Daily Telegraph. But to mangle the world war two allegory a bit, be under no illusion this means peace in our time.
Of course, the problem is becoming less acute as newspaper circulations plummet. By the time the Tory press does decide to go feral on Starmer, newspaper influence will be further diminished still.
Where does that leave Labour thinking on media matters? Some figures on the left are now suggesting that we develop our own outlets.
In the deputy leadership contest, Richard Burgon argued for a Labour-aligned giveaway commuter tabloid. Howard Beckett, a now-withdrawn runner in the race for the Unite general secretary job, even talked about Unite TV.
Both suggestions are worth discussing. But to put it at its kindest, the written material emanating from the bureaucracy of the labour movement does not attest to obvious love of sinuous prose, and arresting television journalism cannot be scripted by sub-committee.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here; neither initiative actually is being talked about now that Burgon and Beckett have lost their bids. Soley’s work has been 30 years on the shelf.
The nearest Labour currently has to a policy on these questions is the demand for a ban on an irrelevant wingnut Kremlin cable station. That can only be described as displacement activity.
I may never have clocked more than a few minutes of RT, but what I have watched from the confines of a suitably downmarket motel room in Louisiana is a few hours of the political output of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News.
Fair and balanced it wasn’t. If you can envision a disinformation factory capable of damaging democratic debate beyond the wildest dreams of a Putin troll farm employee desperate to make the monthly performance bonus, that was it right there.
And if Fox News reaches Britain – as it will, if the Tories get their way – Labour won’t know what has hit it. Get serious about media policy now, Ms Stevens.