Increased governmental scrutiny after the US Presidential 2016 election was a watershed moment for RT in the US, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 23 February 2022 has become a similar catalyst in Europe. The European Union on 2 March introduced a legal regulation banning the distribution of RT and Sputnik (the news agency funded by the Russian state) via broadcasting and social media outlets in its territories. Even before this move, Google and other social media companies were limiting access to these Russian channels on Youtube. There is a clamour of political voices across parties in the UK calling on Britain’s independent regulator, Ofcom, to ban RT. The British government has written to request that Ofcom take “timely and transparent” action on the basis that RT is spreading “harmful disinformation”. And currently the French regulator, Arcom, says it is watching RT France “with particular care” while waiting for a report on the channel by an independent rapporteur.
For those who believe RT is simply a propaganda tool of the Kremlin, the case for an outright ban is clear. Indeed, a ban may be welcome to many, given that politicians and the public are sickened by the Ukraine invasion and increasingly impatient with Russian disinformation as a thin veil to confuse viewers and to justify Putin’s murderous aggression. But, banning a media outlet to punish a country politically is a fraught undertaking; the practicalities of an immediate prohibition are complex and there are second and third order effects to consider. The arguments for and against a ban in terms of advancing the interests of the Western democracies are nuanced. This is not the proverbial “slam-dunk”. There is also the issue of whether RT broadcasts should be the main cause of concern relative to other internet-based Russian influence activities. We explore these questions in an effort to aid public understanding in how to approach banning RT in a way consistent with the strategic interests of the UK and the European Union.
Ofcom – like its French counterpart – was already keeping a beady eye on RT as the Ukraine crisis exploded into a full-scale invasion on 23 February and has stepped up its monitoring of RT since that date. RT and Ofcom have been here before. After the novichok poisoning in Salisbury in March 2018 of Russian military intelligence defector, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter Yulia, Ofcom monitored RT’s output. What it found was coverage so biased on this issue (and on the Syrian civil war) that Ofcom imposed a swingeing £200,000 sanction for seven serious breaches of the due impartiality rules in the British Broadcasting Code. Ofcom has announced 27 expedited investigations into RT coverage of the invasion of Ukraine. Its decisions will be revealed in the coming weeks. Further heavy financial sanctions are almost certain - but going further is likely.
Ofcom is far from a toothless watchdog. It has wide-ranging powers under legislation to impose large fines and even immediately suspend or revoke a licence. (It is a criminal offence to broadcast in the UK without an Ofcom licence.) And it has shown itself willing to impose large fines not only on RT but also for example the Chinese state broadcaster CGTN. Ofcom levied a sanction of £200,000 against CGTN in August 2021 for broadcasts of ‘forced confessions’ to crimes. RT has often complained about being singled out, but it remains in the company of the broadcast outlets of other authoritarian states. From a legal point of view Ofcom has to take great care not to unfairly discriminate against any particular channels.
The UK regulator can revoke a licence if there is evidence that a broadcaster does not have editorial responsibility for its output or the licensee is controlled by a political entity (including a foreign state). This was the case with the Chinese broadcaster CGTN. In February 2021 its licence was suspended because Ofcom learnt that editorial responsibility for the output lay ultimately not with the UK licensee but an entity controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.
To avoid the CGTN scenario, RT in the UK was carefully set up to ensure sufficient distance between the licence holder and the Kremlin (even though RT is partly funded by the Russia state), and that officially editorial responsibility lies in the UK. By analogy with Harry Potter’s mirror of Erised, RT shows us not an objective and impartial reflection of Putin’s policies, but how he wishes them to be seen. While to many it may seem implausible that RT in the UK is free of Kremlin editorial influence, drawing a direct line from the Kremlin to RT in the UK requires proof that has yet to be discovered or cannot be disclosed. So, these are unlikely to be grounds for ultimately removing RT’s licence.
A far more likely ground for Ofcom revoking RT’s licence is if the regulator finds RT has - again - seriously and repeatedly breached the due impartiality rules. This time in its reporting of Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine. Both authors are occasional viewers of RT and we have watched some of RT’s tendentious output after 23 February. We assess that several breaches of these standards rules is the most likely outcome after Ofcom has completed its formal investigations. Ofcom could then argue that RT has been repeatedly warned and heavily fined before for similar breaches and licence revocation would be an appropriate and proportionate punishment.
Ofcom has yet to reveal what sanction (if any) it may impose on RT. But in some way if the RT licence is revoked it will have little effect because the satellite operator in Luxembourg switched off the RT signal overnight on 2 March.
It is understandable for politicians concerned about the very real problem of Russian disinformation to issue knee jerk calls (and take what some might see as knee jerk action, as with the EU) to ban RT and Sputnik. However, deliberate caution is in order because of the trade-offs involved. In Western democracies (unlike in Russia) there is transparent due process to ensure penalties are justified and politicians do not call the shots. The rule of law takes precedence.
There is also the optics of a ban to consider. Skilled in the art of weaving a distorted and misleading narrative out of a grain of truth, RT is already sucking the propaganda marrow out of a ban. It complains, though at least not over British or EU airwaves, that Ofcom is afraid of “free speech” or uninterested in “both sides of the story”, and suggests Ofcom and the EU are waging an information war against Russia. These considerations counsel for a judicious approach with eyes open.
Complicating the decision to ban RT in Europe is the nearly certain result of unwanted consequences. Now the EU is banning RT and Sputnik, and if Ofcom revokes RT’s licence in the UK, then Moscow will almost certainly take retaliatory action against the BBC in Russia, which is a critical source of impartial news for a Russian citizenry largely starved of honest broadcasting. And, in the case of escalation, Moscow may take even stronger measures to block broadcasts of the Russian World Service and expelling its correspondents.
With the EU already taking tough measures, the Kremlin will probably interfere with broadcasts of France 24 and Euronews. These are not purely hypothetical scenarios. Russia was already shutting down the operations of German broadcaster Deutsche Welle in Moscow and expelling its staff in retaliation for the German ban on RT’s German service. Western European governments and media regulators need to balance their understandable desire to block Russian disinformation from being broadcast in their countries against the wish to give viewers and listeners in Russia and the territories it controls in Eastern Europe a chance to receive news unfiltered or distorted by Russia’s official media.
These Western sources of news are even more important to the Russian people with the Kremlin actively closing down independent websites and sources of information in Russia which are reporting on the Ukraine invasion in a way contrary to Putin’s propaganda narrative. Visitors to the BBC Russian language news website tripled to 10.3 million in the week to 3 March.
Some voices in Europe are questioning whether the EU ban on RT broadcasting (as opposed to its online presence) is worthwhile because this is not the most important vector for Russian disinformation. RT in the UK has a tiny audience – an average of only 3,400 viewers at any given point in the day and an average reach of 1.06 percent of adults in the UK, that is about 540,000 people. Some of these viewers undoubtedly dip into the channel out of curiosity as much as sympathy. A much more serious issue is RT’s and Sputnik's presence on social media (including YouTube) and mobile apps. Here, often trapped in an algorithmic ‘filter bubble’, recipients of dubious material (whether, for instance, antivax or Russian disinformation) are much more likely to be exposed to more of the same types of misinformation, often culminating in digital exposure to disinformation (‘fake news’) and not to opinions, facts, or analysis that challenge their assumptions and prejudices.
There is a key difference between a “slant” or “spin” and disinformation. While the line may not be easy to draw, refusing to do so at all permits outlets like RT – and its sibling Sputnik – to hide in a fog of moral equivalency. Outlets often have a journalistic bias and politicians of course shade events to their favour, but tolerating such free expression does not mean that misleading output from RT or Sputnik should be categorised (or excused) in the same way. For instance, RT has parroted Putin’s false narrative that Ukraine is full of Nazis that are seeking to perpetrate a genocide of ethnic Russians in Donbas, or that Kyiv is seeking nuclear weapons. These are falsehoods -- claimed without evidence -- that do not belong in the same category as biased or editorialized reporting.
It may be in principle a good thing for British viewers to understand the Russian point of view on international issues. And, in the case of the Ukraine crisis, the Kremlin may have a point about their long-running concerns about NATO’s eastward expansion or the European security architecture that gives insufficient credence to Russian security concerns. But these perspectives are often lost among lies about for example allegations of Ukrainian Nazis planning a Russian genocide. In that sense, if Ofcom does ban RT broadcasts, Moscow’s plan will have backfired because Russian perspectives may be less visible to a British audience in the future.
Trevor Barnes is a former senior BBC journalist and executive at Ofcom (who oversaw investigations into RT while at the regulator), and is currently consultant solicitor at London media law firm Simons Muirhead.
David V. Gioe is a British Academy Global Professor and Visiting Professor of Intelligence and International Security in the King’s College Department of War Studies.
This is the analysis and opinion of the authors alone and reflects no official government policy nor endorsement.