The Kremlin’s English-language outlets are at it again: Just months after lobbying for Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the UK opposition, they are now backing the campaign to take the UK out of the European Union.
Since UK Prime Minister David Cameron and European Council President Donald Tusk held talks on reforming the UK-EU relationship, the Russian government’s English-language TV station, RT, and news website, Sputnik, have conducted systematically one-sided coverage whose effect has been to magnify the “Out” campaign and marginalize the “In” campaign.
From 1 to 8 February 2016, Sputnik ran 14 stories on the “Brexit” issue. Eight of them had negative headlines, either featuring criticism of the deal or focusing on the difficulties Cameron faces; five headlines were broadly factual; one reported a positive comment that the Bank of England had “not yet seen” an impact on investor sentiment, but gave it a negative slant by headlining, “Bank of England on Brexit: No need to panic, yet.” (The word “panic” did not appear in the story.) Not one headline reported reactions supporting the deal.
Both Sputnik and RT quoted a disproportionate number of reactions from “Out” campaigners. RT, for example, quoted five “Out” partisans: MP Liam Fox; the founder of Leave.EU; London Mayor Boris Johnson; MEP Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party; and UKIP member Paul Nuttall.
It quoted two “In” supporters: Home Secretary Teresa May and Europe Minister David Lidington. It also gave them significantly less space: May’s comment was covered in a sentence, followed by three paragraphs of Johnson and Fox. Lidington received a single sentence; Farage and Nuttall got five paragraphs and a tweet.
Sputnik ran stand-alone stories on a comment by Nigel Farage, an interview with Eurosceptic academic Professor Patrick Minford, an attack by “Brexit campaigners” on the Tusk-Cameron talks, criticism of the proposed deal, criticism of Cameron’s treatment of his own party, and criticism of the idea that the deal would deter migration. Not one stand-alone story covered reactions praising the deal.
The two outlets’ use of language also betrays a preference for the “Out” campaign. For example, Sputnik reported warnings by two US banks over the financial risks of a Brexit, but added the comment, “such scare mongering by US banks has been dismissed by the Bank of England”; RT quoted an editorial by former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis calling on Britain to stay in the EU and help to reform it, but relegated that call to the tenth paragraph, leading its own story with Varoufakis’ criticism of the EU.
One RT show was particularly partisan. On 3 February, Afshan Rattansi, host of “Going Underground”, interviewed Councillor Robert Oulds, leader of the Eurosceptic Bruges Group. The decision to interview a representative of one side of the debate without giving air time to the other is already a sign of bias; Rattansi’s style of questioning reinforces the impression:
“He [Cameron] is, of course, a PR man, but on the other hand, do you think the point is that he hasn’t been doing the PR that well this time?”
“[The proposal] seems to be like a sop to people like the Bruges Group and people on his back benches.”
“Why do you think the BBC is so pro-remaining in the European Union?”
This is not the language of a journalist determined to challenge his interviewee with tough questions.
The question is whether this imbalance is legitimate journalism, accident or deliberate. RT claims to be providing “an alternative perspective”; Sputnik says that it “tells the untold”. Such aspirations are legitimate in journalism; however, they do not apply here. The Brexit debate has been widely covered in the mainstream media, and both RT and Sputnik have quoted mainstream outlets including Reuters, Sky News and the BBC as sources, so they are not telling an “untold” story.
Nor are they providing alternative comment. For example, one “Out” campaigner cited by Sputnik on 2 February was also quoted by Reuters; the difference in their coverage was that Reuters also quoted an “In” campaigner, where Sputnik did not. Sputnik’s coverage was not “alternative”, it was simply one-sided.
The imbalance cannot be dismissed as a one-off: It spanned eight days, two outlets and at least two Sputnik journalists, one able to spell the phrase “emergency brake”, the other not.
The remaining possibility is that RT and Sputnik were unable to find the “In” view. This is not tenable: The “In” campaign has its own lobbyists who make speeches in parliament and post statements online. Even if the two outlets could not find anyone to interview – in itself unlikely – they could easily have found comments representing the “In” campaign, if they had tried.
The only logical conclusion is that they did not try; in other words, that what they wanted was to report the “Out” side, not both sides. That, in any media outlet, would be unacceptable. Coming from outlets paid for by the Russian government, it looks distinctly like an attempt to influence the UK debate.
Ben Nimmo is a senior fellow at the Institute for Statecraft in London, specialising in analysing information warfare and hybrid warfare. He previously worked as a NATO press officer specialising in relations with Russia and Ukraine, and a journalist for Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa, covering European and international politics and security.