RT “Covers” the Shooting Down of MH17

July 18, 2014
Malaysian airliner crash. Photo by Reuters/Maxim Zmeyev

Operating a fake news channel to promote state propaganda comes with considerable intrinsic problems and contradictions. Propaganda and news reporting have contrary purposes that propagandists carefully work to obscure by various means. That’s the art of propaganda: blurring the line between reality and BS, creating false equivalencies between the two, and implicitly arguing that the BS is superior. That’s easy for the propagandist when he can cherry-pick what he covers and restrict the information that enters into the conversation. But occasionally events overtake the propagandist’s ability to control the message. The mask slips, and he is revealed as being what he was all along: a craftsman of untruths.

That’s exactly what’s happened very suddenly and clearly yesterday at Russia’s RT news agency. As the wreckage of MH17 burned in the streets and yards of a small town in Donetsk Region in Ukraine, and as the bodies of its 298 passengers and crew lay where they were strewn, unburied and still warm, the people at RT and other Russian propaganda outlets rushed to fill the void between rapidly unfolding reality and the needs of those in power in Russia. How could they both present the appearance of reporting while maintaining Putin’s brand?

Under ordinary circumstances, RT can carefully craft their reporting to fit their underlying message, but when a surface-to-air missile downed that plane, this process was exposed and thrown out of control.

In the morning, as their video showed the smoking wreckage of MH17, RT repeatedly aired two sound clips from two interviews: one with an anonymous witness who off-handedly claimed that he saw the SAM launched from a Ukrainian army position, and another with an anonymous Russian military expert who asserted that the Ukrainian military must have downed the plane. The expert based this conclusion not on any particular knowledge of the facts concerning the shoot-down, but on his assessment of the Ukrainian military as being “inept”. These two clips were repeatedly played on Thursday morning, at least once every 15 minutes.

British journalist Neil Clark was interviewed at length
to the effect that the separatists lack the capability to shoot down this plane, that there is “a strong likelihood that Ukraine was responsible”, and, regardless, “ultimate responsibility lies with those who started conflict”. He concluded by implying that Malaysia Airlines was somehow at fault, declaring “I would not travel on Malaysian Airways, would you after this? To lose two planes in 6 months is quite astonishing, quite incredible. Of course we still don’t know what happened to the earlier plane, people are talking about cover-ups there.”

Meanwhile, on Twitter, RT’s chief political analyst Mark Sleboda, issued this bit of paranoia masquerading as political analysis:

As the morning progressed, the idea of portraying this as the Ukrainians deliberately framing Russia with a false flag must have worn thin for the people at RT. It’s one thing to promote paranoid conspiracy theories in privacy to an audience primed to believe such things, as RT generally does, but it’s quite another to expose such clearly delusional thinking to a broader public. So RT came up with another conspiracy theory, one equally implausible and arguably just as paranoid. They began to report that the shooting was a failed Ukrainian attempt to assassinate Putin.
RT claimed, both on-air and on their website, that Putin’s plane had flown over Donetsk at about the same time as MH17, and that the Ukrainian military had accidentally struck MH17 with a SAM intended for Putin.

As evidence, RT repeatedly showed photos of the two planes and commented at length about the fact that they were painted similar colors. For those who believe that a jet flying at 30,000 feet would be targeted by a modern military visually and not by radar, such arguments may be convincing. The people behind RT seemed to think so yesterday. Today that article has vanished from their website and their on-air reporters have stopped talking about it. (The theory involving the color of Putin’s plane gets only a brief mention on the RT website here.) Today, instead, the RT website has an article claiming that Moscow monitors picked up radar from a Ukrainian Buk missile battery in operation in Donetsk before the shoot-down. (Western intelligence agencies and the Ukrainians themselves say that this report is false. The Ukrainian military did not have a BUK M-1 battery in or near Donetsk.)

RT reporters like Sleboda got the memo. This attack wasn’t to be portrayed as a false flag – a deliberate act designed to frame Russia. It was to be portrayed as a failed assassination attempt against Putin. On Twitter, Sleboda and other RT staffers began to push this new party line.

Ruptly Retweet

RT Ukraine correspondent Graham Phillips followed suit.

Graham RT

Translation: Latest evil deed by the junta? RT @rykov: the bodies of at least 100 people killed have been discovered.

After a focusing 12 hours of their airtime to faux coverage of this tragedy, RT programming jarringly returned to normal last night. The day devoted to promoting anti-Ukrainian conspiracy theories came to an end with the presentation of a bizarre episode of the Max Keiser Report promoting a conspiracy theory concerning corporations deliberately killing off the world’s bee population. As morning broke, RT again began broadcasting an incessant stream of reports alleging that Ukraine has an extensive history of war crimes and continuing to promote the failed assassination conspiracy theory.

Another column on the RT website alleges that the plane was ordered shot down by bankers and the “US ruling elites”, and speculates on a “NATO motive for the attack”. That was written by the barking mad anti-Illuminati activist Tony Gosling who does a regular column for RT.

Incredibly, these conspiracy theories exist side-by-side on RT’s website with an editorial protesting the sensationalistic coverage of this tragedy by the “corporate media”, which it argues is anti-Russian propaganda designed to promote US imperialism. RT has learned this lesson well: if you are going to succeed at promoting propaganda yourself, you must falsely accuse those who contradict you of doing so also. That false equivalency is essential to RT’s message.

But all this posturing and paranoia are taking their toll on RT staffers who can’t stomach the thought of distorting this story to cover up the truth about this tragedy. RT’s cynical promotion of obvious lies about this crime was too much for RT’s London correspondent Sara Firth, who resigned in protest, saying RT has a “disrespect for the facts”. She later told an interviewer “I couldn’t do it anymore. Every single day we’re lying and finding sexier ways to do it.”

It seems likely that Firth is not alone among RT staffers who are upset with this turn of events and that further protests and resignations will follow. In the meantime, RT viewers can sit back and watch the façade crack.