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In search of credibility: RT and the BBC in a ‘post-truth’ world

Article by Dr Justin Schlosberg

March 21, 2017

In search of credibility: RT and the BBC in a ‘post-truth’ world

Introduction: Cracks in the Western (neo) liberal consensus

Among many other things, 2016 will surely be remembered as the year that the terms ‘post truth’ and ‘fake news’ took root in political, journalistic, academic and popular discourse. Barely a week seems to go by where they are absent from headlines or the focus of a new call for academic papers. So pervasive is their use that they have become virtually devoid of meaning, with everyone from the US president to tin pot dictators invoking them to describe unfavourable news.

 

If we are suffering from a deficit in factual or evidence-based reporting, it is certainly not a new phenomenon. The British tabloid press will hardly be remembered as champions of truth-telling. For decades, media critics have lamented what they saw as a growing tendency among the press to privilege gossip over facts, sensationalism over serious news, and spectacle over informative reporting.[1]

 

But the same cannot be said of their broadcasting counterparts in the UK, and especially the BBC which continues to enjoy an unrivalled reputation for quality, accuracy and balance. According to Ofcom’s most recent data on news consumption, BBC television news is ranked higher than all of its competitors in this respect, with 61 percent of its users considering it both an accurate and trustworthy news source (compared to 45 percent for CNN and 35 percent for RT).[2]

 

In the global news market, the longstanding Anglo-American hegemony established through CNN and BBC World was first challenged by the rise of Qatar-based network Al Jazeera in the early 2000s.[3] The channel’s early success owed much to its reputation as a source of alternative frames for the US-led War on Terror, and the reactionary responses of US political elites seemed to underline its disruptive potential.[4] But it was the launch of its English-language channel in 2006, fronted by established and respected western journalists, which marked the most significant disruption to the BBC-CNN duopoly.

 

What Al Jazeera exposed in both the BBC and CNN was not lies or propaganda in a crude sense, nor an exclusive preoccupation with issues that conformed to a Western ideological agenda, nor the omission of critical perspectives of Western governments and ideals. But they did expose a tendency towards selection of stories and facts that, on balance, aligned with a Western neoliberal consensus and definition of world problems. It was into this fracturing and polarising global agenda that RT emerged with an explicit mission to cover issues and perspectives marginalised by the so-called ‘mainstream media’.

 

Underlying this discourse is an implicit critique of impartiality, and its association with news authority, credibility and professionalism. The problem with impartiality has always been about which critical perspectives are admitted into any given controversy or debate, the drawing of boundaries around what is acceptable criticism, beyond which ‘there is no alternative’.[5]

 

The ideology of ‘There is No Alternative’ – or ‘TINA’ as the phrase has become known[6] was originally popularised by Margaret Thatcher in her repeated dismissal of arguments against economic liberalism.[7] Its sentiment was later echoed in Francis Fukuyama’s declaration of the ‘end of history’ following the collapse of Soviet Communism in 1989, signalling “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”[8]

 

This fostered an arena of debate within the Anglo-American channels that was circumscribed and restricted. It failed to draw adequate attention to falsehoods propagated by US and UK governments over everything from weapons of mass destruction to extraordinary rendition. And it failed to give a fair hearing to economic alternatives in the aftermath of the global financial crash. It marked the epitome of Western hegemonic power; the mechanism by which some alternatives are omitted from the consensus framework and as such, excluded from the realm of what is possible, realistic, or common sense.[9] Ben Bagdikian was perhaps the first to articulate the subtleties of this kind of filtering power when he pointed out that:

 

Most owners and editors no longer brutalize the news with the heavy hand dramatized in movies like “Citizen Kane” […] More common is something more subtle, more professionally respectable, and, in some respects, more effective: the power to treat some subjects accurately but briefly, to treat other subjects accurately but in depth, or in the conventional options every medium has of taking its own initiatives, carefully avoiding some subjects and enthusiastically pursuing others.[10]

 

A new kind of propaganda

Though there is controversy and uncertainty over the global audience reach of RT, there is no doubt that its branding as an ‘alternative’ news channel has been effective in penetrating audiences in the West. Its critics rightly point out the lack of scrutiny applied to the Kremlin, but its journalists perceive their role differently: to counter imbalance in the Western broadcast hegemony. In this narrative, Putin – like Trump – is the perennial underdog, battling for a fair hearing against the oppressive force of mainstream consensus boundaries.

 

Of course, at the higher levels, that narrative is nothing more than a cynical exploitation and co-option of progressive discourse aimed ultimately at promoting the regressive and autocratic agenda of Putin. There are clearly fundamental differences between RT and the BBC that are probably best captured by the distinction between a state and public broadcaster. Although the BBC’s independence may be compromised in subtle and pervasive ways, it is not controlled by the British government in the way that RT is controlled by the Kremlin. Perhaps more importantly, the BBC’s editorial and compliance structure provide a stronger filter against factually inaccurate news as suggested by the testimony of former RT journalists. Sarah Firth was an RT reporter who resigned amid the controversy surrounding the shooting down of flight MH17 during the height of the second Euromaidan conflict in Ukraine. Her subsequent comments on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show suggested that within ‘sensitive’ stories at least, RT’s mission was being undermined by factual recklessness:

 

I’ve worked at RT for five years and I’ve had my reasons for doing that and I’ve often very loudly defended RT and what they were trying to achieve. I think the problem is when it comes to stories like this it’s so sensitive you kind of really see what’s going on… It’s really tricky because I think when you look at some of the slightly inflammatory headlines that we have here, you can kind of see this…the idea of countering what the Western mainstream media does is a very valuable one but it’s not being done accurately. You’ve got to do it accurately. You’ve got to have the facts to back it up.[11]

 

Such qualified critiques reflect the contradictions at the heart of news in an ideologically polarised landscape. One recent study suggested that RT audiences were partly attracted to the channel because it was perceived as being ‘honest about lying’.[12] As with the above quote, it suggests that RT’s editorial mission and overarching narrative is perceived as legitimate and credible, even if some of its stories and journalistic practices are not.

 

Of course, the reality of international newsgathering is much more complex than is suggested by any simplistic binary between truth and falsehood. Distortions in coverage can emerge when some facts are selected and others excluded, or when the sources of evidence are not duly scrutinised. This was precisely what the New York Times famously apologised for in 2004 in respect of its coverage leading up to the Gulf War.[13]

 

Revolution or coup?

Major political controversies also tend to hinge more often on conflicting interpretations of issues or events, rather than disputed evidence. In this respect, 20th February 2014 was a day that perhaps more than any other exposed the ideological fault lines between RT and the BBC. It marked the height of violent unrest in Kiev with at least 22 people killed in the main square amid fierce clashes between police and opposition activists. Two reports on that day – one by the BBC[14] and one by RT[15] – exemplified the contrasting pictures and contesting accounts of what took place within the same square, in the same city, on the same day. The contrast was all the more striking given that journalists from both channels were housed within the same hotel overlooking the square, and basing their reports on their own eye witness testimony.

 

A comparison between them reveals the distinct editorial selection decisions made at every level and in every aspect of the reporting: the selection of particular shots to use as accompaniment to the journalistic narrative; the selection of certain words or phrases used to describe or label key actors or groups within the conflict; the selection of issues to highlight as background or foreground context; and the selection of sources to reference or feature in the reports.

 

To begin with, much of the RT report is delivered as a live ‘two-way’ between a correspondent and anchor. This imbues not only a sense of urgency and drama, but also realism, with less reliance on an edited construct. The BBC’s report, on the other hand, is scripted and the tone more sombre and reflective. It too conveys a sense of realism but through an appeal to a different set of dramatic values. The RT report consists predominantly of live shots from an outdoor balcony overlooking the square, giving us a helicopter view in contrast to the BBC’s shots which consist predominantly of on-the-ground close ups. Underlying each is a distinct notion of journalistic authoritativeness: the accuracy and precision of close up footage combined with the formality of the scripted report, versus the balance and ‘realness’ of the live aerial perspective.

 

But the divergent frames emerge explicitly from the selection of particular types of sources, shots, language and issues in each report. The BBC report focused on the immediate context of the violence whilst the RT report gave comparatively more attention to the background context, including the alleged breaking of a truce by opposition fighters. The BBC featured interviews ‘on the ground’ with a protestor and doctor apparently treating injured protestors within the hotel-turned-makeshift-hospital, whilst RT featured commentary from a retired British police officer remarking on the inevitability of the police’s use of force under the circumstances. Both reports also make pronounced emotive appeals as regards the apparent brutality of the opposing side:

 

A few [protestors] had weapons but most were armed only with makeshift shields. They were gunned down mercilessly. Even those trying to rescue their comrades weren’t safe (BBC)

 

Our video agency Ruptly sent this footage of two police officers trying to help an injured colleague. Now here you can see them being caught in an explosion of some sort…we [also] obtained footage said to show one [police officer] needing an ambulance but the rioters apparently refusing (RT)

 

What is particularly striking in all of this is the routine use by RT of the terms ‘militants’ or ‘rioters’, compared to the BBC’s exclusive reliance on the term ‘protestors’. Above all else, this captures the divergent ideological standpoints underlying each narrative. Through the subtle selection of particular terminology, the respective broadcasters invoked diametrically opposed perspectives as to the causes, consequences and meaning of the day’s events. Despite their respective implicit claims to credibility and authority, both ultimately presented little more than a partisan account mirrored on the east-west worldview divide.

 

As for facts, they were clearly present in both stories. But neither offered much insight into the over-arching question of whether the violence was produced by a fascist-led coup of a democratically elected government or a repressive state hell-bent on crushing dissent. The truth, no doubt, lay somewhere in between.

Conclusion: How to counter propaganda without using counter propaganda

There is a burgeoning critical narrative of the BBC that suggests its impartiality commitment is an obstacle to offering a meaningful corrective to fake news[16], whether it stems from the Daily Mail, Donald Trump or RT. But there is equally a danger that in the ever-polarising news landscape, the BBC comes to perceive its role in ways not dissimilar to RT: countering what it considers to be the biased and imbalanced perspectives offered by others. Real impartiality in this context is not about providing countering perspectives, but scrutinising evidence and questioning claims on all sides in all controversies, with equal attention and scepticism.

 

If the BBC is to make any inroads into alienated audiences within and beyond Western borders, it must make strident efforts to reposition itself outside of the polarising news landscape. That requires a radical rethinking of the process by which certain stories, issues and frames achieve ascendancy in its international news agenda. Rather than treating RT as an outlier or an enemy, it should be used as a resource. Its contrasting agenda should prompt editors to ask, for instance, why the BBC’s coverage has tended to marginalise certain claims and perspectives.

 

Western governments should also rethink their response to the success of Putin’s soft power and recognise that the only way to win a propaganda war is not to fight it. The reality of audience polarisation in the new global divide is such that the recent launch of a new 24 hour Russian-language network by the US Broadcasting Board of Governors (via its media outposts such as Voice of America)[17] will likely fall on deaf ears, as will similar plans in place at the BBC.[18] For audiences in the grip of the Kremlin’s channels – the ones that must be reached if that grip is to be in any way loosened – it is the BBC and Voice of America who are the purveyors of propaganda and fake news.

 

What is needed more than ever is a different approach – a new channel or newsgathering service that truly transcends ideological divides and speaks truth to all centres of power on the global stage. The closest we’ve come to reaching for that ideal is Euronews – a pan-European news channel created in 1993 and uniquely funded by both Russia and Western governments. But the result has been the inverse of what is needed. Rather than scrutinising all power without fear or favour, it offers little scrutiny of any. It’s self-proclaimed role ‘to broadcast reality’[19]; a stenographic approach to news that overlooks the question of whose reality is being broadcast, or what role news channels themselves play in reality construction.

 

A news channel that does not start from such critical perspectives is one that is unlikely to challenge the ‘reality’ imposed by dominant worldviews emanating from the global North or South, East or West. It remains forever bound to the consensus framework; a news channel without journalism. Challenging truth claims on all sides, and engaging with the grey areas in between has always been the job of real journalism. Editors need to have the courage not only to call out fakery but to acknowledge when the facts are not known; to provide not just an accurate but a truly full and balanced picture of international events and issues, however uncertain and unresolved, and with all the unending messiness of truth.

 

[1] See, for instance, Franklin, Bob. 1997. Newszak and News Media. London: Arnold.

[2] Ofcom. News Research 2016 weighted coded tables. https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0034/97198/Ofcom-News-Research-2016-weighted-coded-tables.pdf

[3] El-Nawawy, Mohammed and Farag, Adel Iskandar. 2002. Al-Jazeera: How the free Arab news network

scooped the world and changed the Middle East. Boulder: Westview.

[4] Alice Fordham, Up next on Al Jazeera: Donald Rumsfeld, WashingtonPost.com,

http://washingtonpost.com/blogs/checkpoint-washington/post/up-next-on-al-jazeera-donald-rumsfeld/2011/09/29/gIQA1d0O8K_blog.html

[5] Hall, Stuart (1982). The rediscovery of ideology: Return of the repressed in media studies. In M. Gurevitch, T. Bennet, J. Curran & J. Woollacott (eds.). Culture, Society and the Media. London: Methuen.

[6] Downing, John; Titley, Gavan; Toynbee, Jason. 2014. Ideology critique: The challenge for media studies. Media, Culture and Society, 36: 878-887.

[7] In the European sense of the term ‘liberalism.’

[8] Fukuyama, Francis. 1989. The end of history? The National Interest, summer: 3-18.

[9] Miliband, Ralph. 1973. The State in Capitalist Society. London: Quartet Books.

[10] Bagdikian, Ben. 2000 [1983]. The Media Monopoly. Boston: Beacon Press. p. 16.

[11] The Andrew Marr Show paper review, July 2014, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-28390325

[12] Katerina Patin, Why has a Kremlin-controlled news network become a hit in the West?, Coda, January 2017, https://codastory.com/disinformation-crisis/information-war/honest-about-lying

[13] From the editors; The Times and Iraq, New York Times, May 2004, http://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/26/world/from-the-editors-the-times-and-iraq.html?_r=0

[14] Ukraine death toll rises as truce unravels, BBC News, February 2014, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-26271824

[15] Ukraine bloodshed: Kiev death toll jumps to 77, RT, February 2014, https://www.rt.com/news/ukraine-kiev-death-toll-955/

[16] Catherine Bennett, The BBC’s fixation on ‘balance’ skews the truth, theGuardian.com, September 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/03/bbc-impartiality-skewers-evidence-based-facts

[17] Broadcasting Board of Governors, BBG launches 24/7 Russian-language network, February 2017, http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/bbg-launches-247-russian-language-network-300404012.html

[18] James Panichi and Alex Spence, BBC enters Putin’s media war, Politico, September 2015, http://www.politico.eu/article/bbc-enters-putins-media-war/

[19] See www.euronews.com/about

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