Promoted by the slogan “Question More”, Russia Today is the greatest Russian media project since 1991, and was designed to be competition to BBC World and CNN International.
This text originally appeared in our print edition: New Eastern Europe: New Europe, Old Problems No. 3 (IV) / 2012.
In 2005 the Kremlin-sponsored news channel, Russia Today (RT), went on air. Supporting the creation of the channel, the head of the Federal Agency for Print and Mass Communication at the time, Mikhail Seslavinsky, complained that the English-language world should know more about Russia due to the fact that its image in the global media was distorted. In some respects, he was right: Russia is often shown in a bad light, using only superficial and selective information.
Since the rapid development of the media market in the 1990s, Russian television stations started to reach foreign viewers through satellite providers (and less commonly through cable networks). But no Russian-language channel ever had a mass audience, and the Russian diaspora dispersed across the globe made up their main audience. This all changed when the English-language 24-hour channel was created. Its editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan, claims that RT’s intended target is a specific type of viewer, who is “a person capable of critical thinking, for whom one or two sources of information are not sufficient to create a complete picture. Who wants to know the truth rather than passively accept clichés.”
Entering the fray
In the first years of the channel’s existence many wondered whether Russia Today could actually become a global player, especially considering that in the previous decade many other foreign English-language stations targeted at audiences abroad had been created. In 2004 the Chinese CCTV News went on air, while the Venezuelan Telesur began broadcasting in 2005. Al-Jazeera launched its English version from Qatar in 2006, and France began broadcasting the English version of France 24 in the same year. They were all ready for their piece of the “media pie” which had been traditionally dominated by western stations. Russia Today proved that it could have a piece of this pie and continued to expand its reach throughout the international media market. Western producers, however, were less happy about the emergence of RT (and others) on the world market as the process of undermining their information monopoly had begun. The concept of global media pluralism has slowly materialized: with unprecedented ease, the viewer really can “Question More” and get to know various points of view, simply by using the remote control to switch channels.
The story of RT begins with the desire of the Russian elite to counteract the depiction of their country in the American and British media. And so they decided to enter the fray. In 2005 the government assigned 700 million roubles (around 23 million dollars) to launch the channel and gave it a 1.4 billion ($47 million) budget in the first year. In successive years the Kremlin invested increasing sums of money in Russia Today: 2.4 billion ($80 million) in 2007, and 3.6 billion ($120 million) in 2008. In 2011 the budget reached 11.4 billion roubles ($380 million), and in 2012 the channel will receive 9.1 billion roubles ($300 million).
Officially, the entire project was established as an independent, non-commercial organisation by the state-owned TV-Novosti. Since the funders who sponsor the channel are state institutions, the Kremlin has nearly full control over the station. Russia Today doesn't even have any commercial adverts and the only source of outside revenue are news materials which are sometimes sold to other television stations.
Assigning such large sums of money to RT can be explained not only by the desire to change Russia’s image in the world, but also the impressive development of the channel itself. In December 2005 the nascent channel only broadcasted a few hours a day and employed three hundred reporters, presenters, editors, producers and translators. By 2007 the English version was broadcasting around the clock and had added an Arab language version: Rusiya Al-Yaum. This “sister” channel, with its programming adapted to an Arab audience, employed more than 500 people, including 100 correspondents from countries in the Middle East and Northern Africa. In late 2009 the Russia Today “family” grew to include a Spanish language channel. According to a RT press announcement, the Spanish section recruited a staff of 200 people, including 35 local journalists from Argentina, Spain, Chile, Ecuador, Mexico, USA and Bolivia.
The next stage of RT’s development was a partial change of profile: the channel not only broadcasted information about current events but also started to explain history from a Russian point of view. In mid-2011 an English language RT Documentary Channel was created which presents programmes and reports on Russian history, culture and traditions. The channel was launched symbolically by President Dmitry Medvedev from the Moscow RT headquarters (the offices are housed in the building of the state information agency RIA Novosti).
Russia Today currently has over 2,000 employees in 16 countries, more than the second largest American channel, Fox News, and half the staffing of the media giant CNN. Making use of its financial resources, RT is a constantly expanding: the various different language versions can be received on cable platforms in over 100 countries, transmitted from more than 20 satellites covering almost the entire planet. And even if you finds yourself in a place where you don’t “catch” a satellite and none of the four RT channels are present in your hotel’s cable offer, have no fear: all three language versions and the documentary channel can be watched live and for free on the station’s website.
In 2009 RT commissioned audience surveys in France, Germany, Italy, Great Britain, Serbia and Poland, where, as the market research agency Synovate claims, the channel is watched by seven million viewers. In the autumn of 2010 Kantar Media presented the results of another poll, putting the number of RT viewers in Great Britain at around two million, five times more than the ratings of the English version of Deutsche Welle (Germany) and one and a half times more than France 24. A survey conducted in 2009 by Nielsen Media Research showed that the RT's audience in Washington DC and New York was six times higher than in the United Kingdom and five times higher than that of Deutsche Welle. It is too early to assess RT’s popularity on a global scale as only the number of potential viewers, that is those with access to broadcasts, is known. According to RT’s data, the channel reached 120 million people all over the world through satellite and cable networks in 2008; a year later this figure was estimated at around 150 million. Now the number of potential RT viewers is put at approximately 430 million.
Distracting viewers’ attention
Some Russian journalists cautiously criticise the level of expenditure of the RT “family” channels, but it can hardly be denied that the reporters and producers of these channels are highly qualified. The station has attracted experienced journalists, the reports are competent and dynamic, and the latest technology is being used.
Despite the official aim of rectifying the image of Russia in the West, the main area of the RT family interest is not Russian domestic matters: the attention of reporters and editors is almost exclusively focused on events outside Russia. Commentaries are focused on human rights, curtailing armaments and the arms trade, environmental protection, social inequities, famines and natural disasters. RT reporters examine issues such as the instability of the financial markets, fiscal crises, the impact of corporations on the global economy, scandals surrounding the financial and banking establishment, and demonstrations of the “outraged”. Commentators and “experts” with little chance of making an appearance on any other television station are invited to speak on RT. These often include anarchists, anti-globalists and representatives of various left-wing movements. The stars anchoring their own programmes are journalists with openly anti-American views (Peter Lavelle) or specialising in uncovering financial scandals (Max Kaiser). A series of programmes hosted by the founder of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, began broadcasting in April 2012. The first episode was an interview with Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah.
News about Russia itself is of secondary importance. If it appears at all, it is usually related to the progress of Russia’s “modernisation”, economic achievements and the growth of foreign investment. Lightweight programmes are often shown about the beauty of the Russian natural landscape, cultural achievements, interesting museums and exhibitions, as well as the most trendy restaurants and night clubs in Moscow or St. Petersburg. Embarrassing information about Russia is usually omitted and RT never broadcasts programmes showing Russia’s social problems, condemning corruption or administrative incompetence.
In tune with the old Soviet saying, “and you beat the blacks in the US”, the channel often employs this same method of distracting the viewer’s attention from anything that could adversely affect Russia’s image. It is a pity that instead of explaining the complexities of the world, the catchy slogan “Question More” is reduced to focusing and commenting on the world’s failures. For an issue to make it on air, these failures must fulfil two fundamental criteria. Firstly, they absolutely cannot concern Russia or hurt its interests. Secondly, they should appear in a Western country (preferably the US), or if they concern other parts of the world, they must originate from the postcolonial legacy or the “imperialist” urges of the West.
An alternative view?
Describing the activities of the channel in 2009, Margarita Simonyan, RT’s editor-in-chief, said: “What we see as black and white may not be black and white. It's making people question their own stereotypes … We offer an alternative to the mainstream view.” It is true that the world of politics is rarely black and white and all mass media could be accused of presenting a simplified picture of the world, but does Simonyan's alternative view also mean an objective view? Was Andrey Illarionov, the former advisor to Vladimir Putin and today an oppositionist, right when in 2007 he called Russia Today “the best Russian propaganda machine targeted at the outside world”? Anyone can easily find an answer to this question by watching RT and comparing it with other news channels.
There is nothing wrong with the fact that RT shows a different picture of the world than CNN and the BCC (or other televisions of the “Western” and “non-Western” world). Let them do it. It is perhaps easier to understand the world and find answers when we “Question More”. The drawback of the RT project is that it does not promote objectivity of the reporters and does not attempt to find the truth. Plurality of information sources, which in principle is very much desired, is also increasingly bringing about some negative consequences. Although presenting the same events in different ways by various channels may confuse the viewer, the main reason for these negative consequences is not the emergence of new sources of information, but their lack of objectivism.
What is striking about the Kremlin’s information campaign and the attempts to create a positive image of Russia abroad is the scope of the project, of which the ever-growing RT “family” is just one element. Promotional campaigns have been commissioned from global public relations leaders, such as Ketchum, GPlus and dozens of other smaller agencies in various countries. The budget of state-owned information agencies ITAR-Tass and Ria-Novosti is growing year by year and internet magazines such as Russia Beyond The Headlines and Russia Profile flourish. The radio station, the Voice of Russia, is experiencing a revival and currently broadcasts to 80 countries in 40 languages including the US, Armenia, Turkey, Brazil, India, Ukraine and even Iraq and Afghanistan.
Despite the huge scale of these operations, improving Russia’s image abroad is still hampered by a lack of objectivism. It is obvious that image has a lot to do with advertising and every advert must promote positive aspects of the product. But even the best advert which tries to sell a poor product may only make one impression. The new image of Russia which has been created in recent years can be likened to that of a matryoshka (a set of nested wooden Russian dolls – editor's note). Despite being hollow, every matryoshka looks pretty and requires a lot of effort to put together and take apart. If the media matryoshka made in Russia starts to crack, it will not be because of the internal or external forces trying to destroy it (as Kremlin political technologists would like to think), but because the impressive form is completely empty of any significant content.
Marcin Mączka is a PhD student at the Institute of Russian and Eastern European Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland.
Translated by Tomasz Bieroń