When people hear that you are from Russia they usually want to say something nice about your country. “I’ve got into the habit of watching Russia Today,” one man told me enthusiastically. “I really like it.”
My heart sank. Naively, I hadn’t realised that this Moscow TV channel, while easily available in Britain on Freeview, satellite and cable, was actually watched by anybody here. “What does he make of it?” I wondered. It has slick and glitzy programming, pacy news and features, attractive young Russian presenters and reporters with perfect English and state-of-the-art equipment. And it’s expanding fast, with plans to double its staff in Washington and London this year. Even if you knew that the channel’s annual $30m budget comes from the Russian government, would you immediately think of Soviet times, grim elderly men in ill-fitting suits and the ugly word “propaganda”? Surely this is completely different. Isn’t it a new Russia rising from its knees? Yes, the channel is critical of many things in the West, but isn’t it refreshing?
In reality, you could not even call RT, as it now styles itself, very subtle in its propaganda. For anyone familiar with Soviet tactics it’s the same doggedly anti-American stance (RT’s recent poster campaign, banned in American airports but allowed in Britain, suggested that Obama posed a greater nuclear threat than Ahmadinejad), the same glee over Europe’s setbacks. Just as in the state-controlled domestic media, the Kremlin’s views dominate. Despite the channel’s original name, things that are really happening in Russia today, such as the suppression of free speech and peaceful demonstrations, or the economic inefficiency and corrupt judiciary, are either ignored or their significance played down. Instead, the “Explore Russia” slot offers pretty pictures glorifying the country’s cuisine, arts and crafts and colourful history.
One thing is new, however — the admission that it’s all about spin. “We are set to show you how any story can be another story altogether,” RT’s ads provocatively state. No one even claims that this is a true story — just a story different from yours. “Resurgent Russia” is entitled to its own position, especially where its understanding of “freedom” or “sphere of interests” is concerned — this was blatantly obvious in RT’s coverage of the 2008 war with Georgia. Paradoxically, this aggressiveness is combined with a fierce desire to assure the world that there are no “ideological differences” any more, since Russia has allegedly embraced capitalism. It is this complex image of Russia — claiming to share the West’s “ideology” but not subscribing to its values — that is tirelessly promoted by Russia Today, and also by Western PR agencies hired for this purpose, by selected foreign journalists invited to the Valdai Club, where they are wined, dined and fed the Russian perspective on the world, by foundations to promote Russian language and culture and by various less visible activities such as organising abusive postings on foreign newspaper websites. Of course, instead of spending a fortune on all this, the Kremlin could try and change the image of Russia just by changing its own ways. But that doesn’t seem very likely.