Will Russia Today take on Putin’s fight with the West?


Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a ceremony of the presentation of credentials, in the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow, Friday, June 27, 2014. (AP Photo/Yuri Kadobnov, Pool)

Most of the Western media have been united in pointing the finger at Russia over the Malaysia Airlines plane disaster, with one notable exception. Russia Today, or RT as it has recently re-branded themselves, has consistently offered an alternative take on where the blame might lie. It's not gone unnoticed, either; the Kremlin-funded television network is the second most watched foreign news service in the United States after the BBC. The network includes a 24-hour news channel, a Web site and various programs.

Given Russia Today’s history of following a pro-Putin line, it’s not surprising it has disagreed in the blame game. Take some of its headlines from the past few days: Claims about MH17 that MSM fails to question, 10 more questions Russian military pose to Ukraine, US over MH17 crash and US intelligence: No direct link to Russia in Malaysia plane downing.

Or these videos from its Web site:

While British Prime Minister David Cameron told Putin "the world is watching" the Ukraine situation, there is also a spotlight on Russia Today, particularly given the public resignation of one of their anchors. Sarah Firth, the station’s London correspondent, quit the station over its MH17 coverage. Firth criticized Russia Today for a “disrespect for the facts” and said the MH17 reports were the “straw that broke the camel’s back." Firth told The Guardian, “It was the most shockingly obvious misinformation and it got to the point where I couldn't defend it any more.”

In response to these accusations of bias, a spokesman for Russia Today UK told BuzzFeed: “It is sad that the news media of the U.S. and the U.K., which has always prided itself on its commitment to asking hard questions of its own government when it comes to domestic politics, in this particular situation is readily swallowing up the ‘party line’ of the Department of State and the Foreign Office, demanding no proof of their claims.”

The Kremlin-backed broadcaster is now facing an official investigation from the British government over its television coverage of MH17. Unlike in the United States, broadcasters in Britain are carefully monitored by Ofcom, a semi-autonomous government body set up to ensure impartiality.  The British newspapers make up for the neutrality of its broadcast media — see the front page of The Sun last week for example —but don’t expect Russia Today to admit it was wrong any time soon.

An Ofcom spokesman confirmed it has received a number of complaints about Russia Today recent programming. It said due process would be followed and an official investigation has not yet started. Russia Today's news channel has been found to have breached the Ofcom code twice in recent years, once over its coverage of the Syria conflict and another over its coverage of Libya.

Given their statements above, it appears the latest round of Ofcom v. Russia Today will be played out as the United Kingdom vs. Russia.

Sebastian Payne is a national reporter with The Washington Post. He is the Post’s 35th Laurence Stern fellow.
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