The Russian news agency Russia Today, also known as RT, broadcasts in Russian and in English in several countries, including the United States, where it's advertised as a counterweight to American broadcast outlets, a sort of Russian take on Al Jazeera. The network is officially backed by the Russian government but positions itself as like the BBC, state-funded but editorially independent.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a recent interview with the network, made some revealing comments about RT's mission and its relationship with the Russian government. While he said nothing revelatory, his unusually candid description of the network's pro-Kremlim coverage undercut RT's official description of itself as editorially independent.
Also telling was how the conversation got started. The very first question in the interview, which later touched on everything from Syria to U.S. surveillance programs, came from network editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan, who asked, "My first question is a bit immodest – about our channel. What are your impressions of it?"
Putin answered, "When we designed this project back in 2005 we intended introducing another strong player on the world’s scene, a player that wouldn’t just provide an unbiased coverage of the events in Russia but also ... try to break the Anglo-Saxon monopoly on the global information streams. And it seems to me that you’re succeeding in this job."
He then addressed the question of the network's allegiance to official Kremlin policy, making the somewhat but not entirely contradictory points that he never expected it to serve as a Kremlin mouthpiece but that it "cannot help but reflect the Russian government’s official position."
I’d like to emphasize something of the key importance. We never expected this to be a news agency or a channel which would defend the position of the Russian political line. We wanted to bring an absolutely independent news channel to the news arena.
Certainly the channel is funded by the government, so it cannot help but reflect the Russian government’s official position on the events in our country and in the rest of the world one way or another. But I’d like to underline again that we never intended this channel, RT, as any kind of apologetics for the Russian political line, whether domestic or foreign.
Julia Ioffe, then a Moscow-based journalist, wrote in 2008 for the Columbia Journalism Review that RT "was conceived as a soft-power tool to improve Russia’s image abroad, to counter the anti-Russian bias the Kremlin saw in the Western media." Ioffe explained, "Russia is still desperately trying to fend off stereotypes of itself—the endemic corruption, the whimsical autocracy of the state—that have kept much foreign capital, and many Russian émigrés, from returning."
The network, Ioffe says in her article, saw the brief 2008 war with Georgia as a defining moment for itself. One correspondent for the network told her, on condition of anonymity, that the network decided to take a pro-Moscow line in the conflict. "We were told, ‘Look at CNN, look at BBC. They’ve already taken a bias and we have the right to do the same.’ There was no room for questioning, for doubt."