Collaboration is built on everyday vanity and ambition. Just look at RT’s wannabes | Nick Cohen

Few people on Putin’s TV network were true believers... which is the really frightening thing

When Adolf Hitler was ascendant, the American foreign correspondent Dorothy Thompson invented the “macabre parlour game” of guessing who would “go Nazi” if the Germans invaded. With Vladimir Putin, there is no need to imagine who would collaborate, as so many have already collaborated with the Russian propaganda effort.

Some were convinced ideologues. Others were has-been politicians such as Alex Salmond and George Galloway: conceited old men, grateful that Putin’s RT (Russia Today) network still wanted to broadcast them. The rest were not has-beens but never-beens: wannabe pundits the national media would not touch; TV presenters who never had star billing; desperate young reporters who could not break into the UK’s exploitative media sector.

TV journalists are actors with notebooks. There is no hiding place on stage or in the news anchor’s chair. The failure to succeed is deeply personal because, however vigorously you try to blame others, the public’s reluctance to clamour for your company can only be the result of your own failings. Bill Dod exemplified RT presenters who moved between jobs on local and consumer channels until RT offered them a national platform. Its staff took the opportunity because RT exploited vanities most of us feel unless we have achieved a rare serenity. The vanity of the passed over. The vanity of men and women who believed society would reward them if they worked hard and obeyed its rules, only to find it ignored them after they had done both. Russia gave them new rules to obey and rewarded them with money and, as joyous to the ego, recognition. All it asked in return is that they never asked hard questions about their paymasters.

RT offered Alex Rees his first job as an assistant producer in 2017. His £25,000 salary was better than just getting by on the one-off commissions many young journalists must endure. The UK operation focused on Brexit, Scottish nationalism, culture wars and unilateral disarmament: anything, in short, that weakened Britain. No newsroom commissar dictated the party line. Alex told me staff at the grand London studios in Millbank, just down the road from parliament, would pitch ideas. The management would return with the authorised news list.

In theory, his boss was a Ukrainian, who resigned when Russian missiles taught her the hard way not to believe the propaganda she spread. But Alex’s impression was that “people we never saw made the editorial decisions. Maybe in London, maybe in Moscow.”

He began to have doubts when Russian agents launched a chemical weapons attack with novichok on Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in 2018. If the London journalists had a conscience, they could soothe it by saying that their work just about complied with broadcasting standards. But Moscow accompanied their reporting with packages of hacks standing outside factories saying the nerve agent could have been made in the Czech Republic or come from the British research lab at Porton Down – from anywhere and everywhere except Russia.

And then there were the studio guests. George Galloway was as reliable an apologist for Putin as he was for Bashar al-Assad and Saddam Hussein – “the man’s search for a tyrannical fatherland never ends”, as Christopher Hitchens once said. Galloway duly derided the truth about Russian crimes on RT and the broadcasting regulators duly censured him.

But Galloway was not a typical figure. Most people over 30 know who he is, just as most could pick RT contributor Nigel Farage from a police identification parade. I challenge you to put a face to Neil Clark, Craig Murray and so many other useful idiots on the RT sofa. Clark was a typically disappointed figure from our media-saturated age. He was a jobbing teacher at a crammer helping the children of the upper middle class scrape into Oxbridge. He spent his evenings far from the world of power politics at meetings of Oxfordshire’s North Hinksey parish council, complaining that a fellow councillor had the impertinence to call him a “plonker” or that a member of the public had said he was “pathetic”.

The leftish press of the day briefly ran his pieces defending the war criminal Slobodan Milošević as a “prisoner of conscience”. But the market for whitewashing crimes against humanity was limited. The dreary meeting rooms of North Hinksey beckoned, until RT gave him a platform, which allowed him to put failure behind him and show all who had snubbed him that Clark was a man to be reckoned with.

Did I hear you say you would never deal with the devil to confound your enemies? Are you sure about that?

Craig Murray is an equally symptomatic figure. I defended him in 2002 when he was Britain’s ambassador in Uzbekistan and found the moral courage to criticise the tyrannical practices of the Uzbek dictatorship. It was pouring boiling water over prisoners while remaining the west’s ally in democracy’s war against radical Islam. Naturally, Murray didn’t last long in the Foreign Office after that outburst.

If you had asked me at the time, I would have said that, as a brave and principled figure, Murray would go on to defend human rights whether the west or the west’s enemies oppressed them.

But like so many others he was prepared to expose western crimes while covering for Putin. If I make him sound a hypocrite, then he is hardly an exceptional hypocrite. The west kids itself if it thinks Ukraine enjoys global support. Millions in Africa, Asia, South America and in the west itself will excoriate the double standards of democracies while excusing or ignoring the crimes of dictatorships.

You may object that it is unfair to pick on propagandists when the bankers, lawyers and estate agents who laundered Russian money remain anonymous. But journalists, like actors and athletes, are visible. Scrutiny goes with the job. Accept it or quit. You might say that belatedly, even by the lax standards of a cynical world, RT journalists are speaking out against Putin and have called time on their collaboration. For all that, they remain important and quietly frightening figures.

Although some thrilled to Putin’s violence, most of RT’s employees served the world’s mightiest crime gang while remaining average people with everyday concerns. Their story is a warning to guard against power worship and subservience: not just in those around us but in ourselves.

• Nick Cohen is an Observer Columnist


Nick Cohen

The GuardianTramp

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