Will Ofcom’s decision to ban RT stop Kremlin message reaching UK audiences?

Analysis: Social media ban will do more to stop state-backed channel – and Putin may curb BBC in response

On Thursday afternoon the remaining staff of RT’s British operation – including the former Scottish first minister Alec Salmond – headed to the 16th floor of Westminster’s Millbank Tower and cleared their desks for the final time. After almost a decade on air the British arm of the outlet was in the process of closing down its operations, ahead of the expected loss of its broadcasting licence.

If you’ve heard about Ofcom’s decision to permanently ban the Kremlin-backed television channel RT from UK airwaves, then it’s probably because you have read coverage of the decision rather than because you were a viewer. RT’s most recent audience figures showed it was a statistical afterthought, reaching just 79,000 viewers a day – with most watching for around a minute as they flicked through channels.

Yet the fate of this channel parroting the Kremlin’s line on world affairs – describing the invasion of Ukraine as a “special military operation” – has become a symbolic focus of British political debate about Russian media influence in Britain.

RT’s loss of a broadcasting licence now poses two big questions: will the lack of a television channel make much difference to the Kremlin’s ability to push its message to British audiences? And will Moscow use the decision as justification to further restrict the BBC’s activities in Russia?

Ofcom’s decision to rapidly revoke RT’s licence was highly unusual, with similar decisions usually taking years of legal wrangling rather than three weeks of correspondence. Even as Russian tanks rolled over the border into Ukraine, Ofcom emphasised that it was perfectly possible for a television station to present a skewed viewpoint, so long as other views were represented. Although RT had received a substantial fine for rule breaches following the 2018 Salisbury novichok poisoning, it has since had a clean record.

Yet, amid intense political pressure and similar EU-wide bans, events moved fast. As early as 8 March, Ofcom informed RT that the channel’s bosses were no longer considered “fit and proper” to hold a licence.

After years of being content that the station’s editorial line was not directly controlled by the Kremlin, within days Ofcom had concluded that the “exceptional” circumstances of the war in Ukraine – and the introduction of a law in Russia criminalising certain coverage of the invasion – made it impossible for RT to meet the required standards to hold a British broadcasting licence.

“No other Ofcom broadcast licensee is financially dependent on a state whose head of state, President Putin, has been personally sanctioned by the UK for launching a war of aggression against a neighbouring state,” said Ofcom.

Yet the decision only affects RT’s regulated television broadcasts in the UK, which were less popular than the broadcaster’s booming unregulated online output. Instead, in the long run the more important restriction on Russia’s propaganda machine may be the decision of major US tech platforms such as Facebook and YouTube to ban access to RT’s content in Britain. The real significance of Ofcom’s ruling may be in publicly delegitimising RT and associated Russian media outlets in the minds of the British public.

The BBC is also waiting to see whether it will face further pushback as a result of Ofcom’s decision. It has already stopped producing its Russian-language content in Russia, although its English-language correspondents have resumed broadcasting.

Although the Kremlin has spent more than a decade investing in western media outlets, its top-down approach to broadcasting has been outflanked in the current conflict by canny Ukrainian use of social media aimed at English-speaking audiences.

While President Putin appears at giant television-friendly rallies, his rival, President Zelenskiy, is more adept at producing short, emotional clips that go viral on Twitter.


Jim Waterson Media editor

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
West hits Vladimir Putin’s fake news factories with wave of sanctions
UK and US crack down on websites peddling ‘false and misleading’ reports thought to be backed by Russian intelligence

Jon Ungoed-Thomas

20, Mar, 2022 @10:45 AM

Article image
Russian TV broadcasts in UK a ‘disinformation campaign’, says Dorries
Culture secretary has told Ofcom of ‘concerns over RT’ amid Ukraine crisis, Johnson tells Commons

Peter Walker Political correspondent and Severin Carrell Scotland editor

23, Feb, 2022 @1:33 PM

Article image
Ofcom investigates Alex Salmond's TV show on Kremlin-backed channel
Watchdog launches inquiry into whether The Alex Salmond Show, which began last month on RT, broke accuracy rules

Holly Watt

18, Dec, 2017 @1:57 PM

Article image
Russia blocks Google News after ad ban on content condoning Ukraine invasion
Google announced action against users who ‘exploit, dismiss or condone’ Putin’s war

Alex Hern UK technology editor

24, Mar, 2022 @2:19 PM

Article image
Missile strikes on Ukrainian cities as call-up causes chaos in Russia
Fresh wave of protests on Saturday after Putin declares ‘partial mobilisation’ of civilian men

Shaun Walker in Kyiv and Pjotr Sauer

24, Sep, 2022 @3:53 PM

Article image
Ofcom opens 15 investigations into RT’s Ukraine war coverage
Kremlin-backed English-language TV station could close if found in breach of impartiality standards

Jim Waterson Media editor

28, Feb, 2022 @6:48 PM

Article image
RT news channel in spotlight in UK over pro-Russia slant on Ukraine crisis
Calls for channel that is describing invasion as ‘special military operation’ to have licence revoked

Jim Waterson Media editor

25, Feb, 2022 @2:47 PM

Article image
24-hour Putin people: my week watching Kremlin ‘propaganda channel’ RT
Formerly known as Russia Today, the channel gives airtime to pundits from left and right – many of them UK politicians. After a week watching its often surreal output, our writer asks himself: is this really the best Moscow can do?

Tim Dowling

29, Nov, 2017 @5:39 PM

Article image
Alex Salmond's RT show breached Ofcom broadcasting rules
Regulator says ex-politician misled audience with tweets and emails read out on show

Jim Waterson Media editor

16, Jul, 2018 @1:28 PM

Article image
Russian broadcaster RT could be forced off UK airwaves
Channel could lose licence if Russia found to be responsible for Sergei Skripal poisoning

Mark Sweney

13, Mar, 2018 @3:36 PM