Too many links as usual (not visible below) but help appreciated finding a couple more:
1) where Howard Zinn argues that impartiality is impossible because you always choose what story you want to cover (maybe the preface to people's history? - don't have a copy with me)
2) who said 'I don't need to be balanced - I am the balance' - I know I nicked it from someone, just can't remember who!
3) where the quote 'everything the communists said about communism was a lie; everything they said about capitalism was true' (approx) comes from
On March 18th 2022, under pressure from both major parties in the UK government, members of the mainstream press and a spike in complaints over coverage of the war in Ukraine, the broadcasting regulator Ofcom decided to take away the license of Russia Today (RT) and stop them from broadcasting in the UK. This followed a ban across EU countries, the blocking of their Youtube channel, the overnight disbanding of the entire RT America platform, putting over 100 employees out of work, (including veteran and cutting edge American journalists) and the censorship of the RT website, which in many countries can now only be accessed by using a VPN or other backdoor approaches (the TV channel can still be viewed live here)
In its announcement Ofcom said that it didn’t consider RT to be ‘fit and proper to hold a UK broadcast licence’, with their decision coming ‘amid 29 ongoing investigations […] into the due impartiality of RT’s news and current-affairs coverage of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.’ As broadcasting regulator they insist on a ‘duty to be satisfied’, and that despite a clean record for nearly four years:
‘We consider that ANO TV Novosti’s [the license-holder for RT] position as a state broadcaster, financed by a state which has recently invaded a sovereign state and effectively criminalised independent journalism, and in a context where a journalist can be imprisoned for up to 15 years for failure to adopt the state’s view of the news, means that we cannot be confident that it will be able to abide by the due impartiality rules of the Code.’ – point 49, p.10 of the full document
This in spite of ANO TV Novosti’s explanation that:
‘ANO TV-Novosti receives annual subsidies from the Russian Federation’s state budget every year, under a procedure established by federal law which prohibits any state interference in its editorial policy or any role of its ‘founder’ in the editorial process. These subsidies partly cover the ANO’s expense of running the RT television channel, the rest being covered by advertising and other similar activities as is normal for a media organisation. Nothing in the arrangements for these subsidies gives the state any right of control over the editorial decisions or content of the RT channel; indeed to permit such control would be illegal.” ' – ibid. p.6
Remembering that Ofcom had only said that their 29 investigations into due impartiality were ‘ongoing’ and that they had ‘not concluded on any of these investigations’ (ibid. p.10), on June 20th I sent in a Freedom of Information request to the Ofcom website enquiring about the results of these investigations and asking if they could provide:
‘any relevant documentation about the substance of these complaints and the outcome of the subsequent investigations, ie: whether RT was found guilty of spreading documented falsehoods about the war in Ukraine’
Whether this spurred them into action or they were intending to publish their findings anyway, I don’t know, but on July 18th I received a reply from Ofcom informing me that they had published the outcome of their investigations, which found that all 29 violated Section Five of their Broadcasting Code which requires that:
‘broadcasters must maintain due impartiality in news. When dealing with matters of major political controversy and major matters relating to current public policy such as wars or areas of conflict (in these cases, specifically the ongoing conflict in the Donbas region), broadcasters must also comply with the special impartiality requirements in the Code. These rules require broadcasters to take additional steps to preserve due impartiality – namely by including and giving due weight to an appropriately wide range of significant views’
Looking at the full text document outlining their decisions – an intimidating 525 pages long (much of it consisting of passages repeated multiple times) – the first thing I noticed was that the alleged breaches of impartiality related to news bulletins on February 27th, March 1st and March 2nd and one documentary, ‘Donbass Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow’. To me this looked like 4 investigations, not 29, but they argued that:
‘despite containing some similar content, each programme was a standalone news bulletin reporting events which evolved throughout the day. Therefore we have considered each programme individually’ – pp.2-3
The next thing I noticed, after beginning to read through the transcripts of the programmes and Ofcom’s objections, is that none of it took issue with points of fact or the truthfulness of any given statement. The complaint that came again and again was that RT had made ‘contentious claims’ which were ‘highly critical of the Ukrainian authorities, including its military’, and that, while broadcasting critical comments was ‘not, in itself, a breach of due impartiality rules’, because:
‘It is essential that news programmes are able to report on controversial issues and take a position on those issues, even if that position is highly critical, particularly during times of conflict. However, a broadcaster must maintain an adequate and appropriate level of impartiality in its presentation of matters (and major matters) of political controversy. It may be necessary, in order to comply with the due impartiality requirements, that alternative viewpoints are broadcast.’ – first instance, p.16
So it turns into a much more slippery question of whether the ‘alternative viewpoints’ which RT provided (and their responses, included in the document, show many examples of this attempt at balance) are considered to be enough in order to maintain an undefined level of impartiality, as judged by Ofcom. For example, in dealing with the first news bulletin on February 27th:
‘In Ofcom’s view this programme lacked the inclusion of any alternative viewpoints on the matter of political controversy and current public policy that was discussed in relation to the specific and ongoing conflict in the Donbas region. For example, the perspective of the Ukrainian state and/or military which: contested the highly critical claims about Ukrainian forces in the region (for example, accusations that “the Ukrainian military is conducting relentless shelling of residential areas ...”); and/or challenged the viewpoints of the Russian armed forces, the Donetsk People’s Militia (“DPM”) or the Luhansk People’s Militia (“LPM”) (for example, the claim that a tactic said to be used by Ukrainian armed forces was “used by international terrorists in Syria”) was not included in any form in this programme.’
RT had noted descriptions by Ukrainian and western leaders of the Donbas conflict as ‘an act of aggression’ and ‘war’ conducted by an ‘invading army’ but this wasn’t considered sufficient because these more general criticisms of Russia:
‘did not represent, in any form, the significant view of the Ukrainian state and/or military in relation to the highly critical allegations that were made about their conduct within the Donbas region, specifically that Ukrainian forces were deliberately attacking residential areas, using “terrorist” tactics, and had been doing so for the last eight years.’ (p.17)
RT had responded that, as a Russian TV channel they were ‘prepared that our output would be viewed with extra scrutiny’ but that they had strived to ‘provide the picture that’s both true to facts and sufficiently balanced’. For its part Ofcom recognised:
‘that RT viewers would have expected to see news on the channel relating to the conflict in Ukraine from a predominantly Russian perspective and that, as stated above, determining facts during times of significant conflict can be more difficult.’
‘Ofcom’s investigation into this programme concerned due impartiality and not due accuracy […] it was legitimate for RT to broadcast news on the conflict in Ukraine from a Russian perspective and also to report on the allegations that were being made by Russian officials and spokespersons about Ukrainian forces in the Donbas. However, it was still incumbent on TV Novosti to maintain due impartiality on this matter of major political controversy by including a wide range of significant alternative viewpoints and giving them due weight in this programme or in clearly linked and timely programmes, including, for example, the perspective of the Ukrainian state and/or military on the ongoing conflict in the Donbas.’ (p.18, my emphasis)
I started to understand why Ofcom had dodged my request for the ‘substance’ of complaints made against RT and for the ‘documented falsehoods’ they were supposed to have disseminated: they weren’t interested in truth or facts, it was just about balance. Even if they were lying through their teeth RT (and presumably other broadcasters) were obligated to provide the viewpoints of the opposing side, or the accused parties as a kind of right of reply – seemingly in every instance where a strong criticism was made over a ‘controversial’ issue.
This was darkly humorous to me as a long time critical observer of western mainstream news sources, because on most ‘controversial’ subjects it is clear that invariably the story is slanted to presenting one side in a favourable light – the story favouring state/corporate power interests – while denigrating any other interpretation. This is especially the case when it comes to foreign policy and the west’s own wars and military occupations of other countries. Western forces are depicted as benign, moral actors, greeted as liberators except by those so barbaric and unenlightened to consider resisting. The news landscape fits accordingly with information tightly curated, sanitised, and fed to embedded reporters who faithfully relay the western perspectives while ignoring or actively attacking contrary views. When did we ever hear from Iraqi officials, Afghan officials, Libyan, Syrian, Palestinian officials, given the space to respond to western claims of atrocities supposedly committed by their countrymen, and just so happening to provide the pretext for western military intervention? The only times I remember this happening were in cases where the people were mocked or presented as propagandists to not be taken seriously. Similarly, dissident figures in the west who could provide alternative analyses are typically dismissed as deluded, self-hating or worse, useful idiots or even active 5th columnists for the official enemy of the day. Thus any criticism or counter-narrative can be safely ignored as part of the enemy’s propaganda effort, while the pro-western propaganda effort goes ahead unchallenged.
I wondered how long it would take me to find 29 examples of a western media outlet failing to report with due impartiality according to the standards applied by Ofcom to RT. So I decided to challenge myself to do just that. To make it like vs. like as much as possible I opted to focus on UK state media, the BBC, and narrowed down my search parameters by looking at the BBC News youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/c/BBCNews The first playlist is dedicated entirely to the ‘Ukraine crisis’, with 528 videos at time of writing, going back to February 2015 (326 since the invasion). [footnote comparing coverage of Ukraine to that of Yemen] To make it harder for myself I aimed to find 29 truly separate examples, not counting how many times each broadcast would have been aired across the BBC’s various platforms. Making it somewhat easier, on Ofcom’s terms I didn’t have to prove that anything reported was factually incorrect or deliberately misleading (though I have commented when aware of different interpretations and contradictory evidence), merely to note that a highly critical statement had been made about the Russian military and/or political establishment without providing an adequate response to the specific criticism from a Russian official or an independent analyst taking a different view.
It didn’t take long to start racking up examples. The very first video I looked at, ‘Explosions rock Ukrainian port hours after grain deal’ contained an accusation from a US politician that Russia was trying to ‘weaponize food’ and from a Ukrainian MP calling Vladimir Putin a ‘food terrorist’, with no alternative point of view put forward and the reporter only noting that ‘Moscow has not made any comment’. Moving down the list of videos many critical statements didn’t even bother with that minimal level of balance. The accusations were relentless, one-sided and worded very harshly and unequivocally, not just from Ukrainians sources but from the BBC reporters themselves. The words ‘murder,’ ‘rape,’ ‘theft,’ ‘atrocity,’ ‘war crimes’ were ever-present with Russian troops described several times as ‘terrorists,’ ‘animals,’ ‘not human,’ ‘orcs’ and portrayed variously as drunk, on drugs, raping women, killing or abusing civilians, none of which was rebutted beyond a token mention of ‘Moscow denies this’ – which of course the casual viewer would think was a lie, given all the other crimes had apparently been committed by ‘the Russians’. Again, this is a kind of direct, unqualified language that the BBC would never use to describe the many abuses of western troops, and it was never used to describe the actions of Ukrainian troops, except when presented as yet another dishonest Russian propaganda trope.
Another feature of the coverage was the use of human interest-type stories looking at the lives of individuals dealing with the conflict. On their own these were fairly innocuous, but the fact that they were nearly all from the perspective of Ukrainian citizens and soldiers had a powerful effect of creating what Noam Chomsky calls ‘worthy victims’ [footnote quote from Manufacturing Consent] whereby empathy is directed selectively towards one group, humanising them in contrast to another group – in this case the dastardly Russians, or the Ukrainians in the Donbas region who have been attacked and killed mainly by the Ukrainian military since their attempted secession in 2014. Where BBC reporters do interview Russians they are almost always dissenting figures who oppose the war and the policies of Putin and the Russian government. Somehow they never seem to find an ordinary citizen who speaks in favour of the actions of their government, which would be odd from an impartial broadcaster given that Putin’s approval rating since the launch of the ‘special military operation’ has risen from around 70% to just over 80%.
Interestingly, Ofcom is fully aware of this propaganda technique when it comes to RT’s reporting, as they point out in their decision on the documentary, ‘Donbass Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow’:
‘[T]he programme made no reference to the views of residents in the Donbas, for example, who are not pro-separatist, who do not recognise the self-proclaimed republics in Donetsk and Luhansk, or who in any way support the actions of the Ukrainian Government in the Donbas. By contrast, allegations that were highly critical of the conduct of the Ukrainian authorities were made repeatedly throughout the programme, frequently accompanied by emotive and graphic footage of warfare and its after effects’ (ibid. pp.241-242)
(Although, unlike the BBC, at least RT were reporting a majority opinion in the separatist region, not giving undue prominence to the dissident minority.)
Their specific complaints about the documentary are worth quoting in full as something to bear in mind when considering the BBC’s reporting:
‘• Allegations of Ukrainian “war crimes” and violence against civilians. For example, Ronald Van Amerongen alleged that the Ukrainian army was responsible for committing “brutal murders” in Donbass, stating “they target civilians”; and George Eliason said “You can’t say that...there wasn’t war crimes”. Similarly Vasily Prozorov alleged that Dobrobats (“volunteer nationalist battalions”) “committed war crimes pure and simple: torture, rape, extrajudicial killings, robberies, looting”; and Victor Lanta said “The real aggressor is obviously the army of Kiev. Every day they bomb civilian facilities”.
• References to historical events, such as the Maidan protests in February 2014 and the fire at Odesa in May 2014, where details have subsequently been contested. For example, the narrator described the Maidan protests as a “coup” which led to “fratricidal war in Ukraine” and alleged that “People who asked for a peaceful referendum and the chance to speak their native language were burned alive in Odessa’s Trade Union building”. Yuly Lyubotsky, speaking about the Odessa Trade Union building similarly alleged: “The Ukrainian Government encouraged such actions. The people who tried to escape by jumping out of windows were shot at”.
• Repeated allegations that the Ukrainian authorities, including its military, were fascists or Nazis who were attempting to commit genocide against Russian-speaking people in the Donbas. For example, Anna Soroka, said: “300 to 500 civilians are buried, who were killed by the military-political leadership of Ukraine. There’s only one word for this – genocide”. Clips of residents included statements such as "Only the Germans did this during World War II. Now, the Ukrainians are doing the same thing to their own people”; and “We’ll drive out these evil fascists who want to come to our land”.
• Allegations that the people in the Donbas had rejected the Ukrainian Government. For example, the narrator said: “Donbass keeps living, working and dreaming of a peaceful future – without Ukraine”. In addition, Denis Pushilin said: “The vast majority can no longer imagine themselves as part of Ukraine...Those two to three percent who want to go to Ukraine, they want to return to the old Ukraine, as it was before 2014”; and Alexis Castillo said: “Donbass residents no longer want to be part of Ukraine”.
• Allegations that the Ukrainian Government was acting under the influence of the West. For example, Russell Bentley said that when he saw footage of a US diplomat “handing out the cookies” at Maidan, Kyiv in 2014 he “understood that this was also the work of the criminal United States government”. Janus Putkonen said that the Maidan Uprising “was not a plan of Ukraine. This is a civil war situation, fuelled from abroad, not from Russia...Fuelled from Washington, from Canada, from Finland even...This is a civil war situation, not war between Ukraine and Russia, but war from the West against [the] Russian world”. Roman Omelchenko said: “They need territory: the USA, England, Canada. Why? They need some place to put their bases, so they can deliver an instantaneous, unanswerable strike on Russian territory”. ‘ (pp.239-240)
Once again, they objected that, in spite of presenting the views of western officials critical of Russia and quoting speeches from Vladimir Zelensky:
‘[T]he programme made no reference to the significant view of the Ukrainian state and/or military in relation to the numerous highly critical and specific allegations that they: had committed war crimes and violence against civilians; were fascists or Nazis who were attempting a genocide of Russian-speaking people in the Donbas; had orchestrated contested events such as the Odesa Trade Union building fire in 2014; and were acting under the influence of the West.’
It wasn’t considered sufficient that the documentary began with the disclaimer that:
‘The opinions of the people who appear in this film are their own and do not necessarily reflect the policies or position of RTD. The Ukrainian authorities have been asked to comment on the issues presented in this film but have yet to respond’ - p.242
And RT’s further explanation:
‘Russian media is viewed by Ukraine as an “adversary” and that it had been “denied access to the ‘Ukrainian official position’ since March 2014”, along with other Russian TV channels […] we believe that there's no need (as our compliance trainers claimed re Ofcom's “impartiality” rules) to present equal “pro & contra” airtime to every single point of view expressed in a program (documentary)' (p.238)
was considered inadequate because:
‘if alternative views cannot be obtained from particular institutions, governments or individuals, broadcasters could refer to public statements by such institutions, governments or individuals or such viewpoints could be expressed, for example, through presenters’ questions to interviewees’ (p.242)
The inevitable conclusion:
‘An appropriately wide range of significant viewpoints on the relevant matter of major political controversy and major matter relating to current public policy were not adequately represented or given due weight within this programme.’ (p.243)
Remember this when you read the BBC’s numerous highly critical allegations about the Russian military and the policy of the Russian government and their routine failure to provide a response to the claims from a Russian official. Ofcom, when standing in judgement of RT, doesn’t accept a few token quotes on general matters as adequate balance, or even saying that the opposing side has been given the opportunity to respond but has not yet done so. Every effort has to be made to search out and present alternative views, even when none are forthcoming…
In the end it took me just under a week, spending a few hours most evenings, to find the total 29 examples and copy the most blatant failures of impartiality within the pieces. The selected videos were from a period between July 23rd going back to March 17th and I didn’t watch every one so likely there are many more examples that I missed. Some of the names will be misspelled, for which I apologise (I made use of youtube’s auto-transcript feature which is a bit hit-and-miss with unusual words), and I didn’t manage to find out the names of all the newsreaders, but it should be easy enough to find out for anyone who would like to dig deeper. In time I might include full transcripts of the pieces so the selected quotes appear in context. I think I have fairly represented the contents and lack of balance in each one, though you may have to watch yourself to be sure. There is a chance, with these videos being clipped from longer news bulletins, that some attempt at impartiality was made elsewhere in the programme as it went out live. I’m happy to be corrected if this turns out to have been the case, although I would think mention should have been made on the youtube channel if so.
[29 examples - see here: https://members5.boardhost.com/xxxxx/msg/1658863925.html ]
What do I hope to achieve from this, you may ask? Well, oddly enough I’m not that huge a fan of RT. I found the editorial line reactionary and supportive of dangerous right wing political figureheads, disliked the constant praise of Russian military technology and the way tabloid-esque criticisms of ‘woke’ identity politics blurred into climate change denial and attacks on environmental activists. The reason that I valued it and why I used to be one of the approximately 2,000 people who viewed the channel when it was on air in the UK was for the platform it gave to western dissident voices. I happened to see an episode of US comedian Lee Camp’s ‘Redacted Tonight’ one evening and was shocked enough by the programme’s frank and uncompromising dissection of western ‘late stage capitalism’ and the willingness to honestly discuss issues like climate change, militarism, corporate power, inequality and other subjects in a way I’d never seen on the TV. This is borne out by Camp’s explanation for why he ended up working for a Russian state-backed media outlet:
‘In my comedy, in my writing, in my life, I’m not willing to throw the American people under the bus to do pro-corporate crap, the propaganda you see on corporate airwaves. There are very few channels left where you can speak of these things, go after corporations that own our systems and own most of our politicians. I have a TV show on RT America because I have been given complete freedom. I write my own words.’ - https://www.westword.com/arts/comedian-lee-camp-talks-rt-america-russia-and-censorship-things-to-do-10765696
I subsequently discovered several thoughtful, critical shows by dissenting figures like Afshin Rattansi’s ‘Going Underground’, Abby Martin’s ‘Breaking the Set’, Chris Hedges’ ‘On Contact’ or shows like ‘Renegade Inc.’, ‘The Keiser Report’, ‘Watching the Hawks’ and ‘Cross Talk’, all of which presented material of a kind which practically never appeared on UK TV, or even across the mainstream print outlets (even in the supposedly left-wing Guardian serious dissidents are more often attacked and smeared than allowed space to elaborate on their views). Of course the same effect we see in western media’s highlighting of Russian dissidents could be said to apply here, with radical voices tolerated and even encouraged if they target an official enemy – this time of with the roles reversed. It’s true that you wouldn’t see much criticism of Russia on RT, but it was noticeable that the anti-war, anti-imperialist voices I followed all stuck to their principles and voiced opposition to Russia’s military interventions in Crimea and then Ukraine (although they didn’t have much time to do so with the latter invasion). Crucially they were allowed to do so on air, most dramatically in the case of Abby Martin’s opposition to the annexation of Crimea – a courageous stand which many western journalists were sacked for taking over the 2003 invasion/occupation of Iraq, yet Martin kept her job. Chris Hedges also denounced the invasion of Ukraine as a ‘criminal war of aggression’ shortly before having his entire work at RT America censored and disappeared from the internet. In a powerful essay he explains that:
‘I was on RT because, as a vocal critic of US imperialism, militarism, the corporate control of the two ruling parties, and especially because I support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, I was blacklisted. I was on RT for the same reason the dissident Vaclav Havel, who I knew, was on Voice of America during the communist regime in Czechoslovakia. It was that or not be heard. Havel had no more love for the policies of Washington than I have for those of Moscow.’
Hedges had previously observed that a 2017 Director of National Intelligence investigation into RT America had focused in on the dissenting American voices spreading ‘radical discontent’, not supposed Russian propaganda. Furthermore they were guilty of calling the US a ‘surveillance state’, alleging ‘widespread infringements of civil liberties, police brutality, and drone use’, talking about ‘Wall Street greed’ and comparing the US to ‘Imperial Rome’. For Hedges this showed that the real point was to shut down the last platforms available to dissident voices in the US:
‘The DNI report clarifies what the ruling elites fear—not fake news but the truth. And the truth is that the elites have destroyed the country and are traitors to democracy.’
There’s that word again, ‘truth’. I suppose Ofcom wouldn’t have minded these heavy criticisms of the US state if they have been properly balanced by a government figure lying and saying everything was fine. For me this all points to the limitations of having impartiality as a guiding virtue or a rule to be (subjectively) enforced. As the US historian Howard Zinn pointed out true impartiality was impossible because even if you scrupulously reported every possible side to the story you were still making a choice about which story to cover, which inevitably accorded with your own personal biases. I’ve always found it far more important that people are honest, no matter how unpopular this makes them. If they are open about their biases then audiences can adjust their skepticism accordingly, but criticism should be made over points of fact, not box-ticking exercises of how many other perspectives were added – including from outright liars – to dilute and confuse the message they were trying to get across. In a media landscape where condemnation of Russia is near unanimous and reporters have no qualms passing on the crudest Ukrainian propaganda as fact it is perverse to require the one outlet reporting the other perspective to also pump out the same narrative as every other news outlet. They don’t need to be ‘balanced’, they are the balance.
Back to the question of what I hope to achieve here, I guess it’s up to Ofcom. I think I’ve shown that the BBC have failed their test of ‘due impartiality’ as much as, if not more, than RT. If they wish to be consistent in enforcing the principle (and rescue their own impartiality), then logically they should either re-instate RT’s license or revoke that of the BBC. I don’t think they will do either of these things because, as seems clear from the chain of events, they were willing to be used by the political establishment in the UK as a tool to punish an official enemy and to further homogenise the media landscape by purging alternative, non-conformist views. I see from their website that you can’t complain to them about the BBC directly, but have to go through the BBC’s own notoriously labyrinthine complaints system first. Further, point 13 in Section 5 of the Broadcast Code used against RT states that:
‘5.13: Broadcasters should not give undue prominence to the views and opinions of particular persons or bodies on matters of political or industrial controversy and matters relating to current public policy in all the programmes included in any service (listed above) taken as a whole.’
It also notes that ‘for the avoidance of doubt, [Rule 5.13] does not apply to any BBC services’. Maybe there’s an innocent explanation for this, but I can’t think what it might be. It could work as a handy get out clause in any case.
I will pursue this matter with Ofcom but I don’t expect anything except perhaps the moral victory of revealing their double standards and role as de facto censor for the UK government.
I’ll close this with the old (?) saying that ‘Everything the communists said about capitalism was true; everything they said about communism was a lie’. We need to hear external perspectives on our societies because outsiders can often see truths about us that remain hidden. Undoubtedly the same is true about Russia, and perhaps there is some useful information for everyday Russians to glean from the output of the BBC and other western news outlets, despite the torrent of anti-Russian propaganda that dominates it at the moment. As viewers of RT in the west can take that channel’s output with a pinch of salt, considering the source, so Russian viewers ought to be free to view the BBC and other western outlets and make their own minds up about whether the viewpoint of the outsider has any merit. Closing off these opportunities for cross-cultural dialogue is unprecedented [footnote Chomsky quote about the west's censorship being worse than the Soviet Union] and highly dangerous for the prospects of coming to peaceful resolutions between the nations and avoiding the catastrophic slide into World War 3.
Tell your story; Ask a question; Interpret generously
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