BBC, RT, and the Western Capitalist Propaganda Trap
Back in 2011, I was involved in a fledgling communications rights group alongside Abby Martin. I never met her in person – she was in the States; I had just returned to Britain from Canada via Spain, and the initiative was meant to be a global one, so we only ever engaged in online conferences, chats, and emails. But it was already apparent she was a veritable force of nature; speaking English and Spanish, with a degree in political science, Abby was obviously a tireless media activist with a passion for democratisation of information (and an increasingly hectic schedule to go with all this).
The following year, Abby found a platform for her work by joining RT, who gave her a slot with her own show called Breaking the Set, which opened with an impressive intro featuring her taking a sledgehammer to a television set with CNN on it. In episode after episode of Breaking the Set, she dared to break the silence on subjects from Monsanto to Nestle, and from Barack Obama to Israel, playing no small part in RT’s expansion based on its perception as an ‘alternative news’ station, despite being funded by the Russian government.
In 2014, Abby made headlines around the world when she ended an episode of Breaking the Set by personally condemning the decision of the Russian government to proceed with military intervention in Ukraine. RT later admitted that her remarks were “not in line with our editorial policy,” yet claiming, “RT doesn’t beat its journalists into submission, and they are free to express their own opinions.” The following year, Abby parted ways with RT “to focus on investigative field reporting.”
But let’s stop for a moment, and go back – way back, to the Cold War, when 1950s American culture was geared towards the increase of capitalist ideals in opposition to the overtly oppressive state communism of the Soviet Union led by brutal dictator Joseph Stalin, a useful tool for American business interests when seeking an example of what Americans would have to endure if they abandoned capitalism; it was capitalism or Stalinism, they presented, and it was a juxtaposition of binary options that would be utilised for decades to justify capitalism in all its forms, right up to more recent neoliberalism.
But it began in this post-war era, when U.S. strategist George Kennan stated, “We have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population. Our real task in the coming period is to maintain this position of disparity. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality…We should cease to talk about objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratisation.” He believed the Cold War was a battle of ideas.
Therefore, a key weapon was an anti-communist CIA front organisation: the National Committee for a Free Europe, which set up Radio Free Europe, a station that distributed anti-communist propaganda in order to help provoke unrest and uprisings. Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) was seen as such a threat to the Soviet Union that KGB agents actually orchestrated an attack on its Munich headquarters in 1981.
Of course, by 1990 the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the re-unification of Germany as a social democratic soft capitalist country. With that, Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev pushed forward with his two key agendas of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring): promoting freedom of the press, and radically reforming the political system to becoming more democratic, with an independent constitutional court. Gorbachev embraced the principles of social democracy, its significant success in Scandinavia providing what he felt was “a socialist beacon for all mankind,” and planned a process of free market economics with key industries retained under public control alongside strong social safety nets.
And so these moves in Russia were not useful to American powers – again, for decades they had claimed that there were only two binary choices: Capitalism, or Stalinism. With their roll-out of neoliberal ‘Reaganomics,’ these interests in the United States would find it harder to enforce their approach – like ‘Thatcherism’ advocates in Britain with their slogan ‘There Is No Alternative’ – if the largest country in the world effectively transitioned into a social democracy, highlighting the successes of such a model in much of Scandinavia such as higher tax rates, larger public spending plans, strong welfare states, free universal healthcare and education, and liberal unionisation laws, with greater social mobility. Hardly radical, Scandinavia’s more equal societies were still products of a softer version of capitalism that American powers have ignored and even distracted from for decades, and the idea of Russia making a high-profile success of such a model, and potentially thriving after the Cold War had ended, must have had many of the elites nervous.
So, instead, these influences set about stopping such a peaceful revolution towards social democracy in the Soviet Union. The Washington Post and The Economist called on Russia to be made more like Chile under the brutal right-wing dictator Augusto Pinochet, who had opened up his nation to American and British capitalist interests and remained a good friend to Reagan and Thatcher who stood by him even after he tortured and murdered thousands in his own country. Presenting himself as a protector against old Bolsheviks, Russian president Boris Yeltsin cleverly formed an alliance with two other Soviet republics, effectively collapsing the Union, and thus ending the Soviet Union itself, forcing Gorbachev’s resignation. As Yeltsin announced to his people that the Soviet Union was no more, standing in the Kremlin with him was American economist Jeffrey Sachs, who called it, “The most incredible thing you can imagine.” It was a population of 150,000,000 in complete shock. Yet according to Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine, 67% of them would state they still believed workers’ cooperatives were the best way to restructure the centrally controlled economy that had existed for decades under the Soviet Union.
Nonetheless, the task to implement a strategy fell to president Boris Yeltsin, the most powerful man in all of Russia, and he was not interested in democratic discussion, debate, or processes. Moscow’s mayor Gavriil Popov said there were two options for him: “Property can be divided among all members of society, or the best pieces can be given to the leaders…(so) there’s either the democratic approach, and there’s the nomenklatura, apparatchik approach.” Guided by not just Jeffrey Sachs but also what Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta called “a team of liberals who consider themselves followers of Friedrich von Hayek and the ‘Chicago School’ of Milton Friedman,” Yeltsin preferred the latter approach, apparently promising to end economic uncertainty if politicians effectively reversed Gorbachev’s democratisation process and granted him a year of executive powers where he could issue laws by decree instead of bringing them to parliamentary votes – which, while the country was in chaos, he achieved, claiming “for approximately six months, things will be worse,” before recovery would commence, followed by stability, and prosperity.
When his year of special powers had ended, Yeltsin simply declared a state of emergency, which promptly restored them. Still the Americans openly supported him, president Bill Clinton claiming Boris was “genuinely committed to freedom and democracy,” and Clinton’s friend at the World Bank, Larry Summers, stressing that “privatisation, stabilisation, and liberalisation must all be completed as soon as possible,” with much of the Western media – from the Financial Times to the New York Times – portraying the Russian politicians in parliament opposing Yeltsin as merely old Bolsheviks, when in fact they were the true democrats in the conflict. Yeltsin’s later attacks on protesters, and the parliament building itself, also remain fairly unheard of in the West, simply because he carried out an agenda friendly to Western interests; Yeltsin sold off the people’s assets on the cheap, and for many of us in the West, the term “oligarch” for the first time became a household name, while 80% of Russian farms had gone bankrupt, about 70,000 state factories had been shut down, unemployment increased, suicide rates shot up, and the amount of people living in poverty had skyrocketed from 2 million to a staggering 74 million people, according to the World Bank’s own data. Russia was shaken to its core; an ex girlfriend of mine, a Russian who had grown up in Moscow, said she had never seen such homelessness and desperation than in the post-Soviet Union years, a major motivation for her leaving the country.
With media oligarchs – both East and West – firmly behind him, Boris Yeltsin also spent 33 times more than the legal amount allowed in elections in order to guarantee retaining power in the 1996 election, and despite all of his scandalous actions and approval ratings of as low as 2%, he hand-picked former KGB agent Vladimir Putin to take over for him in 1999, in return for being granted legal immunity for his many misdemeanours. Russia expert Padma Desai said the Russian people by this point “were ready to settle for a mild dose of authoritarianism providing further stability and steady economic growth, rather than opting for a Yeltsin-type liberal order that had aroused their expectations but largely excluded them from the hoped-for benefits.” And with Vladimir Putin, as we have seen, a mild dose of authoritarianism is indeed what they received, to say the least.
These horrific consequences are examples of the lengths neoliberals will go to in order to avoid any credible alternative to their project proving a success. Democracy, ultimately, is of course at odds with their mission for the 1%.
With democracy choked out in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West was now left with a completely different type of problem: no great threat to scare the population at home; no great horror abroad to convince citizens how bad any alternatives were. But that all changed on September 11th, 2001, when the U.S. was under attack from planes hijacked by terrorists, most of them Saudi. Two weeks later, then-president George W. Bush Jr seized the opportunity to present a quest to defend American capitalism: “One of the great goals of this nation’s war is to restore public confidence in the airline industry,” he said. “It’s to tell the traveling public: Get on board. Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.” Combined with this newfound domestic threat provoking panic-buying and stockpiling, this call for consumption effectively reversed an American economic recession within months, and military contractors made a killing in Bush’s subsequent ‘War on Terror’ bombing campaigns overseas.
Through several books, Naomi Klein has reiterated the argument that the tragic events of “9/11” were exploited to stifle debate about unrest overseas caused by previous American foreign policy, and this is exemplified no better than with Bush’s infamous declaration that “you are either with us, or you are with the terrorists,” as he deemed entire peoples evil with the “Axis of Evil” tag used on any countries remaining in conflict with American interests – Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and additionally Libya, Syria, and Cuba. Uncritically embracing Bush’s narrative, American corporate media was overwhelmingly supportive of the invasion campaigns that followed, even more than usual, something investigative journalist John Pilger has frequently exposed.
When the Al-Jazeera news station offered an alternative perspective, it was bombed during the attacks in an operation the RFE/RL-targeting KGB might have admired. Unfazed, Al-Jazeera created an English language channel, and such was the demand for critical coverage of the wars that millions had protested against, it became a surprising success – today, while the BBC response to the New Zealand mosque massacre was to provide a platform to far-right representatives, Al-Jazeera are busy releasing findings of their brave undercover investigations of the same fascist faction. BBC News (as with the Daily Mail, The Sun, and yes even The Guardian) are on a downward spiral, with audiences turning away year after year, citizens seeking other sources of information.
Due to such rising demand, Russia Today capitalised, transcending its own language to an international audience as simply “RT.”
RT is an interesting entity. It was created in 2005 after the Russian government backed the creation of an ‘Autonomous Non-Profit TV News Organisation,’ with official Svetlana Mironyuk stating, “Russia is associated with three words: communism, snow and poverty…we would like to present a more complete picture of life in our country.” (As is typical of life in Russia under the rule of Vladimir Putin, she criticised his later decision to abolish her department, only to backtrack the next day, suggesting any criticism of his decisions destabilises the country). By this time, the West had largely backed off in its support of Russia, distancing itself from the destruction it helped to cause – and the resulting strong-arm dictatorship, oppression, inequality, and ‘oligarchy’ associated with the country as it returned to a super-power status able to butt heads with the U.S. once again. Western media has loved presenting Russia’s situation as one caused instead by either incompetence or corruption, with its oligarchs merely representative of this. In actual fact, the power of these businessmen is typical of global capitalism standards. But again, the key is to avoid acknowledging the inherent flaws and failures of capitalism at any and all cost.
Of course, in keeping with its original mission, RT has lacked a thorough critical coverage of domestic affairs under Putin’s regime, but deftly escapes it by re-focusing the attention of the audience on the seemingly endless examples of Western upheaval and hypocrisy, and the collapse of Western ideals, from American exceptionalism to neoliberalism itself and the financial crisis. This, in turn, has enabled RT – much like Al-Jazeera – to provide a forum for the alternative perspectives many people may have felt starved of during the ‘War on Terror’ and its aftermath.
With Western media seemingly hell-bent on avoiding acknowledgement of Western capitalism’s key role in destabilising Russia, they play right in to the hands of RT, who in turn continue their criticisms of Western capitalism as though it is an ideology exclusive to the West. And so, this allows a platform for perspectives barely aired in Western media establishments, such as the views of economics broadcaster Max Keiser, as evidenced by his career migration from the BBC, to Al-Jazeera, to RT, from which he can present a very different yet very well-informed perspective on global financial issues.
This rise in ‘alternative news’ has even worried the UK’s BBC which was very rightly – so I was taught in media school – set up as a public service to “inform, educate, and entertain” the British population (when in fact, as Tom Mills has documented at length, it “has always been formally accountable to ministers for its operation”).
On the one hand, then, RT was set up by the Russian government which has influence over it. On the other hand, the BBC was set up by the British government, which has influence over it. So what’s the difference, other than the fact we in the West have come to trust the BBC over the last century?
Well, according to Google’s disclaimers on their respective YouTube channels, RT is a ‘state broadcaster’ while the BBC is a ‘public service broadcaster.’ Which would you trust more: a channel provided as a ‘public service,’ or a channel broadcast by the government? (This has always been a useful choice of words, as former U.S. president Ronald Reagan demonised the government as overbearing and interfering, rather than a public institiution of democratically-elected representatives). That other monolithic technology corporation, Facebook, have also sought to differentiate, adding disclaimers to the investigative journalism work of In the Now because it’s owned and operated by a subsidiary of RT, whereas PBS, NPR, the BBC and even RFE/RL (yes, the former CIA operation) apparently require no such disclaimers on the social media website.
RT is considered unique by these Western corporations – and it wouldn’t be too cynical to suggest it’s because of double standards. Disclaimers on RT’s social media pages are forcibly added by the web owners because RT is operated under the Russian government, so therefore is a ‘state broadcaster’ rather than a ‘public broadcaster,’ and again this is a useful distinction. ‘Public broadcaster’ sounds positively fluffy, and this is terminology that is flipped on its head whenever – beyond Ronald Reagan – present-day politicians want to criticise public institutions (for example, ‘public services’ become ‘state services,’ ‘public ownership’ becomes ‘government ownership,’ etc.) Neoliberals have always been careful about their use of language in these cases, because if they can take public interests and repackage them as Soviet-style government interests, they can dismantle them and sell them off. Conversely, state-affiliated Western media, whether RFE/RL or the BBC, can be rebranded as ‘public’ institutions, and apparently independent.
Look up RFE/RL online and you’ll likely come across a declaration similar to this: “RFE/RL is registered with the IRS as a private, nonprofit Sec. 501(c)3 corporation, and is funded by a grant from the US Congress through the United States Agency for Global Media (USAGM) as a private grantee. RFE/RL’s editorial independence is protected by US law.”
Sounds nice, doesn’t it? But as Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) have argued, “the head of RFE/RL is appointed by the head of the USAGM—a government official picked by the president. That’s a funny kind of ‘independence.’”
As for the BBC, Tom Mills further explained: “Governments set the terms under which it operates, they appoint its most senior figures, who in future will be directly involved in day-to-day managerial decision making, and they set the level of the licence fee, which is the BBC’s major source of income. So that’s the context within which the BBC operates, and it hardly amounts to independence in any substantive sense.”
So it’s been important to demonise the likes of RT in juxtaposition to the BBC, even though the West’s utter denial of capitalism’s destruction of Russia is what feeds RT’s anti-capitalist narratives, despite the fact that Russia is rampantly capitalist to this day. While this denial continues, no meaningful critique of RT can be carried out – and in fact, many much more meaningful critiques are taking place on RT as a result, where Thom Hartmann can interview Kate Raworth about distributive economic systems from a Marxist perspective, Max Keiser can call JPMorgan Chase’s CEO a ‘banking terrorist’ who deserves ‘syphilis,’ and Abby Martin can expose corporate abuses over and over again, something former anchor turned anti-RT activist Liz Wahl claimed to be “a narrative that I find to be propagandous and hostile toward the West.”
The battle of ideas goes on. It sometimes seems everyone in the West has a criticism of RT in comparison to the BBC. Former UK prime ministers Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher both set up massively influential think tanks. Blair’s praised the BBC as superior to RT, while Thatcher’s claimed the BBC was biased in favour of the left.
It’s a common myth that has been perpetuated for decades, in the U.S. and the U.K.: the ‘liberal’ media, a fiction that has long since been exposed time and again by Media Lens. But the idea that the BBC is anything other than conservative is probably the most absurd, since it’s actually been found to be in opposition to left-wing politics. “The available evidence on the BBC centre of gravity does not suggest a leftist tilt,” said Professor Justin Lewis of Cardiff University, an expert on the BBC. “On the contrary, its dependence on certain dominant institutions – notably in the business world and the national print media – would appear to push it the other way…The most plausible hypothesis is that the BBC has, under pressure, been pushed to the right.” In an op-ed for The Independent, Prof Lewis elaborated: “(The interests of) Conservative politicians who share the ideological suspicion of public service broadcasting…are also strategic, since political pressure – they hope – obliges the BBC to bend over backwards to avoid accusations of a leftist tilt…It is these accusations (the BBC) most fear.”
So what creates a reliable news source? And what definitive criteria make the BBC more reliable than others? Even The Guardian admit we’re splitting hairs when comparing the BBC and RT. And there’s a possible explanation for their own decline, as well. Award-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald told Democracy Now: “I have a lot of respect for the reporters and editors there (at The Guardian). They do a lot of great reporting. But one of their big flaws as an institution is they develop personal feuds with people they cover. And when that happens, they dispense with all journalistic standards. So, one of the people who they have particular hatred for is Jeremy Corbyn. And over and over, they have produced journalistic garbage about Corbyn in pursuit of their feud.”
But personal differences are often influenced by political differences, and The Guardian are another pillar of the establishment. The list of excellent anti-establishment writers there who were ousted is quite something, from John Pilger to Mark Steel to Jeremy Hardy to Jonathan Cook. Media Lens have highlighted this purge, and it remains the reason so many journalists operate outside of that institution, with audiences demanding their sort of critique.
And this brings us back to Abby Martin.
About her work at RT and her rebellious on-air criticism of Russia, Glenn Greenwald had this to say the following day: “That that network has a strong pro-Russian bias is unquestionably true. But one of its leading hosts, Abby Martin, remarkably demonstrated last night what ‘journalistic independence’ means by ending her Breaking the Set program with a clear and unapologetic denunciation of the Russian action in Ukraine. For all the self-celebrating American journalists and political commentators: was there even a single U.S. television host who said anything comparable to this in the lead-up to, or the early stages of, the U.S. invasion of Iraq?”
Media Lens made it even clearer: “To realise how incomplete and distorted is BBC News coverage, you only have to listen to the superb independent journalist Abby Martin, who has risked her life to report what the corporate media is not telling you about Venezuela. It is little wonder that, as she discusses, her important news programme, ‘Empire Files’, is currently off-air as a result of US sanctions against left-leaning TeleSUR, the Venezuela-based television network.” Conversely, they have added, “The BBC continues to offer a daily dose of propaganda.” On Venezuela, explained Media Lens, “We have witnessed a comparable BBC propaganda blitz centred around opposition claims that President Maduro has ‘eroded Venezuela’s democratic institutions and mismanaged its economy’. The BBC campaign has again been characterised by daily reports from Venezuela presenting a black and white picture of the crisis: Maduro ‘bad’, opposition ‘good’. The BBC has again promoted the sense of an escalating crisis that will inevitably and justifiably result in regime change.” And yet – following the aforementioned pattern – high-profile American news pundit John Stossel claimed Abby Martin “does government-funded propaganda for TeleSUR.” Because again, the West’s good guys have ‘public’ broadcasters, whereas the bad guys are controlled by political enemies in government towers.
Ultimately, as these media institutions maintain their position as guardians of power – even in the face of dwindling audiences and revenues – there will be openings for alternative sources of information that are in high demand. Not all of those sources will be reliable, but so long as hypocrisy fills the offices of the long-standing media establishments and they remain trapped by their traditional editorial and behavioural patterns, seemingly incapable of breaking off into widespread journalistic integrity in the interests of citizens, there will be room for RT, Al-Jazeera, and yes, The Young Turks and, sadly, even Breitbart and Infowars. This is the natural conclusion to a decades-long increasing abandonment of true journalism, the lack of honest, critical coverage of the West’s meddling in the Middle East and in Russia, where RT was born.
The BBC’s Andrew Marr of course dismissed the idea that he works for a conservative pillar of the establishment because he didn’t believe he had ever self-censored. Noam Chomsky had this superb explanation for him, which is a fitting conclusion: