Credit: Wiki Commons, CC licence

Why we should be uneasy about the ban on Russia Today

Let’s stipulate a few things right at the beginning of this column for people who are already angry about the headline: Yes, Russia Today (RT, for short) is a Russian State News Broadcaster. Yes, it is unambiguously biased in favour of the Kremlin’s position on just about every issue. Yes, there is little doubt that at least some of what it broadcasts is intended to ferment disunity and dissent within western countries, and increase sympathy for the Russian position. Yes, it is a clever way of using a core western value (free speech and open debate) against western countries. None of those things are disputed by this author. What follows is not a pro-RT piece, but a pro-free-speech piece.

The decision in recent days to black the Russian broadcaster out across Europe, and the United States (a decision taken by Governments in the first instance, and broadcasters in the second) remains a gravely serious step, notwithstanding anything above about its motives, or purpose.

It is also, frankly, an admission of fear: The justification widely cited for the ban on RT is that Russia is using RT as part of an information war. Banning the channel seems, frankly, an admission of fear that the west might lose that information war if it fails to kick the other side off the pitch entirely. This seems a miscalculation: Those who trusted or trust RT more than they trust western information providers are hardly likely to be convinced that the channel was propagandising them on the basis that it has now been banned. After all, if you’ve bought into the idea that the western establishment is corrupt and crooked and silencing all dissent, the ban on RT is more likely to be taken as confirmation of your views than a challenge to them. Those who really wish to consume pro-russian media will find no shortage of it on the internet, some of it produced by Russia, and some of it produced by western dissenters. The core audience for this stuff, in essence, are the people least likely to be meaningfully impacted by having it banned.

The second point is this: being banned, in a way, makes life easier for the Russian propagandists, not harder. Nothing was more likely to highlight the true nature of RT to the average viewer than its coverage of this war. Every western news channel is highlighting Russian setbacks, and losses, and alleged Russian war crimes, and showing footage of things like missiles hitting civilian buildings. What was Russia Today to do in response? We do not know, because we cannot now see. It is, by and large, fairly easy for people simply to claim that the Russian side of this war is being silenced, and that we are only seeing it from one perspective, because, after all, that is literally true in this instance. It doesn’t matter whether, like me, you are sure that the western perspective on the war is the right one. It is literally true that we have taken steps to silence the Russian argument. That, again, provides comfort rather than affliction to the Russians, and to Russian sympathisers, because it gives them a relatively inarguable point.

The third point is a simple one, about free speech and choice. Frankly, as someone who writes about this stuff, and is interested in it, there is no good reason why I should not be free to watch an English Language Russian Channel if I so choose, even at a time like this. The ban on broadcasting it is explicitly about the fear that I, and people like me, are too stupid to watch something and make up our own minds about it. It is not really a statement about Russia Today: It is a statement about the public. Our own elite believes we are too simple to read and watch various sources, and make up our own minds about who is telling the truth, and who is not.

It is a statement of fact that all wars involve propaganda: Western social media is filled with claims from Ukrainian sources about Russian troops surrendering; about Russians abandoning their tanks and trucks; about alleged Ukrainian victories in various battles and skirmishes. It is widely believed, for example, that a fighter pilot called “the ghost of kviv” has single handedly accounted for more than five Russian planes. That may be true, or it may simply be the war propaganda of a desperate nation, trying to encourage and rally people to its defence. We can be relatively certain that at least some pieces of information emerging from Ukrainian sources are flat out untrue. But that does not seem to bother us, because the Ukrainians are the goodies.

But information is either true and accurate, or it is not. The goodies are just as capable of producing propaganda for their own ends as the baddies are.

It is fundamentally a dangerous and reckless step, in this writer’s view, to simply declare that some views are so dangerous that they can never be aired in public. Not only is there the obvious risk of a slippery slope (watch, as, in time, some on the left use this precedent as an argument for blocking Israeli news sites from Europe, for example) but there is the perennial question of “who decides?”.

When somebody else is deciding what you can, and cannot watch, they are trying to keep information, and opinions, from you. That should make you suspicious. My own view of this conflict is clear: Russia, and Putin, must bear all the blame for the bloodshed. But that does not mean that we should use the war as an excuse to abandon our own values, and embrace what is effectively state censorship.


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