RT, Russian soft power in images

Article  by  Vassily KLIMENTOV  •  Published 09.07.2013  •  Updated 09.07.2013
[NEWS] News channel RT, formerly known as Russia Today, is a symbol of Russian soft power, successfully imposing itself as a player that matters on the international audiovisual landscape, and recently surpassing one billion views on YouTube.
In early June 2013, the news came through: RT, the more “neutral” name chosen to replace Russia Today when the channel’s topics were internationalized in 2009, became the first 24-hour news channel to surpass the symbolic threshold of one billion views on video-sharing platform YouTube. Widely criticized abroad for its biased approach to news, the Russian channel has nonetheless not been reluctant to communicate on this accomplishment – notably broadcasting a special show – which seems to have confirmed the success of a state-run project designed to promote a more positive image of Russia and the country’s foreign policy once and for all.

1 Billion Views: 1 Billion Thanks (RT)
Launched in 2005 by the Kremlin and presented as the Russian equivalent of the BBC – a media outlet funded by the state, but with independent editorial policies – RT clearly positioned itself as Moscow’s international spokesperson while at the same time seeking to compete with the BBC, Deutsche Welle, France 24 and particularly, Al Jazeera[+] Notewhich furthermore frontally attacked RT’s lack of objectivity concerning the January 2012 anti-government protests in Russia X [1]. Closely linked to state press agency RIA Novoski through the intermediary of TV-Novosti, Russia Today branched out with the creation of the Arabic-language channel Rusiya Al-Yaum (RT Arabic) in May 2007, the Spanish-language RT en Español in December 2009, the U.S. market-geared RT America in 2010, and finally, the channel RT Documentary in June 2011. This development was made possible through an increase in funding carried out in less-than-transparent fashion, shooting from 30 million dollars in 2005 to nearly 350 million dollars in 2011, and settling at slightly more than 340 million dollars in 2012. In 2013, thanks to an exceptional decision by Vladimir Putin, RT counted among the ranks of those media outlets whose funding was maintained despite the Ministry of Finance’s budget cut recommendations. Today RT is clearly the figurehead of Russian soft power, alongside Rossijskaja Gazeta, for example, which publishes monthly supplements in partnership with a number of newspapers worldwide, including La Russie d’Aujourd’hui for Le Figaro in France.
With the slogan “Question more”, RT’s clear objective is to present news that is an “alternative” to what its directors describe as the mainstream media. However, in fact, neither the channel’s directors nor Russian authorities have ever attempted to deny the nature of RT’s commitments, despite the recurring line taken on the channel’s editorial freedom. In a July 2012 interview for Russian newspaper Itogi, Margarita Simonyan, RT’s editor-in-chief, who appears on Live Journal, furthermore openly stated that within the channel, “we completely support our country’s foreign policy. Moreover, from the beginning, we have always clearly expressed our intention to present the Russian point of view of the world”. As for Vladimir Putin, in a June 2013 RT interview widely broadcast by the U.S. media, his discourse is more ambiguous and the contradiction hardly dissimulated: “We wanted to create a news channel that is absolutely independent in the news arena. The channel is of course financed by the government and thus inevitably reflects the Russian government’s official position on the events of our country and in the rest of the world in one way or another”.
More simply, without resorting to the caricature presented in certain U.S. soft power media outlets like Voice of America, the heart of the RT concept is an emphasis on topics that Russia is seeking to promote abroad (often using means that are journalistic in name only), ranging from opposition to shale gas drilling, whose arrival onto the market has led to a drop in the price of Russian gas, to unconditional support for the Syrian regime defended by Moscow.
Anti-American sentiment abounds, with a disproportionate amount of time granted to various conspiracy theories that question the “official version” of September 11, 2001, the birth of President Obama in the U.S. and climate change.

Climate change: science fact or science fiction? (RT advertising campaign)
Presented in this way, RT might be confounded with certain media outlets of the Soviet era, with similarities in procedures used that a number of commentators – including some Russian commentators – have pointed out. The most simple and efficient, certainly, consists in its constant refusal to discuss Russian problems, or those of allies or friendly countries, arguing that the west is far from irreproachable, and losing all sense of measure in the process. But as paradoxically as it may seem, RT’s strength nevertheless lies in its openly biased nature for the majority of international viewers. In a system where the news media tend toward uniformity, even on an international level, and a number of media outlets seek objectivity that will never be authentic, the Russian channel defends its biased news almost unabashedly, openly highlighting the west’s problems, giving all autocrats an opportunity to express themselves and holding debates that at times verge on the grotesque.

 Truth is the best propaganda (RT America)
In fact, at least two points deserve to be raised to explain the success of RT. In terms of content, while taking heed of the glaring political agenda and understanding that the news is filtered, there is clearly no other television channel where viewers can see an interview with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or his representatives, with Lebanese Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, or with deceased Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. In a different style, the Russian channel is also at times an open stage where the philosopher Slavoj Žižek may be seen debating with David Horowitz. In terms of form, in recognizing that RT does not actually practice journalism and its objective is therefore fundamentally different from that of a serious news provider, the channel has mastered the trendy art of infotainment. Its strength lies in how it combines news and show without being bound by journalistic codes, creating events ranging from debates to reports in which value judgments mix with news with the objective of eliciting shock and provoking controversy – ultimately creating a form of entertainment.

Who poses the greater nuclear threat? (RT campaign in London)

Behind all of this, a veritable technical and strategic effort has also been made to offer new types of programming that differ from CNN-style “serious” journalism. To illustrate this sensationalistic strategy, RT received the Nymphe d’Or in Monte Carlo in June 2013 for its coverage of the meteorite explosion over Siberia, for example – a typical subject-event for which the channel collected a number of amateur videos. Even more symptomatic of this idea of infotainment, the channel RT Arabic recently introduced a news program using 3D effects to treat subjects as serious as the situation in the Middle East: the presenter becomes an actor of sorts, interacting with tanks emerging from the screen and invading the set, or sparks flying out of the screen and landing on his suit. Clearly, journalism is not the top priority here, with all efforts being made to captivate the public through form rather than content. At the same time, the channel is completely adapted to the local market, almost entirely using only mother tongue presenters – another way of appearing accessible.
RT’s strategy is also based on the recruitment of emblematic personalities, made possible by the channel’s financial resources, among others. It is for example clear that the scandalous
founder of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, who joined RT in 2012, would have certainly had trouble becoming an interviewer for another channel. As for inviting political guests, RT benefits from its official connection to the Kremlin, using its support to attract personalities. More recently, Mr. Simonyan made an announcement with great flourish that the emblematic Larry King, who happens to be known for his admiration of Vladimir Putin, would start hosting an interview program on RT in June 2013, known as Larry King Now, potentially subsequently creating another one especially for the channel[+] NoteLarry King quickly clarified that he would simply be selling RT a program that is broadcast on his own channel, Ora TV. Ever since, Simonyan and King have been in a Twitter debate to clear up the situation.X [2]. RT is clearly unable to hire all of the presenters that it would like to, with some refusing to join such a project. Phil Donahue apparently recently refused an offer from the Russian channel, for example.
This combination of factors explains the relative success of RT around the world, as the third-ranked news channel in Great Britain with a half a million daily viewers, according to Voice of Russia, and the most-watched foreign media outlet in the U.S. cities of Washington, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago, according to a study conducted last year by American company Nielsen Media Research. In 2012, RT also succeeded in doubling its U.S. audience as compared to the previous year. However, as illustrated by its YouTube success, with one billion views and more than 926,000 subscribers, RT’s format is perhaps better adapted to the web than to traditional television. Internet offers increased interactivity for spectators, a basic element for sharing viral videos and multiplying comments, and a precious tool for a media outlet that modifies its editorial policies based on audience reactions. In this respect, the fact that RT videos are among the most-commented on the platform, despite the presence of only 19,000 videos in total, is not due to chance. To speed up the spread of “its” news, RT officially authorizes users to republish these videos on their own channels, on the condition that they mention the source. Today, the Russian channel can boast that its videos attract between 800,000 and one million viewers per day – an extraordinary result.
Finally, for the ex-Russia Today, the ultimate objective of popularizing Russia is stronger than that of financial health, and the goal is not to make RT a profitable project. As such, while some videos contain advertising, it is largely absent – a deliberate choice by the channel’s directors, who are above all pursuing a political agenda rather than seeking to earn money. To do so, as in the days of the USSR, it is not actually necessary to be a journalist, but rather, a communicator.

Translated from French by Sara Heft
Photo Credits:
- Main image: RT reporter (James Cridland / Flickr)
- 1 Billion Views: 1 Billion Thanks (RussiaToday / YouTube)
- "Climate change" campaign (Jonathan Marks / Flickr)
- Truth is the best propaganda (RTAmerica / YouTube)
- "Nuclear threat" campaign (gwire / Flickr)
- Screenshot of a July 2013 poll on the RT site (rt.com)
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