The Kremlin-funded news channel RT is facing an existential threat in one of its most important target markets. An onslaught of 10 simultaneous investigations into alleged breaches of impartiality laws leave it in serious danger of losing its broadcasting license in the United Kingdom.
After years of broadcasting a pro-Russian take on the day's news to a small but loyal band of British viewers, London signalled a crackdown against RT, formerly known as Russia Today, in the aftermath of the poisoning of former spy Sergei Sergei and his daughter Yulia in England this March.
Seven investigations for potential breaches of impartiality rules were launched including into reporting of the attempted murders of the Skripals themselves. On Monday, Britain's broadcasting watchdog turned the screw, announcing a further three investigations into the network.
Under strict broadcasting laws, networks operating in Britain must strive for impartiality. A former RT insider told The Daily Beast, however, that journalists were not allowed to report freely on events without an editorial line being dictated from Moscow.
The country's Office of Communications—better known in the U.K. as Ofcom—said the new investigations are into the channel's potential breaches of broadcasting rules in three different reports including; its coverage of U.S. foreign policy in Syria; allegations put forward about the Ukrainian government; and a report about fracking in Britain.
Previously the U.S. intelligence committee described RT as Russia's "principal international propaganda outlet" which has "actively collaborated" with Wikileaks. It's also has faced Ofcom investigations for accusing the Turkish government of genocide, alleging the BBC had staged a chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime in Syria, and other anti-Western comments.
Analysts in the U.K. have told The Daily Beast that the channel could lose its license to broadcast in the country as a result of the investigations, although concerns have been raised that the news operation could carry on broadcasting from another European country and continue to distribute its biased content online.
There's also an 11th Ofcom investigation into RT, dating from the end of last year, revolving around the apparent use of fake audience tweets by former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond on his weekly show. The former leader of the Scottish independence movement—a cause which was rumoured to be tacitly backed by Moscow—is the channel's biggest recent signing.
Over the course of his debut show last year, Salmond read out tweets from supposed members of the audience that appeared to work for or be linked to Salmond’s production team, while another quoted account didn't appear to exist, and another hadn't ever tweeted.
The only precedent the position RT finds itself in, according to experts in British broadcasting law, is the case of the Iranian government's news service, Press TV, which had its British license revoked in January 2012 on the grounds that it was being used as a government mouthpiece rather than an independent news channel.
"The only comparable case might be that of Press TV, which also built up hostility from some MPs," said Professor Clive Walker, a media expert from the University of Leeds. "It had its broadcasting licence ended in 2012. There had been some breaches [of impartiality], but the decisive reason related to editorial control which was not held by the broadcaster."
Professor Walker added: "RT faces similar arguments to Press TV—I’m sure editorial decision making, as well as content, will come into play."
As in Press TV's case, there's political pressure on Ofcom to punish RT in the wake of the anger caused by the attempted Skripal murders. Several lawmakers already called for RT's broadcasting license to be revoked during a heated parliamentary debate on Britain's retaliation to the attempted murders, which was blamed squarely on the Kremlin.
Chris Bryant MP urged the Prime Minister to "stop Russia Today broadcasting its propaganda in this country," fellow Labour MP Phil Wilson said RT is a “propaganda mouthpiece for the Russian state," and Stephen Doughty MP called for the license to be reviewed, asking: "Why should we be watching their propaganda in this Parliament?"
If investigators agree with the members of parliament that RT is a mere propaganda station for the Russian government, it follows that it could lose its license, as Press TV did, on the grounds that editorials control is not held by the broadcaster, the broadcast law experts said.
One former journalist for RT, who quit over fears of the channel's skewed reporting, told The Daily Beast: "I’ve always felt it’s important that there’s space for channels like RT—they add to a diversity of opinions and perspectives—but I think there does need to be a closer look at the fact that RT is regularly able to broadcast straight up misinformation."
The journalist, who didn't want to be named, added: "There is some important reporting that happens at RT but the editorial interference meant that I couldn’t justify contributing to their output."
The license could be also revoked if it was found not to be held by a "fit and proper person," said the academics. A recent investigation into Sky included allegations of sexual and racial harassment at Fox—which was intending to buy shares in Sky—to decide whether Sky with greater control from Fox would be fit and proper to hold a license.
"Broadcasters have actually lost licences on [fit and proper] grounds," said Professor Daithi Mac Sithigh from Queens University. "In 2010, four licences under the control of two related companies—used for services branded as [adult TV channels] Tease Me TV—were revoked on the grounds that repeated and serious Code and licence breaches...meant the licence holders were not fit and proper persons."
There are some that believe a revocation of its license would go too far. Chris Williamson MP said: “I believe in freedom of speech, and the viewing public have got a perfect choice as to whether or not they want to tune in to a particular TV channel. Sometimes they’ve covered issues that have not really been given a hearing on some of the mainstream, bigger channels here.”
Others believe the a revoking of the license would be ineffective as there’s a principle in EU law—which the U.K. remains bound to until it leaves the bloc—that a country can’t block broadcasting services licensed in another EU state, meaning RT could relocate and continue to broadcast.
The most likely punishment is believed to be financial, with a maximum possible fine of £250,000 ($335,000) or 5 per cent of revenue, which would most likely come alongside an order not to repeat the offending programme or to broadcast an apology or correction.
"It all starts with investigation of a specific programme or part of a programme, which will if serious lead to a finding of ‘breach,'" said Daithi Mac Sithigh. "[There's] normally no punishment other than the embarrassing decision first time, though as it starts to build up, Ofcom will look at ‘statutory sanctions’ [such as] fines and potentially revocation."
Eric Barendt, Professor of Media Law at Univeristy College London, said he doesn't foresee a revocation of RT's license, adding: "If the Russian channel has already been fined for licence breaches, its licence might be revoked, but otherwise it is unlikely. A heavy fine is more likely with a warning of revocation if further infringements."
Professor Clive Walker concluded: "I’d say that closure is not likely in the short term ... but last warnings are quite possible, which might make it unattractive to carry on since the distinctive nature of RT would be lost."
If RT does get off with a fine, it could be the channel's last chance.