The regime of Vladimir Putin murders journalists, represses homosexuals, imprisons critics, assassinates dissidents, flattens cities, attacks aid convoys, shoots down civilian aircraft, foments xenophobia and alters national boundaries by force. Yesterday its state-run propaganda outlet complained of an assault on its liberty because a British bank asked it to take its custom elsewhere. As Oscar Wilde reputedly said on reading of the death of Little Nell in Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop, you’d need a heart of stone not to laugh.
The broadcaster RT was known till 2009 as Russia Today. The cunning plan to change its name has not succeeded in obscuring the station’s devotion to Putin and his every caprice. Yesterday RT’s editor-in-chief tweeted in outrage that NatWest (owned by Royal Bank of Scotland) threatened to shut down the station’s bank accounts. The Kremlin retaliated by threatening the BBC’s finances in Russia, after which NatWest agreed to review its decision.
For all Moscow’s bombast, the bank’s threat hardly amounted to a draconian state crackdown on a plucky broadcaster. On the contrary, RT has long exploited the tolerance of Britain’s constitutional society to undermine it. Don’t take my word for it: it’s what RT’s own correspondents say. Sara Firth, who worked at RT for five years, resigned as London correspondent in 2014 in protest at it blaming Ukraine for the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17. She described this as “the most shockingly obvious misinformation”.
The regulator Ofcom has found RT in breach of its broadcasting code — including the obligation to report news with due impartiality — on 15 occasions. Among the most monstrous lies was a claim that the BBC staged a chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime in Syria. For purportedly expert analysis of world events, RT turns to an assortment of racists, neo-Nazis, UFO buffs, 9/11 conspiracy theorists and obscure fantasists. Admittedly it’s also been commended for balance and fairness — by the British National Party.
Democratic states uphold free speech. A unilateral libertarianism that denies a free society the right to defend itself against its enemies is no liberalism at all. It’s past time that Britain’s civil society, broadcasting regulator and elected government ceased pussyfooting around with RT. This is not a normal news outlet but a conspiracy of fraudsters in the service of a murderous autocracy. Denying it a bank account is the least of the problems we should be making for it.
Oliver Kamm, a British journalist and writer.