Photo by Lionel BONAVENTURE / AFP
Artillery Row

Must we ban Russia Today?

People can decide whether to watch it for themselves

The liberation of Kherson, the results of US midterm elections and the mildest autumn in living memory in Western Europe have dealt a triple blow to Vladimir Putin’s grand strategy for the invasion of Ukraine — and possibly a fatal one. I’ve been watching RT’s attempts to spin the situation, and they’re desperately comic in a grotesque sort of way. If you’re in the UK or anywhere in the EU, you’ll have to take my word for that — because you’ve been banned from watching them since March. I’ve only been able to watch them because I’ve been in Israel and the Palestinian Territories for the last few weeks, where I can watch it freely. (RT, in case you’re wondering, is the official name for the TV station formerly known as Russia Today.)

This bizarre ban flies in the face of a long-standing policy that media from other countries, even hostile ones, weren’t banned in Western countries. Adults were trusted to be able to sort propaganda from reporting for themselves. People in Britain were free to listen to Lord Haw Haw during the Second World War. During the Cold War, there was no attempt to censor Soviet Bloc or Chinese broadcasting. I remember the latter well.

I became a self-described Communist from the precocious age of nine

Being the sort of child who always liked to flick the switches on electronic devices, I stumbled upon Short Wave radio in the final years of its pre-Internet importance for international broadcasting. This was towards the end of my primary school years, just a few months after a man named Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of something called the USSR. I thus became a regular listener to Radio Moscow, and under its influence, I became a self-described Communist from the precocious age of nine. “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” made a lot of sense when you were growing up on the wrong side of the tracks. My Communist ardour lasted until the Soviet system collapsed in my early years in secondary school.

Before that collapse, there was a whole panoply of Communist Bloc stations broadcasting in English, from East Germany’s surprisingly cool Radio Berlin International, heavily staffed by expat Brits with a taste for The Doors, to the seriously bonkers Radio Tirana, with its endless stream of gloriously paranoid rants about American Imperialists and Soviet Socialist Imperialists alike.

Undoubtedly the best, however, was the delightful Britain and Ireland Service of Radio Moscow, which broadcast for an hour at 8 o’clock every evening. Its presenters were magnificently plummy gentlemen who contrasted the reformist excitement of Gorbachev’s USSR with the miserable decay of Thatcher’s Britain, all whilst sounding like they’d been educated at Marlborough and Cambridge — because they probably had been.

Even though I was an obvious target for ideological radicalisation, as a member of a minority group actively engaged in a guerrilla war against the British state — indeed a target successfully radicalised — nobody attempted to prevent me listening to what was often shameless propaganda. Quite rightly, as the propaganda never worked except for a few odd cases, like mine, which were in any case part and parcel of living in a free society.

The Soviets jammed the BBC World Service, Deutsche Welle, Radio Free Europe and similar Western outlets, certainly when they broadcast in the languages of Communist countries. But no Western country attempted to jam Soviet broadcasting or censor Soviet newspapers. 

The West’s commitment to free speech was a key part of its ideological oeuvre in the most ideological of conflicts that was the Cold War. Beyond that, Westerners had confidence in their own values, and they believed free speech and free debate were vital to the best ideas emerging. Even the radical Left deplored Soviet censorship and celebrated free speech as practised in Western democracies — this was a key driver of the split in the 1970s between the Soviets and the then large “Eurocommunist” parties of France, Greece and Italy.

Banning RT was always at best a failure of nerve

Today, free speech is seen as a threat, not just on the Left in the political Centre. Especially since the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump, many in the West who had been liberal with at least a small “L” have convinced themselves that the masses are feeble-minded and susceptible to brainwashing via old and new media, Russian-funded brainwashing in particular. Lacking the willingness to reflect critically on how their own failures may have contributed to the erosion of support for the liberal project, they have conjured a mind-controlling Russian bogeyman straight out of Eugene McCarthy’s America.

Banning RT was always at best a failure of nerve. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine now going badly, it is time to end what has become an embarrassing betrayal of our own values.

There is a further problem with banning RT. As I am writing this in Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem, I can watch RT and therefore tell you its target audience isn’t in the West but in countries like this, across Africa, Asia and Latin America. These are regions where pro-Russian sentiment is widespread and where RT feeds its big audiences with an incessant barrage of anti-Western programming.

Nobody in the Palestinian political structure is going to call for RT to be banned, nor will they over across the separation barrier in an Israel which has pursued a broadly pro-Moscow line throughout 2022. Nor will anyone ban RT in Nigeria or Indonesia. How are we going to combat this propaganda if it’s hard for us to even see what it is?

I know that RT will feed me lies and propaganda, about the invasion and everything else. I’m grown-up enough to see that, even if my government and those of our neighbours and allies don’t seem to think so. The difference between political systems in the West and those run from Moscow used to be that Western countries treated their citizens as adults capable of mature political judgement. This shabby propaganda station is not worth abandoning that vital principle.

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