(Image: RT)

Russia Today (aka RT), the English language outlet funded by the Russian government, like all the tendrils that link Russia to the wider world, is being targeted for sanctions.

Foxtel and SBS have suspended it from their services, and the British broadcast regulator OfCom is looking into a flurry of complaints against it since Russia invaded Ukraine. I spent the day watching RT America to find out what brought about this response.

First the obvious stuff. It is transparently a propaganda outlet and the “news” is just as you’d expect — talking points of Russian political and military leadership, unquestioningly repeated. There are images of grateful Ukrainians waving at Russian tanks, or children clambering on them like playground equipment. The homes of “good, happy” families in Donbass destroyed but for one suspiciously intact family photo or children’s book. The veracity of the “deNazification” premise of the invasion is not debated. And it is all delivered with the same patina of straight, serious news.

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Much of the commentary has a tang of put-upon self-pity, which also animates a lot of Trump-adjacent conservatism, and I can’t believe that’s got nothing to do with the sympathy between the two groups. Vladimir Putin has, for most of his time in power, fostered a sense of humiliation and grievance in the Russian people — national glory sacrificed to foreign influence. No wonder Trump calls him a genius.

Still it’s strange hearing rants about the “US and its allies” from ALDI Fox News types, the same indistinguishable line-up of blonde women and shouty men in suits who would have been cheering US troops converging on Baghdad a few years back.

But in many ways the experience is no weirder than watching Rachel Maddow’s seventh pregnant pause while she investigated minor legal details of Watergate when Trump was in power. And it’s certainly no weirder or more ragged than Sky after dark or Tucker Carlson. Hell, the 24-hour news format is just plain weird, and I was consuming it in the way you’re not supposed to: all at once, hour after hour, those seven or so ads on an endless loop.

Almost every ad is entirely about how you can’t trust “corporate media”, mixed with a promise to tell you the truth. They are disorienting, assaulting to the senses and, in a way, surreally poetic, like phrases translated from English into several other languages and back again. “It sometimes seems that we are like mice squeaking against the avalanche,” intones Chris Hedges, a former journalist for The New York Times. “But squeak we must.”

Many of the talking heads make for a grim Google search. Take Omar Navarro, interviewed on the daily broadcast News Views Hughes. The guy is a serially failed candidate for Maxine Waters’ district, not to mention the recipient of two restraining orders from ex-partners, the violation of which helped land him in jail for six months. He also seems barely able to put a sentence together. None of which disqualifies him from being interviewed about US “freedom convoys”. They like COVID scepticism at RT.

In the interest of fairness I suppose we have to say that through its alien filter, RT makes visible many of the same mechanisms at play in mass media everywhere; there’s no small irony in any company owned by News Corp ditching a news service for misinformation.

Decent propaganda homes in on well-founded scepticism in its audience: when one panel mocks the racism of Western media’s incredulity that a country outside the Middle East is at war, it has a point. And no one can look at coverage of (to pick just the biggest disasters) climate change and the war in Iraq and not conclude something is broken in how important subjects are explained to us.

Of course the corollary — that RT is telling the truth — doesn’t exactly track. Take comedian Lee Camp’s RT program Redacted Tonight with Lee Camp. Camp, with his beard, long hair and all-black suit (no tie, naturally) is like Bill Hicks and Jon Stewart were meshed together by that machine from The Fly. His extremely righteous style, taking on the corporate elites, very 1990s, is committed and sincere — dated as his “just telling it like it is” delivery is, his work on US wages or access to abortion is hard to quarrel with. Of course, it faintly undercuts your “fearless truth teller” vibe when you’re taking pay cheques from Putin to talk about other countries’ records on LGBTIQA+ issues. There is one reference to the war in Ukraine in the episode I saw, and it was so utterly mild as to be genuinely incomprehensible.

And this is where RT America gets really weird: its non-news content. It’s given William Shatner a science show. Actually I Don’t Understand, where Shatner conducts a genial and faintly baffled interview with a scientist about their latest breakthrough was the most pleasurable viewing I had all day. Later, in the middle of something much heavier, I saw a promo for the show; the former Captain Kirk narrows his eyes, looks at the camera and says “I’m William Shatner, and … I … Don’t … Understand?” in that halting rhythm of his, and I missed him terribly.

Strangest of all, though, is Dennis Miller Plus One. Once the presenter of Saturday Night Live‘s news-bulletin parody “Weekend Update”, stand-up comedian Miller (badly in need of a pay cheque… or perhaps the “patriotism” that fuelled his vocal support for the war in Iraq is fading), looking like he’s exerting a lot of effort trying stop his face escaping through his mouth, talks to mono-monikered muso Breland, who had a hit in 2020 with his country/hip-hop crossover “My Truck”. Miller talks like… well, how a faintly addled white stand-up who peaked in the ’80s thinks Black people talk. “Was it a groove?” he asks of a recent show, and describes DeFord Bailey as “one switched-on brother”. Breland seems like a lovely guy.

(Image: RT)

RT America is every 24-hour news channel you’ve ever watched remembered in a fever dream. Uncanny and off and slightly cheaper, some parallel world where Miller and Shatner are still big stars. And, most eerily, a world where you can talk about Russian foreign policy… and barely ever mention Putin.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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