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July 18, 2022updated 07 Oct 2022 7:10am

RT breached impartiality rules 29 times in four days after Ukraine invasion, Ofcom says

By Charlotte Tobitt

RT breached the UK’s broadcasting code 29 times in four days after Russia invaded Ukraine, regulator Ofcom has said.

Ofcom concluded in a 525-page report that 15 individual RT News bulletins on 27 February (every hour between 5am and 7pm), 12 on 1 March (5am to 12pm and 3pm to 8pm) and one at 9am on 2 March breached impartiality in coverage of the war, which began when Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February.

Ofcom said the news bulletins were “highly critical of the policies and actions of the Ukrainian state and/or military” and did not feature enough alternative viewpoints.

A documentary called Donbass Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow about the conflict in the eastern region of Ukraine, which aired on 1 and 2 March, also breached the Broadcasting Code.

The code states: “News, in whatever form, must be reported with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality.”

The English-language RT, which was designed to provide a Russian perspective on UK and global news and current affairs, went off linear TV in the UK on 2 March, even before Ofcom revoked its licence, due to sanctions in the EU that affected its ability to broadcast.

Ofcom then revoked RT’s licence in the UK on 18 March, noting the channel is funded by the Russian state which invaded Ukraine and then introduced laws censoring independent journalism, meaning it appeared “impossible” for RT to be duly impartial and be a responsible broadcaster.

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The programmes were investigated following both viewer complaints, including that the news bulletins were “biased” and amounted to “propaganda” and “misinformation”, and Ofcom’s own monitoring of the channel.

Even though RT is no longer on-air in the UK, Ofcom said it is considering statutory sanctions as the breaches were “serious and repeated”. Such sanctions can include an order not to repeat a programme or to broadcast a correction or statement, a financial penalty, or the suspension or revocation of a licence.

Ofcom said: “News programmes must be able to report on controversial issues and take a position on those issues, even if that position is highly critical.

“But due impartiality requirements in broadcasting are particularly important in situations where events are changing quickly and potentially harmful disinformation is available online.”

The regulator said the claims in the news bulletins included what amounted to accusations that the Ukrainian military was deliberately targeting civilians and was to blame for years of conflict in the Donbas region.

RT’s licensee TV Novosti argued that it had maintained due impartiality by including alternative viewpoints in its news bulletins.

It said that since the Ukraine invasion began, which meant stricter impartiality rules on “matters of political or industrial controversy and matters relating to current public policy” were applicable, all RT editorial staff “were constantly reminded of the necessity to pay special attention to maintaining proper balance in the coverage”.

It added: “In all fairness, I don’t think any other international broadcaster has been covering the Ukrainian events paying as much attention to the
impartiality issue as RT did.

“Obviously, being a Russian channel we were totally prepared that our output would be viewed with extra scrutiny, both by regulators and our viewership, and went to extra lengths to make sure we provide the picture that’s both true to facts and sufficiently balanced. Surely… Ofcom may judge our efforts differently, but this was our sincere desire and effort.”

Ofcom said it had taken RT’s freedom of expression into account but its findings were “proportionate and necessary in pursuance of the legitimate aim to protect audiences from harmful, partial broadcast news”.

An RT spokesperson said on Monday: “The logic of these decisions mirrors the one guiding their delivery many months after Ofcom’s revocation of RT’s license: it is a trial after a conviction and RT is guilty of being Russian and daring to voice a point of view and show facts unacceptable to the British political and media establishments.”

Regarding the possible sanctions, the spokesperson added: “We are very curious about how creative Ofcom is going to try to get with these potential sanctions: make RT broadcast their decision on a channel that no longer broadcasts in the UK or Europe? Fine a sanctioned company from which they are forbidden to receive money according to UK law under which they operate? Maybe even revoke our broadcast licence? Let’s get out the popcorn.”

Picture: Reuters/Jon Nazca 

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