Kremlin-backed news channel RT has lost its Court of Appeal challenge over a £200,000 fine for breaches of impartiality rules in broadcasts about the Salisbury poisoning and the war in Syria.
Ofcom sanctioned the broadcaster, formerly known as Russia Today, over seven news and current affairs programmes between 17 March and 26 April 2018, which the watchdog found breached the requirement for news to be presented with “due impartiality”.
Two of the sanctioned broadcasts were editions of Sputnik, presented by former MP George Galloway, which covered the poisoning of Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, Wiltshire, in March 2018.
They also included three editions of flagship show Crosstalk, hosted by journalist Peter Lavelle, concerning the US government’s role in Syria.
RT challenged Ofcom’s decision at the High Court, arguing that it breached its right to freedom of expression, and that the watchdog failed to take account of the “dominant media narrative” in relation to the Salisbury poisoning.
After losing the High Court bid in March 2020, RT brought a Court of Appeal challenge earlier this year.
However, in a ruling last week, three senior judges dismissed RT’s appeal. The broadcaster has vowed to continue battling against the fine.
Sir Geoffrey Vos, sitting with Lord Justice Baker and Lord Justice Warby, said: “The fact that there is a dominant media narrative that is different from the views expressed in RT’s programmes does not, by itself, override the special impartiality requirements that apply to programmes dealing with matters of political controversy and current public policy.”
The judges found that references to opposing views were made in the sanctioned programmes, but “were either sarcastic or ridiculing”.
“Having watched the programmes themselves, I can say that the programmes were each partial and unbalanced. They were seemingly deliberately so,” Sir Geoffrey added.
He concluded: “Even if one makes the assumption that RT viewers may, in some or even most cases, be aware of the contrary views expressed in mainstream media, that is not sufficient to outweigh the requirement for due impartiality in programming on matters of political controversy.”
In its ruling last year, the High Court found that a lack of due impartiality “would severely harm the quality of political discourse in this country and in doing so seriously harm the rights of others”.
In their decision, the Court of Appeal judges found: “The enforcement action taken by Ofcom against RT in respect of each of the programmes was indeed necessary in a democratic society in the interests of the protection of the rights of members of that democratic society in general and the viewers of RT in particular.”
Ofcom therefore did not breach the broadcaster’s Article 10 (freedom of expression) rights under the European Convention on Human Rights, they said.
Under Ofcom rules, editorially linked programmes on the same subject matter as part of a series can be used by a broadcaster to achieve due impartiality.
Sir Geoffrey said that he did not find “any merit” in RT’s criticism that Ofcom paid insufficient regard to programmes before and after the ones that were sanctioned as context.
He said: “If the programmes themselves did not demonstrate due impartiality and merited regulatory action… it is hard to see how content of unlinked programmes before or after the ones in question could save them.”
In a statement after the ruling, an Ofcom spokesperson said: “We welcome the Court of Appeal’s judgment that our action against RT was appropriate and necessary to protect the rights of people in a democratic society.
“The court has endorsed Ofcom’s approach to due impartiality – an important set of rules designed to ensure that viewers and listeners benefit from contrasting views around major issues.”
RT said it plans to challenge the Court of Appeal ruling as it believes Ofcom’s code and the law have both been “misapplied”.
Deputy editor-in-chief Anna Belkina said: “We shall continue the fight to protect the validity of diverse views in media discourse.”
Picture: Reuters/Gleb Garanich