The RT newsroom overlooking central London. Russia insists that RT is just another global network like the BBC or France 24, albeit one offering “alternative views” to those of the Western-dominated news media.CreditCreditSergey Ponomarev for The New York Times
LONDON — The London newsroom and studios of RT, the television channel and website formerly known as Russia Today, are ultramodern and spacious, with spectacular views from the 16th floor overlooking the Thames and the London Eye. And, its London bureau chief, Nikolay A. Bogachikhin, jokes, “We overlook MI5 and we’re near MI6,” Britain’s domestic and foreign intelligence agencies.
Mr. Bogachikhin was poking fun at the charge from Western governments, American and European, that RT is an agent of Kremlin policy and a tool directly used by President Vladimir V. Putin to undermine Western democracies — meddling in the recent American presidential election and, European security officials say, trying to do the same in the Netherlands, France and Germany, all of which vote later this year.
But the West is not laughing. Even as Russia insists that RT is just another global network like the BBC or France 24, albeit one offering “alternative views” to the Western-dominated news media, many Western countries regard RT as the slickly produced heart of a broad, often covert disinformation campaign designed to sow doubt about democratic institutions and destabilize the West.
Western attention focused on RT when the Obama administration and United States intelligence agencies judged with “high confidence” in January that Mr. Putin had ordered a campaign to “undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process,” discredit Hillary Clinton through the hacking of Democratic Party internal emails and provide support for Donald J. Trump, who as a candidate said he wanted to improve relations with Russia.
The agencies issued a report saying the attack was carried out through the targeted use of real information, some open and some hacked, and the creation of false reports, or “fake news,” broadcast on state-funded news media like RT and its sibling, the internet news agency Sputnik. These reports were then amplified on social media, sometimes by computer “bots” that send out thousands of Facebook and Twitter messages.
To many Americans, the impression that RT is an instrument of Russian meddling was reinforced when its programming suddenly interrupted C-Span’s online coverage of the House of Representatives in January. (C-Span later called it a technical error, not a hacking.)
Watching RT can be a dizzying experience. Hard news and top-notch graphics mix with interviews from all sorts of people: well known and obscure, left and right. They include favorites like Julian Assange of WikiLeaks and Noam Chomsky, the liberal critic of Western policies; odd voices like the actress Pamela Anderson; and cranks who think Washington is the source of all evil in the world.
But if there is any unifying character to RT, it is a deep skepticism of Western and American narratives of the world and a fundamental defensiveness about Russia and Mr. Putin.
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Afshin Rattansi, on stage, hosting a talk show called “Going Underground.” Mr. Rattansi went to RT in 2013 after working at the BBC, CNN, Bloomberg, Al Jazeera and Iran’s Press TV. “Unlike at the BBC and CNN, I was never told what to say at RT,” he said.CreditSergey Ponomarev for The New York Times
Analysts are sharply divided about the influence of RT. Pointing to its minuscule ratings numbers, many caution against overstating its impact. Yet focusing on ratings may miss the point, says Peter Pomerantsev, who wrote a book three years ago that described Russia’s use of television for propaganda. “Ratings aren’t the main thing for them,” he said. “These are campaigns for financial, political and media influence.”