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29 Sep, 2020 18:42

Oxford University’s ‘scholarly’ RT hit piece has no room for the mundane reality of how the world’s news organisations work

Oxford University’s ‘scholarly’ RT hit piece has no room for the mundane reality of how the world’s news organisations work

The venerable Oxford University has entered the fray and churned out some RT bashing in the name of scholarship, and when the term ‘disinformation’ is in the very first line of the report, it’s clear we’re on familiar ground.

The Oxford Internet Institute’s new study ‘The Organizational Behavior of RT’ makes the claim that it “advances the scholarship of news organizational behavior, information warfare, and international broadcasting.” I will now make the claim that what it actually advances is the method of repeating the same old guff from anonymous sources and pretending it’s research.

Let’s get this on the record to start with: RT certainly does seek to represent a Russian view of the world and it does not hide that fact, and it is extremely critical of the West. As far as I know, RT makes no claims to have the monopoly on the truth, which is one way it certainly differentiates itself from Western organisations. It has made and does make mistakes, is not perfect, and, I’ll be honest, the canteen is very disappointing. However, if you think it’s some kind of homogenous organisation staffed by serfs spewing out the view of one person, well, then you’ve never met a Russian.

So, that being said, here’s my attempt at adding some informed common sense that may actually help Oxford University come to terms with what RT actually is, rather than just confirming its own bias. I’ll stay away from the geopolitical stuff because you can’t win there, and stick to the things I know a bit about, and show how the claims being made are cherry-picked and morphed to reflect the worldview this report is trying to bolster.

I’ll go into the findings and conclusions, and suggest there may be a little more going on, and perhaps if the researchers had decided to ‘question more’ (a little RT humour there), they may have actually cast some light, instead of just heat. 

So, the methodology is interesting. Researchers contacted 240 former and current RT staff members, although only 23 agreed to be interviewed and, of those, 21 had left the company. It doesn’t take an Oxford professor to think that when the majority of your evidence comes from former employees (the ones who were willing to talk), at least some of them are going to have attitudes towards a former employer that are less than scholarly.

The authors admit the participants “had no journalistic experience before joining RT” – which begs the question, why would you use this group to provide insight into how a media outlet works?

There’s something about Russians that makes the authors of reports such as this ignore the mundane reasons things might actually happen and, instead, turn them into some kind of grand global plan to ‘create chaos’. It’s as if RT operates in some kind of Bond-villain vacuum in which it’s the only baddy.

There’s a lot made of the fact RT hired inexperienced British journalists when it launched, suggesting this was some kind of nefarious strategy. The reality is that, when you’re launching an English-language channel based in Moscow and you need hundreds of employees to get the thing started, an English-speaking workforce tends to live in Britain, not Russia. 

There is criticism that RT staff are asked to sign non-disclosure agreements, ignoring the fact that staff are constantly being contacted to dish the dirt on the organisation by, among others, universities!

They [RT] did not want anyone to say bad things about the company. After Liz Wahl and Sara Firth [left RT], they did not want any more people doing this.” Please, please, please, before the next researcher wants to mention Wahl or Firth and their very public resignations from RT to criticize the organisation, I implore them to go and see who those two are working for now. 

In this ‘Only When Russia Does It, It’s Bad’ school of analysis, there is an interesting section on ‘The Socialization of RT Journalists’ – in other words, telling employees what you would like them to do in return for receiving a salary. 

Also on rt.com RT is accused of supporting QAnon. But with Russiagate back for 2020, who are the real state-funded conspiracy theorists?

Then there’s this classic misrepresentation: “British, inexperienced journalists were treated like stars. Our participants stated that they were pampered with money, makeup artists, and private cars when they joined RT in its early days.”

Let’s unpack that pampering, shall we, to show how things can be twisted? They were given money, because it was a job. They were given access to a makeup department because they were going on television. They were given a lift to work because their shift started at 4.30am. And guess what? They had to find their own way home during daylight hours afterwards. How’s that for pampering?

Our respondents who witnessed the launch of RT in Moscow argued that hiring British journalists was part of a long-term plan to replace them with Russian journalists later.” 

It wasn’t. They had to be replaced because the vast majority of the British journalists left after the first year for their own reasons. Many couldn’t have trained a penguin to swim. 

What about this insight about the inner workings: “After journalists write a script, they need to get it approved by their editor. Most of our respondents who were based in the Moscow office said that the Russian editor would approve the script and the British editor would check the script to ensure it was professionally styled.” So, erm, Oxford, here’s a secret: sub-editors and editors are pretty universal across all nationalities of media. 

The findings state that “Socializing Russian journalists was not as necessary. Russian journalists at RT have a particularly strong sense of nationalism.” Again, this is totally misrepresenting their view. What you’ll probably find is that these are Russian journalists who speak English, watch the way Russia is talked about in the English-speaking media and get pretty angry about it because it doesn’t reflect their reality. From a Russian point of view, it looks very much like they’re the victim of disinformation. This is a key point that no one – on either side, frankly – seems willing to understand.

So, here are Oxford’s three key accusations about RT’s mission:

Across our interviews, our respondents agreed that the goals of the channel since 2008 have been and still are as follows. First, to push the idea that Western countries have as many problems as Russia …”

Second, to encourage conspiracy theories about media institutions in the West in order to discredit and delegitimize them.”  

Third, to create controversy and to make people criticize the channel, because it suggests that the channel is important – an approach that would particularly help RT managers get more funding from the government.

On the first point, Western countries are not exactly hitting home runs at the moment, are they? 

On the second – holy shit, how’s that for hypocrisy in a report that was literally written to discredit a media institution?

And on the third, it appears the channel is so important that Oxford University – the best university in the world, we’re told – is writing a report about it.

I’ll finish by attempting to give my opinion on the one piece of geopolitics I’m willing to put my name to. This report claims that “The goal of the channel shifted when the Russia-Georgia conflict took place in 2008. Our respondents who witnessed this shift said that this conflict led the Russian government to realize that it could weaponize the channel to serve its political interests.

This misses the point completely about what, in my view, happened. Whatever else happened during that war, to this day, hardly anyone knows that Georgia fired the first shots during the South Ossetia conflict because that’s not the narrative that was presented by CNN or the BBC, and their ilk. What Moscow realized was that it was the foreign mainstream media being weaponized. Somehow, it had to work much harder to get its view out into the world, and it must have worked, because people are writing hit pieces like this and calling it scholarly. 

What I conclude from reading ‘The Organizational Behavior of RT’ is that the academics over at Oxford should spend some time in other news organisations too. They’ll be in for a shock.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.