‘Prague Calling, Prague Calling’ - the Alternative reality of RFE/RL

Bryan MacDonald
Bryan MacDonald is an Irish journalist, who is based in Russia
Headquarters of the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) in Prague. © Michal Cizek
“Germany calling, Germany calling, Germany calling.” During the Second World War, those words meant only one thing - that William Joyce was on the radio and spewing his unique brand of anti-British bile.

Known as “Lord Haw Haw,” the American-born Joyce tried to convince the British public, in a sneering and sarcastic tone, that resistance to the Nazi military machine was futile and defeat was inevitable. From Berlin, he blasted out crude agitprop about the weakness of Britain, and its leaders, and the superiority of the German system.

Nowadays, a few hundred kilometers down the road in Prague, there’s an heir to “Lord Haw Haw’s” crown of thorns. The dubious honor belongs to Brian Whitmore of the American state-broadcaster RFE/RL, who sits in front of a wall mounted image of Moscow’s Kremlin, five days a week, and tells the world how awful the country is. The video blog, known as the “Daily Vertical” is such a laugh that I’ve been keeping an occasional eye on it since its host became embroiled in a public spat with the noted journalist Ben Aris.

Just to see when it will finally scrape the bottom of the barrel.

All along, I’ve failed to understand who the content is actually aimed at. If it were meant to influence Russians, you’d imagine it would be broadcast in their language because fluent English speakers comprise a tiny percentage of the population here. Thus, the only explanation appears to be that it’s designed to influence journalists and pundits who cover Russian affairs for Western outlets. 

A New Nadir

While it’s easy to laugh at the “Daily Vertical” and its accompanying “Power Vertical” podcasts, it’s probably naive to dismiss them outright. That’s because you’d imagine the US government’s Broadcasting Board of Governors wouldn’t continue to bankroll the enterprise if they didn’t believe it was having some sort of effect on discourse.

However, this week the “Daily Vertical” hit a new low and it's not sufficient to merely giggle along anymore. Whitmore, in his trademark meditation pose, sternly faced his autocue and announced: “Eight years ago today, the Putin doctrine was born. Eight years ago today, the Kremlin learned what it could get away with in its neighborhood. Eight years ago today, Moscow proved it could pretty much flout international rules and norms with impunity. Eight years ago today, Russia invaded Georgia.”

Except it didn’t, and Whitmore’s statement is complete male cow excrement. In actual fact, the verdict of the independent EU fact-finding mission charged with establishing the causes of the conflict were simple: “Georgia started it.”

As Der Spiegel reported at the time, ““It was Georgia which triggered off the war when it attacked (South Ossetian capital) Tskhinvali" said Heidi Tagliavini, the mission head, in a statement.” Incidentally, the man who the EU fingered as being responsible for the conflict, Georgia’s then President, Mikhail Saakashvili, is now the governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region. Today, despite his proven track record of turning wine into water, he continues to be celebrated by the Anglophone Western press because of his pro-American leanings.

A False Comparison

Across the media, many folk try to draw an equivalence between RT and RFE/RL, seeing as both are funded by their respective governments. Yet, there is a major difference. While RT frequently invites guests who disagree with its positions, RFE/RL does not and this is hugely significant. Also, you simply cannot compare a network which has just been nominated for another International Emmy Award (as RT has this week) with an organization which produces the kind of shoddy journalism that RFE/RL is famous for.

Off the top of my head, I recall that in recent years some people extremely hostile to Russia have been asked to appear on RT. They include RFE/RL’s own Michael Weiss (who now doubles as a lobbyist at NATO's Atlantic Council appendage), Bild Zeitung editor Julian Reichelt and the young American neocon Jamie Kirchick. By contrast, RFE/RL does not appear to allow dissenting voices at all. Whitmore’s “Power Vertical” podcasts are a case in point here. They are invariably “nod-fests” where the participants have nothing good to say about Russia.

Censorship at RFE/RL extends further than that. In 2014, the outlet fired the - famously anti-Putin - Russian journalist Andrei Babitsky for apparently taking “an incorrect position on Crimea” and trying to report on war crimes committed by pro-Kiev forces in the Ukrainian war.

Whitmore’s “vertical” nonsense is symptomatic of the rot at RFE/RL. That said, because his brave stand against RFE/RL’s ineptitude inspired this piece, I’ll leave the last words to Ben Aris. He wrote, in a letter to Johnson’s Russia List, back in May: “RFE is not even attempting to learn anything at all about Russia, its people or (Vladimir) Putin but prefers to pump out the same tired invective based on hearsay and some made up facts (and that) is very saddening.”

(If Putin had said that) the US govt (sic) owns RFE and it is being used as a propaganda tool to single mindedly rubbish Russia and (it) practices a ‘snake oil seller’ standard of journalism - it would have been true. The US govt (sic) spends almost double (it's actually closer to three times) what Russia does on its mouth pieces. But he didn't I guess because the standard of RFE journalism is so poor that no one takes it seriously.”

The “Lord Haw Haw” of Prague would do well to heed Aris’ wise words.

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