By Diane Cooke
On June 7, 2005, Margarita Simonyan held a press conference in which she announced the creation of Russia Today, a Russian international television network.
The channel promotes itself as an international network providing a necessary antidote to the "mainstream" news agenda of the other big networks.
“It will be a perspective on the world from Russia,” Simonyan told reporters. “Many foreigners are surprised to see that Russia is different from what they see in media reports. We will try to present a more balanced picture.”
The new channel would be nonprofit and run out of the headquarters of RIA Novosti, the state news agency. Despite having a large degree of autonomy, it would ultimately answer directly to its funder, the Kremlin. Simonyan, who was hired to run the news outlet, had just turned twenty-five.
RT was started as an English-language competitor to Al Jazeera and BBC World News. But even as it added foreign bureaus and its staff increased to more than 2,000, its reach remained limited to a niche on the anti-Establishment Left.
But Russia barely figures in RT’s coverage; its main stories tend to concern the Middle East, or European infighting or social injustice in the US. Its overarching narrative is a tale of the west’s unrelenting decline.
According to the Financial Times, trust and truth are central to any discussion of RT, "whose mission is to hold up a crooked mirror to what it sneeringly calls the 'mainstream media' in the west."
As the Ukraine crisis simmered in 2014, RT (originally Russia Today) busily reported stories from a seemingly parallel universe where evidence of Russian involvement was part of an anti-Russian conspiracy. John Kerry, the US secretary of state, called the network a “propaganda bullhorn [that] has been deployed to promote President Putin’s fantasy about what is playing out on the ground.”
According to Bloomberg, during last year’s U.S. election, as evidence mounted that Russia had orchestrated cyberhacks to boost Donald Trump’s candidacy, RT and its aggressively anti-Hillary Clinton coverage became harder to ignore.
The network also made news for a 10th anniversary dinner it hosted in Moscow in late 2015, at which former counterintelligence official and Trump campaign adviser Michael Flynn spoke for a $45,000 fee and sat at Vladimir Putin’s table.
In January the CIA, FBI, and NSA jointly released a declassified report alleging that RT had sought to undermine the “U.S.-led liberal democratic order.”
And in March, Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire, introduced a bill in the Senate to investigate whether RT America and the Russian government coordinated to “spread misinformation.”
RT Editor-in-Chief Simonyan responded: “They’ll soon start shooting our journalists at the squares.”
Tory and Labour MPs in Britain have accepted up to £1,000 an hour to appear on television shows broadcast on RT.
Analysis of the Commons register of interests for the last two years show at least 10 have been paid handsomely for appearing on the channel, which is now coming under acute scrutiny after both the US and UK governments accused Russia of meddling in elections and pushing fake news.