Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Russia Today Thinks British Bobbies Are Violent Stormtroopers

BROOKLYN, New York -- A few people have recently pointed out to me that Kremlin-owned cable channel and propaganda mouthpiece Russia Today (full disclosure: I briefly worked at Russia Today) has released a series of controversial advertisements promoting it's supposedly contrarian coverage.

These ads have appeared in airports in the UK, but airport operators in the United States rejected them. A compromise was struck, and Russia Today was allowed to use ads the simply bore the phrase "Politically Incorrect" – I'm not sure if this is some sort of pun, or if it's in reference to the censored ads, which the American audience have never seen. Either way, the revised ad somehow makes less sense than original. The ads superimpose seemingly opposite images over one another – the most controversial of these ads depicted US President Barack Obama and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and asks, "Who poses the greater nuclear threat?" The rest of the ads can be seen here.

The Ahmadinejad/Obama advertisement is ridiculous (especially considering that Obama has articulated a sincere desire to rid the world of nuclear weapons); the AK-47/camera is interesting, if trite; and the insurgent/soldier is compelling, if wholly biased and politically opportunistic.

Perhaps the most interesting of this series of ads is the last one (above), depicting a policeman and some sort of tattooed hooligan or activist; it asks, "Who is more dangerous?" It is a valid question – protesters, both peaceful and not-so-peaceful, are routinely suppressed with overwhelming and disproportionate force all over the world. Russian law enforcement is one of the worst offenders in this regard, as the government frequently resorts to violence and arrests to silence critics of the regime. However, this advertisement clearly depicts a British police officer. British policing is not without its problems, but for the Russian government to depict a British officer as a baton-wielding skull-cracker is the height of absurdity. Who's more dangerous? Neither – the answer is these guys:

Unfortunately, censoring these ads may have been the best thing for Russia Today. These propaganda images lay bear the obvious biases of the network; the scrubbed ad just positions it as an "alternative" new source. The network is part of Russia's soft power offensive. The Kremlin has tried to sell the network as similar to news outlets like the BBC or Deutsche-Welle, which are at least nominally government-owned but remain editorially independent. In addition to providing news about Russia to an English-speaking audience, the network was also founded with the mission of countering negative views of Russia in the foreign media (this mandate also extends to news outlets for the domestic market). Of course, the hand of the Kremlin could not be more obvious in its editorial positions or its news coverage. No matter what advertising campaign RT runs in the US, it is unlikely that anyone but the most uninformed contrarian (like their own employees) will turn to it for news. This may be, as my compatriot said, "largely due to prejudice, but that doesn't mean it's wrong."

Of all the bad things that the Russian government does, running a poorly-produced propaganda cable channel is probably one of the most benign, and probably short-lived. To spread its gospel of a "multi-polar world," Russia Today offers its feed to satellite providers and public broadcasters for free, and it has no advertisements, meaning all of the channel's costs are paid straight from government coffers. With the country's finances in poor shape, the regime may see rapidly diminishing returns on its propaganda investment when budgets for public services are squeezed.

But then again, I'm wasting my breath. This is all just propaganda.

Thanks to my friends for their many insightful comments on this issue, some of which have been lifted for this post. Check out more commentary on this story on Sean's Russia Blog.

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