Britain’s culture secretary has been accused of endangering British news outlets in Russia after she called on the media regulator to review the presence of Moscow-based TV channel RT in the country.
Nadine Dorries has said Ofcom should take action against the broadcaster over fears it was spreading disinformation during the Ukraine crisis, prompting a warning from the Kremlin that it could expel British journalists in response.
His intervention drew criticism from MPs for threatening the media regulator’s independence, while some senior officials at the BBC and other major UK broadcasters raised concerns about the risk of a backlash from Moscow .
In a letter to Melanie Dawes, chief executive of Ofcom, Dorries said she was concerned RT had broken broadcasting rules in the past and described the station as ‘clearly part of Russia’s global disinformation campaign “.
She said she respected Ofcom’s regulatory independence, but then called for ‘swift and transparent’ action as part of the UK’s efforts to ‘limit Russia’s ability to spread its propaganda’ .
In response, Dawes wrote to Dorries that the regulator had already stepped up its oversight of media coverage of the Ukraine crisis but made no mention of RT.
Dawes said regulator officials had “kept the situation under review” and “would not hesitate to take prompt action if necessary.” It has pledged to expedite complaints received regarding coverage of Ukraine.
Instead of singling out RT, however, she only said the watchdog was looking at broadcast production more generally.
Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the House of Commons defense select committee, said misinformation is best tackled by challenging it – not by excluding certain media organisations. “This leads to backlash against our media,” the former minister said.
Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, said the UK “would not have to wait for countermeasures” if it “made its threats against the Russian media”.
Zakharova hinted that Russia was likely to expel British journalists in response, citing Moscow’s closure of Deutsche Welle’s office this month after Germany banned RT from broadcasting there.
“It was a very dumb thing to do,” Steven Barnett, a communications professor at the University of Westminster, said of Dorries’ letter. “It’s such a shame that we have a secretary of state who can’t stop and take advice before she shoots.”
Critics have argued that an aggressive stance against RT could run counter to UK geopolitical interests since the station has a minimal UK audience, while the BBC has substantial global reach.
“I would be cautious about banning RT,” said Robert Largan, a Tory MP. “Putin would respond by banning the BBC in Russia, effectively reducing his propaganda to millions.”
Ofcom has previously found RT to have breached UK broadcasting rules: it fined the station £200,000 in 2019 for breaching impartiality rules over coverage of poisonings in Salisbury, a decision which is challenged in court.
However, in response to calls following the Salisbury incident that RT’s license should be revoked, Ofcom said it should focus on the licensees’ “broadcasting record” and not on issues such as political affiliations.
Too aggressive enforcement would lead to a “poorer outcome for the British public given our duties to plurality, diversity and free speech”, the watchdog said at the time.
While Ofcom sets the bar high for revoking licenses, it has taken the plunge a few times in the past.
China’s state broadcaster CGTN was taken off the air last year after an investigation found the network was editorially controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, in violation of its rules.
Appearing in the Commons on Wednesday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared to take a more cautious stance than his Culture Secretary.
“We should leave it to Ofcom rather than politicians to decide which media to ban,” he said in response to a question from Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer. “That’s what Russia is doing.”