diplomacy

We Asked Russian State Media About the Salisbury Spy Poisoning

Are Sputnik News and RT Russian propagandists? Or are they an independent source of alternative facts that happens to be backed by the Kremlin?

by Gavin Haynes
Mar 15 2018, 1:48pm

Still from Sputnik News

The scandal over the poisoning of double agent Sergei Skripal in the Salisbury branch of of-the-shelf Italian restaurant Zizi continues to damage relations between the UK and Russia. Britain has sent 23 Russian diplomats packing, and Boris Johnson has accused the Kremlin of being “smug”.

As Britain considers further sanctions, a potential ban on Russian backed news channel RT is one possible retaliatory measure. Soon, we may have to look elsewhere for neurotoxic opinions. The modern executive’s alternative to InfoWars has been the butt of a thousand jokes. Yet it has also proved remarkably popular. Are RT and its sister, news website and radio show Sputnik News, just lousy low-down Kremlim shills? Or is there a deeper truth in their cranky perspectives?

I phoned up Sputnik News’ UK bureau chief, Egor Piskunov, to ask whether he’s living on borrowed time.

VICE: Hi Egor. How much are you in contact with head office? Is the word coming up and down the line from Moscow?
Egor: No no, that's not the way it works. We coordinate with the editors in Moscow and in America so that you know we don't do the same stories or just to keep things in order. But when it comes to picking stories that’s us here in the UK. I come to the office and my team presents me with their pitches for what stories they want to do.

But is there a core mission statement in terms of whose views you're supposed to be representing and how you come by that perspective?
There's no such statement.

There's a, let’s say, “anti-globalist” feel to RT – that sort of alternative perspective of Max Keyser, of the people who rant about GMOs. It’s anti-system.
The journalists themselves are not allowed to have an opinion. But the contributors, we just provide them a platform to express their views. We look at the way things are presented by mainstream media, and we try to explain what’s often being either ignored, or not enough attention is being paid. For instance, the story with the former double agent, and this tragic incident. We think that little attention is paid in the mainstream media to the fact that no evidence has been presented.

So if you had to shorthand the mission statement, is it a general deep-rooted skepticism about the global order, or is the aim to represent what you might call “ a Russian perspective”? Not necessarily a Kremlin perspective, but a Russian perspective, on current events?
I wouldn't really say a “Russian perspective” because the hosts are really not Russians, they're Scottish, or English, and in that sense, I wouldn't really say anti-globalist. I’d like to think of it as an alternative source of open news from mainstream media, which may offer a platform to those who don't get that platform. We just try to question stuff.

Why was it important to the Russian state to set up news agencies to question global events? What’s the benefit of all this “questioning”?
There was a general trend in the world, in the middle of the last decade, when a lot a lot of countries basically launched their channels or agencies aimed at the global audience.

But what did the Kremlin hope to gain? What was the lens on the world they wanted to create?
It's not about the Kremlin launching something. It's more about how we found our niche, you know, the way we compete with our rivals.

Okay. So what are the alternative facts about Sergei Skripal that we’re not getting?
I think that much more attention needs to be paid to the lack of evidence. I was just watching the discussions in the British Parliament, and it's interesting how it works. It starts with this presumption that might make sense – there’s a chance that it's a Russian. And then two minutes later they’re discussing sanctions. Then it’s already presented as fact that Russia was involved. The only person who actually questioned it was Jeremy Corbyn. And he was basically shouted down.

Right.
The other thing is that I think that’s never said is the fact that this incident happened near a chemical laboratory. In as far as I understand, this was a nerve agent produced in the Soviet Union. So when the USSR collapsed, it created a whole list of countries it could have come from.

Why do you believe the British press is singing from the same hymn sheet on this one?
It's just the general anti-Russian feeling.

Russophobia?
You might say.

Is that sad?
I grew up partly in the US, so I do consider myself an international person. l would love for Russia and the West to have a great relationship, But just right now, things like these are complicating this relationship a lot.

I mean, some would say that chopping bits off of the Ukraine is complicating that great relationship…
Are you talking about the reunification with the Crimea? That's something for the Foreign Ministry to comment on really.

Do you think Mr Putin is capable of assassinating people on British soil?
I don't really think that's something that I should be commenting on.

If you value your life?
I mean have to ask yourself, what would be the benefit to Russia? This is just this is the worst possible time for or something like this.

Who stands to gain?
That is a good question, and I'd love to know.

I think we all would like to know who is behind it, because whoever's behind it is clearly behind a far bigger crisis in international relations.
I mean I would myself be very keen on finding out.

I know. And then perhaps that same person could have done the same thing to Alexander Litvinenko 12 years ago, whoever that person was.
I think it's two different cases and perhaps that's why – with Skripal – that's why they are trying to represent him now as a critic of the of the Kremlin to make people link those ideas.

Do you think Mr Putin had Litvinenko bumped off?
No, I don’t. It's kind of odd that you're asking me these questions. I don't think Putin bumped anyone off.

Right, but that's not an odd view for me to have. I feel like for a lot of people in the West, this is canonical for us. There was a public inquiry was there not?
And what did it conclude?

You tell me?
I know for sure that it didn't conclude that the President of Russia assassinated anyone.

Wait. Not the President literally, but the powers vested in the President. I don't think Putin himself went along with the poison-tipped umbrella…
I don't think Russia took part in any of those things. But that is something you should really be speaking to you a specialist on espionage or intelligence officers or something.

So it says here: “The inquiry concluded there was a strong probability of agents acting under the direction of the FSB, approved by both the FSB chief and President Putin.” But let’s move on. How much of the anti-gay opinions of [the boss of Sputnik’s parent company] Dmitry Kiselyov percolates through into what you put out in the West?
Yeah, we don't have an anti-gay agenda. Personal opinion is something else. I don't even know – I mean you're putting me in a position – I don't know him personally. I don't know what his agenda is, but I know for sure that the agenda that I approve every day is definitely not that.

I mean, he did say that the hearts of gays were not fit for transplant and should be taken from their bodies and burned.

Which might be a, um , you know… a mistranslation… Anyway, any final thoughts?

Okay, so we're the Russian media, but that doesn't mean that we're like Communists robots. Many people unfortunately still live by that stereotype. But so much time has passed since then.

Okay, thanks Egor!

@gavhaynes

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.