Photo via Sara's Twitter
When a Boeing airliner was blown out of the sky last Thursday, journalist Sara Firth resigned from her position as a correspondent for Russia Today. On Twitter, she sought to explain by declaring that she is "for the truth" – a statement that was retweeted ad infinitum as requests flooded in for her to elaborate on what had led to her very public act of revolt.
I caught up with her to find out why she quit RT.
VICE: What happened in the Russia Today office on Thursday that prompted you to leave?
Sara Firth: Our coverage of the MH17 plane disaster was the final nudge for me; the clarifying moment. I’ve been really unhappy for a long time at RT. I just couldn’t do it any more.
It was walking in and seeing the news run-down in the hours immediately following MH17 coming down that made the decision for me. We were running an eye-witness account that made an accusation against Ukraine and we had a correspondent in the studio who was asked to produce something about a plane that had been shot down at some point in the past and had been the fault of Ukraine. I’ve been in that position myself before, where you’re asked to bring up some piece of obscure information that implies something that fits with the RT agenda. And you think well, it’s not outright lying but it has no relation to what’s happening and shouldn’t be run at a time when a story of that size is breaking. A news story that is so sensitive. It’s abhorrent and indefensible.
But surely you were aware that RT has a reputation as being pro-Russia when you took the job?
Russia Today pitches itself as a channel that is going to challenge Western mainstream bias. It’s state funded. But this idea that it’s some evil genius – that we all have Putin on speed dial and we’re having meetings to discuss how to bring other governments down – isn’t true. It’s far from evil genius – it’s just massively incompetent.
Crucial information is regularly omitted from stories, and often because those in charge are not capable of identifying what makes a strong news story. They’re not interested in fact checking and creating valuable, balanced journalism. Their main agenda is that it fits the narrative. You are actively discouraged from questioning – that isn’t appreciated at all. And of course that goes on and is a million times worse in the domestic Russian media.
Is it fair to say that your feelings are shared by a large number of people working for RT?
We weren’t all working towards some great conspiracy; I want to be clear about that. Many of the reporters approach the stories they are assigned with honesty in mind. The problem is, eventually you realise that no matter how hard you work, and no matter how valid these stories that you’re working on are, you’re still contributing to an overall system that is designed to push a very clear and biased narrative. There are many people within the organisation trying to change that, but I just could no longer work for a company that repeatedly disregarded the facts.
What happened with the Euromaidan protests?
Their defence is always that they’re not "jumping to conclusions", suggesting that other networks are jumping to conclusions by holding Russia responsible. That everyone is pointing fingers at Russia before the facts have been established.
Now don’t get me wrong. Being dedicated to balanced and substantiated journalism is a fantastic thing but that is not what they are doing. It’s especially bad with the breaking news stories. I mean, anyone can see that. But I have to say that when a story like MH17 broke – and to a lesser extent many other stories during my time there – my heart would sink and I’d know that my job depended on participating in what I knew to be wrong.
How does that manifest itself, though? Do editors state explicitly that RT will not be mentioning certain facts?
For instance, in the past year they would not assign any story relating to Ukraine to a journalist that they knew would ask tough questions. That’s the first technique. There is a clear planning strategy that outlines which stories they will not be covering and there’s a culture of not asking why.
People like me get assigned UK-based stories that have no real Russian, political agenda. So it was great that I got to cover the Yarls Wood detention centre, which gets approved by the way because it fits in with RT’s anti-British government line. When you’re covering stories like that it's easier to push other issues to the back of your mind.
Did you see MH17 as the point of no return for Russia Today? Are you not just jumping ship to protect your own future employability?
There are a few people who left quietly. I did it publicly but that’s the tip of the iceberg. RT have been haemorrhaging talented staff for a while and the turnaround is a couple of years long.
I chose to work there, I knew what I was doing and I take full responsibility for that. But look, it’s a huge organisation and it offered me some fantastic opportunities at a very young age. The one thing I will say is they take on young, determined people and give them a lot of free reign to cover under-reported stories, in a way that they wouldn't be able to at other networks.
There are a lot of great journalists there who are fighting for the truth. The truth isn’t exclusive to certain channels – sometimes the truth can happen at RT – but the wider agenda will always find a way of fitting back into a biased narrative – an embarrassing and at times, disrespectful and dangerous narrative.