President Vladimir Putin has given his second exclusive interview in less than a year to the state funded English-language satellite network Russia Today, which prefers to be called RT, in a clear sign that the Kremlin views the broadcaster as a key medium for getting its opinions across to the world.
In his opening remarks, Mr. Putin praised RT, which he said had been created to "end the monopoly of Anglo-Saxon media" in the world. There appears little doubt that Putin believes the network really does reach over 630-million people in over 100 countries – as it claims to do – and that such exclusive chats with the Russian president will help further boost its reach.
Over an almost two hour chat, with most of RT's top staff seated around a long table, he went on to paint the Kremlin's alternative view of global affairs, in which a beleaguered Russia wages a lonely battle for principle and common sense against a cynical and hypocritical West.
Among other things, he chided the US over the current National Security Agency scandal, apparently under the impression that the key controversy is about the letter of the law rather than the extent and scope of state secrecy. "If this [surveillance] is made within the framework of the law, by which the special services’ rules of conduct are guided, this is normal. If this is made illegally, it's bad," he said.
He reiterated a suggestion made by his press secretary that Russia might be open to granting asylum to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Putin spent a good deal of time on the US, which he reminded RT viewers was founded on the "ethnic cleansing" of its native population, and used the atomic bomb on Japanese civilians at the end of WWII – something he averred Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin would never do. "[Stalin] was a dictator and a tyrant, but I very much doubt that in the spring of 1945, if he had been in possession of an atomic bomb, he would have used it against Germany," Putin said.
He was asked one single question about domestic Russian politics, by RT's American talk show host Peter Lavelle. "Opinion polls show that the opposition in Russia is very small. What kind of opposition would you like to see?" was Mr. Lavelle's query.
Putin replied that opposition is fine, as long as it acts within the law. When protesters break the law, they should be answerable under the legal system. "This is what's happening both in the United States and Russia. But when we do that [put protesters on trial] we are criticized, but when the United States does this, it is considered as a norm. These are the so-called double standards," he said.
Moreover, "[Russia’s] diplomatic service doesn’t cooperate actively with the Occupy Wall Street activists, yet your diplomatic service actively cooperates [with Russia’s opposition] and supports them," Putin added.
Putin might have been defining the current mission of RT, which was started – along with quite a few other media and PR platforms – 8 years ago and tasked with improving Russia's image in the world through journalism that showed the country through the eyes of its own people. According to Russian media, the Kremlin funds RT to the tune of about $300-million annually, and Putin last year personally forbade the government to slash its funding.
The network's focus has migrated, especially since Putin returned to power last year amid widespread disapproval around the world. Now RT runs wall-to-wall coverage of protest rallies everywhere except in Russia, invites commentary from critics of almost every government except Russia's, and produces talk shows that slam Wall Street, attack US imperialism, and find the decline of the West lurking in almost every daily headline.
RT now maintains a full time cable station in the US, RT-America, which broadcasts mostly US-generated content around the clock. Last year, RT signed WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to do a series of in-depth interview programs that explored the corruptions of power and the rise of authoritarianism (in the West). Last month it did a deal with retired TV legend Larry King, that apparently involves RT picking up Mr. King's existing online talk show and also produce an all-new political talk show specially for RT. King subsequently appeared to deny that but RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan insists that King is contracted to do the show.
The network's programming, along with its relentless Kremlin-inspired focus, is all perfectly fair commentary, of course. Indeed, RT seems deliberately designed to survey the West in the same arbitrary and hectoring tone that the Kremlin feels Western – particularly US – journalists cover Russia.
A recent satirical article in the Global Post, which garnered massive attention, aimed to show how US journalists would cover the NSA revelations if it were a foreign country: "Inside the United States," is the headline. "GlobalPost goes inside the United States to uncover the regime’s dramatic descent into authoritarian rule and how the opposition plans to fight back."
Anyone who finds that thought provoking – and they should – is welcome to tune in to RT. It's the real deal.