UK media watchdog says Russian broadcaster RT broke impartiality rules

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s media regulator Ofcom said on Thursday Russian broadcaster RT had broken impartiality rules in news and current affairs programs aired in March and April, including coverage of the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.

“Taken together, the seven breaches represent a serious failure of compliance with our broadcasting rules,” Ofcom said. “We have told RT that we are minded to consider imposing a statutory sanction.”

RT said it was “extremely disappointed” by Ofcom’s conclusions and would decide its next steps shortly.

The British government said Russia Today’s “mask as an impartial news provider” was clearly slipping.

“We know some foreign regimes will use any vehicle at their disposal to sow discord in the West,” Media Secretary Jeremy Wright said.

“It is vital that as a society we remain vigilant to the spread of harmful disinformation and Ofcom has strong powers to tackle it where it occurs in broadcast news.”

Ofcom said it was alerted by viewer complaints and its own monitoring at a time when relations between London and Moscow were at a low after the nerve agent attack on Skripal.

The poisoning, which Britain blamed on Russia, strained relations between the two countries and led to the biggest Western expulsions of diplomats since the height of the Cold War. Russia has denied any involvement.

Moscow retaliated in May by starting to analyze the output of British media working on its territory with a view to opening formal investigations into its objectivity.

RT, which is broadcast by TV-Novosti and funded by the Federal Agency for Press and Media Communications of the Russian Federation, provides a Russian perspective on UK and global news and current affairs.

Ofcom said RT had failed to give sufficient weight to a range of views in seven current affairs discussion or news items.

Two cases involved discussions of the Skripal poisoning on current affairs program “Sputnik”, co-presented by former British lawmaker George Galloway, it said.

Britain has accused Russia’s GRU intelligence agency of trying to poison Skripal and his daughter with a nerve agent in the English city of Salisbury in March. Russia denies the allegations.

Other programs that Ofcom said broke the rules included a report on the Ukrainian government’s position on Nazism and the treatment of Roma gypsies, which it said did not include sufficient challenge to criticism of the government, and four current affairs and news items on the Syrian conflict, which it said failed to include a range of viewpoints.

RT said the investigations into it were almost all initiated by the regulator itself.

“We operate under rules outlined by the regulator and always strive to abide by them,” a spokesperson said.

“It appears Ofcom has failed to fully take on board what we said in response to its investigations and, in particular, has not paid due regard to the rights of a broadcaster and the audience.”

Ofcom said it would consider further representations made by the licensee, and could impose sanctions ranging from broadcasting a statement of Ofcom’s findings to a financial penalty and, in the most extreme cases, revoking a license.

Editing by Stephen Addison