Russia has angrily accused Britain of trampling on freedom of speech after NatWest said it was closing down the bank accounts of the Kremlin TV channel Russia Today (RT).
Russian MPs, the foreign ministry and human rights officials all condemned the move, and said the UK government was guilty of violating press freedom and of double standards. “Long live freedom of speech!”, RT’s editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan, tweeted sarcastically.
Simonyan said she had received a letter out of the blue from NatWest saying that it was pulling the plug on the broadcaster’s accounts from mid-December.
“We have recently undertaken a review of your banking arrangements with us and reached the conclusion that we will no longer provide these facilities,” it said. The decision was final, the letter added.But after several hours of confusion the Treasury said it had nothing to do with NatWest’s move. Sources said the decision to deny RT banking services was made independently by NatWest, and apparently without any official consultation.
“This isn’t something that has come out of the Treasury,” one source insisted. The UK government had not introduced any fresh sanctions or “obligations” against Russia since February 2015, the source said.
In recent years it is understood that the bank’s compliance department has frequently shut down accounts of other Russian customers, often without warning.
Russian officials, however, were quick to denounce the move against RT as a murky British plot. They pointed out that NatWest – a part of the Royal Bank of Scotland Group – is mostly state-owned.
“It seems that freedom of speech is completely lost in Albion’s Russophobic fog,” tweeted Konstantin Dolgov, Russia’s foreign ministry commissioner for human rights.
In a statement issued after more than six hours of deliberation NatWest said “these decisions are not taken lightly”. It added: “We are reviewing the situation and are contacting the customer to discuss this further. The bank accounts remain open and are still operative.”
The banking shutdown casts doubt on the ability of the Kremlin-backed news channel to carry on broadcasting, although RT said on Monday it would continue operating. The story received blanket coverage from Russian state media.
The US and Britain said on Sunday that they were considering fresh measures and possible further sanctions against Moscow in protest at Russia’s continuing bombardment of civilians in eastern Aleppo, Syria.
Maria Zakharova, a Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman, wrote on Facebook: “It looks like, as it leaves the EU, London has decided to leave behind all its obligations towards freedom of speech. As they say, best to start a new life without bad habits.”
Russia Today – now rebranded as RT – was set up a decade ago, initially with the goal of giving foreigners a positive view of Russia. In time, the idea shifted and the channel became more about painting a negative picture of the west.
The channel was rebranded to distance itself from the Kremlin and from the very idea of Russianness, and launched amid pomp in Britain and the US, accompanied by advertising campaigns urging people to “Question more” and positioning itself as an alternative to the mainstream media.
In 2013, at the opening of RT’s new studios, Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, told Simonyan that the aim of the channel had been “to break the Anglo-Saxon monopoly on global information streams”. The mission had been completed successfully, Putin said.
Often, questioning more meant wallowing in conspiracy theory, giving airtime to 9/11 “truthers” and other basement bloggers. Away from the lunatic fringes, the channel often covered the same kind of stories in Britain and the US as the Guardian might. It focused on injustice and official malpractice, on social tensions and political demonstrations. Especially in the US, the channel built up a following for touching the kind of issues that many mainstream networks did not.
The channel typically invites studio guests who endorse the Kremlin’s anti-US views. Guests have included Jeremy Corbyn, Ken Livingstone and George Galloway.
It ran a chatshow hosted by the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, and it lured the veteran US broadcaster Larry King to the channel to make a series of shows. While making marquee signings to boost its mainstream credibility, the channel also ran shows such as The Truthseeker, which claimed “every single terrorist attack in US history was a false flag operation”.
During the annexation of Crimea, RT did not report on the Russian soldiers deployed on the peninsula, and complained about “misinformation” from western media outlets, which said that Russian forces were present.
Putin himself later admitted as much, but the channel’s skewed coverage of events in Russia’s backyard also gained a small but devoted following abroad. It has portrayed Russia’s military intervention in Syria as a campaign against terrorists, and reflects Moscow’s official position that no civilians have been killed by Russian jets.
Simonyan visited Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy during a trip to London in 2014.
In a statement on Monday, RT struck a defiant tone, calling the decision “incomprehensible” and “without warning”. It added: “It is, however, not at odds with the countless measures that have been undertaken in the UK and Europeover the last few years to ostracise, shout down or downright impede the work of RT.”
Since RT started broadcasting in the UK about 10 years ago, Ofcom has recorded 20 breaches of the UK broadcasting rules. It was investigated in April for accusing the Turkish government of genocide against the Kurds.
David Clark, a former Foreign Office adviser and the chair of the Russia Foundation, said the BBC’s office in Moscow would now be “in the frontline” for possible Kremlin reprisals.
“The BBC is the flagship British broadcaster. It’s a public body but in the Russian mind it’s an arm of the state and they will see it as a proxy. They will look at kicking British journalists out of Russia, I guess.”
Clark said the Kremlin used RT not for straight propaganda purposes but “information warfare”.
“The clue is in the strapline: ‘Question more’. They are trying to sow confusion and to create a climate of intellectual pessimism and nihilism by mixing the genre of news and outright fabrication.”
He added: “The channel is designed to undermine rational debate. It’s a multi-layered thing and just one instrument they use.”