UK media regulator Ofcom has threatened to strip Russian TV channel RT of its licence to broadcast in the UK following the poisoning of a former Russian spy on the streets of Salisbury in southern England.
If the UK government finds evidence of Russian involvement in the assassination attempt on Sergei Skripal, the watchdog will conduct an “expedited review” determining whether the channel is fit to operate in the UK.
The legitimacy of RT — formally known as Russia Today — has been called into question because of its funding by the Russian government, the regulator said in a statement.
An Ofcom spokesperson said:
We have today written to ANO TV Novosti, holder of RT’s UK broadcast licences, which is financed from the budget of the Russian Federation.
This letter explained that, should the UK investigating authorities determine that there was an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the UK, we would consider this relevant to our ongoing duty to be satisfied that RT is fit and proper.
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UK Prime Minister Theresa May said banning the channel in the UK was on the table and will update MPs on “further measures” later today. A deadline issued to the Russian government by May to explain what happened expired last night.
Russia has this morning warned Britain against further sanctions, but said it remained committed to cooperating with an investigation of the attack.
Ofcom’s statement added that it would carry out an “ expedited” assessment of the channel.
In response, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it would expel all British journalists from Russia if RT’s licence was revoked and that the media regulator should not get involved in “matters of state”.
The Russian Ministry said:
We disagree with the position taken by Ofcom; our broadcasting has in no way changed this week, from any other week and continues to adhere to all standards.
RT remains a valuable voice in the UK news landscape, covering vital yet neglected stories and voices, including those of the many MPs and other UK public figures who have been shut out of public discourse by the mainstream media.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said that the UK was considering “a package of measures” against Russia if it was found to have orchestrated the attack on British soil.
RT has said that banning its coverage would mean an end to press freedom in the UK.
The announcement came the day another Russian exile and critic of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, Nikolai Glushkov’s was found dead in the UK.
The country’s government yesterday opened an enquiry into 14 other deaths in the UK over the past two decades that are thought to be linked to Russia.
Since 2012 Ofcom has repeatedly accused the channel of breaching codes of impartiality and airing “materially misleading content”.
Russian commentary from politicians and the media of Skripal’s poisoning has centred on the idea that allegations that Moscow was behind the attack are driven more by anti-Russian sentiment than provable fact.
British MPs took to Twitter calling for Russia to lose its licence in the UK. Labour peer Andrew Adonis said he had written to Ofcom asking them to withdraw RT’s broadcasting licence, for being the “voice of Putin”.
We aren’t so weak as a country that we shd allow fascist lies and propaganda to pour out from the Kremlin while its agents murder on our streets.
Labour MP Stephen Doughty tweeted that he had also called on Ofcom to revoke RTs licence.
If Ofcom do tear up RTs licence, they can also tear up any lingering illusions that the UK is a free country.
— Gareth Icke (@garethicke) March 13, 2018
Kremlin-funded news network Russia Today operates cable and satellite television channels around the world and claims on its website to have 50 million viewers worldwide.
In addition to the main English language channel it broadcasts, RT international, RT UK and RT America, RT also runs RT Arabic and Panish and a channel exclusively for documentary investigations.
On Sunday morning Labour’s Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell instructed his party’s MPs to boycott RT.
Iran state tv channel Press TV was forced of the UK airwaves in 2012 for breaching the UK Communications Act by allowing Tehran to dictate its editorial line.