Maverick minds of the anti-establishment? The personalities behind Sputnik radio | Lucy Birge

Russia’s international broadcasters RT (Russia Today) and Sputnik international have been widely criticised for granting airtime to members of left- and right-wing fringes. Research has identified both far-left and far-right commentary in RT’s news and its presenters and regular contributors similarly range from Slavoj Žižek to Nigel Farage. But thus far there has been little research into RT’s younger sibling, Sputnik.

Sputnik is principally a digital radio broadcaster and multi-media web platform. It was founded in November 2014 following Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Sputnik’s two English languages hubs are based in Washington DC (producing five shows) and Edinburgh (producing two). Sputnik’s shows are fairly typical of the “talk radio” genre – discussion of news and current affairs. However, my doctoral research into Sputnik’s English language channels shows how the broadcaster’s content is shaped by a star line-up featuring four key categories of anti-establishment characters:

1. The “lefty”

With only few exceptions Sputnik English-language journalists come from left-wing and anti-racist activist backgrounds.

On the US side, Garland Nixon, co-host of Fault Lines, is a National Board Member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) who previously sued the Department of Natural Resources for race discrimination and harassment. Dr Wilmer Leon, presenter of The Critical Hour, is a public intellectual and columnist interested in racial inequality in the United States. Sean Blackmon, co-host of By Any Means Necessary (a phrase famously uttered by 1960’s civil activist Malcom X), is the organiser of Stop Police Terror Project DC, born out of Black Lives Matter.

Brian Becker picture in 2012 . Creative Commons licence: Elvert Barnes

Several more presenters are prominent members of the anti-war and civil rights organisation Act Now to Stop War and End Racism coalition (ANSWER). Eugene Puryear, Blackmon’s co-host on By Any Means Necessary, is one of ANSWER’s national organisers whilst Brian Becker, host of Loud and Clear, is its national director. Puryear and Becker also have close links to a Marxist/Leninist political party, The Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), with Becker being a founding member, and Puryear having been the party’s vice-presidential nominee in 2008 and 2016.

However, radical left-wing politics is exceptionally marginal in the United States. It is hard to see how this kind of Sputnik content could garner large swathes of the American population.

In the UK, however, this political perspective is slightly more mainstream. This is reflected in the choice of presenters.

George Galloway, former MP turned anti-establishment commentator, is Sputnik’s newest left-wing presenter. Galloway is a prolific anti-war spokesman, founder of charity Viva Palestine, supporter of Corbyn and a proponent of Brexit. He is also one of the longest serving figures on RT, having presented Sputnik: Orbiting the World, since 2013. His Mother of All Talk Shows appeared on Sputnik in June 2019, probably intended to build on his popularity on RT.

But where does Russia come in, for Sputnik’s left-wing pundits and anti-racist activists?

Sputnik’s commentators see Russia as a counterweight to American hegemony. Sometimes, this translates to nostalgia for the Soviet Union, as in a Loud and Clear episode marking the Russian Revolution’s centenary. Here Becker and his guest exhibited particular nostalgic reverence for the Soviet Union. Becker’s guest that time was his colleague from Sputnik, ANSWER and the PSL – Eugene Puryear.

2.   The “Whistle-blower”

John Kiriakou at his 2015 release party. Creative commons: Slowking

The Sputnik journalist with arguably the highest international profile is John Kiriakou. The co-host (with Becker) on Loud and Clear, Kiriakou rose to fame as a whistle-blower. He was the first CIA agent to be convicted, and sentenced, for passing on classified information to a reporter, after a 2007 televised ABC interview in which Kiriakou disclosed the CIA’s use of waterboarding, a form of torture, on terrorist captives.

Since his release from federal prison in 2015, Kiriakou has become a prolific anti-establishment voice, orator and author (having written three books). Kiriakou has campaigned for Julian Assange’s release, using his Sputnik show as a platform. He has also discussed the impossibility of Assange receiving a fair trial on mainstream media outlets.

Sputnik’s defence of and support for Assange (who regularly appeared on RT) and Chelsea Manning, brings to mind the case of illustrious whistle-blower Edward Snowden, who sought asylum in Russia. By supporting and employing whistle-blowers including Kiriakou, Sputnik can discuss in detail the failings of the US and its corrupt institutions from an insider’s perspective. The network can also present itself – and by implication Russia – as the defender of free speech, in contrast to the USA.

3. The network friend

Sputnik shows have many repeat guests including other presenters from Sputnik and RT. As well as Galloway’s expansion from RT to Sputnik, Max Keiser and Stacy Herbert have built on their long-running RT economics show, Keiser Report, with a similar concept for Sputnik, called Double Down.

But the recurrence of ‘external’ guests in Sputnik is no less remarkable. In particular, John Kavanaugh, the New York based editor of online left-wing “social analysis” platform Polemicist.net appears so frequently on Sputnik’s US based shows, Loud and Clear, The Critical Hour and By Any Means Necessary, that he could almost be described as one of Sputnik’s principal voices. Indeed, whilst Kavanaugh’s Polemicist affiliation appears to indicate a journalistic profile independent of Sputnik, his meagre Twitter following of 654 belies this.

Alexander Mercouris is another maverick media personality with multiple guest appearances on Sputnik’s shows. Mercouris, based in London, is the editor-in-chief of alternative multimedia news platform the Duran. The Duran describes itself as: “a conservative news-media platform that advances a realpolitik position” and Peter Lavelle – host of RT’s Cross Talk – is one of its co-founders. Unsurprisingly, Mercouris is a frequent guest on his show, too. While the fringe media platform has a larger following than that of Kavanaugh’s, its 89.7 K followers on YouTube is still negligible for a global internet platform.

Sputnik so frequently hosts fringe media figures promoting their own material that it acts as a hub in a network of various non-mainstream media publications. The profiles of its few right-wing presenters – and their approach to contemporary journalism – gives further indication of how this works.

4.     The right-wing populist

The two stark exceptions to Sputnik’s left-wing activist presenter model are the right-wing populist personalities Lee Stranahan (US) and Jon Gaunt (UK). Reactionary views notwithstanding, Stranhan and Gaunt are still staunchly “anti-establishment”.

A former investigative reporter for HuffPost and the far-right American Breitbart News Network and a self-proclaimed “populist Republican”, Stranhan has co-hosted the Sputnik US show, Fault Lines, since April 2017. Alongside his Sputnik show, Stranahan sells online courses in citizen journalism, as he claims that the online dissemination of news by everyday citizens is the only antidote to the biased mainstream media. Stranahan promotes a similar line on his website, Populist.TV. With a tagline “making you smarter”, Stranahan uses the website to promote his own journalistic material, including that of his Sputnik show Fault Lines.

Across the Atlantic, Gaunt displays an analogously right-wing populist stance on politics and journalism. He is a supporter of Brexit and Farage’s Brexit party. As with Stranahan, Gaunt has previous experience in journalism. He has presented on BBC London and several BBC regional outposts as well as Talksport , and is also a former columnist for British tabloid paper The Sun.

Gaunt has presented Shooting From the Lip since its launch in July 2018 when the UK’s divisions were laid bare. The show’s name refers to speaking confidently on a subject without possessing expertise or prior knowledge. Together with its tagline, “real opinions for real people”, this clearly establishes the show as a populist platform. Amongst the show’s most controversial guests, is British far right activist and founder of the English Defence League, Tommy Robinson.

Stranahan and Gaunt’s appointments demonstrate that Sputnik’s producers are responding to new waves of right-wing populism unleashed by Trump and Brexit respectively. It is notable that Gaunt’s hit the air a few weeks before the left-leaning Hard Facts was axed from the UK service. Crucially though, these personalities are not only railing against the elite, but also, against the practices and dominance of Western mainstream journalism that Sputnik seeks to challenge.

Sputnik: mavericks, markets and memberships

Sputnik actively promotes anti-establishment voices from both ends of the political spectrum. Often these come from activist-type backgrounds whose concern with racial and financial injustices resonates with particular audiences. Sometimes, they have professional experience in more conventional outlets, which makes their criticism of Western mainstream media more credible. Sputnik can then discuss the biases and malpractices of Western mainstream media at first hand. In turn, Sputnik projects Russia as an impartial pioneer of the new digital journalism.

Sputnik is clearly attuned to market considerations: it has commissioned new shows from successful RT presenters; and has included more right-leaning populist content in the aftermath of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Nonetheless, as my research has revealed, Sputnik’s commentators are predominantly left-wing. But how do we account for Sputnik’s left-wing orientation in the USA – a country where such views are extremely marginal?

To me it seems there is a twofold answer. On the one hand, it seems plausible that Sputnik has a harder time attracting right-wing pundits who, in light of Russiagate, may be disinclined to associate with Russian government funded media outlets like Sputnik. On the other hand, Sputnik appears to be establishing itself as a platform for a particular community with shared affiliations and memberships. Whether Sputnik can boast any real impact on these groups, though, my project will endeavour to elucidate.

 

Lucy Birge (@BirgeLucy) is a third year PhD Candidate at the University of Manchester. Lucy holds a degree in Russian Studies from the University of Sheffield (2012) and an MPhil in European Literature and Culture from the University of Cambridge (2014). She has studied and lived in Yaroslavl and St Petersburg, Russia. Lucy’s research explores Russia’s outward projection strategy via its international broadcasting outlet, Sputnik.

 

New project launched on Russian propaganda strategies of online persuasion | University of Helsinki

This month saw the official launch of a new project on Russian online propaganda at the University of Helsinki’s Aleksanteri Institute. The project, called Strategies of Persuasion: Russian Propaganda in the Algorithmic Age (STRAPPA), was set up to provide a better understanding of how Russian state-aligned media and other relevant actors frame and disseminate strategic communications within traditional and digital media environments.

The project was initiated in response to the limited understanding of this phenomenon to date, which has meant that despite the threat from Russian ‘fake news’ and disinformation being at the top of political agendas across Europe, many of the initiatives being proposed in response (automated content removal, banning broadcasters) risk unduly constraining freedom of speech.

According to Dr Mariëlle Wijermars, Lead researcher on the new project,

“research up until now has studied Russia’s messaging to domestic and foreign audiences in separation, while much can be learned by analysing this issue within a comparative framework”.

The STRAPPA project aims to create a more detailed picture of how contemporary information operations work, in the hopes of promoting realistic solutions. The project will be investigating what kind of strategies of persuasion are used; how they fit into today’s ‘post-truth’ environment; and what is the degree of tailoring of messages to target audiences?

The research will also be examining how these strategies have evolved in response to the changing technological environment in the current algorithmic age: How does propaganda work in the age of social media, recommender systems and botnets?

Strategies of Persuasion: Russian Propaganda in the Algorithmic Age (STRAPPA) will run at the University of Helsinki from 2019-2021 and is associated with the Digital Russia Studies initiative. You can sign up for project updates by sending a message to marielle.wijermars@helsinki.fi

Envisioning Terror: Representations of Al Qaeda on the BBC| Jared Ahmad

Representing terrorism

There is an intimate relationship between the news media, politicians and terrorist groups. For journalists, terrorist violence fulfil several essential “news values” that help to attract and secure large audiences. Politicians and terrorist groups use the news media to promote their own, preferred images, symbols and representations. Indeed, given the relatively infrequent nature of terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom, for most of us, news media representations formulate one of our primary sources of knowledge about such phenomena. Despite access to a growing range of information sources, research suggests that television remains the most important source of news for citizens across the Western world during terrorist incidents. And yet, often news media representations distort public understanding of terrorism and reinforce simple “us” and “them” binaries.

ahmad bookj

It is these representational practices that I explore in my latest book, The BBC, the “War on Terror” and the Discursive Construction of Terrorism: Representing Al-Qaeda. Published as part of Palgrave-Macmillan’s “New Security Challenges” series, it interrogates the shifting ways in which the BBC sought to represent the al-Qaeda phenomenon for British television audiences during the opening stages of “war on terror” (2001-2011). Drawing on the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault, and combining rigorous multimodal analysis of BBC “News at Ten” bulletins and interviews with the Corporation’s top journalists and editors, the book the provides much-needed insight into the way these representations developed over a ten-year period.

As the nation’s most trusted news provider, with over 80% of Britons using its services daily, the BBC makes an important case for extended analysis. Its “News at Ten” bulletin, the subject of my analysis, regularly receives around 35.9% share of audience ratings, and is the U.K.’s most watched news programme. Yet, when it comes to coverage of issues of war, political conflict and terrorism the Corporation has been criticised for its bias and the fact that it often functions as a mouthpiece for the state. My book, however, paints a more complex picture of the BBC and provides deeper insight into the challenges faced by the broadcaster today.

Challenging dominant representations of terrorism

In the widespread uncertainty following the September 11th 2001 attacks, the BBC’s representations functioned as a site for a continually-shifting range of fears, identities and discourses. Simplistic, cliché-ridden stereotypes about the East, Islam and terrorism appeared alongside more nuanced assessments of the various aims, motivations and backgrounds of the hijackers.

During the first few days of coverage, for example, al-Qaeda was depicted as a conventional “terrorist organisation”, “a group of Arab fundamentalists” or “an umbrella network of Islamic militants”, alongside more fleeting characterisations as a “faceless”, “elusive”, “shadowy” and “unseen enemy”. Visually, these tensions were further played out by juxtaposing images taken from al-Qaeda’s grainy, home-spun propaganda releases with a series of more benign, yet equally unsettling, family portrait photos of the hijackers. While sometimes bewildering for audiences, these fluid patterns of depiction served to call into question deep, culturally-ingrained representations of the terrorist “Other”, offering deeper insight into the everyday reality of the terror threat.

The complexity of these representations became even more apparent with the July 7th 2005 London bombings. Since the perpetrators were British citizens, BBC journalists began to explore difficult questions concerning the identity of the bombers and their possible motives. This not only involved correspondents directly quoting from al-Qaeda propaganda statements describing the attacks as “revenge against the British government for… its massacres in Iraq and Afghanistan”. It also led to several reports exploring the perception of Western foreign policy on individuals within Muslim communities across Britain. In one report, for example, a Leeds teenager suggests that “[i]t doesn’t help when there are these American and English are going into our countries and killing our brothers and sisters” (emphasis in original).

Home Affairs Editor Mark Easton offers insight into the challenges faced by BBC journalists at the time. As he explains,

I think that it is absolutely right after such an appalling series of attacks that we reflect really hard on what this tells us about our society and the things that helped create that situation; to ask ourselves difficult questions, and indeed ask what we could, and should, do to try to prevent this happening again… The motivation from our point of view was to try and understand a confused and contradictory and difficult situation, not to over simplify, but equally not to dismiss as too complicated to go into. We absolutely had to understand the environment in which those attacks happened.

The BBC’s own Editorial Guidelines and public purposes further help to explain such fluid representations. These policies specifically call upon the broadcaster to not only avoid playing politics with terrorism, but also report on such issues in an impartial and socially responsible manner. This led the BBC to find ways to draw a clear distinction between al-Qaeda’s violence and the beliefs and practices of Britain’s 2.7 million Muslims.

Drawing boundaries around the BBC’s representations

Importantly, despite the complexity of such portrayals, my findings do lend some support to the BBC’s many critics. In particular, around the time of the 2003 Wood Green ricin plot, the BBC’s representations aligned themselves much more closely with the government’s own exaggerated threat assessments. The event was considered the first instance of “al-Qaeda-related” activity in the U.K., and reporting incorporated careless speculation about the alleged links between al-Qaeda, Saddam Hussain’s Baath Party and weapons of mass destruction. Taken together with wider social anxieties regarding immigration and Britain’s asylum policy, this meant that the broadcaster led considerable support to claims made at the time by politicians such as Tony Blair and Colin Powell. In one report, for example, London correspondent Ben Brown made the connection explicit, stating, “[d]ocuments discovered in Afghanistan showed Osama bin Laden’s terror network had planned to produce ricin, and the Iraqis are said to have manufactured it in the past”. These comments were immediately followed a statement by the prime minister, declaring “[i]t is only a matter of time before terrorists get hold of it [weapons of mass destruction], and as the arrests that were made earlier today show, the danger is present and real and with us now, and its potential is huge”.

What is most concerning about the BBC’s coverage of this event, however, is the fact that it coincided with the final build-up to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. In my interviews with those who reported on this case, few were comfortable discussing this period. One correspondent noted, anonymously it should be said, that the Corporation was somewhat unwittingly “sucked into the narrative of the ‘war on terror’” during this event. Indeed, given the shifting portrayals witnessed in the aftermath of the September 11th 2001 and July 7th 2005 attacks, the representations seen here clearly raise significant questions for the BBC and its ability to challenge “official” accounts when covering alleged terrorist plots. As I suggest in the book, during such events, government control over the flow of information severely limits the range of representations the broadcaster can offer its audiences, thus leading to more simplistic depictions.

Looking forward

Evidently, the BBC has a difficult balancing act when it comes to representing phenomena such as al-Qaeda. First, it must provide citizens with vital information about the threat posed, the diverse origins of those involved and the context and causes in which they act, and the ways in which government are expected to respond. Moreover, it has to do this in ways that steer an informed middle-ground between “official” and “unofficial” representations, and thus avoiding propagandising on behalf of one group over another, while also avoiding alienating sections of its audience. Despite focusing on one facet of its news output, The BBC, the War on Terror and the Discursive Construction of Terrorism provides a clearer assessment of the way the Corporation represents terrorist phenomena such as al-Qaeda and sheds light on the barriers to such portrayals.  

And in an era in which the very notions of “truth” and “factuality” are increasingly being called into question by both political elites and citizens themselves, the difficulties facing the BBC are certainly not going away. It is subject to frequent attacks from both left and right-wing politicians, global media outlets such as RT, a partisan and increasingly bitter press, and a host of new “attack-sites” such as Media Lens, The Canary, News-Watch and Biased BBC. This has fed repeated calls to end its licence fee. The broadcaster faces more threats than ever in today’s hypercompetitive and multi-layered media environment, and in the face of such pressures, the BBC must seek to maintain the quality of its reporting and its ability to offer nuanced representations of terrorist phenomena.

Yet, the picture is not all bleak. While it is clear that the BBC does not always adhere to its own exacting standards, what distinguishes it from other news organisation is that it is a broadcaster that has an enduring capacity to learn and reflect on its journalistic practices. As veteran correspondent, and current BBC Middle East Editor, Jeremy Bowen put it to me,

I think there is an ongoing attempt at the BBC to want to educate people in terms of what’s going on around the world, and I think that what it takes is a lot of editorial vigilance, that editors and senior editors need to be able to say that “look, the tone isn’t quite right” or “the nuance is wrong”. And as well as that, not to fall into easy stereotypes. Sometimes as well, to be aware of the frames that governments use and you have to be critical of that. And when governments and militaries use these umbrella terms, like “the war on terrorism”, you’ve got to be quite careful to try to look at the bigger context and deconstruct it if necessary. This of course takes time and effort, but I know it is possible and can be done.

 

ahmad headshotJared Ahmad is a lecturer in Journalism, Politics and Communication at the University of Sheffield. He is the author of The BBC, the ‘War on Terror’ and the Discursive Construction of Terrorism: Representing Al-Qaeda (Palgrave 2018) and his work has also been published in international journals such as Critical Studies on Terrorism and Media, War and Conflict.