John McLellan: Why I won’t be returning to Russia Today

Alex Salmond during the launch of his RT chat show. Picture: Chris Radburn/PA Wire
Alex Salmond during the launch of his RT chat show. Picture: Chris Radburn/PA Wire
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I should have guessed the American TV producer was desperate when he e-mailed me three times about coming on his election-night news show, saying I’d been highly recommended.

I didn’t ask by whom, although it was obviously baseless flattery given my television appearances tend to be when no-one is watching and is limited to responding to the latest criticism of the newspaper industry on BBC Scotland. But trying to be a helpful sort of chap, I eventually said yes to a pre-record interview for The News with Ed Schultz.

The instructions were to turn up at the Glasshouse Hotel on Greenside Place, where I was led to a bedroom suite in which a temporary studio had been set up. The crew were young wannabes, more Bill and Ted than Walter Kronkite, and Schultz a grizzled veteran of mid-American TV and radio shows no-one here has ever heard of. Jay Leno and the Late Late Show this wasn’t; it was the world on the road with RT America. Yes, if the criticism of Alex Salmond this week is anything to go by, I had become a tool of Vladimir Putin’s Russia Today propaganda machine.

Schultz asked me a few straightforward questions about how the election campaign had gone and what I thought might happen. But to liven things up, and this being RT America, I started to talk supportively about the General Synod of the Scottish Episcopal Church taking place across the road and why it was appropriate at a time of political change for it to approve gay marriages in its churches. Schultz didn’t pick up on it and I don’t know if it ever made the cut. What I do know is they didn’t ask me back.

And thanks to the Salmond controversy, I also know now that Scottish Conservative representatives aren’t supposed to contribute to RT shows. Oops… won’t happen again, but unlike Mr Salmond I wasn’t offered and didn’t seek payment for the interview. The issue is, of course, whether participation legitimises the dark purposes of Russia Today and I suppose six months ago I didn’t really take that seriously enough and treated it just like any request for help from foreign broadcasters. I also took part in a debate for Turkish TV, hardly a paragon of democratic virtue these days either.

Ironically, I’m writing this from Cambridge, famous for its Russian spy-ring, where this year’s Society of Editors’ conference is on the theme of “Fighting for Real News”. Russia Today seeks to crowd and confuse and in retrospect it was a mistake to help them out. Mr Salmond gave up his racing column so he would be taken more seriously; his stubborn refusal to give up Russia Today suggests he no longer cares what anyone thinks, least of all First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

John McLellan is director of the Scottish Newspaper Society and a City of Edinburgh Conservative councillor