Head of '˜Russian Propaganda HQ' in Edinburgh says outlet is like BBC

The Editor of a controversial state-backed Russian media outlet with its UK headquarters in Edinburgh has compared his site to the BBC and insists that the organisation is here to stay.

Egor Piskunov. Picture: Contributed

Sputnik News, which broadcasts radio and has a news website, first arrived in Scotland in the summer of 2016, amid much controversy.

Like a number of Russian news outlets, Sputnik is operated and funded by an agency of the Russian Government and has been accused of spreading misinformation, conspiracy spreading, and even espionage.

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Fourteen people, many of them Scottish, now work at Sputnik’s UK bureau at the Exchange Tower in Edinburgh, a short walk from Bute House, official residence of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

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As global anger mounts over alleged Russian-backed attempts to deliberately spread fake news to aid the causes of Donald Trump, Brexit and Scottish independence, intrigue in Sputnik’s Edinburgh outpost has only grown.

The offices at Exchange Square have been called ‘a propaganda HQ’ and a ‘misinformation agency’ in the press, a viewpoint seemingly given credence by reports the SNP had banned their elected politicians from appearing on Sputnik or sister-station Russia Today, which has a show presented by former First Minister Alex Salmond.

In truth, despite landing with a self-professed bid to ‘tell the untold’ in Scotland, their UK base in Edinburgh isn’t necessarily about reporting Scottish stories.

“We really don’t do Scottish news, it is international news we focus on, but if something unique or interesting comes from Scotland, or staff will cover it, but we don’t have a ‘Scottish news’ department,” Egor Piskunov, Sputnik’s UK Editor-in-Chief told The Scotsman.

Despite some assuming it was the post-referendum political instability attracted the state-backed broadcaster to Scotland, Mr Piskunov insists the decision to base Sputnik in the capital was largely financial.

“Election night involves serious planning, we are aiming to tell people the story of what’s happening in Russia.”

“There’s been so much lately about Sputnik, RT and basically all-things Russia-related, and I’ve learned not to take it personally.

Mr Piskunov said there is no idealogical purity test, adding: “Our criteria when hiring is not anyone’s background, but how eager they are to learn and how well they write.”

The former Russia Today correspondent added: “We are publicly funded, but so are the BBC, does that mean that they are a Government propaganda outlet?

“The fact these questions are asked about us but not the BBC shows the bias in the mainstream media.”

Sputnik has been accused of playing host to conspiracy theories on their radio broadcasts and site but Mr Piskunov says content merely reflects a desire not to shy away from controversial topics.

He said: “We aren’t afraid of giving voice to those opinions which aren’t normally entertained by those in the mainstream media – and we do give a platform to those who criticise the Russian government.”

“We’re not hiding anything, we are trying to just share these untold stories.”

“I don’t think Sputnik will be leaving Edinburgh any time soon, we have now partnered with the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce, allowing us to meet and work with more local people and local businesses.”

A spokesman for the Scottish Conservatives said: “After promising to shake-up the Scottish media scene, Sputnik has been utterly anonymous.

“It’s an assembly of propagandists and amateurs, and it’s no surprise that Scots – with the exception of some naïve cybernats – have paid no attention to it.”

Martin Docherty SNP MP and member of Westminster’s Defence Committee said: “The suggestion that Sputnik, an organisation owned and funded directly by the Russian Government, is in any way comparable to the licence-payer funded BBC is laughable.

“I believe that there are legitimate concerns around the way that the BBC conducts certain aspects of its coverage of Scottish politics, but it has never falsely accused the Ukrainian government of genocide against its own people; deliberately misattributed the source of the missile that shot down Malaysian Airlines flight MH17; or sought to spread misinformation about immigrants in Europe that borders on the Islamophobic.”