Tom Peterkin: Why Alex Salmond must now quit Russia Today show

Amid mounting tensions between the UK and Russia, former SNP leader Alex Salmond should axe his RT show, writes Tom Peterkin.

Former First Minister Alex Salmond Picture: Lesley Martin/PA Wire
Former First Minister Alex Salmond Picture: Lesley Martin/PA Wire

It is time for a confession. Some time ago I made the mistake of appearing as a political pundit on RT, the Kremlin-backed broadcaster.

A journalist from RT, formerly Russia Today, rang up and asked me if I’d care to comment on the impact that Brexit would have on the SNP’s drive for Scottish independence.

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I told the journalist I was extremely busy writing stuff for the paper (I was … believe it or not) and would struggle to find the time.

Not to worry, he said. It would only take a couple of minutes and he would come to me. Before I knew where I was and without thinking through what I was doing, I found myself outside the Scottish Parliament doing my best to answer questions on the complexities of the EU withdrawal bill.

As I rushed back to my Holyrood office, it dawned on me that the moment or two I had spent appearing on RT was perhaps not the most sensible act of my career.

Through a mixture of misjudgement and naivety I had left myself open to accusations that I had become a pawn of Putin or one of Lenin’s “useful idiots” – guilty of legitimising a Russian propaganda outlet.

As I settled down at my keyboard and got on with the day job, I consoled myself that if I was a pawn or an idiot, I was – in the grand scheme of things – a rather insignificant one.

Surely the unpaid appearance of a rather shabby middle-aged Scottish journalist on RT was unlikely to make anyone sit up and take notice.

Nevertheless I cursed my naivety and silently vowed to reject RT’s advances if they were to come my way again.

Adding to my irritation was the fact that I had gone on RT despite having written an article that pointed out that it distributed pro-Putin propaganda.

My article had also described criticism directed against a prominent politician for using the channel to attack UK mainstream media and BBC “propaganda”.

The politician in question was Alex Salmond, who appeared to have undergone an irony bypass when he appeared on RT. Back then the former SNP leader was promoting his 2014 referendum diary “The Dream Will Never Die”. This was long before he became one of RT’s highest profile presenters.

Between then and now I had cause to reflect on my RT appearance as I reported on the Kremlin-backed Sputnik news agency opening an office in Edinburgh amid suggestions it had done so to destabilise the UK.

And then, of course, there was Mr Salmond’s hugely controversial decision to cement his relationship with RT by hosting a current affairs show on it.

By no means can Mr Salmond be cast as an insignificant pawn. As a highly experienced politician with a consuming interest in world affairs, he must have known exactly what he was doing when he took the Russian Rouble.

As has been well documented, Mr Salmond’s choice of broadcaster for “The Alex Salmond Show” has not gone down well with his colleagues.

Nicola Sturgeon said she would have advised her predecessor against furthering his broadcasting career on RT – a form of words that when put into political context expressed a great deal of displeasure.

The SNP MEP Alyn Smith was more blunt. “What the f*** is he thinking?” exclaimed Mr Smith when told about his former boss’s career move. Meanwhile his critics made the point that when it came to talk of pawns and idiots, securing the services of a politician of Mr Salmond’s status was of considerable usefulness to RT.

The weekly RT screening of The Alex Salmond Show has looked increasingly incongruous as tensions between the UK and Russia have escalated in the most distressing circumstances.

Last week the show failed to mention the big news story of the week – the attempted murder with a Moscow-made military nerve agent of double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury.

By any normal journalistic standards, it was an extraordinary omission. Facing a growing clamour to cut his ties with RT, Mr Salmond has suggested this remarkable oversight will be corrected when his programme is screened today.

“I shall be addressing the developing crisis on Thursday, so watch the show to find out what I think,” Mr Salmond said this week, encouraging viewers to tune into the controversial RT channel.

In the current climate, anything short of ending his relationship with RT will fail to extricate him from this row, which has done so much damage to his reputation.

In the past, Mr Salmond has argued that his programme is independently produced and broadcast on a station which is licensed by OfCom, the UK’s broadcast watchdog. But maintaining that argument looks increasingly difficult with Ofcom investigating whether RT is “fit and proper” to hold a licence.

Even if Mr Salmond uses his RT platform to condemn the Salisbury attack and unequivocally condemn Putin’s murderous regime, his reputation is still tarred by appearing on the channel.

It can be argued that a Salmond denunciation of Putin would suit RT in that it would enable the broadcaster to argue that it does tolerate dissent at the same time as it continues to push a pro-Putin message. The bottom line is that it is Mr Salmond’s association with RT that serves to legitimise the Kremlin-backed broadcaster.