Pressure cooker

Problems within RT have remained unreported largely because employees are nervous about talking with journalists. The Moscow Times approached a large number of current and former staff members. Most of them declined to comment in any capacity, citing non-disclosure agreements. Almost all of them described a sense of fear and paranoia when it comes to discussing RT outside of work.

Several sources reported that they had been asked to sign non-disparagement agreements. RT asked, and by some accounts pressured, reporters to sign the document in 2014 amid the crisis in Ukraine.

The Moscow Times has seen a document purporting to be such a non-disparagement agreement. It stipulates that employees will face a $50,000 fine, without proof of loss, in the event that the signatory disparages RT at any time. A source said the document had come about following the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine, and the resignation of British reporter Sara Firth.

The Moscow Times conferred with one lawyer who questioned the legal force of such a document. Two current RT employees said they have never heard of such a document.

Those who did agree to speak painted a picture of an unusually stressful working environment. One source described the editorial office as “a pressure cooker, full of constant stress and yelling.” The rate of staff attrition is by many accounts high. RT places great emphasis on social media metrics, which, a source argued, drove “serious” journalists away.

The focus on social media metrics and audience is not, of course, something unique to RT. What distinguishes RT from other news organizations, however, is an unusually strict editorial line. According to a former employee, this line is rarely stated explicitly. Instead, according to the source, it is enforced in varied ways depending on the employee’s nationality and political sympathies.

Foreigners hired by RT will often be “cookie cutter” leftists, ideologically driven against the West, sources said. Reporters falling into this category take jobs with RT believing they will be given a platform to challenge establishment narratives in their home countries. Such journalists often lacked political introspection and in-depth knowledge of Russia. Several sources echoed this assessment.

When reporters stray off course, they are nudged back in line. The number one critique of reporters who fail to properly emphasize the agreed line was that “this is not our angle,” a former RT employee said—“that phrase ‘our angle’ came up constantly.” When asked about this policy, the two current RT employees denied that the “angle” is anything but secret. Staff members are in no doubt their job is to promote “Russia’s point of view” and to “give platform” to views “unwelcome in the mainstream media.”

When foreign staff protested RT’s coverage of Ukraine, sources say the management’s solution was simple. They took them off Ukraine-related coverage and handed the assignments to Russian staff. RT continued to demonstrate tone-deafness during the French presidential election, displaying a clear bias against the likely victor Macron.