Former leader Alex Salmond finds difficulty getting guests for talk show on Kremlin-backed channel
On show in Scotland, Russia's continuing attempts to influence West
An expansion of Russia’s media empire in Britain got off to a stuttering start as the former Scottish leader Alex Salmond launched a new chat show amid a boycott by ex-colleagues and commentators.
After a blast of negative reaction to the weekly show on the Kremlin-owned RT channel, Mr Salmond has been forced on the defensive. Top-billed guests including John Bercow, the speaker of the House of Commons, pulled out in advance. David Cameron laughed off an approach.
In the end the first episode on Thursday featured an interview with Carles Puigdemont, the ex-Catalan leader and Crispin Blunt, a controversial Conservative MP.
Since losing his seat in parliament in June, Mr Salmond has sought reinvention as a media personality. The decision to go with RT, formerly Russia Today, has exposed persistent intervention by Moscow in Edinburgh, the Scottish capital.
The city of blackened granite terraces is at first glance an unlikely target for Kremlin attempts to shape developments in the world’s leading democracies. The facades of the Royal Mile are the product of a proud imperial history. The weather-beaten copper statues depict the heroes of the 17th century enlightenment, a world away from the regime personified by Vladimir Putin.
Few former friends were willing to speak out in support of Mr Salmond, who led his Scottish National Party out of the wilderness to take power in the devolved administration.
Nicola Sturgeon, his successor as first minister, banned her colleagues from appearing on the show.
Alex Bell, a former aide to Mr Salmond, told The National that efforts by Mr Putin and the Russians to cultivate Mr Salmond stretched back to 2012. Embassy officials offered to set up a summit meeting. Alarmed by the implications, Mr Bell said he did not even pass on the Russian invite to his boss.
“He’s made a massive misjudgment,” he said. “He could have been the golden hope of nationalists and the elder statesman above the political scene. Instead he is linking with the woeful nationalism of the kind that is available in Russia.”
A drought of big-name guests on his chat show could quickly diminish Mr Salmond. A similar format on RT hosted by the former Labour MP George Galloway is regularly devoted to fringe political activists with no public following.
“When the novelty factor no longer exists it’s going to be a tough gig,” said Mr Bell, who fears that Mr Salmond’s decision to make the show himself and appoint another former MP as the producer robs the show of a talented TV professionals. “An intervention from a politician in exile carries a huge amount of weight but a broadcaster becomes a lesser thing.”
The only upside from the collusion is likely to accrue to RT, which has scored a prominent personality capable of attracting attention to a channel that has viewership figures languishing in the hundreds in Britain. “Who’d heard of Russia Today before this,” said Mr Bell. “Now it’s got higher name recognition among the public and that gives it clout.”
In a hard-hitting speech on Monday, Theresa May warned Mr Putin that Britain knows what his regime is up to as it interferes in not just Scottish politics but also Brexit and wider British politics.
She also pleaded with Mr Salmond to drop his show but her intervention was rebuffed by the pugnacious former economist. Defending his venture, he said other broadcasters had been offered the opportunity to buy the half-hour product but they shunned his concept.
“I was told that I would be too hot a property for the British television authorities,” he said.
The 62-year-old insisted that he had total editorial control over the programme and referred questions about the channel to the British regulator, Ofcom. "My programme, the one that I am producing, the one that I am editing, is my responsibility. All I’ve got is a platform.
“The channel is the responsibility of Ofcom. How on earth can you license a channel to broadcast and then complain it broadcasts.”
Scottish political commentator Ian McWhirter said Mr Salmond’s “foolish decision” had made him an easy target for charges he was now a Kremlin tool and a Putin puppet. “If Mr Salmond’s programme starts doing items on Ukraine nationalism, the independence movement in South Ossetia and suppression of human rights in autonomous Russian republics, I will retract any criticism,” he wrote in the nationalist-leaning Herald newspaper. “I will certainly be watching.”
Research identifying thousands of instances of Russia internet factories targeting British politics has been published by universities in Edinburgh, Swansea, Oxford and London in the last month.
The latest survey by data specialists at Swansea University and the University of California, Berkeley said 45,000 tweets were issued about Brexit by Russia-backed social media accounts in the 48 hours ahead of the Brexit referendum in June 2016.
The Spanish government has also made concerns known that Russian outlets were promoting Catalan nationalist grievances. In France the presidential campaign of the far-right Marine Le Pen was bolstered by both Russian loans and favourable coverage on RT and other Russian vehicles.
Digital Hydra, a report from Nato, detailed the tactics used by Russian accounts to distort the media environment. These included the creation of false content and distorted emotional accounts as well as saturating targeted media environments and using cyber-bots to create false amplification of reports.
Concerns voiced by the prime minister have not derailed the expansion plans of another Russian outlet in Edinburgh. The Sputnik news agency occupies the sixth floor of a tower block just off the city’s Charlotte Square, the heart of the Georgian city. With panoramic views of landmarks like Arthur’s Seat and Edinburgh Castle, the boardroom has the city at its feet.
Egor Piskunov, the newly installed editor in chief, grew up in America as the son of Russian journalists based in New York. He revealed Sputnik is applying for a radio broadcasting licence in Britain, something that would mean a dramatic expansion of its two hours of output in the Scottish capital. Sputnik already employs 22 journalists in the Scottish city.
“I really doubt that Alex Salmond is going to be getting phone calls from the Kremlin every day before his programme, as much as the mainstream media are trying to portray this impression,” he said. “We have not been pushing for Scottish independence. Neither have we been pushing for any kind of independence, Spain included.”