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News anchors Veronica Pedrosa and Teymoor Nabili at the Al Jazeera broadcast centre in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (AFP/Getty Images)
News anchors Veronica Pedrosa and Teymoor Nabili at the Al Jazeera broadcast centre in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (AFP/Getty Images)

Focus

Big Brother 2.0? Add to ...

The head is a jumble of brown skin, greying hair and oddly incongruous features. You have to stop and stare for a second to understand that two men's faces are blurred together in the picture. One belongs to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the other to U.S. President Barack Obama.

Its tagline upset many who saw it, and got the poster banned from airports across the United States: "Who poses the greater nuclear threat?"

It's part of an advertising campaign for RT News, an English-language television station headquartered in Moscow and newly arrived in Canada. The idea that the U.S. may be more dangerous than Iran doesn't come up often on Western networks such as CBC, CNN or BBC World. And that is exactly the station's point.

The slick, modern news service deliberately looks and sounds a lot like CNN. But where the Atlanta-based network worries about maintaining journalistic merit while pleasing viewers and advertisers, RT's editorial bigwigs have only one master: the Kremlin.

Call it the return of the propagandists. Two decades ago, as CNN won over audiences worldwide with its dramatic 24-hour coverage of the first Gulf War, walls were crumbling in Eastern Europe, dramatically curtailing the control of authoritarian states over what citizens read and heard.

But now, as the private conglomerates cut back on international news, throwbacks to the old days of state-run media are pouring billions into reporting with a very definite point of view.

The Kremlin's channel jostles for space on the upper reaches of cable and satellite packages with the similarly polished English-language networks of Al Jazeera (owned by the emir of the Persian Gulf state of Qatar) and France 24 (launched by former president Jacques Chirac with the explicit goal of giving a French perspective on the headlines).

All three have won approval from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. RT News has been picked up by Bell, Rogers and Shaw and is now available to more than three million households. Al Jazeera English recently received CRTC approval and is expected to start being added to cable packages some time this year.

Iran's state-funded and state-run Press TV has yet to receive CRTC approval, but it is available in much of the Middle East, as well as on bootleg satellite dishes and via Internet broadcasting platforms such as livestation.com.

These new propagandists will soon be joined by the China Xinhua News Network Corporation (CNC), part of a $6.6-billion (U.S.) effort by Beijing to hone its often-unflattering image abroad.

"In this environment, when Western media companies are closing bureaus, Russia and China have no problems promoting their state propaganda," Russian political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky says.

IT'S LIKE 'BREZNHEV TV'

RT News is funded by RIA Novosti, a state-owned, direct descendent of the Soviet Information Bureau founded as the official bugle of Joseph Stalin's USSR in 1941. But it can now beam its message into homes in Western Europe and North America that may have no idea that they're watching Kremlin TV, a channel dedicated to promoting Moscow's world view, and where criticisms of President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin are rarely, if ever, allowed to air.

"Russia Today is like watching the Brezhnev TV of my youth 30 years ago," Mr. Piontkovsky says. "Technically it is high-class and the English of the presenters is impeccable. But it's not sophisticated in anything but style. The substance is very primitive."

Yet many see nothing wrong with being able to look at world events through various sets of eyes. "You stay in any hotel in Russia and you turn on the television and there's CNN giving you the voice of America on things. RT News is the voice of Russia," says Slava Levin, president of Ethnic Channels Group, the company that sponsored the arrival of both RT News and Al Jazeera English in Canada. He says there is demand in Canada for these different perspectives, especially in immigrant communities.

"I wouldn't say they look like government-run channels, propaganda like we're used to," he says. "They look no different from CNN or Fox or CBC or BBC or anything to that effect."

Indeed, the new propagandists have deliberately made it hard to tell that you're watching anything other than just another news channel. Deep-voiced anchors read the headlines seriously and banter with correspondents covering lighter topics. Up-to-the-minute news flashes scroll across the bottom of the screen. Guests are brought in to analyze. Music drips over flashy graphics illustrating the weather around the world.

But, following the path cleared for them by opinion-heavy U.S. networks such as Fox News and MSNBC (which is nearly as fond of the Democratic Party as Fox is of Republicans), the new propagandists are more notable for the perspective they bring than the reporting their correspondents do.

WARY EYES ON HAITI

The change in emphasis from station to station is anything but subtle. For example, CNN covered the deployment of more than 10,000 American soldiers to Haiti as a straight-up aid operation to a disaster-stricken country, with Anderson Cooper and other anchors reporting live from the scene as American rescuers dug through the rubble for survivors.

RT News and Press TV, on the other hand, repeatedly questioned whether the U.S. military had other aims in Haiti, especially as Médecins sans frontières and other organizations complained of aid flights being diverted away from the Port-au-Prince airport after it came under U.S. control.

"The troops are taking control of the [presidential]palace, but the people camped outside are hoping they're going to distribute aid," a hijab-clad Press TV anchor said over footage of U.S. helicopters landing on the earthquake-hit island.

RT News highlighted a French minister's comment that the aid operation should be "about helping Haiti, not about occupying Haiti," playing it up in newscasts long after Paris and Washington had moved to quell a row over which flights would be allowed to land at Port-au-Prince. The words "U.S. Power Aid" lingered over the bottom fifth of the screen through much of RT's coverage.

Regardless of how many people end up tuning in to such channels in Canada, they carry wide influence in markets that are very dear to their owners. Al Jazeera's Arabic channel is wildly popular in the Middle East, and its English-language station has expanded on that influence by becoming - because of its heavy emphasis on the region - the go-to channel for many Western journalists and diplomats based in the area.

Both the English and the Arabic versions have fought accusations that they harbour an anti-Israel and anti-American bias.

Similarly, RT News is often the only English television available to a visiting journalist, businessman or politician in some of the more remote corners of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The channel has never made money, but the Kremlin's motives are not financial. According to one survey, RT News is now more watched by English-speakers inside Russia than BBC, CNN or Bloomberg. Its influence, however, is more difficult to measure.

Beijing, Tehran and Moscow share a deeply held belief that the dominant international media outlets are chronically biased, unwilling or unable to see the world from anything but a Western perspective. The run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a turning point, as CNN, Fox News and other outlets swallowed wholesale George W. Bush and Tony Blair's argument for ousting Saddam Hussein and cast aspersions on those governments - notably Russia, France and China - that argued against the war.

Vladimir Putin, Jacques Chirac and Hu Jintao all appear to have reached the conclusion that CNN had been critical in convincing the world that the U.S. was right to invade Iraq. They each decided that they needed a soft-power tool of their own that, next time, could argue their case in English, the language in which the world debates. (RT News and France 24 both broadcast in Arabic as well, a trend China's CNC is expected to join soon after its English network is on the air.)

THE INDEPENDENCE GAP

Of course, countries such as Germany and Japan have long had their own English-language stations that broadcast news abroad. Like France 24, their only discernible bias is in favour of news from "home," as well as a tendency to carry live speeches by local leaders that other networks might ignore. Al Jazeera's English network has also won respect by giving its correspondents plenty of editorial independence.

RT News, Press TV and the coming Xinhua channel, however, have more in common with the likes of Voice of America and Radio Liberty - the U.S. State Department-funded tools of persuasion that pump out Washington-friendly news and opinion. After decades of feeling maligned by the Western media, Moscow, Tehran and Beijing have given up trying to communicate through their filters.

"The world is mainly getting to know China's situation through Western media," says Ming Anxiang, a media researcher at the China Academy of Social Sciences, alleging that news organizations including CNN and BBC World "deliberately distorted" what happened during bloody ethnic rioting in Tibet two years ago.

In one infamous incident, several outlets showed images of what were portrayed as Chinese police beating Tibetan protesters. The officers were actually Nepalese and the scene took place in Kathmandu.

"It is necessary to enhance China's voice and influence in the world media field so that the world can know China more completely, objectively, truly and quickly," Mr. Ming says.

It's questionable, however, whether even a CNN-slick Xinhua CNC will be seen as any more credible than the existing stable of Chinese news channels, which includes a tame and oft-mocked English-language offering, CCTV-9. "The key is whether the government can or will keep the ownership separate from the editors, and whether there will be independent managing of the news," Zhan Jiang, a professor of journalism at the Foreign Studies University in Beijing. "If there isn't, it will be troublesome."

But just as in the heyday of state messaging, independence from the government line is the last thing today's new propagandists are interested in.

"Communications capacity determines influence," Li Changchun, propaganda chief for today's Communist Party of China, explained last year as the country launched its new media drive. "Whichever nation's communications capacity is strongest, it is that nation whose culture and core values spread far and wide - and that has the most power to influence the world."

Mark MacKinnon is The Globe and Mail's correspondent in Beijing.

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