The Alex Salmond Show on Russia Today in breach

An episode of The Alex Salmond Show broadcast on controversial Russian current affairs channel Russia Today (“RT”) has been found to be in breach of the provision of the Ofcom Code which says that factual programmes must not materially mislead the audience.

The programme is hosted by the former First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond and produced by his own production company, Slàinte Media.

Russia Today, which is currently under investigation by Ofcom in respect of ten other complaints, is funded by the Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communications of the Russian Federation, and broadcasts on satellite and digital terrestrial platforms in the UK.

The first episode of Salmond’s new series saw a complaint made to Ofcom alleging that the programme “invented tweets presented as real from viewers of the show to direct the debate on his views and terms”.

When Salmond introduced the section of the programme where he read out a series of tweets and emails, he said: “But first to a really important part of the show – when I get to hear from you. Over the past week and even before the show has started we’ve received an avalanche of tweets and emails. And can I just say to the media – thanks folks for all the publicity. Let’s just look at a few of them…”

Salmond then proceeded to read out a series of questions, including on his decision to appear on RT, on Brexit, and on his dealings with Donald Trump, and delivered the answers to them.

RT confirmed that four of the six tweets or emails were sent by people connected either directly or indirectly to the production of The Alex Salmond Show or to Alex Salmond in some way, including freelancers who worked on the show and the series director.

Ofcom considered whether there had been a breach of Rule 2.2 which provides that “Factual programmes or items or portrayals of factual matters must not materially mislead the audience”.

In reaching its decision, Ofcom referred to a previous explanation given in respect of the rule and its application to another RT programme broadcast in 2015, The Truthseeker: Media ‘Staged’ Syria Chem Attack, to the effect that audience trust is likely to be particularly high in current affairs programmes.

Ofcom considered that ordinary viewers would not have expected that any of the emails and tweets originated from people who were in any way linked to the programme or to Mr Salmond (whether materially or not). Therefore, the fact that four of the questions did originate from such sources was a misrepresentation of a factual matter and was misleading.

Ofcom found that viewers would have been under the impression that the questions quoted by Mr Salmond had originated from members of the public wholly unconnected with the programme or with him, when this was not, in fact, the case.

The failure to disclose this information meant that viewers were misled.

Because viewer trust in this current affairs programme would have been undermined, Ofcom considered that this was materially misleading, and that the programme was in breach of Rule 2.2 of the Code.

Both Slàinte Media and RT were critical of the decision, Slàinte Media suggesting that it jeopardised freedom of speech, and RT accusing Ofcom of orchestrating media coverage of the incident by publishing a preliminary finding earlier this year, allegedly before receiving representations from the channel.

RT also dismissed the misrepresentations about the origins of the questions as a “trivial teething problem”.

This ruling further emphasises the importance accorded to maintaining audience trust in current affairs programmes, the principle which was central to the regulator’s finding against RT in 2015, and which appears increasingly important because of concerns about so-called “fake news”.