Russia Today

by | London, UK

Monday, 14 March 2011

tags: culture, emergence, europe, making sense, semiotics


Secretary of State Clinton said recently that she fears that American channels are being outmanoeuvred by foreign English news channels like Al-Jazeera and without naming them their Chinese and Russian English counterparts. She declared this as if it was the height of effrontery that they should be on air at all. Russia Today gleefully reported a rather haggard looking Hillary Clinton declaring that: "We are in an information war, and putting it bluntly, we are losing that war. Al-Jazeera is winning”. She said that she had seen Russia Today and quipped that she had found it “quite instructive”. Walt Isaacson the head of an agency running Voice of America was blunt in warning in 2010 that: “We can't allow ourselves to be out communicated by our enemies.”

It is clear that we are living through an interregnum with the US indebted and embroiled in conflict. It is at a crossroads and its hegemony in doubt. If soft power has underpinned the legitimacy of US foreign policy then does the proliferation and influence of regional English language news channels signify the beginning of the erosion of this US soft power? Al-Jazeera has gained plaudits for its professionalism and the quality of its reporting. Russia Today is becoming increasingly assertive. RT on You Tube has now clocked up 300 million views versus only 3 million on CNN. So what are the semiotics of RT?

RT use a fascinating melange of signifiers. Firstly, the logo which is very slick with a meridian straddled amber globe (far less garish than that of NDTV) with a very bold black RT (like Korean Lucky Goldstar became LG), has coined a two letter moniker that effaces its origin. They seem to take a cue from the US channels in their use of dense, murky studio graphics (a slightly less crisp and lucid palette than BBC or Sky). RT are impressive in the suite of signs they impose in their programme sub branding. They have a slick deck of slides that flip round like an Apple app carousel to denote the range of documentaries on YouTube. Like Al-Jazeera and NDTV they also show in an ident sequence that has the alchemic power to transmogrify liquid information into solid news,  melting their logo which turns into flower and then spins into a cube.

Their sonic semiotics are also very contemporary – using heavy chugging Detroit sound for one of the their special report as well as making liberal use of what Philip Tagg calls ‘doomsday megadrones’ to add film trailer-like authority. RT’s brand tag line is Question More and they say they aim to ‘challenge viewers’.

What does it all mean?

Well this is about maximizing the bombast and the impact of visual address which increases rhetorical force. This means that RT gain an authority that belies their relatively short tenure. With an aggressive social media strategy, it looks as if they intend to leap over US channels by casting themselves, like Al-Jazeera, as fair brokers in critical global debates.

Russia Today are mordant in their coverage of American difficulties at home and abroad, focusing on their failure to win hearts and minds in Afghanistan for example, or attacking the corporate agribusiness in India.

What is so interesting about these channels is whatever ideological agendas – and Russia could be forgiven for resenting NATO containment and the US encroachment on their sphere of influence – smuggled into their editorial line, they are adopting the visual semiotic strategies of Western channels too, i.e. the graphical look of slick professionalism that signifies their presumed neutrality.

To garble Noam Chomsky, RT and channels such as Venezuela’s Telesur and CCTV are quite rightly suspected by the US of Manufacturing Dissent. It will be very interesting to see how US channels cope with this in the long term or if brand new channels will be launched in order to reclaim the US’s moral authority.

© Chris Arning 2011

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