Sara Firth, a London-based correspondent with RT (previously known as Russia Today), has resigned in protest at the channel's coverage of the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17. Firth told RFE/RL's Golnaz Esfandiari that the Russian state run news channel is all about "pointing fingers" and "deflecting attention from Russia."
RFE/RL: You resigned from RT over the coverage of the crashed Malaysian flight. What exactly bothered you about the way the story was covered?
Sara Firth: It has been a long time coming; it is not a decision that I made lightly or off the cuff. The decision though -- yesterday when I saw our coverage -- kind of solidified in my mind that I needed to go. I've actually been in discussion with RT about potentially leaving or going elsewhere. I was mooting staying at RT for another couple of years, and when I saw the way they were handling that story -- again it's the way they handled a lot of their breaking news stories -- I just decided that it was time to go.
How was the story handled?
Firth: Incompetently: we don't put proper journalists on the story, we don't fact check. We put people on who have a very clear viewpoint that fits RT's narrative and in a situation as sensitive as the story was yesterday -- and in those kinds of situations -- I think it becomes quite dangerous, and it's very disappointing that we do that.
RFE/RL: RT has always been accused of biased reporting and spinning stories; it's been accused of being a propaganda tool for the Kremlin. Did you know what you were getting into from the beginning?
Firth: Absolutely, yes. I've spent five years defending RT, and I'm not, with my resignation, throwing RT to the wolves. I have a huge amount of respect for the channel; the colleagues that I worked with are massively talented. There are some wonderful journalists and there is some fantastic journalism coming out of RT. The problem is that it's being overshadowed by the incompetent handling of the channel by the management. I think that's a shame. It just got to a point where the balance isn't there for me personally anymore. The way that it's been described in the media -- that it's the Kremlin's propaganda channel, I always thought it's a very lazy description of what RT is. There is so much more to it than that. I think people do need to look at it closer. And the role I played and other colleagues who resigned publicly played, I hope isn't the role of betraying the company or coming clean or finally having an awakening because it's not that -- We know RT is what RT is and it's operated within that system and I've been paid by them and I've -- you know...My eyes were always wide open to the pitfalls of working with RT.
RFE/RL: You said that RT often speaks to people with specific viewpoints. Whom did RT put on air while covering the Malaysian flight crash?
Firth: The eyewitness account that we ran immediately when the news was breaking was someone who was claiming it was the Ukrainian government, the Ukrainian military, so you know things like that, it's so misleading.
RFE/RL: So they were pointing fingers at Ukraine?
Firth: Absolutely. They don't overtly say it themselves but everything is geared toward that narrative, analysis from our correspondents, the people that we put on air; everything is already geared toward that message. And you watch the coverage today and it just backs it up. We're running pieces like: "The rest of the world jumped on the issue blaming Russia," and it's very frustrating because they're overlooking the reality of the situation.
RFE/RL: Can you give us some examples of the rules you had to follow while reporting for RT? What was the editorial process like?
Firth: It's a very strange system. You have to get everything approved, your scripts approved. There is often a lot of deliberation back and forth about that. The thing is that you have a lot of freedom with your stories. So in London, I get to report on massively underreported stories that are really important. We go, we get the facts, we do it properly, if you're a good journalist, you're to get a good story. But it's only being taken by RT and it's only being put on air by RT if it fits their narrative. So in the U.K., it's quite easy, any story that makes the British government look bad, they'll take. Pointing fingers are what RT is about, and deflecting criticism and deflecting attention from Russia.
RFE/RL: Despite what you just described, you worked for RT as a correspondent for five years. Can you explain what made you work for such an organization? Do you have any regrets?
Firth: Of course I can explain, because it was an organization that I felt I could do good journalism for and it was a job that I loved and I do love it still. I love being a correspondent. And there were some massively talented supportive people on the team and I'm really grateful to them for a lot of the opportunities that they've allowed me. And I don't regret it for a second, not a second of the experience that I had with RT.
RFE/RL: Do you think there are more journalists at RT who are not happy with the way the channel covers news?
Firth: Absolutely. Behind the scenes RT are hemorrhaging good journalists. There are very few people who are speaking about it publicly because everyone is very scared about what it would do to their careers in the future, understandably of course. It's better to stay quiet and just move on. The good journalists, the ones that are doing the job properly, end up staying for about three years or so and then leaving.