New academic research has condemned UK tabloids for sourcing stories from Kremlin-backed news outlets RT (formerly Russia Today) and Sputnik.
But one of the tabloids identified – The Sun – has said the claims in the report by King’s College London are not remotely backed up by evidence.
The study claims ten articles in total – three each from the Express website and Mail Online and two each from The Sun and Daily Star online – “were largely or partially composed of passages of text from RT or Sputnik”.
The report’s authors, Dr Gordon Ramsay and Dr Sam Robertshaw, told Press Gazette their study “does not claim that the Sun is complicit in spreading Russian propaganda or parroting content”.
It claims that of the ten articles, four copied content unattributed from the Russian news outlets – all three from the Express and one from Mail Online.
They said the Sun had attributed where appropriate in its stories included in the study, informing readers of the potential bias of the source.
Online news websites publish a large volume of stories every day. Mail Online alone publishes some 1,500 stories on a daily basis.
The KCL research used text-matching software and methods to locate and verify likely instances of so-called “churnalism”.
It analysed some 12,000 English articles from RT and Sputnik and more than 150,000 online articles by other UK outlets. The articles were collected after the Skripal poisoning in March 2018 and between May and June 2017.
The authors said their findings show that only “a relatively small number of articles” on UK tabloid websites featured content “lifted directly” from RT and Sputnik, with the Express website “foremost among them”.
The report said: “Though not widespread, the practice is both needless and indefensible, particularly in the cases identified where information regarding Russian military policy or about the Skripal poisoning was replicated without attribution and presented to audiences.
“The analyses of RT and Sputnik content in this project and elsewhere should confirm that these are not impartial sources, particularly on issues of international politics or Russian policy.”
The study said RT and Sputnik, which are both funded by Moscow, cover Russian military issues “extensively”, with stories acting as “fact files” on military capabilities that are drawn on heavily by UK tabloids.
An Express.co.uk article from 10 March last year, headlined: “World War 3: US senators call for urgent talks with Russia due to terrifying new weapons“, was given as the “most significant” example of an article with passages copied from the Russian news outlets.
It was described by the study’s authors as a “direct lift of an RT article” published the day before and had gone through “minimal rewriting to remove evidence of a pro-Russian slant”.
A spokesperson for Reach, which owns the Express and Daily Star, declined to comment when asked for a response to the claims in the report and to explain the similarities between news articles on Express.co.uk and RT.
The third Express article, headlined: “Preparing for WAR? Russia to upgrade rocket artillery by 2020 as tensions with NATO rise”, shared “portions of text” with a Sputnik report published the day before.
The two stories from the Daily Star website refer to Sputnik and RT as sources of information within the first few paragraphs.
An article on Mail Online about a Russian fighter jet “contained some passages of text identical to those found in an RT article” published only hours earlier, and used the same link to NBC in the copy, the study said.
The two other Mail Online articles noted that information had been taken from Sputnik and made the broadcaster’s state-backed nature clear. Mail Online has yet to respond to a request for comment.
Both stories from The Sun flagged by the KCL research attributed to RT and Sputnik, with one describing the latter as a “Kremlin mouthpiece”.
Responding to the report, a spokesperson for The Sun said: “The implication that we are complicit in the spreading of Russian propaganda is not remotely backed up by the evidence in this report and is a serious slur on our journalism and our integrity.
“The articles ‘unearthed’ by this research do not remotely amount to proof that we are regularly using Russian state propaganda as a source nor parroting it without question, particularly around military issues or national security.
“Where we cite claims made by Russia Today or Sputnik – claims which it is in the public interest to report on – we are clear in our copy that the story must be viewed through that prism.”
The spokesperson added that the report into RT and Sputnik had “descended into yet another ivory tower attack on the tabloid press”.
They continued: “Furthermore, the one article that the report points to as proof that we trawl Russia Today for stories was a write-through of a story originally in an Indian publication.
“That fact does not seem to have overly bothered the researchers, and considering it was about a porn addiction, seems unlikely to raise serious national security issues.”
The university report said: “Though there was only limited evidence of direct ‘churnalism’ in UK coverage of the Russian military – in the sense of wholly-lifted content from RT and Sputnik – that which was found is worrying.
“The Express article that consists of a near-total rewrite of an RT article is particularly problematic, and while it is difficult in the current age of information abundance to state with absolute certainty that the Express copied RT, the probability that the content was taken from elsewhere seems to be vanishingly small.”
They said that replicating state-sponsored content that has a clear vested interest “seems to be an entirely avoidable problem” if news organisations acted to “better insulate themselves” from it.
KCL found that RT and Sputnik “were bigger borrowers of content from UK media” than the other way around, with 26 RT and six Sputnik articles having “significant passages of content” from UK titles.
The report also accused RT and Sputnik of sowing confusion about the Skripal attack through “unchallenged conspiracy theories” and contradictory narratives.
It is released a year after the Novichok attack in Salisbury last year, which hospitalised former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.
A discarded perfume bottle used to carry the nerve agent was found by Dawn Sturgess, who later died from exposure to it. No arrests have been made.
The KCL study found that RT and Sputnik published 138 “contradictory” narratives about the Skripal attack across 735 articles published in the month after the poisonings.
This included claims that the UK investigation into the Novichok poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal was a “witch hunt” and the argument that responses to the attack were built on “Russophobia”, said the report.
They further said that RT and Sputnik spread seven conspiracy theories about the attack, one of them being that the UK had set it up.
RT and Sputnik were also accused of providing “damage control” for the Russian state in the wake of the Skripal attack.
Lead researcher Ramsay said: “RT’s and Sputnik’s coverage of the Skripal incident had all the features of a disinformation campaign – they sought to sow confusion and uncertainty through a vast array of contradictory narratives and unchallenged conspiracy theories.
“Understanding the extent to which these techniques can exist within state-linked outlets like RT is an important step towards preventing the spread of disinformation and its damaging effect on journalism and public discourse.”
RT deputy editor-in-chief Anna Belkina said: “We are amazed that it took some in the UK this long to jump on the tried-and-true bandwagon: blame RT for journalistic audacity to demand facts and ask questions, of all sources.
“Sourcing a broad range of facts and views has always been imperative for quality, balanced news gathering, which is evident in our use of UK sources, alongside others.”
A Sputnik spokesperson said: “We understand that King’s College may wish to benefit from the anti-Russian hysteria and generate some PR for their establishment.
“We think it would have been more effective to research why Sputnik is becoming more and more popular around the globe. Maybe it’s all about quality content, rather than conspiracy theories?
“We would also suggest that Kings College put their money and resources to better use and spend more time educating their students and less time compiling works of fiction.”
The KCL Policy Institute’s research was funded by the Open Society Foundation.
In December last year, Ofcom found RT had broken broadcast impartiality rules in seven news and current affairs shows from 17 March to 26 April concerning coverage of the Salisbury poisonings.
Picture: Reuters/Gleb Garanich