Copying, Distorting and Questioning: The Mediatic Populism of RT France
[This article is part of our publication project “RT in Europe and beyond”]
The RT France website was founded in 2015 and a French-speaking 24/7 news TV channel was launched in 2017. Two years later, in the midst of the massive Gilets Jaunes protests that swept France for several months, RT France was heralded as the movement’s reference media by both the government and protesters. How did RT manage to establish its French branch so quickly and profoundly? How does RT France reconcile its journalistic image and its editorial message, in between the expectations of its Russian founders and the reception of its French audience? To answer these questions, we have analysed RT France’s online news production between 31 December 2018 and 13 January 2019, in the midst of the Gilets Jaunes movement. We have also looked at the channel’s news bulletins from 15 July to 21 July 2019. We also conducted interviews with RT France chief editor Jérôme Bonnet, communication director Lorenzo Ricci, and two journalists whose names were changed at their demand.
American model, French reception and Russian pre-eminence: the triple constraint at RT France’s inception
When Russia Today was founded in 2005, its chief editor Margarita Simonyan defined its ambition as such: “it will be a view of the world from Russia. We do not want to change the professional format established by such TV channels as BBC, CNN and Euronews. We want to reflect Russia’s view of the world and make Russia itself more understandable”.1 From its inception, the news group, like most major transnational news actors, was based on the model created by CNN International in the 1980s: a global, 24/7, fast-paced and predominantly visual coverage of hard news.2 In this informational competition for global news coverage, Russian media were significantly behind, because of the privatisations of the 1990s and the Doctrine of Information Security instated in 2000.3 In response, the Kremlin invested vast amounts of money to catch up: in 2009, Russia Today was renamed “RT”, giving a more global identity to the channel; in 2013, Putin restructured the State media to create an international news agency called “Rossiya Segodnya” (Russian for “Russia Today”, although RT claims there is no link between the two); and in 2014, it launched a multimedia news agency called Sputnik, to compete with majors actors like AFP or Reuters. Meanwhile, in 2013, RT launched an international video news agency called Ruptly. Based in Berlin, with 22 offices around the world, this network is “as effective as APTN or Reuters” says Philippe, a TV journalist for RT France.4 Moreover, since 2007 RT International has created seven regional branches (RT Arabic, RT en Español, RT America, RT UK, RT France, RT Deutsch and RT на русском [in Russian]), plus 25 correspondent offices in 18 countries.5 “Thanks to this international aspect, we can have access to gems”, says Jérôme Bonnet, chief editor for RT France. Producers from each branch can thus broadcast reports made by other branches and offices.
Although RT France benefits from this global network, its centralisation is problematic for news production. “I have a serious problem with some packages that come to us, that are already made by Moscow”, says Philippe.6 At RT France, these pre-packaged news contents cause a double problem. On a technical level, they come in a language and format not adapted to the French public. Most journalists at RT France do not have the experience to translate and adapt these packages, as can be seen on air. For instance, the French dubbing of the 2019 Direct Line with Vladimir Putin is barely understandable, and the interview of Russian journalist Ivan Golunov made by RT International was aired on RT France without any introduction nor presentation of the context or interviewee.7 In June 2018, the Superior Audiovisual Council (Conseil supérieur de l’audiovisuel, CSA), the regulator for French television, issued a formal notice to RT France for a poor translation of a report in Syria. It also highlighted “a visible imbalance in the analysis” of the Ghouta chemical attack.8 On a journalistic level, Philippe points out interferences from RT’s headquarters in Moscow: “if they are interested in a subject, they’ll put it first. Russia comes first because you’re above all a news channel that belongs to Russia. And you’ll do impossible acrobatic feats to link it to the news, to find a transition that makes it work, that’s the difficulty. I wouldn’t have had this difficulty at another news channel”. Among such subjects, Philippe highlights reports on Russian army and weapons: “what do we care about Russia’s new tank or new missile? Here, it feels like a glory to Russia. And sadly, you can do nothing about it. You can’t zap it”.9 Carole, who works at RT France’s website, highlights mainly Russian soft news suggested by RT International. “It’s the website’s ‘cheap buzz’ aspect, that is not handled by us, that is handled by Moscow. They find funny videos, they send them to us. We choose what interests us”.10
At RT France’s headquarters in Boulogne-Billancourt’s media district, in the suburbs of Paris, almost all of the 70 journalists and 50 other employees are French, according to Lorenzo Ricci, PR manager.11 “The management is still Russian, the president [Xenia Fedorova] is still Russian obviously, but in the editorial department, there is no Russian any more”, adds Philippe.12 “So there is indeed a will to develop a French media, settled in the French landscape”, Jérôme Bonnet says.13 This localising logic not only allows RT France to adapt to French news and mediatic codes, but also favours a better reception from the French audience. In line with other regional branches, RT France has recruited well-known local media figures, such as economist Jacques Sapir, journalist Stéphanie de Muru and, above all, TV host Frédéric Taddeï, who is dominant on the RT France website.
However, RT France suffers from many restraints imposed by the national mediascape. The channel is only broadcast by two TV service providers and on high channels: free on channel 359, and recently Canal+ on channel 176. “Mechanically, our reach is a bit limited”, Jérôme Bonnet owns up.14 This limited broadcasting can be linked to the high degree of scrutiny imposed by the CSA, which, when it gave RT France its broadcasting licence in September 2017, sent along a list of “particular stipulations on informational truthfulness”.15 This surveillance has an impact on the journalistic work, according to Philippe: “every time, you work fearing the CSA, because you are under scrutiny”.16 This scrutiny can also be found in the portrayal of RT France by other French media, which often criticise its sovereigntist and anti-Atlanticist editorial line, its sensationalist and dramatic coverage of French news, its glorification of Russia and Putin or the poor mastery of the French language and journalistic codes by Russian journalists and translators. In 2019, RT France itself estimated there had been “550 critical news articles” from French media since the launch of its TV channel.17 However, the first opposition to RT’s arrival in France was political, and came from then presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron. In February 2017, after Sputnik published an interview in which Macron was presented as “an agent of the US bank system” and of “a rich gay lobby”, his campaign team denounced “two websites, Russia Today and Sputnik, 100% controlled by the Russian State” which “broadcast and propagate fake news everyday”.18 The two websites were banned from the campaign trail and, once Macron was elected president, from the presidential palace.19 RT France capitalises on this outsider image. “Being marginalised, that helps them”, Philippe notes. “And they use it, they overuse it, with a section, sometimes inside the news bulletin, saying: ‘Here we go, Emmanuel Macron banned us from the Elysée once again’”.20 The website even has a whole column devoted to answering outside critics, called “RT is talking to you”.21
RT France’s bad reputation in the French mediascape had a direct influence on the channel’s internal organisation, starting with its generous recruitment policy which mostly attracted journalists in a precarious situation. “They recruited two profiles: people who got out of schools, so quite inexperienced because it’s not easy getting out of school and getting a job; and the other profile was people who struggled a bit, who had been doing piecework for a while or didn’t even have any activity”, Carole remembers.22 In the TV department, Philippe specifically highlights a lack of management: “it’s a good channel with lots of means. But the human means, the professional experience is lacking a bit”. He specifically points out the chief editor’s lack of TV experience – Jérôme Bonnet was previously chief editor to a satirical magazine – and the absence of a journalist during the TV’s editorial conferences: “only the manager, those handling the guests and the chief editor choose more or less what will be covered during the day”.23 The separation from management is even wider in the web department: “let’s say we don’t really have a web chief editor, so we kind of manage among ourselves. We are in a kind of autonomy”.24
These management problems and the general lack of experience have a direct impact on the quality of news production. Carole deplores “a big dose of system D” in the web department, where, as we’ll see further down, journalists mostly do media curation, a form of online journalism often experienced as a depreciation of the profession.25 “I’ve heard more critics about the frustrated aspect – ‘Why don’t we do more things? Why don’t we do better?’ – more a lack of ambition, means and competence, than about a “we are hindered” ideological aspect”.26 In the TV department too, journalistic work is often limited to editing outside productions. A repetitive task, all the more trying as it is done in the urgency of the 24/7 news system, particularly in RT France where there is a 30-minute live news bulletin every hour. “In other newsrooms, normally you take much, much, much more time preparing a 30-minute big news bulletin like this”, says Philippe.27
As we have seen, RT France’s mediatic ambition is hindered by several paradoxes: it is greatly influenced economically and mediatically by the occidental model of CNN but firmly oriented editorially and journalistically by its Russian parent company. It follows a highly regionalising logic that highlights all the more its rejection by the French media sphere: it benefits from ambitious top-down investment but greatly depends on bottom-up resourcefulness. So how does RT France find its own voice in between Eastern and Western models, in the midst of a hostile French mediasphere and in a disarticulated work organisation?
The editorial frame: a magnifying glass of French controversies
Despite its transnational status, the RT France website is mostly oriented towards French news: in our survey, from 31 December 2018 to 13 January 2019, the France column made for two thirds of the news production, with 188 articles, whereas the International column only had 81 articles. As in most large transnational news channels, the global coverage ideal does not resist the law of proximity.28 Even in its international news coverage, RT France tended to follow the traditional news hierarchy: the most covered regions were the West (46 articles) and the Middle-East (17), while the most mentioned international actor was the United States (18 appearances). Neither does RT France draw upon international news to offer a more detailed analysis of foreign affairs: articles in the International column were on average shorter (2,525 characters) than those in the France column (2,602 characters).29 The choice of news sources confirms this national scope. The AFP, cited in 78 articles, was the main source whereas Russian agencies Sputnik, Tass, RIA Novosti and VGTRK provided only five articles. In second place were French newspapers, with the main focus on national news (64 articles) and then local news (35 articles). This shows an important curation of the French media sphere. A total of 55 articles featured content made by RT France or Ruptly, again mostly focused on national news (42 articles); and 77 articles used social media as sources for information and footage, particularly for French news (62 articles).
By following mainly occidental news agencies and French newspapers, RT France’s website focalises on subjects that have already attracted national or international interest. Blog and social media curation, although it seems to pose a challenge to traditional news hierarchy, only reinforces this focalisation on viral subjects and events.30 According to White, hard news focuses on “events or situations which are construed as threatening to damage, disrupt or rearrange the social order in either its material, political or normative guise”.31 RT France, like most 24/7 news channels, thus over-represents conflicts, crimes, disasters and controversies, while its visual and highly-edited journalism dramatises news coverage.32 In the first two weeks of January 2019, RT France’s website devoted 114 of its 298 articles to security subjects: 70 articles were about the Gilets Jaunes protests, 13 about terrorist attacks, 10 about violence and aggressions and seven about disasters. This security angle tends to highlight minor news items. For instance, RT France devoted an article to a police car bumping into a protester, an accident covered by only two regional newspapers, one of which doubting it.33 Likewise, on 2 January 2019, RT France published an article on an aggression in Belgium, covered three days earlier in Belgian tabloids, but picked up in France only by the far-right blog FdeSouche earlier that day.34 Along with its attention to social media and its interest in controversial themes like security and immigration, RT France tends to magnify news that highlight or are highlighted by radical right-wing populist movements and parties. RT France is thus the only generalist medium to publish the reaction of the far-right National Rally (Rassemblement National, RN) party to a rap music video showing children hitting a piñata of party-leader Marine Le Pen.35 Likewise, RT France was one of the rare websites to cover the cancellation of a feminist march in the United States “because of a ‘massively white’ participation deemed unrepresentative”. The article even describes a local event as “international scale”, even though it only represented a local branch of a national movement.36
RT France’s curation frames its news production in a western, mostly national, scope with a short-term event-based timeline that favours virality and leaves little space for in-depth analysis. This framework favours sensationalist and controversial subjects, in which extremist discourses and actors are over-represented. Yet, because of this curation of national newspapers and western news agencies, most of RT France’s editorial line is made up of the dominant informational flow that RT says it is opposed to – its French motto being “Osez questionner” (“Dare to question”). On the one hand, news agency journalism is marked by strict writing, rigid formats and concise articles, and is thus opposed to alternative journalism. The role of news agencies toward other media imposes a form of procedural objectivity, while their production rhythms often limit their work to simple recording and recounting, all of which put them at the heart of the “mainstream” journalism that RT criticises.37 On the other hand, curation favours picking up news and discourses already pushed forward by generalist media, which seems to go against the questioning that RT pretends to embody. So how can RT offer an alternative to or a critique of a mediatic system presented as monolithic, when it is essentially based on it?
Repackaging newswires: the suspension of judgment and the insinuation of criticism
“When we pick up an AFP, besides typographic or chart-related matters, there are keywords – ‘annexation’, ‘dictator’, ‘regime’ – we don’t put”, Carole says.38 This news repackaging by subtraction is raised as a policy for both the channel and the website: “simply, we try to avoid moral postures”, Jérôme Bonnet explains. “There, it’s a principle we are very firm about. When we talk about Kim Jong-un, we don’t need to put ‘dictator’ before. People know who Kim Jong-un is and what North Korea is”.39 This stance represents a profound questioning not only of consensual mediatic denominations, but also of the principle of linguistic deference from the public to the journalists.40 According to RT’s policy, journalists have the right to express subjective comments on events and actors, but they are not to impose formal definitions that would imply social representations and cognitive frameworks. In Carole’s words: “when we say something, we don’t really suggest it, we say it”. But these terms, we argue, have a scientific meaning, based on academic knowledge and journalistic observation. By rejecting them because of the moral judgement or the ideological orientation they may carry, RT denies the reality they describe. This politicisation of expertise creates the risk of a general relativism, in which an uninitiated reader’s opinion would equal that of an expert, because of everybody’s subjectivity.41 Moreover, according to Temmerman and colleagues, “journalism is in itself a continuous act of including or excluding judgments” on subjects, angles and words.42 The exclusion of moral judgment is therefore in itself a moral judgement, in which the North Korean regime is put on the same level as any other political system. “Not taking a moral posture and being pragmatic is also a moral posture. In geopolitics, that’s what Russia does”, Carole notes. “But that’s what many countries in fact do”.43
Moreover, RT France does not respect this suspension of judgment with the same thoroughness for all the actors it describes. In its coverage of Jair Bolsonaro’s inauguration, RT France never indicates the Brazilian president’s far-right political orientation, whereas it places the Workers’ Party on the “left-wing”. The article sums up the focus of Bolsonaro’s campaign as “fighting corruption and criminality” without commenting on his ultraliberal line nor his racist and homophobic rhetoric.44 Between 31 December 2018 and 13 January 2019, the word “far-right” was only used once, to describe the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party of Germany (Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands), and was never applied to bigger personalities or parties like the French RN or “France Arise” (Debout La France), the Italian Lega, the Polish Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość) or the Hungarian Fidesz. Yet, François Fillon was presented as “the former candidate for the Right” and Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador as a “left-wing president”.45 And while RT France pretends to reject formal words that would reveal a normative judgment, it still picks up phrases showing an ideological vision of some actors. For instance, Salvini, the Lega’s leader and then Italian Interior minister, was presented several times as “the government’s strong-minded man” or “Il Capitano”, a nickname invented by his supporters and picked up by RT without context or quotation marks.46 Likewise, Putin was presented as “the master of the Kremlin” while Macron was described as “the tenant of the Elysée”.47
This subtracting process also takes place in the contextualisation of articles. According to Lochard, the minimalistic writing of hard news generally challenges the “contextual dependency” of the event’s interpretation.48 In the case of RT, this decontextualisation again varies depending on the actors involved. Thus, when Emmanuel Macron publishes a letter to the French, it is “in the midst of a political crisis”, says RT’s headline.49 On the contrary, on the day of Nicolas Maduro’s inauguration, RT’s headline was a sober “Venezuela: Nicolas Maduro inaugurated for another six-year mandate” while almost all the other French media’s headlines noted the isolation and contestations the president suffers.50 Another example can be found in the three articles RT France dedicates to a building collapsing in Magnitogorsk. One article is taken from Reuters and the other two from the AFP.51 None of them include the paragraph written by the AFP on the lack of safety and poor state of Russian buildings built in the Soviet era.52 “You won’t find that on RT, that’s for sure”, Carole says.
Although they are done in the name of judgement suspension, we can see that RT France’s subtractions from curated articles are neither systematic nor neutral. We even identified some oriented or subjective elements added by RT France. This repackaging by addition mostly concerns specific sections of the articles, like their title. On 11 January 2019, when a survey announced an erosion of public support for the Gilets Jaunes movement, RT France was the only French medium to run a headline about the ongoing support of “67% of the lowest-income French”.53 On 5 January 2019, when the Lima Group refused to recognise Nicolas Maduro’s re-election, RT France’s headline was the only one to mention Mexico’s disagreement before the Group’s announcement.54 Another zone where RT France’s stance is made clear despite the hard news model is the subheading, added to newswires by the journalist to orient their reading. For instance, in an article on then US State secretary Mike Pompeo’s visit to Cairo, a subhead that reads “Yet another American charge against Iran” adds an idea of harassment to the following paragraphs.55 Introductions and conclusions are also key zones for subjective elements. On 11 January 2019, RT France’s transcription of an interview of then French Interior minister Christophe Castaner about act 8 of the Gilets Jaunes protests is concluded by this rhetorical question: “Something to fan the flames with before act 9?”56 Four hours later, the website introduced an article about the French president’s declarations with a similar question: “Did Emmanuel Macron voluntarily fan the flames before the upcoming Gilets Jaunes protests of 12 January?”57
Another way of orienting the reader lies beyond the text. The hypertext system offers journalists space for both complex and concise writing adapted to hard news, so they can focus on the subject while indicating contextual elements through hyperlinks. Most importantly, it creates an extended and coherent network for the reader to browse freely and chose information from.58 Praising itself to be at the forefront of the digitalisation of news channels and wanting to offer readers the same autonomy for news contextualisation that it gives for news evaluation, RT France makes much use of hyperlinks on its website. But this hypertextual offer has to be pertinent for the reader to consciously choose their news. In RT France articles, boxes promote undated articles that sometimes turn out to be obsolete in the rapid flow of hard news. For instance, an article about the trial of suspected jihadists with a box about a concert being cancelled because of a “terrorist threat” gives the impression that the two events were concurrent, even though they were 16 months apart.59 Hyperlinks can also ideologically orient the reader from a theme to another: halfway through an article about a French petroleum group investing in Venezuela, an embedded tweet promotes another article about Russia and Venezuela’s joint military manoeuvres.60 Links can even be deceptive: in one analysis of the Gilets Jaunes, a sentence about raising fuel taxes leads to an article about a majority deputy’s proposal to reinstate consent to taxation; and a sentence about the Gilet Jaunes’ fragmentation leads to an article showing pictures of their Christmas celebrations; and finally a sentence about a survey showing Emmanuel Macron’s dwindling popularity leads to an article about another survey that shows Marine Le Pen’s rising popularity.61
Creating ambiguity in and towards journalistic discourses
As we have seen, RT France localises its editorial policy by favouring national news and sources, while bringing a bigger focus on social media sources and themes like security or immigration. This editorialisation is furthered by the repackaging of curated content. By invoking a suspension of judgement, RT France journalists tend to selectively delete scientific or consensual denominations and concrete contextual elements that contradict the channel’s dominantly sovereigntist worldview. In addition, they repeatedly add subjective elements of judgement in conspicuous but non-essential sections of their news articles, thus suggesting critical reading without affecting the hard news core.
The journalist’s discourse is thus doubly impeded by the media’s hybrid nature: on the one hand, the curation method and the traditional hard news model limit the expression of their subjectivity to peripheral sections of the article; on the other hand, the media’s alternative approach minimises their formal authority through the principle of suspended judgment. This questioning of journalistic authority is exemplified by the frequent use of rhetorical questions. In the first half of January 2019, 30 articles (10% of RT France’s production) had question marks in their headlines, like “Gilets Jaunes: how far from reality are the Interior’s figures?” or “Germany: Russian hackers behind a massive data leak?” According to Charaudeau, the journalist uses this to “establish a knowing bond with the reader by forcing him to accept the questioning” without being responsible for the lack of explanation.62 RT France journalists also make heavy use of quotes, whether entire sentences or “textual isles” in an indirect discourse.63 Here are some of the 86 headlines – based on quoted textual isles – which form almost a third of the 298 articles published between 31 December 2018 and 13 January 2019: “What new ‘reforms’ can we expect in 2019?”; “The US and Colombia want to re-establish ‘democracy’ in Venezuela”; “Gilets Jaunes: Edouard Philippe wants a special ‘troublemaker’ file”. These isles are a form of autonymic modalisation that creates an ambiguous distance between the journalist and the reported speech: are the quotation marks proof of the journalist’s transparency in relaying unmediated speech or a sign of disapproving irony towards third parties’ discourses?64 Whichever meaning the reader gets, the journalist appears to side with him or her, sometimes against the general mediatic discourse.
Tellingly, we find a heavy lexical field of doubt on the RT France website, for instance in an article about the Institute for Statecraft NGO’s anti-Russian lobbying: “the veil is lifted”, “presumed”, “supposed to”, “which is not without reminding us of”, “supposedly”, “presented as”, “so-called”, “if this document is to be believed”.65 Beside this recurrent rhetoric in RT’s production, there are articles that challenge more openly mediatic discourses. An analysis of the relationship between the Gilets Jaunes movement and the media starts with a list of the protestors’ aggressions against journalists, followed by a similar list of mediatic comments and fake news hostile toward protestors, creating a levelling parallel between protestors’ physical violence and columnists’ critics.66 Another occasion for RT France to express rejection of the French mainstream media comes every year when they send a journalist to the Bobards d’Or (“The Golden Fibs”).67 This satirical ceremony created by leading far-right figure Jean-Yves Le Gallou rewards “the worst lies spread by the media”.68 In general, RT France offers much more lenient coverage to conspiracy discourse than to mediatic discourses, as can be seen in an article published on 3 January 2019 titled: “Hackers threaten to reveal the ‘truth’ about 9/11 if they don’t get a ransom”. RT France is the only French generalist media, along with Sputnik, to cover this news. Contrary to cybersecurity outlets, they do not mention the doubts surrounding these revelations nor the targeted companies’ denials.69
RT France and the “public opinion”
RT France promotes a critical reading of mediatic discourses that sometimes flirts with conspiracy theories and shows ambiguity towards its own journalistic authority. Thus, journalists retreat from their own production – here it is to be noted that almost all articles are unsigned – to leave a greater space to third party voices, notably for news evaluation.70 To that end, the frequent use of quotes is used to show both the sources’ authenticity and the transparency of the journalist’s work, in a logic of hyperrealism.71 Yet, this idea of quoting being the ultimate expression of direct and transparent journalism is highly contradicted by the simplification, decontextualisation and errors inevitably caused by speech transposition.72 This distortion is made worse by the re-composition resulting from the curation method, which only picks up chosen bits of external voices.73 RT France’s tendency to favour sources and sentences that go along its view of society and public opinion is best exemplified by its wide use of vox pops and Twitter curation. In the first two weeks of January 2019, the RT France website made nine compilations of anonymous tweets on various subjects, from the Miss Algeria beauty pageant to Emmanuel Macron’s New Year address. When we surveyed RT France’s TV channel, from July 15 to July 21 2019, the news bulletins aired two street interviews. As the recent research has demonstrated, most vox pops are destined not to show a balanced spectrum of opinions, but to highlight a single point of view.74 On RT France, all tweet compilations indeed showed a single point of view, and the vox pop about Benjamin Grievaux’s candidacy as mayor of Paris did not show any of his supporters, although the presidential party’s candidate was at the time leading in the polls.75
This slant in the representation of public opinion can also be found in news sourcing and analysis. According to Carole, web journalists make sure not to pick up online comments from far-right accounts, but they do not have an ethical problem using them as news sources. Thus, in RT France’s articles you can find a communiqué by TV Libertés, a far-right web TV channel, or a tweet by Pierre Sautarel, founder of far-right blog FdeSouche, without any presentation of these sources.76 On 15 July 2019, in an analysis of the Hong Kong protests for independence, RT France’s TV channel invited the CEO of a Chinese consulting firm, who evoked foreign implication and American orchestration behind the movement on air. On 19 July 2019, the channel invited the president of a Catholic sovereigntist movement to discuss an investigation into the selling of French rolling stock manufacturer Alstom. RT France has often been criticised for inviting such little-known commentators and for hiding their often nationalist ideological affiliations.77 “The other day for instance, they had [far-right politician] Florian Philippot talking about Julian Assange. Where’s the link?” Philippe asks. “Sometimes, I find the guests too extreme, be it far-left or far-right”.78 According to Carole, the over-representation of extremist movements in the website’s opinion section is caused both by the unwillingness of “representatives of the mainstream thought” to speak to RT and by “a conscious choice to give the floor to opinions that are less heard elsewhere”. “We choose to offset, so it doesn’t bother us to have 90% of the speaking taken by people who are Eurosceptic, sovereigntist and anti-interventionist”.79
As we have seen, RT France pushes forward the image of a dominant public opinion and slants this representation to oppose it to a dominant mediatic discourse and to bring it closer it to sovereigntist discourses. This answers to Krämer’s definition of populism as the expression of a “climate of opinion” presented as the “people’s natural common will”.80 When asked about the large space given to sovereigntists on RT France, Jérôme Bonnet invokes their rising popularity: “Be it left-wing or right-wing, sovereignty is a rising value in politics these days. We can see it’s everywhere. We mean to give everyone a chance to speak, so we’ll happily give it to them, even more so as they are much less seen elsewhere, or only as bogeymen. We encourage that, because we encourage difference, but we are not the ones saying it”.81 By pushing forward the image of a natural and indisputable public opinion, by distancing itself from any partisan approach and by opening itself to populist and conspiracy discourses, RT France itself becomes a populist media.82 If we see populism as an ideologically empty communication logic, carrying multiple contesting voices without being limited to them, a populist media can welcome different political discourses from the opposition without identifying with them. “It’s true we are often qualified as alternative media”, Jérôme Bonnet notes. “I’m OK with that and it is true we are a bit different. But I don’t feel like we are a flag bearer either”.83 RT France thus plays the role of an informational mainstream, large in structure and lenient in identity, into which smaller streams born in the blogosphere can flow. A mainstream media for alternative journalism.
This “policy of the apolitical” welcomes all opposition movements without adhering to any, only to profoundly criticise institutional powers. To this end, it is reminiscent of the Russian social movements of the early 2010s.84 Therefore, it has an important strategic value in protesting, which can explain RT France’s popularity among the heterogeneous and non-partisan Gilet Jaunes protests. According to Carole, RT France’s online audience consists mostly of active social media users, only a minimal fraction of which participated in protests. Among them, she identifies many different French political viewpoints (far-left, far-right, Eurosceptic right-wing, sovereigntist left-wing) as well as people mostly interested in diplomacy, who are anti-American. This vision fits with the analysis by the Reframing Russia project of RT’s global audience, which found that the majority of readers were interested in transnational news media and informal soft news, and that only a small number of readers had alternative anti-elite profiles.85 Here, RT France’s informal style and varied production allow a personalised reception for each reader. Frequent publishing on varied subjects and in different formats and media lets the audience choose their news. The articles’ concision, the news decontextualisation and the integration of hyperlinks and tweets allow them to further their reading in the direction they prefer. The removal of signs of normative evaluation frees the reader from scientifically constructed or commonly defined classifications. The dissemination of subjective markers suggests an oriented reading, but their concentration in structurally conspicuous but informationally superfluous key zones makes their subjectivity obvious and their consideration anecdotal. The strong use of rhetorical questions and quotes creates an ambiguous reading of news that leaves much to the reader’s personal interpretation. Even vox pops and tweet compilations can be received in varied ways because of their informal character. According to Bosch, the degree to which an interviewee is representative varies depending on the congruence between their ideology and that of the audience, which is more likely to take into account opinions that go along their worldview rather than those that go against it.86
In general, RT France’s informal and amateur aspect, distinguishable from the strict professional frame of traditional media, invites the audience not to receive its discourse with the normative and prescriptive filter of classic journalistic authority. On the contrary, its journalistic writing seems made to yield to the subjectivities of its different audiences, be it the diligent hard news reader, the soft news consumer, or the patchwork of citizens with anti-establishment political views whose only common feature is a sensibility towards sovereigntist themes. If Russian propaganda evolved into public diplomacy through the multiplication and evolution of its discourses, RT France’s populism also multiplies and adapts its discourses depending on its audience.
1. Daya K. Thussu, Kaarle Nordenstreng, BRICS Media: Reshaping the Global Communication Order? (Milton Park: Routledge, 2020).
2. Stephen Cushion, Justin Lewis, The Rise of 24-hour News Television: Global Perspectives (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2010).
3. Birgitte Hopstad, The Russian Media under Putin and Medvedev: Controlled Media in an Authoritative System (Trondheim: NTNU, 2011).
4. Interview with Philippe conducted by the author in April 2018.
5. Maxime Audinet, “Comment RT et Sputnik tissent la toile de Moscou à l’étranger”, La Revue des médias, 19 June (2019), https://larevuedesmedias.ina.fr/comment-rt-et-sputnik-tissent-la-toile-de-moscou-letranger.
6. Interview with Philippe.
7. “La Grande Interview: Ivan Golounov”, YouTube, 17 June (2019), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fmWcLJCPFYo; “Ligne directe: Vladimir Poutine répond en direct aux questions de ses concitoyens”, YouTube, 20 June (2019), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ViQ3DOzMuAw.
8. “La chaîne russe RT France, mise en demeure par le CSA, saisit le Conseil d’État”, Europe 1, 10 July (2018), https://www.europe1.fr/medias-tele/la-chaine-russe-rt-france-mise-en-demeure-par-le-csa-saisit-le-conseil-detat-3706538.
9. Interview with Philippe.
0. Interview with Carole conducted by the author in July 2019.
1. Interview with Lorenzo Ricci conducted by the author on 11 July 2019.
2. Interview with Philippe conducted by the author in April 2018.
3. Interview with Jérôme Bonnet conducted by the author on 11 July 2019.
5. “Olivier Schrameck, ‘Une remise à plat de la réglementation audiovisuelle est nécessaire’”, Le Monde, 22 September (2017), https://www.lemonde.fr/actualite-medias/article/2017/09/22/olivier-schrameck-il-faut-assumer-clairement-la-mutation-de-la-regulation-a-l-ere-numerique_5189357_3236.html.
6. Interview with Philippe.
7. “Bon baisers de France: une chronologie des attaques de médias à l’encontre de RT (VIDEO)”, RT France, 25 June (2019), https://francais.rt.com/france/63286-bon-baisers-france-chronologie-attaques-medias-rencontre-rt-video.
8. “RT et Sputnik ont-ils relayé des fake news pendant la campagne comme le dit En Marche?”, Libération, 6 June (2018), https://www.liberation.fr/checknews/2018/06/06/rt-et-sputnik-ont-ils-relaye-des-fake-news-pendant-la-campagne-comme-le-dit-en-marche_1656810.
9. “Des médias russes pro-Kremlin privés de l’accréditation nécessaire pour la campagne d’Emmanuel Macron”, 20 Minutes, 28 April (2017), https://www.20minutes.fr/elections/2059107-20170428-medias-russes-pro-kremlin-prives-accreditation-necessaire-campagne-emmanuel-macron.
20. Interview with Philippe.
2 . “RT vous parle”, RT France, https://francais.rt.com/rt-vous-parle.
22. Interview with Carole.
23. Interview with Philippe.
24. Interview with Carole.
25. Piet Bakker, “Aggregation, Content Farms and Huffinization”, Journalism Practice, Vol. 6, No. 5-6 (2012), pp. 627-637.
26. Interview with Carole.
27. Interview with Philippe.
28. Ahmed Al-Rawi, “News Organizations 2.0: A Comparative Study of Twitter News”, Journalism Practice, Vol. 11, No. 6 (2017), pp. 705-720.
29. Erga Atad, “Global Newsworthiness and Reversed Domestication”, Journalism Practice, Vol. 11, No. 6 (2017), pp.760-776.
30. Ethan Zuckerman, “Meet the Bridgebloggers”, Public Choice, Vol. 134, No. 1-2 (2008), pp. 47-65.
31. Peter R.R. White, “Death, Disruption and the Moral Order: The Narrative Impulse in Massmedia ‘Hard News’ Reporting”, in Frances Christie, James R. Martin, Genres and Institutions: Social Processes in the Workplace and School (London: Cassell, 1997), pp. 101-133.
32. Maria E. Grabe, Shuhua Zhou, Brooke Barnett, “Explicating Sensationalism in Television News: Content and the Bells and Whistles of Form”, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, Vol. 45, No. 4 (2001), pp. 635-655.
33. “Cognac: un Gilet jaune légèrement blessé après avoir été percuté par une voiture de police (VIDEO)”, RT France, 6 January (2019), https://francais.rt.com/france/57616-charente-gilet-jaune-legerement-blesse-apre-avoir-ete-percute-voiture-police.
34. “La vidéo du passage à tabac d’un homme par un groupe de jeunes choque la Flandre”, RT France, 2 January (2019), https://francais.rt.com/international/57488-video-passage-tabac-homme-par-groupe-jeunes-choque-France.
35. “Des enfants frappent une pinata à l’effigie de Le Pen: un clip de Médine et Booba indigne le RN”, RT France, 10 January (2019), https://francais.rt.com/france/57728-enfants-frappent-pinata-effigie-pen-clip-medine-booba-indigne-rn.
36. “Californie: trop de participants ‘blancs’, une manifestation féministe est finalement annulée”, RT France, 31 December (2018), https://francais.rt.com/international/57416-trop-manifestants-blancs-edition-californienne-annule-womens-march.
37. Eric Lagneau, “Le style agencier et ses déclinaisons thématiques: l’exemple des journalistes de l’Agence France Presse”, Réseaux, Vol. 1, No. 111 (2002), pp. 58-100.
38. Interview with Carole.
39. Interview with Jérôme Bonnet.
40. Laura Calabrese, “L’acte de nommer: nouvelles perspectives pour le discours médiatique”, Langage et société, No. 140 (2012), pp. 29-39.
4 Timothy A. Gibson, “The Post-Truth Double Helix: Reflexivity and Mistrust in Local Politics”, International Journal of Communication, Vol. 12 (2018), pp. 3167-3185.
42. Martina Temmerman, Renée Moernaut, Roel Coesemans, Jelle Mast, “Post-Truth and the Political: Constructions and Distortions in Representing Political Facts”, Discourse, Context & Media, Vol. 27 (2019), pp. 1-6.
43. Interview with Carole.
44. “Brésil: Bolsonaro entame son mandat en présence de Viktor Orban et Benjamin Netanyahou”, RT France, 1 January (2019), https://francais.rt.com/international/57471-bresil-bolsonaro-entame-son-mandat-presence-orban-netanyahou.
45. “Le parquet national financier requiert le renvoi du couple Fillon en correctionnelle”, RT France, 12 January (2019), https://francais.rt.com/france/57773-parquet-national-financier-requiert-renvoi-couple-fillon-correctionnelle; “Le Mexique se désolidarise du groupe de Lima, qui refuse de reconnaître la victoire de Maduro”, RT France, 5 January (2019), https://francais.rt.com/international/57541-mexique-se-desolidarise-groupe-lima-refuse-reconnaître-victoire-maduro.
46. “Compromis: Salvini accepte l’accueil d’une dizaine de migrants”, RT France, 10 January (2019), https://francais.rt.com/france/57732-compromis-salvini-accepte-accueil-dizaine-migrants; “Salvini en Pologne: ‘Il est temps de remplacer l’axe franco-allemand par un axe italo-polonais’”, RT France, 10 January (2019), https://francais.rt.com/international/57738-salvini-pologne-il-est-temps-remplacer-axe-franco-allemand-par-axe-italo-polonais.
47. “Vladimir Poutine adresse aux Russes ses voeux pour le Nouvel An 2019”, RT France, 31 December (2018), https://francais.rt.com/international/57451-vladimir-poutine-adresse-russes-ses-voeux-nouvel-an-2019; “Macron estime que beaucoup de Français oublient le ‘sens de l’effort’, l’opposition s’insurge”, RT France, 11 January (2019), https://francais.rt.com/france/57769-macron-estime-que-beaucoup-francais-oublient-sens-effort-opposition-s-insurge.
48. Lochard Guy, “Genres rédactionnels et appréhension de l’événement médiatique. Vers un déclin des ‘modes configurants’? ”, Réseaux, Vol. 14, No. 76 (1996), pp. 83-102.
49. “Emmanuel Macron dévoile sa lettre aux Français, en pleine crise politique”, RT France, 13 January (2019), https://francais.rt.com/france/57884-emmanuel-macron-revele-lettre-francais-en-pleine-crise-politique.
50. “Venezuela: Nicolas Maduro investi pour un deuxième mandat de six ans”, RT France, 10 January (2019), https://francais.rt.com/international/57739-venezuela-nicolas-maduro-investi-pour-deuxieme-mandat-six-ans.
5 . “Russie: au moins sept morts dans une explosion de gaz à Magnitogorsk (VIDEOS)”, RT France, 31 December (2018), https://francais.rt.com/international/57415-russie-au-moins-deux-morts-plusieurs-blesses-explosion-gaz-magnitogorsk; “Sauvetage miraculeux à Magnitogorsk: un bébé tiré des décombres de l’immeuble (VIDEO)”, RT France, 1 January (2019), https://francais.rt.com/international/57468-sauvetage-miraculeux-magnitogorsk-bebe-tire-decombres-immeuble-russie-video; “Explosion de gaz à Magnitogorsk: le bilan s’alourdit à 28 morts”, RT France, 2 January (2019), https://francais.rt.com/international/57484-explosion-gaz-magnitogorsk-bilan-alourdit-morts.
52. “Explosion due au gaz d’un immeuble en Russie: le bilan monte à 28 morts”, Paris Match, 2 January (2019), https://www.parismatch.com/Actu/International/Explosion-due-au-gaz-d-un-immeuble-en-Russie-le-bilan-monte-a-21-morts-1597267.
53. “67% des Français les plus modestes veulent que le mouvement des Gilets jaunes se poursuive”, RT France, 11 January (2019), https://francais.rt.com/france/57754-67-francais-plus-modestes-veulent-mouvement-gilets-jaunes-poursuivent.
54. “Le Mexique se désolidarise du groupe de Lima, qui refuse de reconnaître la victoire de Maduro”, RT France, 5 January (2019), https://francais.rt.com/international/57541-mexique-se-desolidarise-groupe-lima-refuse-reconnaître-victoire-maduro.
55. “Retrait américain de Syrie: au Caire, Mike Pompeo tente de rassurer ses alliés”, RT France, 10 January (2019), https://francais.rt.com/international/57745-retrait-americain-syrie-caire-mike-pompeo-tente-rassurer-allies.
56. “Des manifestants ‘complices’ des casseurs: l’avertissement de Christophe Castaner aux Gilets jaunes”, RT France, 11 January 2019, https://francais.rt.com/france/57763-manifestants-complices-casseurs-avertissement-christophe-castaner-gilets-jaunes.
57. “Macron estime que beaucoup”.
58. Juliette De Maeyer, “L’usage journalistique des liens hypertextes: étude des représentations, contenus et pratiques à partir des sites d’information de la presse belge francophone”, Université́ libre de Bruxelles, pp.105-109, https://dipot.ulb.ac.be/dspace/bitstream/2013/209443/4/38774381-e336-4897-ad57-c822e661a84f.txt.
59. “Les Pays-Bas ont-ils échappé à un attentat d’une ampleur inédite?”, RT France, 11 January (2019), https://francais.rt.com/international/57750-pays-bas-ont-il-echappe-attentat-ampleur-inedite.
60. “Le français Maurel & Prom prêt à investir jusqu’à 140 millions d’euros dans le pétrole vénézuélien”, RT France, 8 January (2019), https://francais.rt.com/economie/57675-francais-maurel-prom-pret-investir-petrole-venezuelien.
6 . “Les Gilets jaunes en cinq chiffres”, RT France, 31 December (2018), https://francais.rt.com/france/57425-gilets-jaunes-5-chiffres.
62. Patrick Charaudeau, “Discours journalistique et positionnements énonciatifs. Frontières et dérives”, Semen, Vol. 22, (2006), pp. 29-44.
63. Jacqueline Authier-Revuz, “Repères dans le champ du discours rapporté”, L’information grammaticale, No. 55 (1992), pp. 38-42.
64. Greta Komur, “Que se cache-t-il sous les guillemets dans la presse écrite française?”, Synergies, No. 6 (2009), pp. 69-78.
65. “Affaire Skripal: les étonnantes propositions destinées aux médias d’une ONG financée par Londres”, RT France, 6 January (2019), https://francais.rt.com/international/57619-affaire-skripal-etonnantes-propositions-destinees-medias-ong-finacee-par-londres.
66. “La défiance des Gilets jaunes pour les médias exacerbée par la couverture de leur mouvement?”, RT France, 31 December (2018), https://francais.rt.com/france/57437-defiance-gilets-jaunes-pour-medias-exacerbee-couverture-mouvement.
67. “Bobards d’or 2019: Gilets jaunes et chasse au tigre de Poutine mis à l’honneur”, RT France, 19 February (2019), https://francais.rt.com/france/59253-bobards-d-or-2019-gilets-jaunes-chasse-tigre-poutine-mis-honneur.
68. Dominique Albertini, David Doucet, La Fachosphère: Comment l‘extrême droite remporte la bataille d‘Internet (Paris: Flammarion, 2016), pp. 195-232.
69. “Des hackers menacent de révéler la ‘vérité’ sur le 11 septembre s’ils n’obtiennent pas de rançon”, RT France, 3 January (2019), https://francais.rt.com/international/57503-hackers-mettent-vente-informations-susceptibles-fournir-reponses-11-septembre.
70. Zuzana Nadraska, “The Functions of External Voices in Hard News Appraisal: A Dialogic Perspective”, Topics in Linguistics, Vol. 18, No. 2 (2017), pp. 63-80.
7 . Laurence Rosier, “La presse et les modalités du discours rapporté: l’effet d’hyperréalisme du discours direct surmarqué”, L’information grammaticale, No. 94 (2002), pp. 27-32.
72. Adrienne Lehrer, “Between Quotation Marks”, Journalism Quarterly, Vol. 66, No. 4 (1989), pp. 902-941.
73. Lochard, “Genres rédactionnels”.
74. Kathleen Beckers, Stefaan Walgrave, Hilde Van den Bulck, “Opinion Balance in Vox Pop Television News”, Journalism Studies, Vol. 19, No. 2 (2018), pp. 284-296.
75. “Municipales 2020: premier meeting de campagne pour Benjamin Griveaux”, YouTube, 19 July (2019), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hgzr97eURAo.
76. “Le prix du ‘pire défenseur de la langue française’ revient au président du CSA Olivier Schrameck”, RT France, 7 December (2018), https://francais.rt.com/france/56387-prix-pire-defenseur-langue-francaise-revient-president-csa-olivier-schrameck; “Un ‘appel à la prière’ islamique dans une cathédrale parisienne fait polémique”, RT France, 6 June (2019), https://francais.rt.com/france/62768-appel-priere-islamique-dans-cathedrale-parisienne-polemique.
77. Emmanuelle Walter, Tony Le Pennec, “Russia Today: les bons clients-mystère des JT”, Arrêt sur Image, 1 February (2019), https://www.arretsurimages.net/articles/russia-today-les-bons-clients-mystere-des-jt.
78. Interview with Philippe.
79. Interview with Carole.
80. Benjamin Krämer, “Media Populism: A Conceptual Clarification and Some Theses on its Effects”, Communication Theory, vol. 24, No. 1 (2014), pp. 42-60.
8 . Interview with Jérôme Bonnet.
82. Precious N. Chatterje-Doody, Rhys Crilley, “Populism and Contemporary Global Media: Populist Communication Logics and the Co-construction of Transnational Identities”, in Frank A. Stengel et al., Populism and World Politics (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), pp. 73-99.
83. Interview with Jérôme Bonnet.
84. Mischa Gabowitsch, “Are Copycats Subversive? Strategy-31, the Russian Runs, the Immortal Regiment, and the Transformative Potential of Non-Hierarchical Movements”, Problems of Post-Communism, Vol. 65, No. 5 (2018), pp. 297-314.
85. Teemu T. Oivo, “Interview with Dr. Rhys Crilley (Open University)”, Strategies of Persuasions, 24 May (2019), https://blogs.helsinki.fi/strategiesofpersuasion/2019/05/24/interview-with-dr-rhys-crilley-open-university/.
86. Brandon Bosch, “Beyond Vox Pop: The Role of News Sourcing and Political Beliefs in Exemplification Effects”, Mass Communication and Society, Vol. 17 (2014), pp. 217-235.