Russian broadcaster RT could be forced off UK airwaves

RT, the Kremlin-controlled news channel, faces being forced off air in the UK if the poisoning of Sergei Skripal is found to be an “unlawful use of force” by Russia against Britain.

The broadcasting regulator Ofcom, which has the power to close a TV channel if it decides it is not a “fit and proper” holder of a licence in the UK, said it had written to RT warning that a Russian act against the UK would trigger a fast-track investigation to potentially revoke its licence.

“We have today written to ANO TV Novosti, holder of RT’s UK broadcast licences, which is financed from the budget of the Russian Federation,” Ofcom said. “This letter explained that, should the UK investigating authorities determine that there was an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the UK, we would consider this relevant to our ongoing duty to be satisfied that RT is fit and proper.”

Ofcom, which last year conducted a fit and proper test on the Murdoch family relating to their takeover of Sky, said it would carry out any investigation of RT on an “expedited basis”.

“Ofcom has an ongoing duty to be satisfied that all broadcast licensees are fit and proper to hold a licence,” said the spokesman.

The prime minister, Theresa May, who has suggested closing the channel as one potential option, is set to update MPs on “further measures” on Wednesday.

RT has said it is being used as a “sacrificial political pawn” in the fallout over the poisoning of Skripal, and that revoking its broadcasting licence would make a mockery of the concept of press freedom in the UK.

An RT spokesperson said: “We disagree with the position taken by Ofcom; our broadcasting has in no way changed this week, from any other week and continues to adhere to all standards. By linking RT to unrelated matters, Ofcom is conflating its role as a broadcasting regulator with matters of state.”

MPs have called on Ofcom to close the channel, which was founded by Vladimir Putin as Russia Today in 2005, calling its broadcasts a “propaganda mouthpiece for the Russian state”.

The channel has accused the press of spreading “fanciful” theories about the poisoning of Skripal and his daughter, Yulia.

May’s assertion that it is highly likely the Russian state was responsible for the attack on Skripal has plunged Anglo-Russian relations to their lowest state since the cruise missile crisis in the 1980s.

Ofcom said that after May makes a further statement on Wednesday, it will “consider the implications” and whether to launch an investigation into RT’s licence.

RT said it was “proud to have a better record with Ofcom than most other UK broadcasters”.

The channel has recorded 15 breaches of the UK broadcasting code since it began airing in Britain, three of which were serious enough to warrant a sanction. The most egregious was for a series of misleading or biased programmes on the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, which resulted in RT being forced to broadcast corrections detailing Ofcom’s findings.