Boris Johnson confirmed Nadine Dorries had written to Ofcom after questions have been raised for days about the presence of Russia Today on British TV, which is funded by the Kremlin and has been accused of being a propaganda tool.
In a response to the culture secretary's letter, Ofcom chief executive Dame Melanie Dawes told Ms Dorries the regulator had “already stepped up our oversight of coverage of these events by broadcasters in the UK”.
She said while broadcasters can cover issues from a “particular perspective” as long as balance is achieved, that “it would not be acceptable for any of our licensees to broadcast one-sided propaganda”.
The move was branded “hypocritical” by RT reporter Shadia Edwards-Dashti. Speaking on the news channel, she said it was “simply not good enough for the government” that Ofcom was keeping an eye on RT and instead“ the government wants to see this channel taken off air”.
She said it was a “slippery slope, specifically about freedom of speech”, and added: “Is this an issue of state sponsorship? Because if it is an issue of state sponsorship, then we have to look at the BBC – that too is sponsored by the state.”
During Prime Minister's Questions Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: “We must also do more to defeat Putin’s campaign of lies and disinformation.
“Russia Today is his personal propaganda tool. I can see no reason why it should be allowed to continue to broadcast in this country, so will the Prime Minister now ask Ofcom to review its licence?”
Mr Johnson replied: “I believe that my right honourable friend the secretary of state for culture, media and sport (Nadine Dorries) has already asked Ofcom to review that matter.
He added: "But what I will say is that we live in a democracy and we live in a country that believes in free speech, and I think it’s important that we should leave it up to Ofcom rather than to politicians to decide which media organisations to ban.
“That’s what Russia does.”
In 2019, Ofcom fined RT £200,000 for its failure to observe “due impartiality” in seven news and current affairs programmes, including its coverage of the war in Syria and the Salisbury nerve agent attack.
It said at the time: “Taken together, these breaches represented serious and repeated failures of compliance with our rules. We were particularly concerned by the frequency of RT’s rule-breaking over a relatively short period of time.
“The programmes were mostly in relation to major matters of political controversy and current public policy – namely the UK Government’s response to the events in Salisbury, and the Syrian conflict.”
Earlier on Wednesday Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said it was up to Ofcom whether the Kremlin-backed TV station RT continues with its licence when questioned over its presence in the UK.
Asked what Ofcom should do about the station, Ms Truss told Sky News: “I think it is certainly true that (it) is spouting propaganda on behalf of the Kremlin. One of the things the Kremlin does is use disinformation to try and sow discord in the West, and Russia Today is clearly part of that.
“It is an independent decision of Ofcom about licensing broadcasters.”
In response to Sir Keir’s accusations on Tuesday, RT deputy editor-in-chief Anna Belkina said: “Always a joy to see Western and particularly British politicians finally drop their hypocritical disguise in favour of open interference in institutions they touted as supposedly totally independent and wholly free from political pressure and interference.”
The government has been under increasing pressure to apply sanctions on Russia in the wake of their recognition of two separatist provinces in eastern Ukraine.
The US, the UK and European leaders imposed sanctions on Russian banks and billionaires in response to the move on Tuesday, but Mr Johnson has been criticised for not going far enough.