In one of the bigger stories to hit yesterday, Russian media outlet, RT, which is funded by the government reported that NatWest, a division of the nationalized RBS, had blocked access to RT’s bank account, provoking a confused and in some cases angry response that the UK government was trying to stifle free speech. To be sure, NatWest rejected any suggestion of political pressure, releasing the following statement: “We have recently undertaken a review of your banking arrangements with us and reached the conclusion that we will no longer provide these facilities.”
Today it appears that Russia did not accept that explanation, and as Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said, the decision by a majority-British government-owned bank to stop servicing RT UK’s accounts could not have been taken by the institution independently.
“It’s as clear as day that this decision was not made by the bank. And not any other bank – banks don’t make such decisions on their own,” he said. “I believe an old saying is appropriate here: don’t treat others the way you don’t wish to be treated yourself.”
However, while some had expected Russia to suggest how it would respond to the crackdown on RT, so far that has not happened, as Lavrov didn’t elaborate on a possible retaliation. The Russian Foreign Ministry earlier described as “squeezing alternative voices out of UK media space” by the UK government and said it was a violation of British commitments to preserve press freedoms under the Helsinki Accord of 1975.
Meanwhile, the UK government denied any involvement in the situation, insisting that NatWest made the decision independently from its state owner. “I noted the decision of the NatWest bank to withdraw support for RT, that was a wholly independently taken decision,” Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told the House of Commons on Tuesday. According to RT, however, the bank has since backtracked on its ‘non-negotiable’ position, saying in a statement that it was “reviewing the situation” and “contacting the customer to discuss this further.” According to RT’s Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan, no arrangement has been set for such talks yet.
The Times claimed that Russia had threatened to close the accounts of the BBC in Russia and to report the case to the OSCE, an organization that grew from the Helsinki Accord. The British newspaper didn’t cite any sources, but claimed that RBS “withdrew its punitive action” after the threats. RBS is another bank owned by the RBS Group, which apparently the Times meant to name as the decision-maker.
While the news has not made front pages, some RT decided to protest in the only way they could: by pulling their money:
One NatWest customer told RT he had closed his account with the bank after a decade of being its customer in protest at the way it had treated the news channel.
Since relations between the west and Russia continue to deteriorate, we doubt that this is the last time that a media outlet will be caught in the crossfire of superpower diplomatic tensions.