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News

Why did NatWest issue a threat to Russia's RT news channel?

What was NatWest bank thinking of when it sent a letter to the RT UK news channel saying it was preparing to close its accounts?

We don’t know because the bank, which is part of the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) group, has not offered any public explanation beyond a bland statement.

Although it said such decisions “are not taken lightly”, did it not realise the likely press freedom implications and the likelihood of it generating conspiracy theories? This is a Russian outfit after all (formerly known as Russia Today).

In such circumstances, the immediate reaction from RT was entirely predictable. Editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan said: “It’s completely obvious that this is a political decision and a result of the wild pressure on RT in Europe and Britain”.

I am assured that the British government, overtly or covertly, had nothing to do with the bank’s letter, so I think Simonyan was wide of the mark.

But whatever lies behind the bank’s reasoning, the wording of the letter strikes me as clumsy, high-handed and tactless. If it had genuine concerns about RT UK’s accounts, then it would appear reasonable to write saying it was reviewing its banking arrangements. Then discussions could have taken place.

Instead, NatWest appeared to have decided the result of the “review” in advance by stating that RT’s accounts would be closed in December, that the decision was “final” and that it was “not prepared to enter into any discussion in relation to it.”

The Russian government may have overreacted by responding with a threat of its own, saying it will be forced to retaliate in kind.

That is par for the course. In its political culture, a partially state-owned bank - which is the case with RBS - would be highly unlikely to exercise autonomy.

It has therefore assumed that there is a sinister plot and a denial of press freedom. In reality, of course, RT’s existence is of little consequence to the UK government.

Its audience is small. Its output is largely uncontroversial (and monitored, doubtless, by Ofcom for fairness). So there is no reason to harass the channel.

With NatWest having stumbled into this diplomatic mess, some transparency would be welcome. Some may well believe that the bank is likely to have been concerned about risk management and compliance. But there is no evidence to suggest any such problem.

RT UK, given its ultimate Moscow ownership, is not an ordinary customer, and it appears that the bank has unnecessarily, if naively, stumbled into, and thereby, stoked up, an international row.

However, there should be no illusion: there are no press freedom implications.