I hate seeing my country being taken for a sucker. But that, I fear, is exactly what it is being taken for with the unfortunate death of Alexander Litvinenko. As the case rolls on, and the media hysteria continues, more and more I feel what the situation is exposing is not the evilness of the Kremlin, but our own gullibility, the sloppiness of our media, the irresponsibility of our politicians, and the greed of our PR industry.
The British press has been amazingly one-sided in its coverage of the ex-spy’s death.
I want to focus on one example. It’s the cover story in this week’s Spectator magazine. The cover had a caricature of president Putin and the headline ‘The Long Arm of Putin’.
The story, written by Neil Barnett, doesn’t even entertain any other theories than that the Kremlin is responsible for Litvinenko’s poisoning. It is presented to the reader as an open-and-shut case.
Here is one typical paragraph. Barnett says that Litvinenko was poisoned with thallium, which “a well-placed security source” tells him “suggests a state actor, and one with a long-standing interest in assassination techniques”. Barnett goes on: “Poisoning a British citizen on British soil demonstrates a new level of chutzpah even for the Putin regime (which, for the record, rejects any links to the attack as ‘sheer nonsense’)”.
Firstly, Litvinenko wasn’t poisoned with thallium. That suggestion came from John Henry, a toxicologist who was approached by the office of Boris Berezovsky to give his opinion on the case, and who readily did so, despite not yet having seen the test results of Litvinenko. He later withdrew his comments.
Nonetheless, Barnett’s “well-placed security source” uses this faulty testimony to conclude that a state actor must be involved – in other words, the Kremlin. How well-placed a security source can he be if he doesn’t even check his basic facts before immediately and publicly pointing the finger at Putin?
From this speculation based on faulty testimony, Barnett has already concluded that the Putin regime is responsible. He gets indignant over the fact the attack was on a British citizen, though he doesn’t mention the strange coincidence that Litvinenko only became a British citizen on the very day he was poisoned.
Barnett makes no mention of the fact the Kremlin stands to lose a lot more than it gains from Litvinenko’s killing. He does not mention that it occurred just as Putin was attending a sensitive and important EU-Russia summit in Helsinki, and that this summit was far more important to Russian national interests than some played-out ex-spy who had already said everything he had to say. He does not mention that Litvinenko’s death was long, drawn-out and spectacular – in other words, guaranteed to attract maximum media attention, which is directly against the interests of the Russian government. He does not mention that Anna Politkovskaya’s killing likewise coincided with another sensitive international visit of Putin’s, which it likewise managed to sour. These are basic facts of the case, obvious points which cast doubt on the Kremlin’s motive. But they are not mentioned at all.
He gets other basic facts wrong. He goes on the usual anti-Kremlin rant, blaming it for scaring foreign investors and undermining ‘BP’s contract in Sakhalin’. Anyone who covers Russia at all regularly knows it is Shell’s contract in Sakhalin, not BP’s. A trip to Barnett’s website shows he has barely written on Russia in the last few years, and is basically a Balkans expert. Good for him – but in that case, how can he be so certain that the Kremlin is to blame, and that it isn’t being set up?
Like many other British articles, Alexander Litvinenko becomes in Barnett’s description a Stoic hero. Barnett pays tribute to the “boyish charm” of the man who by his own admission happily worked for the FSB recruiting killers and blackmailing businessmen before he jumped ship to work for Boris Berezovsky in the UK. How did he manage to conquer his fear to stand up to the FSB, asks Barnett gushingly. Simple – Boris Berezovsky offered to pay him more.
Berezovsky himself has become heroic in British media reports. He is, in Barnett’s description, a “dissident oligarch”, as if he was some kind of Solzhenitsyn, gracing our shores with his moral courage. Only the smarter journalists are beginning to notice how totally Litvinenko’s death has been manipulated by Berezovsky – press briefings were handled by Alex Goldfarb, described as a “friend and human rights expert” by British press. Goldfarb is actually Berezovsky’s right-hand man, which tells you all you need to know about his respect for human rights.
The press were also fully briefed by Lord Tim Bell, a British spin-doctor who has worked with Berezovsky for many years. He told the Financial Times that “anyone who knew his client knew he would be incapable of killing anyone”. Anyone who is familiar with 1990s politics in Russia, and who has read the murdered journalist Paul Klebnikov’s book about Berezovsky, Godfather of the Kremlin, knows what a ridiculous and disingenuous statement that is. What is Tim Bell doing working for Berezovsky? Is anybody’s money good enough for him?
It’s not just the media that appears happy to take the bait. Our own government has been joining the fray. This weekend, Peter Hain, the Northern Ireland minister, saw fit to wade in and throw mud at Putin, on British national TV, for “huge attacks on democracy”, and the “extremely murky murder” of Anna Politkovskaya. If the murder is extremely murky, how does he know Putin ordered it? How can a British minister be so irresponsible as to accuse the president of Russia of murder, when he doesn’t have any evidence, considering the huge investments British companies have made in Russia, and the huge importance of Russia as a trade and security partner?
The fact that Hain is himself fighting for his political career, as a British judge accused him this month of perverting the course of justice in his work as Northern Ireland secretary, is of course by-the-by – we’d much rather hear him talk about Russian internal politics than answer questions about that particular investigation.
Luckily, more experienced journalists, ones actually based in Russia, are making more sensible comments. Mark Franchetii, the seasoned Sunday Times correspondent here, wrote a piece quoting a senior Kremlin source who pointed the finger at Berezovsky. Catherine Belton likewise noted, in today’s Moscow Times, that Litvinenko’s death seemed highly stage-managed. I also spoke a senior editorial figure from Kommersant (I can’t give his name because it was a social occasion and he didn’t know I was a journalist) – he said he thought it was Berezovsky, and he’d been employed by Berezovsky for several years.
Like I said, the common sense and integrity of British journalism and British politicians are on trial here. We should be extremely careful we are not being taken for a ride, and taking our own public for a ride at the same time.