Bond and The Return of the Evil Empire

The Litvinenko coverage is one more example of unquestioning journalism

We are living in a prime-time Bond film: we have dashing spies, poisoning, espionage, allegations of undercover assassinations. Murdered journalists are involved, as are billionaire ‘tycoons’. What is going on? A former KGB spy, Alexander Litvinenko, in hospital, apparently poisoned. Whether he was in fact poisoned and by whom is not the key issue here. The key issue – and a serious cause for concern about the fairness and independence of the UK media – is that the UK media unanimously, unquestioningly, report the story as ‘spy poisoning’ (to quote the BBC World headline). This is the Soviet-style murder of an innocent ‘dissident’. And not only do the media report this and fail to ask probing questions about alternative versions of the story, they actively work up the credibility of the mainstream version of events.

What did the media report? The average news consumer will have heard from 19 November 2006 that Mr Litvinenko, who defected to the UK in 2000 and was granted political asylum, has been poisoned. Not ‘probably poisoned’; not ‘apparently poisoned’; not ‘allegedly poisoned’. No, he has been poisoned. Presumably by the Russian president Vladimir Putin (personally, it almost seems while reading the news).

How do we ‘know’ this? To take only four elements: we have world leading toxicologists, photos of the effects of the poisoning, motivations for the crime, and a notable lack of questions about Mr Litvinenko himself.

First, one widely quoted toxicologist, Professor John Henry. According to The Times on 20 November,

John Henry, a clinical toxicologist who examined Mr Litvinenko on Saturday, said that the former spy was quite seriously sick. "There's no doubt that he's been poisoned by thallium”.

Now, were one suspicious, or were one an investigative reporter, one might ask what exactly “examined” means in this context. By 22 November the verb had become “spoken to” in The Daily Telegraph, and “is advising on Mr Litvinenko's treatment” in The Independent. For The Guardian on 22 November, Henry was “treating him”.

By 24 November, The Guardian stated that Prof Henry had not in fact treated Mr Litvinenko at any point during his hospitalisation. According to this Guardian report, ’the hospital said he [Henry] had not seen any of the test results when he first raised his theories in media interviews’.

By 24 November it was also clear that the thallium theory had been ruled out. No thallium was present in Litvinenko’s body. Strange news for readers of The Independent, who read on 21 November that ‘Toxicology tests have shown that Mr Litvinenko ingested an unknown quantity of thallium’. The Independent evidently works hard. They seem to have received the results even before the police, who on 21 November were still ‘awaiting results of toxicology tests before confirming reports that he had been poisoned with thallium’. Despite the lack of test results, however, this choice of words in The Guardian (‘before confirming reports that’ rather than, for example, ‘before reporting whether’) suggests that they also had prescient knowledge of the outcome of the toxicology tests.

The Times was unwilling to give up the thallium theory. A timeline on 24 November tells readers that on 19 November ‘reports emerge that Litvinenko has been poisoned with thallium.’ The timeline does not indicate that these reports were bogus. Nor does it suggest where the reports ‘emerged’ (by themselves?) from.

But to return to our toxicologist. Is it perhaps relevant to know more about Prof Henry than that he works at St Mary’s Hospital in London and is ‘a world expert on poisons’? This is credibility management per excellence. Reputable hospital, leading specialist, world expert. Perhaps we should be told that Litvinenko’s ‘friend’ who approached Prof Henry to talk to the media was in the employment of Boris Berezovsky. Or that Prof Henry was one of the first to argue that Viktor Yushchenko had been poisoned by dioxins in 2004. Or that on 23 November, the professor said ‘that he was withdrawing because he had had his "fingers burnt"’.

Then we have the photo. Guardian readers learn that:

Family and friends of the Russian dissident poisoned in London released a photo of him in his hospital bed last night as a graphic illustration of the effects of the deadly toxin thallium.

Perhaps this photo should have been accompanied by a copyright caption: ‘© Lord Tim Bell’, public relations consultant to Margaret Thatcher, Monsanto and South Africa’s National Party among others. It was after all his public relations company, ‘retained by Boris Berezovsky’, which launched and fed the public relations campaign and ‘arranged for a photograph of Mr Litvinenko in his hospital to be distributed to the media via a news agency.’ Nice to have influential ‘family and friends’.

Every good spy film has clear motivations: Surely the fact that he was investigating the murder of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya is reason enough to have him eliminated. Firstly, there must be huge numbers of journalists now frightened for their lives, if we tally up all the journalists currently investigating that assassination. Secondly, what evidence is there for his investigation? The link is Mario Scaramella, an Italian ‘defence consultant’ who had survived an attack on his life by the Italian mafia. Numerous reports mention that Scaramella passed on information about Politkovskaya’s murderers to Litvinenko. Does this mean he is ‘investigating’ the murder? For The Guardian on 21 November, it does. The causality is clear: ‘Mario Scaramella met Mr Litvinenko at the sushi restaurant to pass on information about the murder’. No matter that Scaramella stated at his press conference he had met Litvinenko to discuss a hit-list with his own and Litvinenko’s name on it. He happened to have some news about Politkovskaya’s murder, but they did not meet “to pass on” this specific information.

Finally, what details are not included in prominent positions in the media? That Litvenenko was a former bodyguard of Berezovsky, a man thought to be well-connected to the underworld, for more details see Paul Klebnikov’s book Godfather of the Kremlin: Boris Berezovsky and the looting of Russia1; that Whitehall doubted that he was a genuine defector when he appeared at Heathrow in 2000; that the granting of asylum is rumoured to have been part of a trade-off with the secret service; that he first announced his decision to remain in the UK to a tabloid paper at Heathrow before applying for asylum; that even Oleg Gordievsky (the highest ranking KGB officer ever to work for MI6) reported rumours in Moscow that Litvinenko ‘was given a huge bribe by Berezovsky [to say he had been ordered to assassinate Berezovsky], who simply wanted a way to discredit the KGB’; that his home in a ‘respectable’ part of London is financed in part by Berezovsky; that he describes Berezovsky as “intelligent, helpful and honest”; that even Nick Paton Walsh of The Guardian wrote in his inimitable dry manner in 2002 that Litvinenko was ‘short of irrefutable proof for his story [on FSB malpractice], and his links to Berezovsky, who has an enormous axe to grind with the Russian administration, cast doubt on his credibility’. At no point do the mainstream media seriously question Berezovsky’s role in the affair. They ignore his consistent attempts to discredit Putin, ever since Putin denied him the right to dictate politics with his wallet, as had been his want with Yeltsin.

Yes, the reader of this article will notice that the counter-evidence also originates from the UK media. There is ample alternative coverage from the Russian media, but the critics would shake their heads. “Ah”, they would say, “but the Russian media is clearly biased / manipulated / state-controlled”. Some details above are from older UK media reports, which have apparently been forgotten by today’s journalists. Others are from 24 November 2006 when some articles began to include alternative theories.

The Guardian brings a whole gamut of evidence which should surely shock the reader who has been following the story. But for some strange reason, these are buried in the middle of the twentieth paragraph and onwards. The headline reads Poisoned former KGB man dies in hospital. Subheading: ‘Friends insist on Kremlin link to Russian exile's unexplained death’. The first nineteen paragraphs focus on Litvinenko as a ‘fierce critic’ of Putin, etc, etc. Who reads 20 paragraphs, especially on a story which has been running for five days? Apart from media analysts.

One could ask why the “news” – i.e. that which is “new” – is not the headline. After all the brow-beating following the “weapons of mass destruction” affair (i.e. mea culpa, we the media should have questioned the official line more often), the Litvinenko coverage is one more example of unquestioning journalism. The worrying thing is that no single individual is controlling this media; it is controlling itself, tying itself to the rules of the game, constraining its own investigative nose for news. Only certain stories have news value. Only certain news frames make sense. Our familiar spy James Bond, battling against the Soviet powers, for instance.

Last news for The Times:

“A senior Whitehall official told The Times that confirmation that the former Russian spy, who had become a British citizen, had been poisoned with radioactive polonium-210 and other evidence so far not released pointed to the murder being carried out by foreign agents.”

The Health Protection Agency (HPA) confirmed that traces of polonium-210 were found in his body and in some areas.

(Felicitas Macgilchrist)