Published 18-03-2013, 14:37
William Dunkerley is a media business analyst and consultant based in New Britain, CT. He works extensively with media organizations in Russia and other post-communist countries, and has advised government leaders on strategies for building press freedom and a healthy media sector. He is a Senior Fellow at the American University in Moscow.
The main question arising from last Thursday's hearing in the British Litvinenko death case is whether anyone is actually in charge of the proceedings. Media reports quickly focused on the announced postponement of the May 1 final inquest. Now it's been put off until October.
But the reasons for the delay tell the bigger story: Coroner Sir Robert Owen seems to have lost control of the proceedings, if he ever really had it. The inquest's own legal counsel recited a litany of examples:
- -- The British government ignored for 10 long months the coroner's request for relevant documents.
- -- A request for telephone evidence from the Metropolitan Police has not yet been completed.
- -- Scientific evidence from the police won't be available until the end of April.
- -- Statements from known witnesses won't be available until the end of April or later.
Keep in mind that we're talking about a death that occurred in 2006. Not ready yet? Who's going to believe that story?
What's more, although the hearing was called to hear applications from parties wishing to give testimony anonymously, none were heard. They weren't ready.
Perhaps as a reflection of his impotence in the case, Owen lashed out with an order of press censorship. He threatens contempt of court charges against journalists and media organizations that publish anything that so much as tends to identify anonymous witnesses. Tends to identify? In whose view? Owen's, I guess. It is completely subjective, and puts Owen in a clear position to intimidate the British press.
The most recent hearing wasn't the first time that Owen's lack of control has been apparent. At the February 27th hearing, he lost control to parties associated with Boris Berezovsky. About half of that hearing was controlled by those people as they advanced the ridiculous accusation that Russia and Britain were conspiring to withhold information vital to the case. If Owen had any control, he should have shut down that nonsense right away.
The Berezovsky clan offered no substantiation for their claims. Their contention turned out to be pure fabrication, just like Berezovsky's initial allegation that President Vladimir Putin ordered Litvinenko's poisoning. Frankly, I don't know whether Putin did or didn't. But Berezovsky and his companions have certainly offered no factual basis for their claims. And they have a long record of inventing false stories to put Putin in a bad light.
If British governmental departments can ignore Owen with impunity, perhaps Prime Minister David Cameron should personally take charge. Presumably he'd be able to enforce compliance. But I don't think even that would bring this case to a believable conclusion. The record has become confounded by lies and fabricated stories. They've apparently permeated the official case. There is little chance of ever finding the truth. The honest course would be to admit that the truth is unattainable, and just dismiss the case and avoid further national embarrassment.