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.
Despite the fact that British authorities have dispelled claims that Boris Berezovsky was murdered by strangulation or that he died by natural causes, many news outlets have been running stories advancing conspiracy theories, hinting at "murder." Most quote people associated with Berezovsky as sources. A lot of these people previously supported Berezovsky's allegations that Russian state, and Russia's president Vladimir Putin in particular, were behind the 2006 death in London of Alexander Litvinenko, the controversial agent of several intelligence services.
An Irish Independent headline read, "No suicide, says Litvinenko's wife." The Guardian quoted Nikolai Glushkov, a person identified as a friend of Berezovsky: "I'm definite Boris was killed. I have quite different information from what is being published in the media." After hearing an account from Berezovsky's ex-wife Galina, he remarked "A scarf was there. There were traces of him being strangled around the neck."
In Russia, overzealous anti-Berezovsky conspiracy theorists are adding their part to the confusion. The Mail reported that former politician Sergei Markov said "the tycoon was assassinated because he knew too much about Western plots to undermine Putin and planned to trade this knowledge for a return to Russia."
In my view these were wild claims. Nevertheless news outlets reported them without substantiation. Even respected Western news outlets carried the nonsense. But the claims turned out to be baseless, and now have now been proven wrong.
My way of uncovering the truth was to contact the Thames Valley Police, in whose jurisdiction Berezovsky died. Considering he might have been choked to death by someone, I wondered whether he died by asphyxiation. Is that what the coroner declared as the cause of death? The answer came back, "No, he has ruled the cause of death was from injuries consistent with hanging; this is not the same as asphyxiation."
But couldn't strangulation be confused with hanging? There were those news reports claiming he had bruises on his neck, and that a scarf lay on the floor near his body. But the police responded, "There is a clear difference between strangulation and hanging. The coroner has ruled the injuries are consistent with hanging, not strangulation."
That clarification should put an end to the false reports of murder, at least given what is presently known. A final conclusion must await the completion of the investigation.
Then there was the issue of death by natural causes. The New York Times claimed that "the stress of the last few months had brought on a fatal heart attack," attributing only "a person with knowledge of the details." The Telegraph chimed in too, reporting "Demyan Kudryavtsev, a business associate of the tycoon, dismissed claims that he had committed suicide, saying he had died from heart failure."
The coroner in the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, within which jurisdiction the autopsy was conducted, has an answer for those allegations. It comes from their standard procedures. They say if "death was due to natural causes, then no Inquest is required." But, "if the Coroner establishes that death was not due to natural causes, then he is obliged to hold an Inquest." An inquest in the death of Berezovsky is scheduled to begin on March 28. That seems to put to rest the false reports of a heart-attack death.
The media frenzy surrounding Berezovsky's death is reminiscent of that which was touched off by the mysterious 2006 death of Alexander Litvinenko. It too was full of wild, unsupported accusations.
In fact, the death of Berezovsky leaves the Litvinenko case hanging: Berezovsky was probably the most vocal source on Litvinenko's death. The Western media apparently believed his accusations against Putin. Little effort was made to check out Berezovsky's claims.
The result was another instance where media stories don’t match up with numerous facts. A closer examination shows that Berezovsky had fabricated an intricate story, and that it was spread worldwide by media organizations. The media kept repeating Berezovsky's allegations that Vladimir Putin ordered the poisoning. They seemed to ignore that Berezovsky was in effect the main witness, and that he offered no facts.
Even though the coroner hadn't found Litvinenko's death to be a homicide, two Russian citizens were subsequently accused of murder. Since there were no facts revealed, the prosecutor's case appears to have been founded entirely upon Berezovsky's phony media stories.
Curiously, the prosecutor in charge, after leaving office, told the New York Times that he has the "gravest suspicions" of Moscow's involvement in the Litvinenko case. That speaks volumes to the substance of the case. Surely grave suspicions do not equal evidence.
But we may never know the true story. The British government is seeking to impose secrecy on relevant documents. Some allege the purpose is to suppress evidence that may prove damaging to the British government, such as ties between Berezovsky, Litvinenko and the British secret services. The coroner has even imposed press censorship, threatening media outlets with contempt of court.
Meanwhile, there was something else missed by the bulk of the press. It is that Berezovsky died one day after the deadline passed for him to submit his witness statement to inquest officials on Litvinenko's case. It's unknown whether he complied. I asked the coroner's office if he did. But they responded, refusing to comment. The coroner actually seems to have lost control of the proceedings. A February 27th hearing appeared dominated by parties associated with Berezovsky.
Now the British authorities are left without the godfather of their Litvinenko case. This would be a good time for them to abandon the foolish prosecution that they undertook on false premises and dismiss the case. It would also be a good time for media outlets to ferret out the truth and present a fact-based account.