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.
Did you hear that on Friday, March 22, at 7:00 PM, Boris Berezovsky was visited at home by two MI6 British intelligence agents? A well-connected source gave me that information. This was the evening before Berezovsky was discovered dead in his bathroom. He was the notorious Russian robber baron who was being shielded by political asylum in London. You probably didn't see anything about the MI6 visit in the news media. But why not?
Did you know police stated that third party involvement in Berezovsky's death can not be completely eliminated? Doesn't that leave open the possibility that Berezovsky was killed by rogue journalists wishing to create a sensational story?
I'm not seriously suggesting that Berezovsky was physically murdered by these journalists. What they did was to murder the news story. Their reporting was that bad. They played up highly speculative allegations that weren't backed up by facts. Their speculation was as well sourced as my facetious allegation that Berezovsky was murdered by the journalists.
Here are some examples.
An Irish Independent headline read, "No suicide, says Litvinenko's wife." Did they tell us how she knew? No.
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." That fallacious scarf theory was convincingly explained away by the police. But I didn't see a correction in the Guardian.
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." And did the Mail present facts to back up that one? No.
Why would the Independent present the wild claim of Mrs. Litvinenko's? She was untruthful before about her husband's involvement with British intelligence services. Why report what she says now about something which she has no visible means of knowing?
Similarly, it is befuddling that the Guardian came out with the strangulation story. I asked the police what they had to say about it. They replied, "There is a clear difference between strangulation and hanging. The coroner has ruled the injuries are consistent with hanging, not strangulation." If the Guardian had taken the time to ask the police, they could have avoided running with the poorly-thought-out story of strangulation.
And the Mail's assassination plot story? Where is there one scintilla of evidence that Markov's comments were not just a pipe dream?
CNN ran one doozy of story by Christiane Amanpour. She presented an interview that advanced the notion Berezovsky had been suffocated. A quick call to the police could have avoided that piece of unreliable reporting getting on air. I asked the police about that one too. A quick response came telling me the coroner "has ruled the cause of death was from injuries consistent with hanging; this is not the same as asphyxiation." Couldn't CNN have made the call too?
My hint that Berezovsky may have been visited by MI6 the evening before he was found dead was based on just one source. As such, it doesn't constitute an established fact journalistically.
But consider this:
Item: Were there functioning security cameras in Berezovsky's house and at points of entrance? I asked the police. They refused to answer. Then I asked a criminal justice expert with experience in the UK how to interpret that refusal. He said, "Such an answer is usually given when the police department (1) has the footage; (2) wants to avoid further questions about it; (3) is investigating its content; and/or (4) wants to suppress the content." Could the video reveal a visitor who confronted Berezovsky with information that precipitated a suicide? Or could it contain clues to a homicide suspect's identity? Or did it reveal the identity of some visitor that the police or British government wants to keep under wraps? Maybe some guys from MI6? Journalists haven't reported on the police secrecy about cameras, or the possible implications. Did they even ask about the cameras?
Item: March 22nd was also the day of Berezovsky's deadline to submit witness testimony to the coroner investigating the 2006 death in London of reputed former spy Alexander Litvinenko. I asked the coroner's office whether he actually submitted his testimony. They responded with a refusal to comment. Why the secrecy here? The coroner was investigating Berezovsky's possible culpability in Litvinenko's death. Does that have something to do with their refusal to comment?
Item: What did the British agents tell Berezovsky when and if they came calling? Could that have influenced his state of mind and precipitated a suicide?
These all represent things that should have been looked into. The media did do a lot of reporting on Berezovsky's state of mind. But instead of pursuing actual evidence, they came out with the story that he was depressed and despondent over financial losses. But what financial losses were there to wipe out Berezovsky's reported billions? What's the source for the allegation he was broke?
There is clearly evidence out there that contradicts the "broke" story. Earlier it was widely reported that Berezovsky received a settlement in a law suit. He had made a claim against the assets of his late associate Badri Patarkatsishvili. Potentially he could have gotten over $1 billion from that. More recently, the Sunday Times, to its credit, reported, "Berezovsky was in line for a cash bonanza of £200m shortly before he died, according to legal documents." So, broke? Where did other media outlets get that story from?
There is a litany of other things, as well. Was the body clothed the same as described by a Forbes magazine journalist who interviewed Berezovsky the previous day? There's a discrepancy in police reports of when he was last seen alive. What about that? And what about the bodyguard who discovered the body? Has anyone interviewed him? Even knowing if an interview was refused would be worth knowing. Indeed, where is that bodyguard now?
In the usual practice of journalism, a journalist gathers information and then tells his or her audience what is known. But in a large number of stories about Berezovsky's death, journalists have focused on telling audiences what the journalists don't know. For example there was the issue of the radiological examination of the premises. That was the lead of so many stories. Comparisons were drawn to the Litvinenko radiation poisoning incident. But nobody knew of any concrete connection. It was journalism by innuendo. There never was any official suggestion that radiation was involved in the death. The radiological team was there as a precaution because the dosimeter of a medical responder went off, apparently in error.
And there was a lot of buzz that the police were holding out the possibility that Berezovsky was murdered. I don't know, maybe he was. But the news media distorted what the police were saying. For instance, theMirror wrote, "Murder was not ruled out today after an inquest heard that exiled Russian Boris Berezovsky was found lying in his bathroom with a ligature around his neck." That's a patently false assertion. Murder is not under consideration because of the ligature around the neck. The police simply said they couldn't completely exclude murder until all outstanding forensic and toxicological tests have been concluded. That's a very different story.
The Mirror comes off looking like a fun house mirror. The paper's distorted reportage is a prime example of how journalists have murdered the Berezovsky story.