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.
It's the end of a rogue witch-hunt. The mysterious 2006 death in London of reputed former spy Alexander Litvinenko is at issue. Coroner Sir Robert Owen had been exhaustively looking for possible Russian state culpability. Then suddenly he stopped looking. On December 18, he issued a formal ruling that removed the Russian issue from the scope of his inquest.
That is an extremely startling development. Previously, Owen had said that the possible culpability of the Russian state was of central importance in the case. Much of Owen's work had been focused on finding a Russian culprit.
Now suddenly he's given up. This seems to represent a veritable implosion of his case.
News reports immediately attributed this collapse to the British government's refusal to allow consideration of secret government documents in the case. But that's a bogus explanation. It may be face-saving for Owen. It's also face-saving for the media.
The phony explanation likely arose because all parties had been entangled in a case-related misadventure that dates back to 2011. It involves the glaring illegitimacy of the coroner's pursuit of a culprit. Owen pretended he was conducting a proper investigation. The media pretended the same. But the truth lay elsewhere. Owen, in effect, had been on a fishing expedition, but with no license to fish.
You see, British law specifically forbids coroners from determining criminal liability. That's a job for police and prosecutors. The idea that the coroner should take the lead is a fabrication that was enthusiastically advanced by associates of the late Boris Berezovsky, a fugitive Russian business tycoon who had been hiding out in London. Litvinenko had been in Berezovsky's employ originally in Moscow and later in London.
It was Berezovsky and his followers who kicked off the story that Russian president Vladimir Putin was behind the purported spy's murder. The only trouble is this was a murder case without a murder and a spy drama without a spy.
The Berezovsky clan offered no facts, just specious allegations. There's no evidence that Litvinenko ever did espionage work, and the London coroner has never declared his death to be a murder. And Putin's involvement? No evidence either. But there is lots to substantiate that Berezovsky was out to get Putin for a long time.
It can be shown that Berezovsky and his followers made up the popularized Litvinenko story. And the gullible media gobbled up all the baloney. And apparently so did Owen.
To promote an end to Owen's witch-hunt misadventure, "Russia without Spin," a private sector initiative that I strongly support, embarked upon an advocacy aimed at cutting through the nonsense. It was undertaken as a demonstration of the efficacy of the RwS's proprietary skills in counteracting news reports founded upon fabricated information. The Litvinenko case was ideal for that purpose.
Working through a few cooperating media outlets and by providing carefully-crafted analyses that reached the Justice Ministry, the Home Office, and the High Court, the advocacy project picked apart Owen's activities, one by one.
Meanwhile, Owen tried to connive and misrepresent in order to protect his witch-hunt. He attempted to overrule the government's national security objections to the release of secret documents. But the High Court quashed his action, accusing him of making "an error of law." It also acknowledged receiving a submission that Owen had "mischaracterized the nature and extent of his duty in conducting the inquest."
Owen also tried to set up a sham "public inquiry" to get his hands on the secret documents. Now, mind you, these documents were not needed for Owen to fulfill his coronial responsibilities. He only wanted them to further his rogue criminal investigation. Coroners are principally supposed to rule on the cause and manner of death. But Owen was refusing to do that job.
Home Secretary Theresa May reined in Owen in his request for a so-called public inquiry. She said it wasn't needed. At the same time, she reprimanded him for not doing his proper job. May told Owen that his duty is to "ascertain who the deceased was, and how, when and where he came by his death." May added that "'how' in this context means 'by what means' and not 'in what broad circumstances.'" In other words: no witch-hunt for a culprit.
In the end, the Russia without Spin's advocacy proved successful. Owen's case against Russia didn't really implode. What happened was actually more of a controlled demolition. It ended the rogue investigation Owen was conducting, what with all its extensive media exposure. Hopefully, Owen will now heed Secretary May's admonition, and will start performing his statutory duties.
A remaining victim in all this is the widow Litvinenko. Since her husband's death, she has been crying out for justice in the case. She wants to know, and deserves to know, what happened to her husband. Mrs. Litvinenko made it clear that she was looking toward the coroner to deliver that justice.
Clearly the actions of the Berezovsky clan, Owen, and Andrew Reid, Owen's coronial predecessor, gave Mrs. Litvinenko reason to expect that the coroner could provide her with an answer. They should have explained that the coroner is not allowed to assign culpability. The coronial process does not include a prosecution and defense. Neither would a so-called public inquiry. So even if Owen had been allowed to finger a Russian suspect, that person would have had no opportunity for a defense. What kind of justice would that have been?
Personally, I think that Owen owes Mrs. Litvinenko an enormous apology. It's the least he could do.