By Paul Robinson, a professor at the University of Ottawa. He writes about Russian and Soviet history, military history, and military ethics, and is author of the Irrussianality blog
Long known as the “house journal” of British spooks, it now appears the Sunday Times has given up any pretence of critical journalism and is unquestionably publishing what intelligence officials want to place in the public domain.
A prominent liberal Russian journalist once commented that Western writings on Russia were so bad that they were liable to turn even the biggest Putin hater into a supporter. For while there are many very legitimate criticisms that can be made of the country, Western reporting is so exaggerated that it discredits almost everything that comes out of its mouth – even when it’s actually correct.
One prime example is an article published this weekend in Britain’s most prestigious Sunday newspaper, the Sunday Times, on the subject of the poisoning of opposition activist Alexey Navalny.
Navalny was taken ill on a flight in Siberia on August 20, and medically evacuated to Germany two days later. The Russian authorities are sticking to the initial diagnosis of doctors in Omsk, who said that Navalny was suffering from a metabolic disorder. The Germans, however, claim that he was poisoned by the nerve agent Novichok. Since it is said that Novichok can only be produced in state-run facilities, the implication is that the Russian state was responsible for the poisoning.
The circumstances of Navalny’s illness are indeed suspicious. Furthermore, previous cases, such as the poisonings of Alexander Litvinenko and Sergei Skripal in the UK, make it seem plausible that somebody in authority might have wanted to attack the Moscow protest leader in a similar way. That said, suspicions aren’t proof, and the German government has failed to provide any. The lack of transparency is immensely regrettable, and makes it possible for sceptics to argue that the Germans are lying.
This weekend’s article in the Sunday Times is probably meant to undermine the doubters. In reality, it’s likely to have the opposite result. For its claims are so outrageous that many thinking people will react with laughter, and then perhaps start questioning the poisoning story as a whole.
According to the Sunday Times, Navalny wasn’t poisoned by a nerve agent smeared on his water bottle, as has previously been asserted, but rather was attacked by means of his underpants. Moreover, he wasn’t poisoned once, but twice, and despite Novichok’s reputation for extreme deadliness, both attempts failed.
When examined, though, these claims don’t amount to much. The Sunday Times story is nearly 4,000 words long, but 95 percent of it is irrelevant filler, including the comical assertion that the murder of Grigory Rasputin in December 1916 proves “Russia’s penchant for poisoning” (because, of course, nobody other than Russians ever poisoned anyone). The allegations regarding the attack on Navalny take up a mere 100 words of the 4,000-word total. As well as being brief, they are to say the least unproven. The Sunday Times says:
“Vladimir Uglev, a retired Russian chemist who developed nerve agents, believes Navalny’s poisoners would have been instructed to place novichok on the elastic waistband of his pants, where it would come into contact with his skin. … A German laboratory later found traces of a nerve agent on the surface of one of the water bottles. Uglev, the retired chemist, believes that this is because Navalny touched it having got novichok on his fingers after putting on his underpants.”
In other words, the underpants story is just what a single Russian scientist, unconnected to the case, happens to think. Nothing more. Does Uglev provide any evidence to prove his assertion? No. He just “believes” it. Yet, this is sufficient for the Sunday Times to treat the story as essentially true, leading off its article with the claim that, “Navalny was exposed to a nerve agent – not, as initially believed, when he drank a cup of tea in the departure lounge but when he got dressed that morning.” This is not exactly good reporting.
If the underwear story smells a little off, so too does the claim that Russian secret agents tried to murder Navalny not once, but twice. As evidence, the Sunday Times says that, “German security sources have told their associates in the UK that the attackers struck again as Navalny lay in an induced coma before being put on a medical flight to Germany. ‘This was with a view to him being dead by the time he arrived in Berlin,’ one source said.”
To put it another way, an anonymous person (probably a member of the British intelligence or security services) told a journalist that some other anonymous person believes that this is so. In other words, it’s not just hearsay, but anonymous hearsay. One can believe it if one wishes. But there’s no particular reason why one should.
After all, it requires one to imagine that the Russian secret services are so incompetent that they should fail to murder somebody on their own soil, not just once but twice. And further, that they should fail while using what is meant to be one of the deadliest poisons known to man. Maybe that’s what happened. But nobody who is already sceptical about the claim that the Russian state poisoned Navalny with Novichok is going to accept it. Instead, it’s likely to reinforce their scepticism. Add in the underwear, and they’ll probably feel that the bottom has fallen out of the Germans’ story.
And that’s a problem. Western commentators regularly complain that, when faced with evidence of misbehaviour, the Russian state and its supporters respond by inventing conspiracy theories in order to sow doubt about what is real and what is not. But such a tactic can only succeed if people have already lost faith in their original sources of information. In other words, the fundamental problem is not the conspiracy theories themselves, but rather the loss of faith caused by the exaggerations and falsities of so much of what passes as reporting.
The poisoned underwear is a case in point. It stretches the elastic of the imagination so far as to be utterly incredible. In this way, this latest allegation plays right into Moscow’s hands. Alexey Navalny may well have been the victim of a vicious attack. But there will be many who, having stuffed their noses into the Sunday Times, will decide that it doesn’t pass the sniff test, and that the whole Navalny story is a giant load of pants.
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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.