Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Letter to the Editorial Complaints Unit of the BBC from Martin Dewhirst, Department of Slavonic Studies, University of Glasgow and Viktor Suvorov


  We have serious concerns about the BBC Russian Service's weakening ability to report objectively about Russia, in particular by denying a platform to some of the Kremlin's critics, as happened around the time of Alexander Litvinenko's murder.

  We thank Nigel Chapman for the very detailed response (attached) to our initial comments earlier this year and should explain our delay in responding to his letter. Our intention was to wait and see how the Crown Prosecution Service's statement was covered by the BBC Russian Service.

  Both Mark Thompson and Nigel Chapman have so far questioned our concerns. However, in attempting to dismiss our examples of the BBC Russian Service's pro-Kremlin bias, Nigel Chapman's letter has only confirmed that the Service has systematically dropped or downgraded certain BBC News items about Litvinenko from its own news bulletins. All of these news items contained information embarrassing to the Russian authorities.

  We are not disputing that the BBC Russian Service's news output is generally more unbiased and reliable than what is available locally in Russia. However, too often it is much weaker than the main BBC News in reporting on Russia. Its coverage of the events surrounding the death of Alexander Litvinenko, particularly prior to the recent announcement by the Crown Prosecution Service, has showed that at times of crisis the Service seems ready to compromise its editorial principles and refrain from putting difficult questions to the Russian authorities, presumably in order to help the BBC to avoid potential difficulties in Russia.

  We all believe that Britain needs a strong BBC Russian Service. However, unless its broadcasts are as robust in examining the Russian regime as the main BBC News, they should not be funded by the British taxpayer.

  In this letter, we shall go through some of the examples of the Russian Service's unbalanced approach to news reporting and analysis and give our recommendations on how to strengthen the BBC Russian Service so that it maintains its editorial independence at times of crisis, as the British taxpayer would expect. We understand that there are similar concerns about the editorial standards of another important language service, the Arabic Service, and that those have also been dismissed by the World Service's management in a similar fashion. It is important that the Corporation takes appropriate steps to correct this situation as a matter of urgency before the BBC World Service's reputation for impartial news in the countries concerned is seriously damaged.


  Here are some examples of the Russian Service's pro-Kremlin bias in the coverage of Alexander Litvinenko's murder.

  Our main concern, which we raised with the BBC at the end of December 2006, was that it denied a platform to some of the Kremlin's critics whilst at the same time featuring lengthy exclusive interviews with Russian government spokesmen and pro-Kremlin commentators. We are lucky to be in the position of knowing about it more than the average listener because we happen to be not only some of the more outspoken critics of the current Russian administration but also because we knew Alexander Litvinenko personally and some of us counted ourselves among his close friends.

  1.  The Director General responded to us by saying that "the Russian Service always strives to rigorously test the arguments of all sides of a debate and goes to great efforts to ensure that programmes are balanced" We could not find evidence supporting this statement by examining the main section of the "Litvinenko webpage" on the Russian Service's website, entitled "Comment & Analysis". The only video clips contained there for many months following Litvinenko's death featured the following four personalities (see the enclosure marked "Litvinenko—Comment and Analysis"):1[2]

  Alexander Gusak, a former officer of the Russian Security Service and a former boss of Alexander Litvinenko, saying that Litvinenko was a traitor.

  Andrei Lugovoy, one of the main suspects in Litvinenko's murder, saying that he is being treated by the British investigation as a witness and not as a suspect.

  Dmitry Peskov, President Putin's Press spokesman, saying that the accusations against the Kremlin are "absurd" and that they would like the "truth" to emerge.

  Vladimir Pozner, a prominent journalist with strong links to the Kremlin for many decades. His father, also a prominent Soviet journalist, used to lecture at the KGB School on disinformation techniques.

  We feel that the above example is symbolic of the BBC Russian Service's bias in the coverage of Litvinenko's tragic death. The editors seem to have taken a conscious decision not to include similar clips representing, as the Director General put it, "the other side of a debate" [sic], such as interviews with Litvinenko's friends Akhmed Zakaev, the Chechen envoy, Alexander Goldfarb, Yuri Felshtinsky, the co-author of Litvinenko's books, or even some of the authors of this letter, Vladimir Bukovsky and Oleg Gordievsky, who knew Litvinenko and his work well and also possess some knowledge of the way the Russian government and its intelligence and security agencies operate. All these people were extensively interviewed by the Western media, including the BBC Russian Service's competitor, Radio Liberty, but the Russian Service had obviously decided to pursue a different line of reporting that has little to do with presenting news in a balanced and unbiased way.

  Whilst the quality of the Russian Service's coverage has improved since the recent announcement by the Crown Prosecution Service, the analysis it offers its listeners is still much weaker compared to the rest of the British media. In its desire not to be seen in Russia as controversial, the Russian Service has failed to address properly a key question in the murder of Litvinenko—whether it was organised by the Russian security services. For example, the editorial in The Times on 23 May 2007 has stated bluntly that "The Litvinenko poisoning was an outrageous attempt by the FSB, the successor to the KGB—to silence the Kremlin's critics abroad. Whether or not it was directly ordered by President Putin—and the likelihood is that this was more a case of a state body trying to please its master—the Russian State is deeply involved. The murder came only weeks after restrictions had been lifted on FSB assassinations overseas, and was meant to send a message to other anti-Putin activists, including Boris Berezovsky and Akhmed Zakayev, the Chechen actor, who have been given asylum in Britain- asylum that Mr Berezovsky has come close to abusing."

  A day later, on 24 May 2007, The Times published an article by Michael Evans, the Defence Editor, which made a number of important points:

    "The Government has decided against making an official approach to Moscow about the suspected involvement of the Russian intelligence services in the murder ofAlexander Litvinenko, Whitehall sources told The Times yesterday."

    "The view being taken is that this is a criminal matter, not an intelligence issue, and there is no intention on the part of the Government to focus on anything else in dealing with the Russians over this case, a Foreign and Commonwealth Office official said."

    "During the police investigation into the killing, security sources told The Times that the case appeared to have all the hallmarks of a state-sanctioned assassination. But sources acknowledged yesterday that there was a gap between what was suspected and what could be viewed as `a provable trail'."

    "Patrick Mercer. the former Tory spokesman on homeland security said that the Government was ignoring `the wider implications'. He said: `What worries me is that the Government seems to be trying to treat this as an isolated incident of criminal behaviour but steps need to be taken to ensure that this type of action does not happen again.'"

  The Russian Service has clearly decided to ignore this important "side of an argument" and focus solely on the main suspect, Lugovoi, without analysing the whole picture.

  2.  A specific complaint must be made about the reluctance of the Russian Service to interview well-known critics of President Putin. Akhmed Zakaev, the Chechen envoy living in London is one such example.

  It is well known that the BBC has been trying to keep interviews with him to a minimum, We enclose a copy of a memorandum from Alan Quartly, BBC Moscow Bureau Editor2[3], to all key Russian news editors and correspondents asking, "can we pass onto programmes not to use Akhmed Zakaev (Chechen envoy in London) as a guest... The Russians regard him as a terrorist and are seeking his extradition from the UK. where he currently has political asylum... The Russian gov't [sic] keeps an eagle eye on when the BBC talks to him and then tries to use it against us here in Moscow. There is currently a bit of an issue with the foreign ministry about a past interview with him on the BBC Russian Service website. it would be good not to aggravate this." We hear that the BBC management was very annoyed that Mr. Quartly has put his arguments in writing.

  Nigel Chapman has admitted on page 4 of his letter (a copy of which is enclosed) 3[4] that the Russian Service did not run Zakaev's interview to BBC News on 14th December 2006 "because there was nothing new in it", That is an absurd suggestion, because in this interview Zakaev has for the first time suggested that by killing Litvinenko the Russian authorities have tried to silence him as well. After all, Zakaev and Litvinenko not only both opposed Putin's regime but were friends and neighbours in London. The Russian Service was well placed to interview Zakaev in Russian following his comments to BBC News. This was not the case, however.

  In addition, Mr. Chapman's comments give the mistaken impression that Zakaev was interviewed exclusively by the Russian Service. In fact, Zakaev's comments that were broadcast by the Russian Service's news were made by him to a pool ofjournalists. The only time when the Russian Service interviewed Zakaev on an exclusive basis was for a feature programme, "The Life and Death of Alexander Litvinenko", produced by Ms. Masha Karp.

  3.  Two of this letter's signatories, Vladimir Bukovsky and Oleg (Gordievsky, were also interviewed by Ms. Karp for the same feature, which was the only occasion when they were interviewed in Russian by the BBC during the whole of the Litvinenko affair. This was duly noted by Mark Thompson, who wrote that "you will be aware that the wide range of voices heard over the Litvinenko affair has included both your own and that of your co-signatory Oleg Gordievsky—interviews which were transmitted both in Russia and other countries outside the UK".

  Having listened to the feature, we think it was well-balanced, with comments not only by Putin's spokesmen but also by a few of his critics. This was the first programme on the BBC Russian Service since Litvinenko's murder that featured exclusive interviews with Zakaev, Bukovsky and Gordievsky. However, shortly after it was first broadcast, its repeats were cancelled and the audio file was quickly removed from the Russian Service's website. We have recently learnt that the producer, instead of being congratulated an excellent programme, was actually reprimanded for it! (We don't know the details of her case because she refused to talk about it when contacted by one us, but we are sure that our information is reliable as it comes from long-standing and sympathetic sources within the World Service.)

  We feel that this type of prosecution of journalistic freedom by the BBC is totally unacceptable and therefore we would have to consider publicising any possible future actions by your management against Ms. Karp, who, we understand, is a long-standing and respected editor of the Russian Service. This is a dark page in the Russian Service's history.

  4.  Perhaps for similar reasons, the BBC Russian Service has practically ignored a major interview on Litvinenko's poisoning which Oleg Gordievsky gave to Michael Binyon of The Times and which was published on 20 December 2006. This interview was important because Mr. Gordievsky revealed for the first time that Litvinenko was poisoned not at the sushi bar but at a hotel where he met some Russian visitors.

  Despite this being a major story, which not only was carried by international news agencies and quoted by the world's press, but which was also followed up with a live interview with Mr. Gordievsky on BBC News 24, the BBC Russian Service has not interviewed this particular long-standing critic of the Kremlin. Instead, the article in The Times was briefly mentioned in one sentence, not as part of the news coverage but in a press review programme, as confirmed by Nigel Thompson on page 3 of his letter.

  On page 4, the Director states that Mr. Gordievsky's comments "wouldn't serve the public and the case". As far as "the case" goes, surely that is a matter for the Police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Courts to decide, and not for the BBC Russian Service, but as for "the public", this is a clear example of the Russian Service's editors denying their listeners the right to hear all sides of the argument and decide for themselves. We feel this particular example illustrates a serious breach of the BBC's own editorial guidelines.

  5.  Another example of the BBC Russian Service's pro-Kremlin bias was when it ignored an interview on December 2006 by another co-author of this letter, Vladimir Bukovsky, to BBC Radio 4, in which he talked about Russian legislative measures allowing the Kremlin's critics to be killed outside Russia and about a list of those critics compiled by the authorities in Moscow. BBC News thought the interview newsworthy and featured it as part of the news coverage on that day. The BBC Russian Service, however, did not mention it because, as Mr. Chapman states in his letter, "the issue was covered previously by the Service... the list was mentioned as early as on 24 November [sic]." We find this justification very odd as the Russian Service obviously has no difficulty in repeatedly broadcasting Russian officials' views about the murder of Litvinenko broadly consisting of the same points and repeating what has already been said. However, when it comes to comments made by a well-known and long-standing critic of the Kremlin, the Russian Service denies them a platform.

  6.  The BBC Russian Service seemed determined to undermine any news items or programmes produced by the main BBC channels that seemed to its editors to be too critical of the Russian authorities. For example, on the eve of the BBC Panorama programme about Litvinenko's murder (22 January 2007), the Russian Service thought it necessary to post an article on its website alleging that British journalists do not understand the case (a copy is enclosed, marked "Litvinenko—Comment & Analysis"). It used an exclusive interview with Andrew Jack of the Financial Times to say that the British media do not understand Russia properly and, therefore, will not get to the truth about Litvinenko's murder.

  It is most interesting to note how the Russian Service's editors used the captions under the two photographs in this article. Under one, featuring Alexander Goldfarb, Alexander Litvinenko's friend, it was stated "Alexander Goldfarb was the British media's main source of information about the Litvinenko's case". Under the second, featuring Oleg Gordievsky, it said "Former KGB colonel and defector Oleg Gordievsky is one of a group of "Litvinenko`s friends". It must be categorically stated that none of the two captions (and their sarcasm) represented quotes from Andrew Jack's interview but that they were clear expressions of the Russian Service's own biased position and opinion. We see in this another breach of the BBC's editorial principles.

  7.  Nigel Thompson has confirmed in his letter that a number of important BBC News items on the Litvinenko case were never included in the Russian Service's own news bulletins or were downgraded in importance. It looks as though some editors at the Russian Service have attempted to tone down news coverage of the Litvinenko crisis, particularly in its initial stages, which coincidentally tied in very well with the official Kremlin line, which stressed the apparent insignificance of Litvinenko and the irrelevance of his death to Russian- British bilateral relations.

  We have undertaken random spot checks of both BBC News and the Russian Service's news websites, the content of which, we understand, closely reflects the running order of the main news bulletins of both media channels.

  We have found that whilst BBC News ran stories related to the murder of Litvinenko as the number one news at 14:00 on 27 November 2006 ("Three to be tested for radiation") and at 12:00 on 30 November 2006 ("BA planes undergo radiation tests"), the BBC Russian Service did not run any top stories at all on Litvinenko at those times. Mr. Chapman confirmed on pages 7 and 8 of his letter to us that the Russian Service did not run these stories as part of its main news bulletin.

  Other inconsistencies found were as follows:

    24 Nov 2006, 17.00

    BBC News: "Radiation tests after spy dies"

    BBC RS: "Litvinenko `died of radiation'"

  Core differences:

    —  The BBC RS does not quote from Litvinenko's statement that accuses Putin of his death.

    —  Does not mention polonium-210

    —  Runs extensive quotes of the Russian President denying any claims of his government's involvement.

    26 Nov 2006, 18.00

    BBC News: "Advice sought after ex-spy death"

    "Hundreds of people have called the NHS Direct hotline following the death of Russian ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko"

    BBC RS: "British minister criticises Putin"

    "Peter Hain told the BBC that Putin's successes are threatened by the attempts to limit individual freedoms and democracy."

  Core differences:

    —  No mention of Mr. Reid's statements, no mention of the NHS hotline,

    BBC News—"Radiation found at 12 locations"

    —  BBC RS—"The case of Litvinenko: investigators' interest in five planes"

    30 Nov 2006— 18.15

    BBC News—"Radiation found in 12 locations"

    BBC Russian Service: "The case of Litvinenko: traces of radiation are `hardly dangerous'"

    1 Dec 2006

    BBC News—"Contact in positive polonium test" (about Mario Scaramella)

    BBC RS—"The case of Litvinenko—post-mortem is in progress"

  Core differences:

    RS calls Litvinenko "a vehement critic of the Russian authorities as a whole"—a misleading description that makes him sound unreasonable.

    Does not include a very important fact, fully cited by BBC News, that Scaramella is involved in an Italian parliamentary inquiry into KGB activity.


  First, we would like to look at the possible reasons for the situation at hand.

  One reason for the weakening of the BBC Russian Service we see in the way it allowed itself to be effectively corrupted by broadcasting through state-controlled Russian radio channels. It has just started a joint venture with the Big Radio network together with The Voice of Russia, a propaganda news radio station, both owned by the Russian government. For some years now, the BBC Russian Service had been making friends with the Russian authorities and signing re-broadcasting contracts with numerous Russian radio stations, all under the ultimate control of the Kremlin. It is not surprising that Russian producers have to be much more careful now in what they say in their reports because there is always a chance of the Russian Service being taken off the air by the authorities in Moseow. This is exactly what happened during the Litvinenko's crisis—the BBC Russian Service was silenced in Moscow and St. Petersburg, despite its weak performance, compared with the main English-language BBC News.

  Another possible reason is that the BBC Russian Service is effectively under the management of two former high-profile Soviet journalists: Alexey Solohubenko, Deputy Head of the region (a higher position than that of the Head of the Russian Service) and Andrei Ostalsky, the Editor-in-Chief of the Russian Service.

  According to our information, Mr. Solohubenko was a senior officer of the foreign broadcasting services (inoveshchanie) at Radio Kiev, working on state Soviet propaganda broadcasts to foreign countries. It is very likely that someone in his position had to have regular contacts with the KGB.

  Mr. Ostalaky was a deputy editor of Izvestia, the second most important newspaper in the Soviet Union after Pravda. He was also a correspondent of TASS (the USSR's main news agency) in Iraq. In either of these jobs he is likely to have had regular contacts with the KGB. Moreover, in his post at Izvesia, his responsibilities may well have included reporting on his colleagues to the KGB.

  8.  At a time when former KGB officers are effectively in control of the Kremlin and the Russian media, it is unthinkable that the BBC Russian Service can retain any degree of objectivity when it is led by people with this widely known past and reputation.

  Therefore we recommend immediate action enabling the BBC Russian Service to gain more independence from the Russian government. This can be achieved by investing more in their medium wave transmitters and lobbying for its own FM wave in Moscow and St. Petersburg—something that the US-funded Radio Liberty, BBC's competitor in Russia, already enjoys. This way it will be able to move away from the joint venture with the state broadcasters, such as the Big Radio.

  The Russian Service is also in urgent need of experienced journalists from the areas of the BBC who can exercise better editorial control in order to ensure that news coverage is better balanced than in the aftermath of Litvinenko's murder. It may not be practical to re-introduce pre-employment screening, as was the case during the Cold War, but the Russian Service's independence and objective news reporting should not be undermined by journalists with a questionable past. Such journalists should not occupy key positions.

  We have written this letter in the belief that a more robust BBC Russian Service would play a very important and helpful role in the coming decades.

2   Enclosure not published for reasons of space. Back

3   Memorandum not published for reasons of space. Back

4   Copy letter not published for reasons of space. Back

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