BBC plays by the Kremlin’s Rules

 Illustration by Daniel Pudles

The telephone rang just after 8.30pm on December 19, 2006. I was at home entertaining a friend. It was a BBC Russian Service senior editor, wanting to talk to me about my programme The Life and Death of Alexander Litvinenko, which he had just heard on air, and he could not wait. The programme was biased, he said, it pointed the finger of blame at Moscow. “Just imagine,” he exclaimed, “this man in the Kremlin who monitors our output. What will he say about your feature?” 

I was rather surprised, but managed to give him the only answer that seemed reasonable under the circumstances: “I do not work for a man in the Kremlin,” I said. “I work for the BBC. And I observed all the BBC’s guidelines about balance by giving airtime to both sides, since I have Kremlin supporters in my programme as well as its critics.” 

“Yes”, the editor responded, “but the pro-Kremlin guys sound stupid and [Vladimir] Bukovsky [a Soviet-era dissident] and the others sound intelligent.” This is hardly my fault, I thought. 

My feature went out for the first time on December 18, three weeks after Litvinenko’s death and two months after I heard him speak in public for the last time. It was at the London Frontline Club — a haunt of London’s war correspondents — at an event devoted to the murder of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya. In this, now famous, speech, Litvinenko rose from his seat in the audience and accused the then Russian President, now Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, of Politkovskaya’s murder. He spoke with pain and passion about Politkovskaya, who was his personal friend, and the threats she received, especially after the publication of her book Putin’s Russia. The speech was not reported by the Russian Service even when, after Litvinenko’s poisoning and death, the video recording of it became available on the Frontline Club’s website. I tried to draw the attention of several editors to it, but letting Russian listeners know that Litvinenko was a critic of the Kremlin did not seem to interest them. Moreover, nobody seemed to pay any attention to the fact that the Russian Service was in possession of an exclusive 50-minute interview in Russian with Litvinenko, recorded in 2002, which could have shed light on his life and his views, and that our BBC colleagues broadcasting in English would have been grateful to have it in translation.

With Russian officials dismissing Litvinenko as a “nobody” and the British media consistently calling him a spy (he was neither), I thought it was my task to try to give our audience in Russia as much information about the murdered man as I could. Apart from the speech in the Frontline Club and extracts from the Russian Service’s 2002 interview, I also used clips from an interview with him in a Dutch documentary available on the internet. As it turned out, it was precisely the voice of the murdered man that my bosses did not want to hear.

Litvinenko had been an FSB officer who became a strong critic of the Kremlin — a rare, almost unique, phenomenon because, as his tragic fate shows, this scary successor organisation of the KGB does not let go of anyone, and it requires extraordinary courage to fight it. He told his story in his book The Gang from Lubyanka, published both in Russian and in English in 2002. As an officer fighting organised crime, he noticed again and again that criminals’ tracks led to the top echelons of the country’s rulers. He alerted his superiors, only to be told each time: “Don’t get involved.” But he did, and after being ordered to commit a murder, he organised a TV press conference (in 1998, before Putin came to power, Russia was still free enough to allow that). He was arrested, spent a year in prison, then after his release received threats to his family and fled abroad. A brief account of all this formed part of the BBC interview of 2002. The honest urgency of Litvinenko’s voice in this interview and in the Frontline Club speech convinced me and many others that he was certainly not a “nobody”, as the official Russian line portrayed him, with the implication that in that case there was no motive to kill him. “He was a victim, but not a martyr,” the editor exclaimed. “It is your programme that makes a martyr of him.” 

I, however, thought that Litvinenko had been made a martyr by those who had murdered him. This view was expressed by several contributors to my programme: Bukovsky; the former MI6 double agent Oleg Gordievsky; and the leader of the Chechen government in exile, Akhmed Zakayev. All these people had known Litvinenko well and could speak about his views, his beliefs and his last days. I also interviewed a pro-Kremlin pundit, the Director of the Institute of Political Studies Sergei Markov, and a member of the Security Committee of the State Duma (Russian Parliament) Gennady Gudkov, who both gave the Russian official point of view on Litvinenko (“oligarch Berezovsky’s sidekick”) and on his murder (different theories, including the involvement of Boris Berezovsky, rogue FSB officers, Chechens and self-poisoning, were aired).

The known facts and the official line had been well represented by the Russian Service in the three weeks between Litvinenko’s murder and my programme going on air, complemented by some cautious suspicions, usually translated from English-language sources. None of the Russian speakers who shared Litvinenko’s stance on the Kremlin had been interviewed by the Russian Service, although they had given numerous interviews to BBC programmes in English. Neither Bukovsky nor Gordievsky nor Zakayev was interviewed by the Russian Service on Litvinenko. The only time that Russian listeners to the BBC could hear these prominent figures talking about Litvinenko, as well as Litvinenko’s own voice when he was no longer alive, was in my programme, which, after its first two transmissions, was never allowed to be broadcast again or accessed via the BBC’s website. 

Why did this happen? There are theories, which seem plausible, about a phone call from the Kremlin or the Russian embassy or some direct pressure from Moscow, but these can’t be proved. However, I am convinced that the reason for the programme’s suspension must have been the deep-seated fear that is firmly instilled in all former Soviet functionaries and overwhelms them each time they contemplate deviating from the official line. Of the three senior managers who read the script of my programme before it went on air, two were former Soviet functionaries, both in their fifties and with vast experience of working as journalists within the Soviet propaganda machine. They had made it into key positions at the BBC, and the head of the Russian Service, herself British by birth, found herself sandwiched between the two — the aforementioned Russian Service editor and the executive editor of the region (the next level up). The command from Moscow may have come from within, ringing in the editors’ heads and hearts.

First, however, it was suggested I make several changes (including cutting down the number of Litvinenko’s own clips), which I duly did, and the programme went on air. Incredibly for people working in radio, the editors later admitted that reading Litvinenko’s sentence, “I know who killed Anna, it was Putin” on paper, they could not imagine how powerful his speech would sound when actually broadcast. On hearing it, they got cold feet and pulled the programme.

It was at this point that I asked for an editorial discussion of my feature, suggesting that it should include experts on Russia as well as BBC journalists. This was at the stage when Polonium 210, the radioactive element that had been used to kill Litvinenko, had already been discovered on Russian planes and British investigators had started interrogating suspects. With the Russian media trying to dismiss the whole episode as a joke and growing increasingly anti-British, I thought it was important for the BBC Russian Service to discuss how it could best serve its listeners in Russia in a new political climate. But a discussion obviously was not deemed necessary and I was informed that the BBC was starting a disciplinary procedure against me for breaching editorial guidelines.

The issue of such a breach had not come up before the programme was broadcast, because in this case my bosses should have stopped it going out. But they did not, and it was only after they pulled it that they felt the need to justify their decision. BBC editorial guidelines were the most convenient tool they could use. My programme was accused of “lack of balance” and allowing “serious allegations to go on air unchallenged” — offences deserving a “written warning”. The “outcome letter”, which I received after the disciplinary interview, said: “The end result is a programme that presents much stronger and detailed arguments from one side of the discussion and under-represents the other.” The under-represented side here was, of course, the Kremlin. The fact that the anti-Kremlin side’s arguments were much stronger and more detailed, not just in my programme but in real life, than the desultory and illogical comments of the pro-Kremlin speakers did not bother my bosses. It was not an objective picture that they were after: it was a balance within one particular programme, which could not have been achieved without sacrificing the truth.

When I mentioned in my defence that we broadcast to Russia, where you could hardly call the Kremlin position under-represented in the media, given that nearly all the Russian media were strictly controlled by the Kremlin, I received the following response: “The BBC must remain objective at all times and it is not the duty of the Russian Service to use its programmes to take into consideration the possible distortions of the Russian media market when we report on any issue.” This conclusion totally contradicted the main document that was supposed to guide our work, the Russian 2010 Strategy paper presented to the Service by the Regional Head in October 2006. The strategy saw precisely this task as being part of our mission. It stated: “We will complement the local news market by being the trusted source of reliable, objective, accurate news, giving the global context analysis and bringing to the debate issues and opinions not heard on state-controlled media.” This was exactly what I did in my programme, believing then, as I believe now, that including voices that are not allowed on the state-controlled media works for objectivity, rather than against it.

Explaining the situation at the disciplinary interview and then preparing my appeal against the “outcome letter”, I was still hoping that the verdict on my programme prompted by the former Soviet propagandists would be overruled by senior management. This didn’t happen. Although Tony Blair, the Prime Minister at the time of Litvinenko’s murder, did not make a public statement about it, in May 2007 Britain demanded the extradition of Andrei Lugovoy, the main suspect in the murder case. Two months later, when Moscow refused to hand him over, Britain expelled four Russian diplomats. By the time the British government had finally formulated its position on the issue, the World Service was eager to show that it had been doing the right thing all along. When confronted by the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee about Russian Service coverage of Litvinenko’s murder (by that time, complaints about its pro-Kremlin bias had become public), the then Director of the World Service, Nigel Chapman, was adamant that the coverage had been objective and comprehensive, while the case of my programme could not be discussed as it was still “under review”. The “review” lasted more than three months after my appeal hearing and predictably was not decided in my favour. 

So when the Foreign Affairs Committee was looking into the complaints about pro-Kremlin bias, my feature was safely out of the range of scrutiny and nobody could ask why it had been pulled off the air, or any other related questions. Moreover, the “defence case” on the Russian Service’s Litvinenko coverage was prepared, conveniently, by the regional executive editor, the Russian-speaker chosen by Chapman for this task. As a result, everyone from Chapman to MPs and government ministers used the same — very selective and distorted — information about Russian Service broadcasts that they could not understand. Chapman covered his subordinate, who in his turn mounted a defence for them both. The Foreign Affairs Committee took Chapman’s side and since then neither the BBC nor the government has doubted the excellence of the Russian Service’s coverage of Litvinenko’s murder.

This was particularly obvious during the Westminster Hall debate on the Russian Service that took place two years later, in December 2008. Greg Hands, the Conservative MP who initiated the debate, talked about “Soviet-era journalists” who seemed “consistently afraid of broadcasting anything that might offend the Kremlin”. He got an immediate response from Edward Davey, a Liberal Democrat MP, and Bill Rammell, then an FCO Minister, who both claimed that he had no evidence for that particular accusation. While those who could understand Russian were sure of the opposite, parliamentarians, with only a few exceptions (most notably Hands and another Tory MP, Dr Julian Lewis), preferred to side with the BBC. Internal unity seemed of greater importance than any concern about listeners in Russia or their idea of Britain.

At one point, the need to trust one’s subordinates with a language one does not speak led to outright embarrassment. In a letter to the Daily Telegraph, Richard Sambrook, the then Director of the BBC Global News Division, rebutted the accusations of bias in the coverage of Litvinenko’s murder, writing: “Many prominent critics of the Russian government, including Vladimir Bukovsky and Oleg Gordievsky, have been interviewed about Litvinenko’s death.” Gordievsky immediately responded to this, saying that he and Bukovsky had indeed been interviewed by the BBC Russian Service — “but only for one features programme”. 

He mentioned that the feature had been taken off air and removed from the website and added: “Now, to my amazement, Sambrook is using this very programme to support his claim that the Russian Service does not show pro-Kremlin bias.” The BBC Press Office, incidentally, was franker than its boss. To a journalist’s question, “Is it true that the only time that Messrs Zakayev, Bukovsky and Gordievsky were interviewed by the BBC Russian service in connection with the Litvinenko case was on the programme produced by Ms Karp entitled The Life and Death of Alexander Litvinenko?” it responded: “Bukovsky and Gordievsky were both interviewed by the BBC Russian Service only on the programme during this period. However, they were widely quoted in press reviews and Mr Bukovsky was interviewed only yesterday on his presidential bid.”

As I was arguing my case at the World Service, my BBC colleagues working for domestic radio and television were busy making programmes about Litvinenko. All of the following were broadcast at the end of 2006 and beginning of 2007: 

  • Tom Mangold’s The Litvinenko Mystery, broadcast on BBC Radio 4, December 16, 2006
  • BBC1’s Panorama: How to Poison a Spy on January 22, 2007, presented by John Sweeney
  • My Friend Sasha: A Very Russian Murder, Storyville, BBC 2, a film by Andrei Nekrasov, January 22, 2007
  • File on Four — Moscow’s Mystery Deaths, by Julian O’Halloran, February 6, 2007
  • BBC2’s Newsnight: packages by Tim Whewell on February 10-11, 2007. 

All these programmes dealt with anti-Kremlin allegations. In some, these allegations were made not by interviewees but by presenters and were not always directly challenged. In a case such as Litvinenko’s murder it couldn’t have been otherwise — any investigation to find the truth starts with allegations. The documentaries discussed Litvinenko’s dossier on Igor Sechin, the then deputy head of presidential administration, and another dossier on the president’s assistant, Viktor Ivanov. They spoke about death squads allegedly organised within the security forces to kill critics of the government and the law of 2006 which legitimised the murder of terrorists beyond Russia’s borders. 

None of these themes was even touched on by the Russian Service. All the programmes I mentioned were broadcast in a normal way and their viewers and listeners could make their own judgments. But listeners in Russia, already deprived of objective information by the government’s control of the media, were denied by the BBC any chance to hear a non-Kremlin view on a story that concerned their country and that remains the most important episode in recent British-Russian relations.

The row over my programme lasted more than eight months, before my “written warning” was confirmed in autumn 2007. Since then, the BBC World Service has closed the Russian Features department, of which I was editor, and removed the line about the need to broadcast opinions “not heard on the state-controlled media” from its new strategy. A petition to the British Government, signed by more than 1,000 people, among them prominent historians of Russia, Russian-speaking academics, writers and translators, asking for an investigation into what the World Service was doing, was rejected. 

Recently, answering a listener who was concerned that the BBC Russian Service uses in its broadcasts too many journalists working for Russian media, the service’s head wrote in her editorial blog on its website: “I am certainly not going to refuse a correspondent’s services only because of the organisation he works for…We look for Russian-speaking journalists all over the world in order to deliver a quality news service to our audience, and very often, though not always, we prefer a Russian speaker, especially for radio, to a translation from the English.” Nobody who has ever worked for radio would deny that the spoken word sounds better than one that is read, which naturally happens with translated texts. 

However, the issue of whose position the BBC is bringing to its audience remains. And the obvious fact that among Russian media correspondents, some of whom are very good, there can also be found those who work for the Kremlin and the FSB, does not seem to bother the Russian Service head. Nor does making the BBC in Russian scarcely distinguishable from Russia’s own cowed media.

Which leaves just one question that is difficult to get away from: if in the current climate it makes sense to spend money on broadcasting to Russia — and I am sure it does— isn’t it time to rethink what the Russian Service is doing? 

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