The Media's Litvinenko Morality Play

December 8, 2006 Topic: Civil SocietyMediaSociety Region: RussiaEurasia Tags: BeslanHeads Of State

The Media's Litvinenko Morality Play

Regardless of the evidence, the media narrative concludes with Putin’s guilt, if not of murdering Litvinenko then of killing democracy.

Common sense suggests that we should suspend judgment on who is to blame in Alexander Litvinenko's demise, but our media discourse on Russia has become so severely biased that hysteria has taken precedence. Media outlets do not even make an attempt to substantiate sweeping condemnation of the Russian government with its actual actions. Rumor and innuendo will suffice.

Regardless of the absence of reliable information on the Litvinenko and other recent killings, major newspapers are intoning a high level of paranoia about Vladimir Putin, asserting that despite the lack of proof indicting Putin and his government, the Russian president is nevertheless guilty.

Putin is guilty of killing democracy, goes the media narrative. There may not have been much of it to begin with, and, given Russian history, no real hope for it in any case, but all the same, Putin killed it.

He's guilty for encouraging lawlessness, according to the media cacophony. Such lawlessness may have been was worse under Yeltsin, yet Putin said he would do better-touché.

And of course he's guilty of championing the cause of Georgian and Moldovan minority populations, when every other Western government has told them repeatedly to roll over and play dead.

Because he is so damnably guilt on these matters, he can be indicted by innuendo and association of every other crime imaginable. For surely, not a sparrow falls from the sky that Putin himself did not order shot down.

The Financial Times said in an editorial Monday, "The Kremlin is killing Russia's rule of law"(available here):  "The Kremlin bluntly denies any involvement. But Mr. Putin cannot reject responsibility for contributing to the creation of a state in which assassination has become commonplace." Similarly, the New York Times said in an editorial Monday, "Revisiting Putin's Soul" (available here): "What is indisputable is that a culture of lawlessness is spreading throughoutRussia, and Mr. Putin has done little to stop it." On Tuesday, Anne Applebaum said in a Washington Post column, "A Familiar Mystery" (available here): "though it's doubtful that he ever gave an actual order to an actual thug, Putin is certainly responsible for Litvinenko's death in this deeper sense: He presides over this web of old intelligence operatives, indeed, sits at its center. And he approves of their methods."

Coverage of the Litvinenko murder mystery demonstrates most vividly that the media fails to provide a marketplace of ideas. And those involved in reporting about Russiaare often the last to see their professional biases. Many cling to the view that they are only seeking the truth with what can only be described as a righteous fervor. Journalists, editors and columnists are inclined to not only dismiss personal biases, but also downplay the role that the mainstream media play in promoting some views while denying access to others; skewing public discourse rather than broadening it; openly seeking to shape policy options rather than simply informing the public about them.

As Nikolas Gvosdev, editor of The National Interest, recently pointed out on CNN, the Litvinenko story communicates nothing about Russian governance, but the media has taken the complex story of Putin's reforms and turned it into a silly little morality play. Whether one criticizes these reforms as having gone too far, or praises them as necessary correctives to the bacchanalian excesses of the Yeltsin era, it is a distortion to provide readers with only one side of the story.

L'affaire Litvinenko has nothing to do with Russian governance, as far as the evidence is concerned. It does, however, highlight the murkiness of some of the figures that Britain has offered political asylum to, and thereby reflects that government's lapse in judgment. Both Boris Berezovsky and Akhmed Zakayev are wanted by Russian authorities for crimes ranging from extortion and money laundering to murder.

But the media narrative (ever consistent) portrays those that oppose the Russian government in the best possible light, even when the latter use criminal means to do so. Just as Putin and his officials are incorrigibly guilty, these figures are the heroes of the morality play.

After Boris Berezovsky boasted to a Reuters reporter in January that he was "preparing a forced takeover of power in Russia", he was admonished by the British Foreign Ministry not to call for a violent regime change quite so, well, blatantly. Is it any surprise that he has continued to call for violence against the Russian government, most recently in October, while at the same time boasting that "Britain herself protects me"? (Available in Russian here). And now it is not just Britain that is reaping the consequences. The reason that this intrigue has spread to so many other countries is because it follows the trail of questionable political asylums offered to fugitives from Russian justice.

If there is one thing the West should learn from this unfolding tragedy, it is not to dismiss the legitimacy of Russia's claims so easily, especially when it comes to fugitives from justice. Treating Russia more like a partner in the pursuit of justice, and less lie a pariah, is surely the best way to enhance the security of all, regardless of the media's false parable.

Nicolai N. Petro is a professor of political science at the Universityof Rhode Island.