Letter to the Editorial Complaints Unit
of the BBC from Martin Dewhirst, Department of Slavonic Studies,
University of Glasgow and Viktor Suvorov
BBC RUSSIAN SERVICE'S LACK OF IMPARTIALITY
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
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 "LitvinenkoComment and Analysis"):1
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 Litvinenkowhether 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 KGBto
silence the Kremlin's critics abroad. Whether or not it was directly
ordered by President Putinand the likelihood is that this
was more a case of a state body trying to please its masterthe
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
"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,
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
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 Gordievskyinterviews 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 "LitvinenkoComment &
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
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
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:
BBC News: "Radiation tests after spy dies"
BBC RS: "Litvinenko `died of radiation'"
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.
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
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
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"
BBC News"Radiation found in 12 locations"
BBC Russian Service: "The case of Litvinenko:
traces of radiation are `hardly dangerous'"
BBC News"Contact in positive polonium
test" (about Mario Scaramella)
BBC RS"The case of Litvinenkopost-mortem
is in progress"
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 crisisthe BBC Russian
Service was silenced in Moscow and St. Petersburg, despite its
weak performance, compared with the main English-language BBC
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. Petersburgsomething 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
Memorandum not published for reasons of space. Back
Copy letter not published for reasons of space. Back