Obviously, the news that a former Russian Intelligence officer, who had sold secrets to MI6, had been found, along with his daughter, in a collapsed state on a bench in Salisbury, a historic cathedral city in south-west England, was going to make the headlines.
You'd expect plenty of debate about what might have happened to Sergei and Yulia Skripal. And yes, you'd expect people to discuss the possibility that there may have been Russian government involvement in the crime. But it's gone way beyond that. The problem is not that Russia has been put on the list of suspects, but that it has been deemed guilty even before we know the full details of the case.
Newspaper headlines have presented what are, at this stage, still suppositions, as 100% proven facts.
Friday's Sun, for example, had the word's 'Our Lad's beating Vlad' on its front page, a reference to how a Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey, who had also been injured in the attack, was making a good recovery in a hospital. That's pleasing news of course, but does the Sun really know for sure that 'Vlad' directly ordered the hit?
Remember, this is the same paper that told us Brits were '45 minutes from doom' from Saddam's WMDs a few years back.
The Murdoch Press is in no doubt that Vladimir Putin personally ordered the nerve agent attack on Sergei #Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury. Just as they were in no doubt Brits were ‘45 minutes from doom’ on account of Saddam’s WMDs... pic.twitter.com/K1395PHLbI— Neil Clark (@NeilClark66) March 9, 2018
The Sun's more pretentious stablemate, The Times wasn't any better. Its headline on Friday was 'Traitors are not safe on British soil, says Russia'. Pretty shocking, eh? Except that 'Russia' didn't say that. The comments were from a Russian TV news presenter. Imagine if a Moscow newspaper reported the comments of BBC Newsnight's Emily Maitlis, as 'says Britain'. They'd be ridiculed and rightly so. The official Russian line is that the Russian government had nothing to do with the tragic events in Salisbury- and there have been offers of help from the Kremlin with the inquiry.
Why didn't The Times have that as its headline?
The reason, of course, is that most newspapers have become viewspapers. Objective, matter-of-fact headlines- based on what had actually happened- have been replaced by emotive ones, aimed to get readers to respond in a certain way. Back in 2012, I noticed how much newspapers had changed since the 1970s.
The only way you could tell the political stance of papers such as The Times and the Daily Telegraph back then was by their editorials and usually one 'comment' piece. Today, there's editorializing throughout. Rather than just being given the proven facts- and let us make our own minds up- we're told, rather like children, what we should be thinking.
Sober headlines such as 'Russian President addresses the nation' - and reporting the President's speech directly without commentary - have been replaced by sensationalist 'Evil Vlad Threatens West' style splashes.
This change has not just affected Britain but many other countries too. The Internet and 24-7 rolling-news haven't helped in this regard. People are expected to pass comment and form judgments on events even though it's not clear what has actually happened or who is responsible. That means conjecture replaces evidence - and makes it easier for propagandists peddling an agenda. Wildly o.t.t. headlines such as "Mad Dictator threatens to nuke west' get more clicks than 'President Kim Jong-un's speech in full'.
Politicians have also become a lot less forensic than they used to be. Take UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson's speech on Tuesday on the Salisbury incident. While saying he wasn't' pointing fingers at such an early stage, he nevertheless did wag a very large finger in the direction of the Kremlin. He called Russia 'a malign and destructive force' and raised the prospect of some form of UK boycott of this summer's football World Cup in Russia. Johnson's performance reminded one of Angry Frank, the ‘Self-Righteous' brother character created by the comedian Harry Enfield. ‘If Schofield tried to turn Hula Hoops inside out, with the holes on the outside I should say Oi, Schofield, No!'
Hilarious comedy when Enfield does it, but is it something that we want we want from a UK Foreign Secretary?
We can say for sure that foreign sectaries of forty or fifty years ago would have been much more guarded in their comments. Diplomacy is, after all, supposed to be what the job is all about.
This week's events also show us -once again, that the 'presumption of innocence', - does not apply to 'official enemy' states. For neocon media, and much of the political Establishment, Russia, like Iraq in 2003, and Libya in 2011, is guilty as charged. It's the same regarding allegations of chemical weapons attacks in Syria. It's not up to 'us' to prove 'beyond all reasonable doubt' that the Syrian government did it, it's up to them to prove 'beyond all reasonable doubt' that they didn't do it. Which is of course very difficult to do, so they are deemed guilty.
None of this means that 'official enemy' states are incapable of doing bad things, of course, they are. Only that the burden of proof is generally reversed. As the former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfield infamously put it when talking about Iraqi WMDs; 'the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence... Simply because you do not have evidence that something exists does not mean that you have evidence that it doesn't exist.'
Just imagine for a moment if a British MI6 agent, who had been selling secrets to Russia, had been imprisoned for treason in the UK, then released under a prisoner exchange programme and poisoned after eight years of living in a Russian town. Would we now be saying 'It had to be Britain that did it'?
Skripal gave up a list of a huge number of Russian spies to the UK. This would have compromised the spies he exposed and potentially endangered them. Therefore, he probably made a myriad of enemies. Not every Russian acts at the behest of Putin, despite the mythology.— Patrick (@PBateman2011) March 8, 2018
We're being told that 'it had to be Russia' because there are no other alternatives. But there are quite a few. Other state intelligence services - perhaps frustrated at how Russia has blocked regime change plans for Syria - might have wanted to stage an operation which would be blamed on the Kremlin, believing it would lead to even tougher sanctions on Russia and destroy any hopes of east-west détente. It may - as Misha Glenny told the BBC this week, have been a Mafia operation - as the shady worlds of espionage, counter-espionage, and organized crime often overlap.
But these - it must be stressed - are still only theories. While it's true that we don't know for sure that the Russian government did it, equally we don't know for sure that any other 'actors' did it. It would be just as wrong - at this stage anyway - to come out and say 'The Salisbury attempted poisoning was definitely a false flag operation' or ‘it was definitely a Mafia hit job' as it is would be to say ‘I know for certain that Vlad did it'.
A commitment to fact-based journalism should mean maintaining a level of objectivity - and remembering just how sure certain people were that Iraq had WMDs in 2003. It means we shouldn't put the cart before the horse- and jump to conclusions based not on the evidence, but on our general geopolitical outlook.
Or as Sherlock Holmes, the greatest fictional detective of them all put it in ‘A Scandal in Bohemia',: ‘It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts'.
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