Thursday, July 19, 2007

The BBC "Kowtows" to the Kremlin


The BBC's alleged kowtow
Jul 19th 2007

Arguing over the coverage of the Litvinenko murder

WHEN people like this complain, you take notice. Vladimir Bukovsky spent 12 years in Soviet prison camps before being deported in 1976. Oleg Gordievsky was Britain’s top defector from the KGB. Both are British citizens. So was their friend, Alexander Litvinenko.

They and other cold-war veterans have written a letter this month expressing their alarm at the BBC Russian service’s coverage of Litvinenko’s murder. The victim, speaking from his deathbed in November, blamed the Kremlin for his radiation poisoning. Russia, of course, insists that the murder was staged by its enemies (chiefly Boris Berezovsky, an exiled billionaire businessman and arch-critic of the Kremlin).

The BBC management is right to be careful when covering sensitive stories. Russia regards Mr Berezovsky as a criminal. It also wants Britain to extradite Ahmed Zakayev, another exile, who represents the remnants of the elected pre-war Chechen government. Russia insists he is a terrorist (though the soft-spoken actor has always denounced terrorist outrages perpetrated in the name of his cause).

But caution is one thing. Pusillanimity is another. The Russian service’s coverage of the Litvinenko story, the complaint goes, largely ignored Messrs Bukovsky, Gordievsky, and Zakayev. That seems odd. They all knew Litvinenko well. They have made powerful arguments about his death, what it says about the Kremlin under Vladimir Putin, and how Britain should react.

One programme from the Russian service did use extensive clips of all three men. But it was repeated only once (normally it would have gone out around five times); it disappeared from the website after only two days, instead of the normal week. The producer, apparently, received a severe reprimand.

The BBC contests the complaint vigorously. It makes some reasonable points: it was to the BBC Russian service that Mr Litvinenko gave his last broadcast interview. Mr Zakayev also appeared in another programme. The signatories of the letter were interviewed, then and at other times. Yet there is a paradox: the interviews about the Litvinenko case that the BBC cites in its defence were for the very programme it is now disowning.

People who heard it say that it was punchy, and certainly gave a lot of space to the Kremlin’s critics (though it put the countervailing view as well). By the standards of the domestic BBC, that would be nothing unusual. But perhaps not by the standards of the Russian service, whose editors—at least in the view of many hawkish British-based listeners—have lately been erring on the side of caution. Annoyingly, the BBC declines to make a copy of the banned programme available so it is hard to judge whether its punchiness outweighed professional balance.

To those who worry that the Kremlin’s tentacles already reach dangerously far into Western institutions, the story has a dismal ring to it. They think the BBC’s twitchiness reflects its desire to hang on to its use of transmitters inside Russia. Several of these have already been cancelled by Russian authorities (though the difficulties predate the Litvinenko affair). Following Britain’s expulsion this week of four Russian diplomats, to protest against the Kremlin’s refusal to extradite the main suspect in the Litvinenko murder, the remaining frequencies may be at risk too. But what is the point of having broadcasts if you cannot broadcast freely? Russians have plenty of tame radio stations to listen to.

In the dark days of the cold war (when people like Mr Gordievsky were risking their lives for Britain) the BBC Russian service was both fair and incisive, a splendid contrast to the Soviet block’s propaganda stations. It would be disastrous if the service was now soft-pedalling its criticism of the Kremlin. The BBC bosses are energetically countering their critics, but seem untroubled that they have lost their confidence in the first place.

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