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A curious lack of curiosity

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Among the many things that don’t add up about the media coverage of the Skripal incident, one is so big that – like the proverbial elephant on the sofa – everyone is ignoring it.

What is it?

It is that we have absolutely no idea who Sergei and Yulia Skripal are.  Prior to the poisoning, neither was in any kind of witness protection programme.  Sergei – a former colonel in the Russian security services – apparently lived more or less openly in Salisbury while, since 2014, the multilingual Yulia has travelled freely between Salisbury and her home in Moscow; where until recently she worked in PR for PepsiCo.  That is pretty much all we know about them.

In a more honest age, mainstream media outlets would have had a team of investigators winkling out the biographical details of both Skripals.  Taking the official word of the UK state/security services would have been no more acceptable than accepting the press releases coming from the Kremlin.  Esteemed news agencies would want to do their own digging.  In today’s environment, nobody bothered.  Instead, most media outlets have merely repeated the content of press releases put out by the various arms of the British state.

So here’s a thought for you… how do we know the Russians were going after Sergei Skripal?  The security services, the UK government and the mainstream media have simply assumed that Sergei Skripal was the target because he had been a double agent in the past – a crime for which he was convicted and imprisoned (one he would have been executed for had he been an American) in 2006.

But Sergei Skripal had been released as part of a “spy swap” at the insistence of the British.  Neil Buckley and David Bond, two Financial Times journalists who were asking questions prior to the affair morphing into Cold War 2.0 dismissed the possibility that Sergei Skripal was still spying:

“Security officials told the Financial Times Mr Skripal did provide information to the UK and ‘friendly’ western intelligence agencies after 2010, but only for a limited period. People familiar with the situation denied reports this week of a link between Mr Skripal and Mr Steele’s intelligence firm. There is, for now, little evidence the ex-intelligence colonel was engaged in activities that might provoke drastic reprisals…”

Buckley and Bond argue that the motive might have more to do with the murky underworld of Russian Mafia money laundering activities in the City of London than with the various security services:

“Roman Borisovich, a former investment banker who is now an anti-corruption campaigner in London, notes that Russians who met suspicious deaths in the UK were all giving ‘information on connections of Putin’s regime with criminal groups and money-laundering’. Litvinenko was, at MI6’s request, assisting a Spanish probe into links between Mr Putin’s inner circle and a Russian mafia gang. Alexander Perepilichny, a former businessman who died mysteriously in Surrey in 2012, had supplied documents related to a $230m fraud against the Russian treasury by a crime gang linked to senior officials.

“Experts say lines are becoming blurred between organised crime and Russian security services — opening the possibility of mafia-style hits using the weapons and resources of the state.”

Once the UK government had opened up a full-on diplomatic row with Russia, however, this line of thinking was dropped like a hot potato by the mainstream media.  Only narratives that pointed to the culpability of the Russian state – and ideally Putin himself – were admissible.

But what of Yulia Skripal, the apparently entirely innocent relative caught up in an appalling state assassination attempt?

Surprisingly, the UK media has been almost wilfully silent about Yulia Skripal’s background.  The question that nobody has even thought to give voice to is; could Yulia have been the target of the assassination attempt?

As with Sergei Skripal, my answer is that I simply don’t know.  But then again, I don’t claim to be a well-funded news outlet.  I would, however, have expected mainstream news outlets to at least have asked this question.  You see, it turns out that while there is no evidence that Yulia herself was involved in security matters, in an interview with Anna Silverman for Grazia, Yulia’s best friend Irina Petrova says that Yulia was in a long-term relationship with a Russia security agent:

“She [Irina] tells me Yulia lived in Moscow with her boyfriend of four years – who’s been named as Stepan Vikeev, 30, and reported to be a Russian secret service agent – and they had two dogs.

“According to Irina, Yulia was often home alone because her boyfriend worked night shifts in what she describes as ‘a special government organisation’. Irina says she doesn’t know him and he’s not on social media, adding, ‘Because of his job he isn’t allowed to travel abroad.’”

This should at least raise questions about whether Yulia was knowingly or unwittingly involved in current Russia espionage activities through her relationship with Vikeev.  This question is all the more important given that, as Buckley and Bond point out:

“[W]hy would Moscow bother to launch such an attack on Mr Skripal? Mark Galeotti, a Russian security expert at the Institute of International Relations Prague, says it violates the unwritten rules of spycraft that swapped spies normally enjoy immunity.”

Why has nobody in the mainstream media been curious enough even to raise the possibility that Yulia, not Sergei, was the target of the poisoning?  Could it be the same beguiled blindness that allowed people to overlook the similarly young and attractive Anna Chapman’s spying activities?

To be clear, I am not making a judgement on who might or might not have tried to poison the Skripals.  Nor am I saying the Yulia Skripal was the target of the poisoning.  I reserve judgement on these matters, because history shows us that it can take decades before the full circumstances of such incidents are disclosed to the public.  Rather, I am pointing out that these are questions that a free and independent media would have actively sought to answer.  Instead, they have adopted the worst kind of policing practice that involves “situating the appreciation” and then rounding up and framing one or more of the usual suspects.

On which point, the other obvious lack of curiosity among the mainstream media is that there has been no speculation as to who carried out the poisoning.  After all, saying “Russia did it,” or “Putin did it,” is facile.  Russia is a state and part of the Eurasian landmass – we would have noticed if it had tried to slip past Heathrow Airport’s passport control desk.  And while it is true that Vladimir Putin might have got through if he had worn a long coat and sunglasses, his celebrity/notoriety status would most likely have prevented this.  So who actually daubed poison on the Skripal’s door knob/car door/park bench seat (select your preferred location from the shifting official story)?  Ordinarily in such cases, the media would have speculated on which particular Russian agent might have done it.  Ordinarily, the Police would be keen to put forward a list of possible suspects; if only to rule them out.  But again we find an absence of curiosity.

The lack of curiosity about an incident whose ramifications involve a worsening of relations with Russia that make open conflict – and ultimately nuclear annihilation – far more likely has been seized on by those who see conspiracies around every corner.  Could it be that the UK government has deployed the famous “D Notice” system developed prior to the First World War to prevent sensitive information becoming public?  Of course, we cannot rule this out.  After all, it isn’t just in times of war that the state and media have colluded to keep the public in the dark about important events.  However, a simpler explanation is more likely: in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, media organisations simply stopped doing journalism.

Ironically, some of the best British journalism dates back to a time when access to news was severely limited.  In the 1960s and 70s in the UK, people got the news from three television channels (ITV, BBC1 and BBC2) and around a dozen national newspapers.  With a growing economy, governments of all persuasions were able to provide more than enough funding to a BBC which, in those days wore its editorial independence with pride.  Meanwhile the more or less captive audiences of ITV and the various newspapers allowed them to bring in more than enough advertising revenue to cover the cost of good investigative journalism.

From the mid-1990s with the advent of the first bulletin boards, the monopoly on news enjoyed by these mainstream or “legacy” news outlets began to crumble.  Information and perspectives that fell outside the “Overton Window” of the mainstream became accessible as independent journalists began posting stories directly to the Internet rather than going through the filter of the mainstream.  By the time “Web 2.0” came along, a plethora of independent media outlets were already in place.

Gradually, the phone and the tablet overtook the TV and newsprint as the means by which news is accessed.  This transition went largely unnoticed by a greying baby boomer generation that remained loyal to old fashioned sources of news.  As Simon Usborne in the Guardian noted last year, watching TV is a dying habit:

“If you are 61 and taking a break from watching something on BBC1 to read this, you can congratulate yourself on being entirely average. That is, the average age of a BBC1 viewer, according to the latest estimates published by the BBC Trust (in its death throes – the arms-length regulator will be replaced by hands-free Ofcom next week). On BBC2, it is 62…

“According to recent research by Enders Analysis, ITV’s average viewer is now 60; Channel 5’s is 58 and Channel 4’s is 55. Even at E4, birthplace of such yoof-targeting shows as Made in Chelsea and Hollyoaks, the average age is 42.”

The newspaper industry has not fared any better.  Britain’s top-selling newspaper – Rupert Murdoch’s Sun – has seen its circulation cut in half (from 3,006,565 to 1,545,594) since 2010.  Similar collapses in readership can be seen across Britain’s legacy titles:

UK Newspaper circulation since 1950

At the same time, online news channels, bloggers and commentaries have seen their circulations rise spectacularly.  In the USA, InfoWars – the poster child for alt-right media – attracts 2.3 million subscribers.  Meanwhile, controversial UK commentator Carl Benjamin’s Sargon of Akkad YouTube channel has more than 780,000 subscribers.  The less controversial London Real has more than 300,000 YouTube subscribers, putting it on a par with mainstream titles like the Guardian and the Telegraph.

Only the BBC – cushioned by the state-enforced licence fee – has enjoyed some shelter from the Internet news onslaught.  Nevertheless, in the face of budget cuts, the BBC has shifted away from news in favour of programme making; especially those drama series that it can sell internationally to a television market increasingly dominated by online outlets like Netflix.  The remainder of the mainstream/legacy media has been obliged to move operations online, where most have adopted the very worst clickbait tactics to increase advertising revenue.

According to Statistica, UK newspapers have seen advertising revenue plummet from £3,978,000,000 in 2007 to £1,614,000,000 in 2017.  Digital advertising revenue has soared over the same period.  For example, paid search advertising rose from £1,619,000,000 in 2007 to £5,600,000,000 in 2017.  It is this switch in advertising revenue rather than any conspiratorial collusion with the dark forces of the deep state that is responsible for the decline of journalism in the UK.

As investigative journalists have been retired or shifted to presentation or commentary, so newsrooms are increasingly reduced to reproducing a selection of the mountain of press releases that arrive in their email inboxes by the hour.  It is no surprise that what is supposed to be independent news sounds for all the world like it was written by someone working for the government; because it was.  Other than a few tweaks to the wording, most news about the government comes from press releases written by the government.

Meanwhile, the few remaining investigative journalists are so over-stretched that they are unable to maintain the deep networks of contacts required to rapidly gather the kind of information needed to raise questions about and to challenge the state’s official line.

Which brings us back to the curious lack of curiosity over the Skripal incident.  No conspiracy of silence was required simply because Britain’s mainstream/legacy media no longer pay a sufficient number of people to be curious.  If the information offered to the public sounded like a Foreign Office press release that is because it was.  And if news outlets like the BBC failed to spot the nuanced difference between a “Russian nerve agent” and a “nerve agent of a kind developed in Russia” that is because the BBC no longer employs enough properly qualified sub-editors to understand the importance of the distinction.

This is the media we have inherited.  The mainstream/legacy media “solution” is the one deployed by tyrants down the ages – build a wall and a moat to protect us from outsiders.  That is, label any and all online sources of news (especially those funded by selected foreign governments) as “fake news;” while insisting that governments pass laws to re-establish the legacy media monopoly.  While this would, indeed, restore the status quo ante, it also has the sound and feel of someone trying to close a barn door as the sound of horses hooves disappears in the far distance.

Far more important than which Skripal was the target of a poisoning and which state or criminal organisation might or might not have ordered it, is the absence of what used to be referred to as a “fourth estate” – a fiercely independent media that took seriously its duty to hold the powerful to account.  Unless we can discover a means to reverse the trend, something is going to explode.  Because across  the developed world, from the current POTUS down, we see a wave of populist revolt driven by an increasing distrust of the official narratives tamely parroted by failing mainstream/legacy news outlets.  And if you think Donald Trump, Marine LePen and Nigel Farage are bad, wait until you see what is coming next.

As you made it to the end…

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