EVENT TRANSCRIPT: Polonium, Novichok, Propaganda
DATE: 6-7pm, 23rd October 2018
VENUE: Boothroyd Room, Portcullis House
SPEAKER: Alex Goldfarb, Marina Litvinenko
EVENT CHAIR: Mr Damian Collins MP
MR DAMIAN COLLINS: Good evening, if I could have your attention. I am Damian Collins, I am a member of parliament and I chair the House of Commons Select Committee for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and some of you may know we have been conducting our own enquiry this year into disinformation and fake news which has looked at a range of issues with Russian involvement in spreading disinformation and propaganda, and in doing that, the attempt to interfere in the policy and democracy of other countries. So it is a particular pleasure for me to have been asked to chair this meeting for the Henry Jackson Society this evening, and looking at these incredibly important issues. We have two distinguished guests this evening that really need no introduction from me. I would really like to invite them to set out their thoughts at the beginning of the meeting and then we will look to have a discussion and have some questions from the audience, which I will chair. We will take those questions after the speaker have spoken. But can I first ask Alex Goldfarb if he could speak first, thank you.
ALEX GOLDFARB: Thank-you. Thank-you very much. Thank-you for inviting me here to speak. For me personally, the name of Henry Jackson means a lot. I remember in 1974, Moscow, together with a group of Jewish dissidents, we were writing a letter to Senator Jackson thanking him, and trying to give him support in his then confrontation with the administration of Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger of how to deal with the Soviet Union. And it is remarkably reminiscent of what is happening today. Because even in those days there was two thoughts of thought – there was the school of engagement and there was the school of containment. Senator Jackson introduced the first bill that called for sanctions in relation to human rights called the famous Jackson amendment. We will talk about sanctions today. I am a retired academic, but I also run a small group called the Litvinenko justice foundation, which is of course to Alexander Litvinenko. We thought that this event was history this year, but then in March suddenly Litvinenko affair became major news in Russia again, and that had to do with the attack on Sergei Skripal the informant, and that had to do with this nerve agent – Novichok. What happened is that here the Prime Minister spoke of the echoes of the Litvinenko case after the Novichok episode, and then the Russian media and the government started bringing the Litvinenko story to the forefront as a propaganda narrative. And the narrative is that both Litvinenko and Skripal Russia has nothing to do with. And this has all been a provocation of western intelligence services in order to put the blame on Russia as some sort of major conspiracy against Russia. And in March/April this year, some major Russian TV channels, in partially Channel One – the largest one – put out five prime time programs with a total coverage of about 200 million people. A third of this was about the Skripal poisoning, and in this narrative they presented, they named me as the CIA agent who actually poisoned Litvinenko, and then planting polonium on the two people who were responsible for this attack. This was done despite the fact that the public enquiry in the UK found beyond doubt that Mr Litvinenko was poisoned by these two agents of the Russian government, more likely than not under the direct orders of Mr Putin. So Marina and me discussed legal action against the Russian television, and ended up filing a defamation lawsuit in a federal court in New York. Marina was not part of the disclosure for jurisdictional reasons, so I am the sole plaintiff and I am suing Channel One and Russia Today in a federal court in New York. So we have just filed the suit and we will see what will happen. I am sure there will be questions on this but now I will move to further developments, because once this happened and we began talking to people and went to Washington to talk to members of Congress and to administration people and to the media. To make a long story short, this action plan emerged which we called stoprussianlies.com. It is a three-pronged action plan on what we think should be done to counter Russian propaganda. One is of course legal action, because in the end if we get a judgment against Channel One and RT, we would in effect be able to end their operations in the United States. The second point of this action plan is of course sanctions. If you look carefully at numerous sanctions that have been put in place in the United States and in the EU, there is not a single media organisation, which is subject to Western sanctions. This is very significant, because if you talk about not only Putin’s warfare against his perceived enemies in the US, but if you also talk about the system of power in Russia, the state media which is in fact a propaganda machine, plays no lesser, or a maybe a bigger role in the apparatus of repression than the FSB and the security and so on. Because the media is of course totally controlled by the state and it is because of this that the Russian people overwhelmingly support President Putin. It happens in other dictatorships; everyone support Saddam Hussein and the Communist rulers. So media is very important, but for some reason it is not subject to sanctions, and when we talk to senators and congressmen about all this legislation, they say we can’t do this. We have free speech. We have the First Amendment which prohibits Congress to adopts laws that restrict media. So together we consulted with some lawyers and in the end we came up with a formula which allows us to overcome this free speech concern. And that is this. In civil law in the United States, if one can prove that a lie is broadcast with knowledge that it was a lie – the legal term is actual malice – it is not considered a protected speech and the First Amendment doesn’t cover it. And so we urged our interlocutors in Washington to adopt the same doctrine to their approach to the sanctions. If they can establish a particular line of propaganda, be it specific or general, like what they do to Ukraine or Syria. There are many examples of how Russian TV channels lie. Skripal is one, now they just put out a major line of broadcasting saying it was actually Americans and their allies who were responsible for chemical attacks in Syria, and it can be easily proven that this is a lie. So if this approach is applied to law-making when it comes to sanctions, it is possible to put major Russian TV channels on the sanctions list, notwithstanding the protections of the First Amendment and it would be very effective and very painful for them. The third part of our three-way approach is the flow of money. It happens that the Russian propaganda machine is funded by the West, because the bulk of revenue for Russian TV channels comes from multinational corporations. So if you take the top 10 advertisers of Russian TV, nine are western multinational corporations. Procter and Gamble, PepsiCo, Volkswagen, Unilever, and so on. And combined they pour in around $400 million a year into the Russian propaganda machine. So big corporations are of course very important when they use their advertising leverage. We have all seen how they pushed Fox News to remove their CEO because of sexual harassment, because they threatened to withdrawals advertising. So I don’t see why we could not call the big corporations and the CEOs to stop their advertising, because they are fuelling warfare against the West. So we are now trying to launch this appeal so to say. So this is essentially what I wanted to say.
MR DAMIAN COLLINS: Thank-you. Some really interesting ideas, which I am sure we will all want to discuss shortly. But Marina, perhaps we could hear from you now.
MARINA LITVINENKO: Good evening. First of all I would like to apologise for the late start, because it was a very long queue and I hope you accept this. Again, we are very sorry. And why I would like to take part, even though I am not a part of this appeal, because I am not a citizen of the United States, is because it is very important and I would like to explain why. First of all, when we talk about Russia, every time we say it is a lack of freedom (inaudible) and people in Russia will have more freedom, and particularly freedom of speech. And now we try and take sanctions against media channels. It is very sensitive, is it the right thing to do or not? And I believe we need to now describe what freedom of speech means and what propaganda means. And now we are all talking about this new style of media; not to produce news or information, but to produce propaganda. And this example of what Alex Goldfarb tried to explain and what he suffered, because he was accused of killing my husband, and killing his own wife, and doing this on behalf of the CIA and other security services, is why I decided to take a part in this campaign. It is a very sensitive moment, and we need to be very careful when we try to operate against these channels. First of all, when I started this campaign for justice, it was every time a huge pressure from Russia’s media, and it was always very negative, and I understood how much people in Russia who produced this negative information are afraid of truth. And when we achieved an important event in the public enquiry, and particularly when the public enquiry report was produced, I understood that I needed to defend this product. And it is exactly what happened when Alex Goldfarb was accused of killing my husband. This media tried to destroy everything I was achieved for the last ten years. It was unbelievable pressure from the very beginning. I don’t have enough fingers to count the programs on Russian TV, but I never took action over this. But now it has become a case of deformation. And it happened after the Skripal case in Salisbury. It started to destroy what we achieved and prevent some kind of investigation in the Skripal case. Because many people found a lot of parallels in the things that happened to my husband and Salisbury. Of course it was not everything, but it was two Russian men working for the security service. One was killed, another was attempted to be killed. And this similarly just took these two cases in one way, and tried to destroy what we achieved with the Litvinenko investigation enquiry. They have also tried to do this for the Skripal case. This another reason which we try to take this action. And another very important thing is, if you see the name of this event today, it is called ‘Polonium, Novichok and Propaganda.’ It means propaganda is the very same toxic weapon that the Russian government tries to use today against democracy, against their own citizens, and against critics. Maybe the best way to fight this is to take Skripal to the court. I believe you are very familiar with Russian politics because this is a Russian studies event, and when you hear the President say every time if you disagree, go to court, we now we try to take this example. But the court will not be in Russia, it will be in the United States. It is a little bit different because when people try to go to the court in Russia, they will obviously lose because people in Russia don’t have a right defend a right to defend themselves. This will be a very important example for Russian people to. If you have a democracy, you have rights. You can take this action for what you believe. And another thing I would say is that people need to take responsibility for what they are doing. Because for the last years, what we can see is, from my home-country is very disappointing stuff. What was not acceptable yesterday is starting to be used today. They don’t know what will be used tomorrow. Again, it is a very important step to say, no more lies. I think it is very important to say why I am taking action and why I try to support a friend of mine in Alex Goldfarb. Because when we are talking about taking action against channels; state Channel One and Russia Today, I know a lot of people in the UK are complaining against Russia Today. And it is an already know case this year, where OFCOM Committee took a case against Russia Today, because a lot of people complained about the material that was produced on this channel. It started in April, but unfortunately we still do not have a result. But it is something that happened here in the UK. We will see what happens in the United States, but we might take similar action here in the United Kingdom. I will give you some examples. In 2010, a similar case of defamation was taken by Boris Berezovsky; the same allegation was put to another Russian state channel. He won, but unfortunately he did not receive compensation, nothing. We will see, and maybe we will try similar action here as well.
MR DAMIAN COLLINS: Thank you very much. Do we have any immediate questions? Because while you are thinking I will just start with a question of my own and then come to you sir. It seems that the tactic that the Russians are deploying is to spread confusion around events to cover their tracks so they don’t have to prove an alternative reality, they just have to get people to question the official truth so they don’t know who to believe, and as a consequence they don’t believe anyone. I don’t know, that’s my impression of what they’re doing, does that reflect your experience as well?
ALEX GOLDFARB: I would say that this is true with regard to their external propaganda, because people here have alternative sources of news, but remarkably, a large number of people who have other types of grievances about their lives here tend not to believe other objective media. They call them fake media and then they turn to the Russian channels like RT. Not surprisingly most of the people who vote for an alternative in Germany are subscribers to Russian cable TV. And so yes, but with regard to what is happening inside Russia, there is no alternative sources of news at all. So there the propaganda is much cruder, more direct and more absurd. It is mostly straight direct brainwashing.
MR DAMIAN COLLINS: I thin it is more concerning, when according to OFCOM, about half the people in this country get their news principally from social media. So viewers are getting it in bite-size chunks. And it is quite remarkable when you look at the share of voice that the Russians have, not just through the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, but through RT and Sputnik, and I think after the poisoning in Salisbury, if you went on Facebook and searched for news about that story, maybe the BBC would be the top one but maybe 7 or 8 of the top ten were Russian news outlets. Do you want to say anything on that Marina?
MARINA LITVINENKO: Yes we are talking about Russia Today, and I talked with many people in the UK and they say we need to have some alternative news and we just chose Russia Today thinking it is just an alternative news channel but don’t understand at what moment it stopped being a news channel and started to be propaganda. And not only about situations in Russia but even political news and some international affairs. And for some people it becomes difficult to understand what is news and what is not, because it looks very respectable, and they operate with very professional people who are very good at speaking. I think everyone remembers another channel called Sputnik, and the former Scottish minister had his own program, and there was a big discussion, and I know in Scotland there was a big discussion with him about why he took part with his show.
MR DAMIAN COLLINS: I think it is a question I would add to your list Alex at the beginning. There should be a self-policing ordinance amongst western politicians not to accept payments for RT to do interviews and to produce shows. Could I just ask everyone to introduce themselves and if they are from an organisation to say where they are from as well.
QUESTION: I would like Ms Litvinenko to expand on two things she said. They were very interesting but I think they need to be expanded on a bit. The first is that you pointed to the strong similarities in the Salisbury attack and the tragic murder of your own husband in 2006. One point you didn’t mention but is another strong similarly, is the use of a wholly excessive weapon; polonium in 2006 was a far more excessive weapon that was needed to kill anyone. It screamed Russian state. It screamed that Putin authorised this. Again in 2018, the use of Novichok screams not just Russian state but also Putin’s personal involvement. That’s backed up by a propaganda campaign saying this is all provocation of western governments. That’s an extraordinary similarity and it tends to undercut the entire propaganda campaign, it is absurd really, but could Ms Litvinenko make a comment on that, is Russia deliberately saying we intended to re-enact the murder in 2006, because we have no respect for you at all, even though we know what your response was. You put us before a tribunal, you reached a finding that Putin was personally responsible, we don’t care, we are just expressing our contempt for you. Could you just say what the mentality is, because it is very hard for the western mind to understand that? The second point that she made was the use of courts, and she mentioned suing him in the United States rather than Russia, but of course the courts where Russia has the worst record of all since the 1990s is the European Court of Human Rights where Russia has lost time and time again. Does she think that the European Court of Human Rights and the European Convention of Human Rights could be of any assistant to them in these particular circumstances.
MARINA LITVINENKO: Ok thank you very much for your question. First point, when you take these two cases, I would say in the case of my husband we placed a proper investigation, providing evidence during a public inquiry. When we are talking about Skripal, mostly we do not have anything yet, because it is articles in a newspaper, some leaked information but not proper police investigation yet. We do not yet have facts, just some details. When we are talking about 2006, we are absolutely sure people who committed this crime did not expect polonium to be discovered. It was not a show killing, using a material that is really expensive to show we can do anything we want. No, it was not like that. Sasha was supposed to die from an unexplained death. And how we know this is because there are so many cases in the UK where there are unexplained death. Sasha’s death should have been classified as the same. And it would have been very easy to explain who might kill Sasha, but of course Russia would have never been pointed. Second, Sasha survived much longer than was expected after the poising. And after what happened they say it was a lot of decline, and the public inquiry pointed very serious evidence towards these two guys and they said it was a Russian state-sponsored murder and it was very high probability provided by Putin and the head of the FSB Nikolai Patrushev. Another thing, the operational murder of my husband was provided by the FSB, the former KGB. But when we are talking about the Skripal case, we are talking about a more military operation with the GRU. And again, what was the reason to use Novichok? We do not know. Was it a demonstration of power? We do not know, yet. I believe we need to have another very serious public inquiry in this case. I am absolutely sure that all the information in this case should be made public. Without any secret. And the second point, we were talking about the European court. I do not really know what to say, because it was mostly successful for Russia, particularly connected to Chechnya, mostly for the people and what happened in Chechnya. But I cannot say it was a success for everybody. And I am an example. I have been waiting for a long time now of reaction for the European Court and I don’t know how successful it would be in another case.
ALEX GOLDFARB: Well I believe that both with Polonium and Novichok the expectation as Marina said was that they would not be discovered. Polonium as Marina said was discovered by accident very late, and with Novichok, it was the circumstances that led to quick diagnosis and discovery, and eventually the saving of the people. Probably Skripal was the only target and the very fact that two people went down with the same symptoms alerted the doctors and first responders. So I think it was purely technical reasons. Why are they using these? Because that is the mentality of special operations. They develop those methods and they develop them to use them. They are not using guns and knives, that’s their nature. With the regard to European Court of Human Rights, we will look to practical results. And it is not that I think we will get a lot of money out of this in the United States, but we will hopefully get a very large judgment, of course paid, but which would allow to block the operations. With the European Court of Human Rights, their awards are so small that there will be no harm done to them as a result of the victory, so I think that was the reason.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. We all know the first thing that Putin did when he got into power was to grab hold of the media. There’s virtually no non-Putin media as far as I know at the moment. And we are always criticising him for that. But if we go after RT and sanction them and maybe stop them from operating, would that not be an open goal for Putin to say ‘Aha!’ you criticise us for the media, but you are doing exactly the same?
ALEX GOLDFARB: In the theoretical area of debate and discussion you are right, he will say this, we will be on the defensive etc. What I am talking about is the impact, and the reason why these activities should be stopped is that they present a serious and immediate threat to the wellbeing of Western democracies. It is beyond the theoretical discussions. So Putin clearly deems his information warfare as part of the hybrid warfare he is waging against the West, and his aim is to subvert and undermine and create chaos and weaken. And we wont go into the politics of it, but we know what kind of propaganda Russia supports and its effect and efficiency. So I think it is not a matter of theoretical discussion about the principles of free speech, but it is a matter of responding to a specific and serious threat.
MARINA LITVINENKO: I agree we just started with this sensitive material; we are talking of freedom of speech. But you could do anything and Putin would reverse it back to you. It is quite difficult to orientate for objective opinion. It would be every time he would say that you are even worse.
MR DAMIAN COLLINS: I think we would have to expect that any action against Russian media in this country would be met with similar actions with our media in Russia as well. And his bigger interest might be to provoke us into doing that, to kick the BBC out of Russia. We’ll see.
QUESTION: My question relates to what Mr Goldfarb said early on. He made the comment about people in the West who are supporting Russian line. My suggestion is what do you think about putting these people – Russian and non-Russian – on the spot by resurrecting the old Channel 4 documentaries of mock trials?
ALEX GOLDFARB: Yes of course there were many ideas of how to counter it. The simplest of course was to fight lies with the truth. There is a very interesting report from RAND, trying to compare the effectiveness of propaganda vs. fact checking. And it goes very deep into human psychology. Because propaganda appeals to emotion, it appeals to beliefs, it appeals to pre-held grievances and instincts. Truth appeals to logic and reason, and due to mass information truth loses. Churchill said that whilst truth puts on its shoes, lies run half way around the world. So it is an uneven battle, and it is expensive. So I don’t think that this is the solution frankly. Not to mention who is going to pay for it? The European has a taskforce to counter Russian propaganda. They have a staff of 14 people, and have a budget of 1 million Euros. A similar group in the US government, which is tasked of fact-checking Russian lies, has a staff of 4 people. And as I mention they get $400 million just from advertising. So it is really not an effective way. If you look at this the way the Russians look at this, you have to propose that the enemy has adequate means and has the best defence.
MARINA LITVINENKO: Yes, you are talking about not the media that work in Russia, it is question of how you can protect your own citizens from propaganda, and sometimes you need to give something up.
MR DAMIAN COLLINS: We will take two quick questions and comments, and then we will probably have to wrap up.
QUESTION: I am mindful of the obituary of Karl Marx where the philosophers can think what they think but it is up to Marina and Alex to make it happen. The issues that I see; the Russians themselves, when you are spending time with Russians, educated Russians, wealthy Russians. They will refrain to confront the truth; it is very difficult to establish the truth. Even if you have forensic evidence, they will not accept it because the media will not permit it. I do not think there have been any quality independent journalists working in Russia since Gorbachev, because it is simply too difficult. Using detectives in Russia is too difficult, because they will defer and defer for at least 20 years, spend a fortune and get nowhere. European Court of Human Rights is not going to work I think because that is too difficult, if you have experience in it then you will know why. I think the answer is what Marina is doing, but how you get the information and rulings to have any effect on what you are trying to do is very difficult.
MR DAMIAN COLLINS: I just want to get someone else in while we still have time.
QUESTION: As you alluded to earlier, RT’s viewership in the UK is 0.03% of the UK viewership, it is tiny. Yet through social media, they are able to amplify their views to a far larger audience. Any action against the channel themselves will have to go along with an action to get them off social media; otherwise the effect will be tiny. How will you go about de-platforming them from social media?
ALEX GOLDFARB: Well I think it is being done actually with the latest measures enacted by Facebook and Twitter in identifying and closing fake accounts and actually watching what is going on, and hopefully it will work. But the content is generated by the mainstream media and this is what we are focusing on.
MR DAMIAN COLLINS: It is 7 o’clock exactly now. Thank you very much to Marina and Alex.