By now, all of you are supposed to firmly believe that Russia (or maybe even Putin himself!) is responsible for the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal with a nerve- agent known as novichok on Sunday, the 4th of March. The fact that no evidence exists to support this belief does not seem to concern the BBC, the Guardian, the Independent, MSNBC, the New York Times, and others who dutifully repeat the accusation leveled against Russia by UK Prime Minister Theresa May. This reckless, blind, and uncritical acceptance of claims by government officials (or unnamed experts and insiders) has become so normal that many mainstream news-outlets no longer bother with verifiable sources, leaving the public vulnerable to deceptive narratives. And the case of the Skripal poisoning is a perfect example…
Theresa May’s claim that Russia was behind the attack is (in her own words) based on the fact that the nerve-agent used in the attack — novichok — was developed by the Soviet Union in the ’80s. May’s reasoning is that, since novichok was made by the USSR and since “the government” assesses that Russia “views some defectors as legitimate targets,” the act is either a deliberate Russian attack on the UK or an act of negligence so criminal it might as well be an attack. But so long as May’s government is unable or unwilling to furnish supporting evidence for its claim to the press or the public, there is no way for any journalist to verify that May’s accusation has merit.
The prime minister’s argument seems to rest on the fact that the nerve-agent used to poison the Skripals was developed by the USSR, a country that collapsed 29 years ago in 1989. From this fact alone (assuming it is true), May’s government, the commentariat, and countless news headlines have concluded — and expect the public to conclude — that Russia committed a war-crime by using chemical weapons in an attempt to murder the Skripals on UK soil.
Despite a near-total lack of evidence to support Theresa May’s accusation, news-media across the UK and the US are now reporting Russian guilt as fact. A recent article published by the Guardian under the label “UK News” — not “Opinion” — begins with the words “insiders say all trails lead back to Moscow” but fails to provide any clue about the identity of these “insiders” or what the “trails” might be. This is typical of much of the so-called news about the Skripal poisoning. It continues:
“[Russia’s Foreign Minister] Sergei Lavrov said there was no proof the poison used against Sergei Skripal came from Russia. […]
Beneath this bluster, however, is cool calculation. Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in Salisbury with a Moscow-made military nerve agent, developed during the 1970s and 1980s during the cold war. Whoever wanted to murder him might have used a subtler weapon. Instead, his assassins picked novichok.”
From the start, the Guardian assumes Russia is guilty and expects readers to do the same. Instead of offering analysis or reasoning, the authors faithfully repeat May’s weak claim as if it were a fact.
Without considering other possible interpretations, the Guardian propagandists charge blindly forward:
“As those who organised the hit must have known, the trail goes directly back to Moscow. The incident even took place down the road from Porton Down, the government’s military research base, which swiftly tested and identified the toxin.
All of which means Vladimir Putin and his FSB spy agency have probably sought to engineer a confrontation with the UK. Why now?”
In the absence of other evidence, the Guardian bases its conclusion on what students of logic call a false premise. The logic implied by the article is that, since (premise #1) a nerve-agent is only used by its developers or those whom they allow and since (premise #2) the USSR developed novichok, then it must be true that either Russia used novichok to attack Skripal or allowed the attack.
Even if we ignore the obvious error of treating Russia and the USSR (which wasn’t just Russia) as the same country, the first premise is untrue. If it is true that a nerve- agent is only used by its developers or those whom they allow, then — since the UK developed the nerve-agent VX and since Masami Tsuchiya found a way to make VX and used it to kill three people from 1994 – ’95, then the UK must have either killed them or allowed it. And the Guardian’s reasoning is even more absurd considering the fact that, since the Brits developed heroin, they must also be guilty of Kurt Cobain’s death, as well as the untold millions whose lives were claimed by the deadly chemical CNS- depressant. By the same logic, the US would be guilty of everyone ever killed by weaponized ricin.
Or does this logic only apply to Russia when the UK is cranky?
To be clear, this post is neither claiming that Russia was behind nor not behind the Skripal poisoning. It only claims that no journalist or member of the public has enough evidence to make either claim until Theresa May is willing — or, perhaps, able — to provide more evidence, if it exists. In the minds of the “journalists” parroting the British PM’s claim, the possibilities that others might’ve figured out how to make novichok in the 30+ years since its invention or that it was obtained by others from the now-defunct USSR have somehow been ruled out. The editors of publications like the Guardian think it is best not to fuss over details like the absence of whatever evidence that may or may not exist to support one or all or none of these claims and, while that makes them pretty crappy journalists, they may still have a bright future in politics.
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