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In Death Berezovsky Makes Fools of Media

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(Article changed on April 4, 2013 at 09:52)

April opened with two predominant news stories about Boris Berezovsky, the fugitive Russian robber baron who was found dead near London on March 23.

The first is typified by the headline "Berezovsky's girlfriend casts doubt on suicide." It ran in GlobalPost.com, based on an Agence France-Presse dispatch. The basis of the story is a purported comment of a young woman, 44 years Berezovsky's junior, who is described in media reports variously as his girlfriend or partner.

She told the Russian publication New Times that she hadn't seen Berezovsky since last November. Yet she has been quoted widely by news organizations such as the Telegraph, SkyNews, and the Irish Independent as an authoritative source. Some of them included a photo of her apparently in her underwear.

Why would any honest journalist believe that this 23-year-old girlfriend's observation from afar shed any light on the serious question of Berezovsky's death?

The police said he died by hanging, and that they found no evidence that any third party was involved.

Then there was the story of a tribute purportedly written by Berezovsky's 8-year-old daughter. It was published on the website of the police department, and widely replicated by news organizations. In the tribute, the daughter said that she didn't know her father very well. The text went on to say, "His life was a turbulent roller coaster with never ending ordeals, and I admire the way in which he handled them with utter grace, control and most commendably honesty."

Does that sound like even the most precocious 8 year old to you? The use of abstraction and metaphor doesn't sound like that of an 8 year old to me. It seems out of place, and made me wonder who really wrote it.

But it turns out the tribute was not written by an 8 year old after all. The daughter in question is well into her teen years, and certainly could have authored that tribute. But why did media outlets go with the story that such a sophisticated tribute was written by someone they believed to be 8 years old? What were they thinking? It seems to be an example of multiple media outlets compounding a mistake made somewhere along the line.

This tribute flap reminded me of the deathbed statement of Alexander Litvinenko. He was the reputed Russian spy who died in London in 2006. The deathbed statement was first reported to have been dictated to Berezovsky ally Alexander Goldfarb. In it Litvinenko said, "But as I lie here I can distinctly hear the beating of the wings of the angel of death... You may succeed in silencing one man but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr. Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life."

It sounds eloquent, but Litvinenko did not speak English that well. His command of the language was insufficient to use the abstraction and metaphor that is expressed. But media outlets didn't question that apparent conflict, either.

Later, Goldfarb confessed that those words were not Litvinenko's. Goldfarb was now saying he wrote the statement.

Some investigative journalist should look into these issues. But are there any true investigative journalists working on the Berezovsky story? The quotes I've cited regarding the girlfriend and tribute stories seem to speak otherwise.

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William Dunkerley is a media business analyst, international development and change strategist, and author of numerous books, monographs, and articles. He has been editor and publisher of media industry information, and has additional expertise (more...)

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