CSD Seminar, 30 January 2007

Twenty-five people attended to hear Julia Svetlichnaja and James Heartfield talk about academic enquiry and the media in the over-politicised case of the Litvinenko poisoning. They argued that it was something like a New Cold War, where academic enquiry was distorted by an injunction to "take sides" in the struggle between the Kremlin and the Exiles.

The seminar was unusual because of the presence of reporters, Hilde Harbo of the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten, currently in dispute with Ms Svetlichnaja over serious allegations they made, and Vera, a researcher for Martin Sixsmith (working on a book on the Litvinenko case). Hilde Harbo brought a motley crew, including Russian literature Professor Martin Dewhirst of Glasgow University, and an aggressive character with a stubble-beard purporting to be from the London School of Economics (I have since learnt he is the one-time Russian spy Boris Volodarsky - below left - now collaborating with Oleg Gordievsky). Also sitting pointedly in the middle of the front row was a thick-set man who said his name was Vladimir, but declined to say anymore on the grounds that he spoke no English.

Before the seminar started there was some controversy. Recognising Dewhirst from a web photograph, James Heartfield challenged Professor Dewhirst: 'You are the "unnamed professor of Russian" who is quoted in Aftenposten saying that Julia Svetlichnaja is a spy'.

'No comment', replied Dewhirst.

'Then you do not deny it?'

'No comment'.

'That would put you in the unfortunate position of having told a direct lie, and one that can readily be disproved.' [Dewhirst lied to Aftenposten that Svetlichnaja had been sent to Britain to spy on Akhmed Zakhayev, which is not only untrue, but obviously so, since Svetlichnaja came to Britain seven years before Zakhayev.]

'The comments might have been reported wrongly,' Dewhirst replied.

'So you acknowledge that you are the source'.


'But you decline to deny it. If it was not you, why not just deny it.'

'I never talked to Aftenposten.'

'Are you sure. You do understand that if there is a court case, Ms. Harbo's notes will be seen under the rules of disclosure, and her source named.'

'No comment.'

'Isn't that true, Hilde Harbo?,' Heartfield asked, turning to the Aftenposten journalist.

Harbo: 'I haven't come here to answer questions.'

'Oh, it's alright for you to ask questions, but you do not want to answer them?'

In the course of the Seminar, students and staff asked questions about journalism and bias. Heartfield and Svetlichnaja used the example of the Aftenposten coverage. 'How is it that you reported that "I had turned my fury on you", and that I had prevented you from asking questions, when I did no such thing?' Svetlichnaja challenged Harbo.

Harbo: 'That was an error by a sub-editor, I wrote that Heartfield turned his fury on me, and prevented me from asking question, and the sub-editor confused the two.'

Heartfield: 'And if you were prevented from asking questions, how was it that you asked three questions? Wasn't that because I insisted that all the questions in the room be answered before the press conference was wound up? You did ask three questions didn't you.'

Harbo nods assent.

Svetlichnaja: 'And why, if your questions were so important, did you think it fit not to report the answers?'

Harbo: 'In the Norwegian version the answers were reported, but not in the English web version.'