The Russians Done It, #2

A while back I suggested starting a new series entitled ‘The Russians Done It’. Since then, there have been a few items which I could have added to the series, including the story that Russia is responsible for the worldwide measles epidemic. But for episode #2 I’ve instead chosen a piece from Britain’s Daily Mirror, as it provides a good example of how ‘fake news’ is written.


Readers will no doubt remember the tragic case of Malaysian flight MH370, which disappeared in March 2014 while en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Well, the Mirror, via Channel 5 TV, has a possible solution to the riddle of MH370’s fate – the Russians done it. The Mirror tells us:

Missing Flight MH370 – which vanished five years ago today – was ‘hijacked by Russia’, an aviation expert has claimed. …

An aviation expert has claimed Russia was behind the tragedy in a bid to take attention away from the conflict in Crimea. Science journalist Jeff Wise told Channel 5 documentary, Flight MH370: Five Years On:

‘The plane was accelerating, it was climbing and that shows whoever was behind it knew how to fly a plane. Whoever was flying the aircraft knew about dead air space in air traffic control, which suggests they were deliberately hiding it from view. If this was an effort by Russia it could have put the plane directly on the path to Kazakhstan. This happened in the context just after Russia had annexed Crimea ad was getting a lot of heat. They wanted people to talk about something else and suddenly the world’s attention was shifted to this. There could have been a Russian on board who interfered with the systems and created a false trail of breadcrumbs.’

You sometimes have to wonder if there is anything which Russia hasn’t be accused of. But note that although this is obvious nonsense, it isn’t strictly speaking ‘fake news’. Why? Because, the Mirror doesn’t say that this is what happened. Rather, it just says that somebody else said that it did. And somebody else did say it. Ergo, the story’s true.

See how this works? ‘X’ is untrue, and you know it; but you still can report X if you write that somebody ‘said’ that ‘X’ is true. That way, you can repeat all sorts of utter nonsense while claiming to uphold professional ethical standards.

In fact, the Mirror article goes on to admit that the story about Russia is garbage, saying that:

But other aviation experts have rubbished his [Wise’s] claims, … Aviation journalist David Learmount said: ‘Theories like this are great for James Bond but they make no sense in the real world.’

Here, the Mirror covers its backside in case anybody comes complaining about the fact that it’s reporting unfounded and defamatory claims – it’s provided an alternative point of view! Which it does. But, it must be said, only in passing, after which it gets back to citing Wise again. And despite the pretence at balance, the article as a whole comes with the title ‘Missing Flight MH370 “hijacked by Russia” who “laid false trail of breadcrumbs’.” (Note the quotation marks designed to all the Mirror to disassociate itself from its own headline).

So, what’s going on here? A single ‘expert’, without any credible evidence, speculated (and really did no more than speculate) in a documentary that Russia did something horrendous. The Mirror thought that in the current climate of Russia-bashing this would make a juicy headline and attract some readers. But it faced the problem that the story is garbage. So what does it do? It publishes it anyway, but adds one contradictory voice to look like it’s being fairminded, and reports the story as ‘Wise said’. After all, one wouldn’t want the lack of evidence to get in the way of publishing a good story, would one? That wouldn’t be fair.

So, here’s my advice to any wannabe journalists wanting to write about Russia:

  1. You can print anything you like, no matter how untrue, as long as you can find somebody to quote who’s willing to say that it might be true.
  2. Make sure that you add a contrary point of view, to appear balanced. But ensure that it’s brief, buried in a lot of other stuff, and comes late in the article after a long exposition of the central claim. Most readers won’t get that far, and even if they do will have already made up their minds by then.
  3. Put the most inflammatory claim in the headline (if necessary in quotation marks). First impressions count.

And that, dear readers, is how ‘fake news’ spreads.






13 thoughts on “The Russians Done It, #2”

  1. Re: “See how this works? ‘X’ is untrue, and you know it; but you still can report X if you write that somebody ‘said’ that ‘X’ is true. That way, you can repeat all sorts of utter nonsense while claiming to uphold professional ethical standards.”


    Concerns a number of Russia related issues, including this RFE/RL posted bit, which uncritically references several Western mass media orgs:

    Excerpt –

    “Another report a year later documented more than 1,000 doping cases across dozens of sports, most notably at the Winter Olympics that Russia hosted in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in 2014.”


    The characterization of “throwing spaghetti at the wall” comes to mind. The so-called “documentation” is (put mildly) sketchy.

    The total number of Russian Winter and Summer Olympic and Paralympic athletes is less than 1,000. The overwhelming majority of them haven’t been found to have doped, while having undergone strenuous testing, when compared to most (if not all other) athletes from around the world. Rhetorically put, in terms of a reasonable estimate, what’s the total number of US athletes (Olympic caliber and otherwise) who’ve used PEDs?

    Britain’s Daily Mirror and the track and field’s governing IAAF (concerning the main subject matter in the linked RFE/RL piece) appear top heavy with some (make it a point not to say all) Brits harboring an anti-Russian bias.

    In a more just world, the IAAF (especially Rune Andersen and Sebastian Coe) would receive some kind of penalty.


    1. The number of 1000 refers to all athletes who allegedly doped. Most of them never made it into Olympic teams.


      1. I’m well aware of that, while noting the bogus manner of uncritically rehashing that claim, when the same can be reasonably said about the US, where non-world class gym rats dope, along with some others – once again noting that the combined Russian Summer and Winter Paralympic teams number less than 1,000 – of which the overwhelming majority haven’t been found to have doped – to go along with being among the most (if not most) scrutinized of athletes worldwide.

        BTW, Richard McLaren was quoted as flippantly saying that he expects up to 600 Russian athletes to have doped after a review of the released Russian anti-doping/doping data. He’s the chap who came up with the aforementioned and unproven 1,000 claim.


      2. Michael more by accident I followed the seemingly neverending story around the pope in sports medicine over here, a prof at Freiburg university, Germany, in my father’s local daily. Last I checked it already went on for a decade with no end in sight.

        From the German perspective this might be easily complicated by popular knowledge about what on the surface made news as systematic doping in the former Eastern part of Germany GDR/DDR for us.

        Beyond national reputation, which historically may have mattered, there is of course a lot of money to be made in sports. And in the economy that may dictate a standard rule: Demand determines Supply. with some more creative in networking and new technologies only then others?,_investigation_and_confession


      3. LeaNder,

        The matter of Lance Armstrong brings to mind the US sports legal politico Travis Tygart. Tygart has gone around using his advocacy against Armstrong as a sign that the former is an equal opportunity opponent of PED use.

        In reality, Tygart carries on like a demagogue. He has never advocated a collective ban on all US cyclists or Olympic athletes – much different from his collectively bigoted approach towards Russia/Russians.


      4. various/varied
        “unveiled openings” a painting that fascinated me in the Serpentine Gallery in London ages ago comes to mind. My favorite for long now for complicated reasons.

        Maybe in journalism vs literature I was always somehow skeptical about any ultimate unveiling?


      5. The aforementioned HS carries on like a coddled propagandist – a reference to the (put mildly) dubious “documentary” (propaganda piece) he did, which featured Stepanova and her ex.

        Too often, good to excellent journalism doesn’t get its due credit, in favor of BS. it’s no small wonder why there’s a prevailing arrogance, ignorance and hypocrisy on the part of a noticeable number.


  2. Interesting that the least convincing part is, imo, the motivation:

    This happened in the context just after Russia had annexed Crimea ad [sic] was getting a lot of heat. They wanted people to talk about something else…

    In fact, far from “getting a lot of heat”, as I remember the reunification created a huge amount of enthusiasm. And the reunification was exactly what “they” wanted people to talk about…


  3. “See how this works? ‘X’ is untrue, and you know it; but you still can report X if you write that somebody ‘said’ that ‘X’ is true. That way, you can repeat all sorts of utter nonsense while claiming to uphold professional ethical standards.”

    A caveat – descriptive language is everything. Via it you prop up your chosen “expert”, while poisoning the well of all would be detractors by character assassination, labeling and innuendo.

    Here how it works:

    Bilimbaj Herald: According to the information provided to our reporter by two well known Rublyovka insiders, at the moment, key financial indexes fall by 0.03%. The volatility of the British pound remains in force in face of upcoming Brexit. In view of the current macroeconomic data markets demonstrate neutral-positive dynamics. The number of drilling rigs in the United States continues to change, respectively, over a period of time this may affect oil production volumes. The ruble is traded in the context of trends. Speculative activity on carry-trade works in favor of high-yielding currencies. By the personal order of Putin, all green butane lighters contain listening devices in their bases.

    At the moment of this publication, neither Kremlin nor FSB has denied the truth of this claim. We remind our readers, that last week Kremlin and FSB also did not deny our respectable paper’s report, that there are seven insect legs in every “Alyonka” bar of chocolate – per the words of the former worker, who’s job was to put them in.


  4. Now you just have to wait for the Boeing 737 Max story. Obviously the Russian angle for hacking into the planes in Indonesia and Ethiopia is to cast doubt on Boeing planes and to hurt their competitor both in the economic and geopolitical sense, since Boeing is an American company. It’s notable that this hacking and destruction of two civilian planes happens just as the Russian industry is making new models of its own civilian plane competitors.

    This is less crazy than the MH370 story, which caught me completely out, so that means it’s bound to appear.


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