Despite my statement at the birth of this blog, all my posts so far have been about Australia and England, or at least have mentioned Aussies in England. (There were three of us watching the Lord Mayor and ghosts, together with a German, a Japanese, several Chinese and three Brits.*) This is about to change, as by request, this post will not involve interactions between antipodes, but is a matter of East and West, in the Cold War sense. I haven't been paying enough attention to this issue to do it justice, but hopefully it iwll be interesting and not too inaccurate.
Former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko died last week in London. He first became prominent in the news when he was rushed to Universtiy College Hospital halfway through the month with a mystery illness contracted just after a meeting with "a contact" in a sushi bar. The media were quick to point out that Litvinenko was a major critic of Russian president Vladimir Putin and raise the possibility that he had been poisoned on the orders of the Russian government. This was repeatedly mentioned in news reports over the following weeks, interspersed with references to many other connections of Litvinenko who might also like to see him gone and suggestions that the FSB (the KGB's successor) might be being framed.
There was some discussion of Litvinenko's background, possibly motives for killing him, and exactly what he had been doing/who he had contacted on the day he fell ill, but the focus of the media turned reasonably quickly to his deteriorating condition and the question of what was wrong with him. Initial reports mentioned thallium poisoning, but later doctors said they might never know what the cause was and announced that x-rays had revealed "objects" in Litvinenko's stomach. It wasn't until after his death that the cause was identified as polonium radiation.
Litvinenko's death on the 23rd also turned the spotlight back on the issue of possible Kremlin involvement, particularly fuelled by comments attributed to Litvinenko hours before he became unconscious. Scotland Yard's "suspected deliberate poisoning" became an "unexplained death" and then suspicious. Russia's new law concerning extra-judicial killings was brought up and the politicians got involved. Members of opposition parties were outspoken, calling for statements from the government and saying that relations with Russia could be affected, without saying anything definite. The government was even more cautious, limited by ongoing investigations and most probably a sensible desire to avoid any unnecessary diplomatic troubles. The Home Minister said that the Russian ambassador had been told that full assistance was expected from the Russian authorities, but apart from that, but his statement focussed mainly on the actions of the health authorities.
The attention of the media understandably also swept back to public health implications, as traces of polonium radiation were discovered first in hotels and Litvinenko's house and then on BA planes. While these discoveries are potentially quite helpful for the police investigation, the general tone in the media seems to still be as it was described on a BBC panel game about a week ago: not so much concern that foreign spies might be killing in our capital, as an episode of House. I wonder whether this is simply because the health aspects might affect us more generally, or whether they are also more interesting to the modern audience. Even the detective genre of TV shows seems to be showing a trend towards more emphasis on the medical side of investigations. Maybe the medics are taking over from Bond and the like. (I'd defintely rate House ahead of Casino Royale!)
(*I have a question, particularly relevant at the moment: Are the Welsh "poms"?)