In 'post truth' just what is Putin up to? Luke Harding sheds some light at the Byline Festival.
At a recent Byline Insider event in London, Luke Harding, a Royal correspondent then foreign correspondent for the Guardian, spoke to Byline's Peter Jukes, giving highlights on what to expect at the Byline Festival in the 'Post-truth' discussion.
Harding has lived in Berlin, Delhi and Moscow covering wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya 'surfing George W Bush's illegal wars; "I was the war and death guy for a long time," he concludes, lightly.
Harding was dispatched to Moscow in 2007 reporting over what proved to be a very tense time for investigative journalists and their sources.
"Why did you get thrown out of Russia in 2011?" asks Jukes.
"Because I annoyed them."
"How did you annoy them?"
"By pursuing the Alexander Litvinenko case, and also by writing about Putin's money."
Unknown intruders had harassed Harding and his family in Moscow, in bizarre ways recounted in his book 'Mafia State'. They unlocked and opened the window of his child's empty bedroom. They left a book about sex beside the bed he shared with his wife. The couple assumed their accommodation was bugged.
In 2007, Harding recalls: "Critics of Putin were meeting mysterious ends, and I arrived when this was accelerating." His personal experience of this began with a surprising email from British Airways that went something like: "Dear Mr Harding, we are sorry to inform you the plane you flew on to Moscow was contaminated with radioactive polonium-"
Litvinenko's poisoners had left an embarrassing trail of radioactive readings on everything they touched. Harding's new book 'A Very Expensive Poison' tells more of the evidence that emerged from the Litvinenko Inquiry, 2014-2016, which concluded that the ex-FSB whistle blower surely was poisoned by his contacts Kovtun & Lugovoy, and that Putin most likely ordered it.
Only when Putin annexed Crimea in March 2014 did Theresa May launch the Litvinenko inquiry.
Two weeks before Harding's talk I asked him about the satirised relationship between Putin and Donald Trump. Harding agreed Trump's team have 'definitely been drinking some of the Putin kool-aid'.
Trump is, and always has been, a source of gaffs. Putin is the former head of the FSB. Trump, meanwhile, has verbally attacked the agencies that work for him. Harding shakes his head at Byline's audience: "What a stupid thing to do!"
To get a better sense of Trump's bizarre contradicting statements, Harding points to Peter Pomerantsev's 'Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia', an outstanding memoir of recent journalism.
Pomerantsev worked for Russian entertainment channel TNT at around the same time that Harding was in Moscow. His book cartwheels through a world where prosecutions were staged to seize business assets, gangsters made movies, the leaders of sects were elevated to TV stars.
One of Pomerantsev's colleagues gamely went undercover into such a sect but suffered crushing withdrawal when he came out. His employers made him seek medical help. He said: "I just can't find my way back to myself". Pomerantsev wrote bitterly of this sect's rise into entertainment media. Suffering as entertainment: 'All the tears and conflicts make for great TV'.
Ten years on, and with a former reality TV star as US President. Journalists now grapple with a chronic blurring of news and entertainment; the world that Pomerantsev remembers in 'Nothing is True' seems only to have grown.
Join the discussion at Byline Festival where both Luke Harding and Pomerantsev sit on a 'Post-Truth' panel discussing the many facets and issues from Snowden to Putin.
Byline Festival 2-4th June 2017 at Pippingford Park.