Reactions to the Skripal poisoning in Greek newspapers
The poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military officer, and his daughter Julia in Salisbury UK on 4 March 2018 was covered by Greek newspapers on a daily basis and in numerous articles.
We chose to look systematically at six newspapers from across the political spectrum: Dimokratia (right wing- populist), Proto Thema (right-wing- populist), Kathimerini (centre-right) To Vima (centre- left), Efimerida ton Sintakton (left-wing) and Avgi (Left-wing).
In total we gathered 193 articles (Dimokratia: 5, Proto Thema 45, Kathimerini 50, To Vima: 41, Efimerida ton Sintakton: 25, Avgi: 27). This is the total number of articles that contain references to Skripal, even if the main subject was different - relations between Russia and the West or the decision by a Greek University to award Vladimir Putin an honorary doctorate, for example.
Coverage dominated by news stories and reporting
One of the most significant findings of our study was that the coverage of Skripal was in the vast majority of cases straight reporting rather than comment. We found only 6 opinion pieces devoted to the issue. Of those, only 3 dealt exclusively with Skripal. This seems to indicate that Greek newspapers chose to take a neutral position. We believe this is because they did not want to risk offering any judgment or interpretation that would force them to take part in the more general discussion pertaining to relations between Russia and the West (EU, UK, US, NATO).
Indeed, the most common characteristic of the news stories found in the Greek newspapers is the setting out of the facts without any more detailed analysis of the general context of relations between Russia and the West or even of similar precedents (i.e. the Litvinenko case). The papers mainly described the allegations of the British government, the reactions of Russia, the investigation confirming the use of toxic substances, the reactions of key European States such as Germany and France, NATO, and the US and most recently the expulsion of numerous diplomats
The newspapers appear to have based their reporting on information provided by news agencies. In the six newspapers studied, the most common source was the state-funded Athens-Macedonia News Agency (AMPE). Other sources include Reuters, AFP and, only in the case of Avgi (left-wing, affiliated with SYRIZA), Russia’s Sputnik, occasionally used by Avgi as a source when it comes to Russian reactions.
Headlines and emphasis
Indicative selection of titles (17-19 March 2018)
- “British foreign minister: Moscow fools no one anymore!” (19 March)
- “Russia: Skripal poisoning proved beneficial for Putin” (19 March)
- New scenario for the Skripal case: poisoned through the ventilation system of his BMW” (19 March)
- “UK: The main energy companies stay alert for Russian cyber attacks” (18 March)
- “NATO secretary: “We have to improve our defences against a more aggressive Russia” (18 March)
- “Skripal: Russians claim neurotoxic agent came from a British lab” (18 March)
- “Russia: elections in a Cold-War climate” (18 March)
- “May on Skripal: We will prepare our next steps in conjunction with our partners” (18 March)
- “Skripal: Moscow will expel 23 British diplomats” (18 March)
- “A Cold-War climate thanks to a toxic Putin” (18 March)
- “UK accuses Russia of storing quantities of lethal Novichok” (18 March)
- “Moscow implies London responsible for the neurotoxic gas” (18 March)
- “Skripal: British Ambassador summoned to Russian foreign ministry” (18 March)
This selection of headlines is indicative of the variety of aspects that were highlighted by the newspapers in the period. One of the important themes mentioned extensively in headlines and stories was “the Cold War”. A second theme was the diplomatic tension between the UK and Russia, and a third was allegations regarding the origins of the neurotoxic agent.
Perhaps, the only newspaper that adopted a clearly critical disposition towards Russia even in its news stories is To Vima (centre left). For instance, To Vima is the only newspaper which immediately gave the more general context of similar precedents and policies employed by Russia in the past (i.e. “The unknown substance that kills Russian spies”, 5 March, “The poisoning of the former Russian spy brings to mind the Litvinenko case”, 6 March, “The UK will investigate Russia’s involvement in relation to another 14 deaths”, 13 March).
The opinion pieces
The findings regarding the 6 opinion pieces confirm those for the news stories. To Vima (centre light) adopted the most critical attitude towards Russia, followed to a much lesser extent by Kathimerini (centre right). The opinions of Avgi (left wing) and Efimerida ton Sintakton (left wing) present a very different interpretation of the case. To Vima adopted a very firm stance on Russia’s responsibility: “It is a fact that the Russian secret services have reactivated the practice of executing traitors, as happened in 2006 in the case of Litvinenko, who was poisoned with plutonium in the UK… Whether the attack on Skripal was ordered by the Kremlin or not, it demonstrates a new policy and sends a clear message to those Russians who cooperate or have cooperated with Western secret agencies: they should be scared to death” (“Have the unwritten rules of spying changed?” (9 March).
In another piece, To Vima offers a clearer interpretation of the Russian motivation behind the attack on Skripal: “Why did the revenge take place now and not earlier?... If the allegations by Britain are true, then one possible explanation is linked to the election in Russia. Given that the electoral campaign was very boring (Putin’s victory was certain), the Skripal case came conveniently to feed the Cold-War instincts of an entire generation of Russians who grew up in that period and reinforce Putin’s profile as a powerful and decisive leader” (“A Cold-War climate thanks to a toxic Putin”, 18 March).
In the case of Kathimerini the only reference in relation to Skripal comes from an opinion dealing with the decision of a Greek University to award an honorary doctorate to Vladimir Putin: “What does it matter whether the authoritarian Russian leader imprisons every voice of opposition. What does it matter whether he sends agents in the UK to murder his opponents? The giants of knowledge in Greece honour him for his work! (“Interests and Stupidity”, 16 March)
Efimerida ton Sintakton looked to be trying to find a point of equal distance between the positions of the UK and Russia: “Who really benefits - cui bono - from the assassination attempt?... The rising tension, in this temporal and political context, is beneficial to both Theresa May, who appears to be very weakened by the chaotic handling of Brexit, and Vladimir Putin who manipulates patriotic sentiment in order to alarm his voters with another ‘anti-Russian campaign’ by the West. It is also beneficial to Donald Trump, who is trying to end all suspicions that he colluded with Russia in order to win the presidential election” (The British target Putin in a spy thriller”, (17 March).
Avgi took the most noticeably favourable position towards Russia, questioning the validity of the evidence presented by the UK: “For Western countries, the use of a Russian-made neurotoxic agent (Novichok) is by itself enough to prove Russia’s guilt. The proof given by London come from the analysis by testing facilities at Porton Down - a facility for biological and chemical weapons which for many decades has operated in the same obscure manner of which the West accuses Russia. A crisis broke out immediately, without a report by an independent organization like the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, while London refused to respond to Russia’s request to be given samples of the substance (“Russia: elections in the midst of a Cold War climate”, 18 March). Avgi also speculated that the incident was being used for political ends by all parties involved (the US, the UK and Russia).
This study showed that Greek newspapers mainly adopted a neutral stance towards the Skripal case. With the exception of To Vima (centre left) they did not want to take part in the debate of the wider context of relations between Russia and the West. It is striking that this was true whatever the political orientation of the newspapers. It is likely that strong pro-Russian sentiment among the Greek public influenced the country’s newspapers not to emphasize Russia’s involvement.