Archive | March, 2018

Skripal poisoning: Time for an information arbiter?

15 Mar

One of the most notable aspects of the Sergei and Yulia Skripal poisoning case is that hard information is restricted to a very small group of professionals and elites. The list of people who know what actually happened is small. Most of these people probably only know part of the story. The exact identity of the chemical involved, for example, will be privy only to a small group of scientists with the skills and equipment to conduct an analysis. They will know that part of the story but probably not much else. Similarly the police and intelligence services, and some in the media, will know part of the story. A small circle of political figures might try to piece together the available evidence but their information is imperfect.

A near constant thread through many conflict, and the decision-making processes that lead to and maintain conflicts, is imperfect knowledge. Much conflict is based on miscommunication and poor signalling. The ‘security dilemma’ (or the vicious circle of security precautions that spark security precautions by the other side) is based on a misreading of signals. There are strong pre-existing biases between Russia and the UK (and Russian has ‘form’ on this issue through the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko) so the misreading of signals is likely to expect the worst from the other side. Moreover, as we know many actors work hard to engage in disinformation (‘fake news’ is by no means a new phenomena).

What seems to be missing from all of this is an information arbiter – a neutral body that can look at evidence and adjudicate on what happened and who might be responsible. At the moment information is held, withheld and sought by interested parties who are necessarily political. Moreover, this issue has turned into one of national bravado – with the UK under pressure to look tough and Russia compelled to deny responsibility but – at the same time – remind the world that it is a sovereign nation that won’t be pushed around. The domestic ‘predicaments’ of both governments are important here too. Russia has an election and the UK … well … anything that helps Theresa May look tough (or even competent) in the Brexit morass is a bonus.

The lack of an information arbiter – perhaps some truly independent international and transnational body that has full cooperation from governments – means that what we see is a speculation bonanza. I have lost count of the number of radio interviews I have heard from people who don’t know what happened. Instead most of them recycle bias and assumptions.

There might be good reason why some authorities don’t want to share information (it may prejudice a trial or jeopardise informants) but that would not prevent an information arbiter that works on the basis of confidentiality. At the moment we have one government’s word against that or another. And we are left to fill in the blanks with our biases rather than evidence.

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