It was vintage Marie Colvin. It was 19 October and the Frontline Club was heaving, jammed with journalists and human rights activists gathered to pay tribute to the Russian reporter Anna Politkovskaya. Politkovskaya had been murdered in the lift of her apartment building in Moscow six days earlier. Emotions were running high in the Forum, as colleagues and friends of hers – she had become well-known in London media circles – wanted to know who killed her or ordered her killing. Colvin became frustrated with the political rhetoric of the panelists and decided it was time to press the issue. She bellowed: “We want to know one thing and one thing only: who killed Anna Politkovskaya?”
It was then that a former KGB agent named Alexander Litvinenko asked to be recognised. The rest as they say is history, not instant history but history nevertheless.
For many months now the Frontline Club has been recording on video most Forum events and experimenting with a system that makes it easy to access the discussions on the Frontline Club website. But there had been numerous technical problems making the system work, and Vaughan Smith and John Coghill had been frustrated trying to exploit the broadband revolution.
After word spread that Litvinenko was seriously ill with what later was diagnosed as Polonium radiation poisoning, an alert Associated Press reporter who had been in the Forum for the Politkovskaya tribute, called wondering whether we happened to have what he said on video. AP got a scoop, and other networks and agencies also began bombarding Frontline with requests, not only from Britain but from all over the world. Frontline had a world exclusive, and suddenly Smith was back in the independent news agency business.
It was a publicity bonanza for the Frontline Club, not only on the nightly news and 24 hour news channels but also on our own website. Coghill made it impossible to come to the Frontline website without being shown the Litvinenko clip. Did this involuntary accessing turn some people off? Coghill assumes that some did grow weary of having to navigate around the clip. But the figures that he has gathered since the Forum comments were posted are impressive: more than 106,000 viewers have watched the video in the four weeks that it’s been shown; more than 33,000 “unique visitors” to the website. And viewers and visitors stayed with the video watching it for more than 2 minutes at a time.
Coghill also decided to make the Litvinenko Forum video available to YouTube. It generated more than 56,000 views. Google video also has shown it and received more than 3,000 views.
Vaughan Smith acknowledges that he had concerns that Litvinenko might have been poisoned by someone who was in the Forum the night that he accused President Putin of the murder of Anna Politkovskaya.But there’s no evidence to support that, and Litvinenko as he lay dying, repeated his accusation. For Smith and Frontline, the Litvinenko experience has reminded us all of the price journalists, activists, and whistle-blowers – if that is what Litvinenko turns out to have been – pay for exercising free speech. Smith says that as long as there are brave individuals who take those risks, the Frontine Club will make its platform available to them.