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21 Jan, 2016 15:02

Why is a US-government funded website harassing and defaming me for trying to do my job?

Why is a US-government funded website harassing and defaming me for trying to do my job?

There are so many better things I could be doing right now. Like walking the dog. Or washing my hair. Or watching some paint dry. However, after The Interpreter’s James Miller's latest slander, I feel obliged to respond.

I’ve never met Miller, but he seems to have an unhealthy obsession with me. The Boston-based hack just penned another hit piece,' directed at RT. Not only has he referred to me three times, I am the only person associated with the organization that he mentions by name. 

Miller also refers to me as a “journalist of questionable credentials”. He doesn’t specify what is questionable about my credentials. In case Miller is interested, I am a card-carrying member of the National Union of Journalists in London. Last year was the 20th anniversary of my first article in print in a newspaper (I was still in school at the time). I studied journalism at college. I worked for national newspapers and magazines in Ireland and have been published in leading outlets in the UK, France, Russia and his own US of A. In fact, at the tender age of 20, I had my own daily column in Dublin’s Evening Herald newspaper, the locally famous ‘Dubliner’s Diary’.

Unlike many people who write about Russia right now, I am actually a journalist. Not an activist or a person chancing their arm. The vast majority of Westerners who bring you news from Russia are not trained journalists. They are generally liberal arts graduates, often in Russian studies, who come to Moscow and try to get a break with publications like the Moscow Times. They usually have no professional journalism experience in their home countries prior to arrival. Plus, they can often be strongly ideological. This is exactly why the standard of Western reportage on Russia is so below par. By contrast, I have covered everything from juvenile Rugby matches to international soccer tournaments and small-town council meetings to international summits. A hack of all trades and hopefully a master of some. 

The Interpreter's obsession with falsely smearing me in this regard is telling. In fact, it's a tried and trusted tactic of the American gutter press. Attack a person on the one area he has an advantage over most of his peers. Remember how neocons targeted John Kerry's military record during the 2004 election? A genuine war hero in a time of conflict running against George Bush, a draft-dodger? By assailing his army bona fides, they planted doubt in people's minds. It was scurrilous, but effective. 

A flawed pedigree? 

What about Miller’s own ‘credentials?’ Did he attend Journalism school before he got involved with the Interpreter? I can only find copy from a few fringe sites and the Huffington Post bearing his name before that. What’s more, all his published pieces are about Syria and the Middle East. What happened in 2013 that suddenly qualified him as a Russia ‘expert’?

He doesn’t appear to speak the language. Nobody I know in Moscow press circles has ever encountered him there. He has no track record in Russia studies. In fact, has he ever actually been to Russia? I can't substantiate that Miller has ever set foot in the country. For the record, I have lived in Russia for four of the past six years. I have been all over, from Vladivostok to Sochi and St Petersburg to Sakhalin.  

In fact, the only reason I left Russia in 2013 was because I got visa banned, for overstaying. It wasn't deliberate. Alas, I was mugged in the far eastern city of Khabarovsk and my passport was stolen. I guess I missed a trick by failing to invoke the spirit of Luke Harding and writing a hysterical book about my experiences.  

Then there is Michael Weiss, the puppet master who pulls Miller’s strings. Like his underling, this neocon activist suddenly mutated into a ‘Russia expert’ a few years ago. Again, Weiss’ background was in the Middle East. As with Miller, Weiss can’t speak Russian (or Arabic) and there is no evidence that he has even visited Russia. He knows very little about the country and seems to have zero practical experience of it. 

This pair, the Laurel and Hardy of the Russia beat, would be relatively harmless if they didn’t devote so much energy to smearing their opponents. After all, their blogsite has a tiny readership. Only 85,000 hits last month, according to Similarweb. RT attracted 69 million. Yes, that’s correct, 69 million. This is precisely why I enjoy writing for RT. Its reach is extraordinary.  

You never can tell 

Weiss and Miller can’t resist throwing muck. Anybody who disagrees with the American standpoint on Russia seems to be an enemy. Alas, back in 2014, I made a mistake. While the Ukraine crisis raged, I became tired of the misinformed rubbish they were tweeting. Thus, I engaged with Miller and Weiss on Twitter. It was stupid and I regret doing it. I should have heeded the wise words of Bernard Shaw, the great Irish writer: "I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.”  

The end result was that various anonymous Twitter accounts that frequently interacted with the pair began to harass me on the site. For example, if I was engaged in conversation with someone totally unrelated to Russia - say a journalist in Dublin about Irish affairs - these, anonymous, Twitter bots would attach themselves to the chat and tweet all kinds of spurious nonsense. Around the same time, I'd receive strange phone calls, usually in the middle of the night. Usually they featured either heavy breathing or complete silence. 

One particular account, which went by the name of ‘Silver Surfer’, was particularly intense in its harassment, tweeting from @robpulsenews. The anonymous stalker would deliver a mix of anti-Irish racism and allegations of me being a Russian intelligence agent. I later learned that a disturbed Englishman named Robert Schultz was the ‘Silver Surfer’. Schultz took to tweeting pictures of my ex-partner which he had gotten from, I assume, social media, and making various threats against me. 

Later in 2014, I wrote a couple of op-eds for RT on Anne Applebaum and Ben Judah. Both centred on erroneous, factually deviant articles they had written. At no point did I cast aspersions on their private lives, the very thought would have been abhorrent. Around this time, Weiss, a close associate of that pair, began to make obnoxious tweets of a personal nature, directed at me. Miller then emailed me a list of questions, which essentially asked me to "prove you are not a spy" and tagged Weiss on the correspondence. I later sent Weiss a few similar posers so he'd see how ludicrous it was. 

Then a “hit piece” appeared on the Interpreter blog, written by James Miller and the same Robert Schultz, making all kinds of wild allegations. The whole thing was so ludicrous that nobody with a brain could possibly have taken it seriously. It essentially alleged that I was a Russian spy who had lied about my background. It also slandered the same ex of mine, calling her a “porn star” and was obsessed with the fact that I changed the spelling of my name for work reasons.

What's in a name?

Back in 1990’s, when I started writing for Dublin newspapers, there was a very well-known correspondent at the Irish Independent (the largest selling newspaper in Ireland) called Brian McDonald. In a country of 4.6 million people, it would have been remarkably dumb to use the same spelling as I’d have constantly been confused with him, which would have harmed my career. Especially when I ended up working at the very same newspaper. Thus, I changed the spelling to Bryan MacDonald, a more anglicised version. It’s not like I altered my name to “Michael Caine” or “Elton John.” Incidentally, both of them adopted professional pseudonyms, radically different from their birth names, and are also not Russian spies, as far as I know. 

Many people contacted me around that time with information about Weiss and his, questionable, background. I mulled over responding in kind, but because The Interpreter crew and their associates operate in the proverbial sewer, that doesn't mean I should descend to their level, does it?

One interesting thing I learned was that Weiss had previously worked for a UK organization called Just Journalism. In that position, his mission was to harass media professionals who published copy in British newspapers that wasn't sufficiently pro-Israeli for his tastes. It appears he's transplanted those methods to the Russia beat. The Interpreter assails journalists and academics who refuse to accept verbatim the American government position on Russia. An example of this is Weiss' continuous hectoring of Professor Stephen Cohen. Cohen, a distinguished Sovietologist, who is widely regarded as America's leading academic authority on Russia. His vast knowledge of the subject allows him to see past the neocon consensus on the country. That greatly upsets Weiss and his friends who are dedicated to snuffing out voices which question their positions. Weiss, who has no practical experience of Russia, lobbing grenades at Cohen is about the same as a Sunday League footballer evaluating Lionel Messi.

In early autumn 2015, Weiss penned a series of Daily Beast pieces about Russia, each one increasingly more cartoonish. One particular piece was crying out to be satirised. Headlined “Russia Puts Boots On The Ground In Syria,” it basically accused Moscow of doing exactly what Washington was doing in that unfortunate country. I decided to turn the mirror back on Weiss, with a jokey, but accurate, little article on how America puts boots on the ground in Syria.”

Around that time, I also, mistakenly, ridiculed another Weiss story on Russian intervention in Syria. Like the boy who cried wolf, he was proven right once, but I wrongly dismissed it based on his poor track record. Like when he was predicting Russian invasions of Ukraine last summer. I publicly apologized to Weiss. As I ignore him on social media, I'm unsure if he ever expressed remorse for his own errors.

Right on cue, the Twitter attacks resumed. Then the phone calls started up again. One 'gentleman' phoned the local newspaper in the town where I grew up looking for information about me. I last wrote for them in 1998. Someone then called my mother, at home, asking questions. This made me extremely angry because my mother was very sick at the time and it greatly distressed her. She, sadly, died a few months later. I'm not sure what these scumbags were hoping to achieve by harassing my poor mum. 

Miller's Cross

Of course, this week The Interpreter has struck again. Miller has appeared with a blog titled “Putin’s people are not happy with us.” As I wrote at the outset, I am referenced three times and I am the only person associated with RT mentioned by name. This is "Every Breath You Take” stuff. Sting would be proud of Miller. Maybe he fancies me? I mean Miller, not Sting. There are others, many with their own shows, on RT who are far more "faces of the network" than a lowly freelancer like myself. I think I appeared on the channel about a half dozen times last year. 

Anyway James, I know you are reading. So, let me tell you that I am not a “Putin person.” While I am extremely fond of Russia and its people, I can take or leave the President. In fact, I much preferred the Medvedev years. If Putin resigned tomorrow, it wouldn't bother me. Then again, I’m not a Russian citizen and I cannot vote there, so who Russians elect is not my business. It's not yours either, as it happens. 

Miller accuses me of being an “associate of a now-deported Russian agent.” He doesn’t name the person he accuses of being a Russian agent. For the record, I have no associates who are Russian agents, to the best of my knowledge. 

I have to admit I am tired of it all. A few months ago, I could dismiss Weiss and Miller as fringe crackpots. That’s not possible any more. Since their website partnered with RFE/RL, the US state funded broadcaster, they are now, effectively, employed by the American government. 

I do have a question for RFE/RL and their parent, the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Is it now official US policy to bankroll bloggers who harass and maliciously defame foreign journalists? If the answer is affirmative, I am saddened that a country I once admired so much, and enjoyed visiting, has stooped so low. Say it ain't so, Uncle Sam?

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.