Scarlet Runner – now that’s quick!

It took us 35 hours to sail to King Island on ‘Fully-n-Pushing’, mainly because there was very little wind. It meant that if I didn’t get back to Melbourne very quickly I was going to miss my flight to some important work in Sydney with MLA (Meat and Livestock Australia), working with their marketing team on a major presentation to steak…err stakeholders.

So someone knew someone and I was offered a trip back on the fastest yacht in the fleet. The amazing ‘Scarlet Runner’, as the guest of victorious owner Rob Date.

We made the trip in 8 hours, reached a top speed of 21 knots, and I made it to Sydney with time to spare. MLA marketing communicated their messages brilliantly and achieved their goals: it was a golden week.

I shot this piece of adrenalin on a tiny ‘GoPro Hero’ HD camera in a waterproof casing. Luke McDade cut it to Blur and it’s Redgum Communications‘ thankyou to Rob Date and his crew for the lift.

Sustainable Communities

I spent last week travelling the length and breadth of Victoria with cameraman Peter Reidy, filming Microfinance workers ‘in situ’. Redgum Communications is developing training workshops with Good Shepherd Youth and Community Services in a project funded by Sustainability Victoria, and in partnership with Thrive Sustainability Services. For the filming we re-enacted real scenarios Microfinance workers have when interviewing clients who are applying for loans. It was incredibly informative, a lot of fun and will be an important part of the training to be delivered later in the year.

Sustainable Communities

I spent last week travelling the length and breadth of Victoria with cameraman Peter Reidy, filming Microfinance workers ‘in situ’. Redgum Communications is developing training workshops with Good Shepherd Youth and Community Services in a project funded by Sustainability Victoria, and in partnership with Thrive Sustainability Services. For the filming we re-enacted real scenarios Microfinance workers have when interviewing clients who are applying for loans. It was incredibly informative, a lot of fun and will be an important part of the training to be delivered later in the year.

MSFW 2010 Media Launch

Redgum Communications in partnership with Luke McDade’s LVM Enterprises is producing all the video coverage of this year’s Melbourne Spring Fashion Week, beginning 27th August with a huge launch party. Lucy McIntosh is the face of MSFW 2010, and Ruby Rose is the ambassador. This is the vignette we put together for the media launch. James Freemantle is the presenter, Luke McDade and Peter Reidy were cameramen, and Luke also cut the piece.

The day my boss held a Kalashnikov to my head.

 

 

 

Russia Today – the unusual world of an expat newsreader in Moscow

 

By James Freemantle

Words: 3981

Reading the news on Russia Today – Moscow’s 24-hour English language TV news channel – gave James Freemantle a unique insight into the eccentric machinations of ‘Russia’s best propaganda machine for the outside world’.

-oOo-

I’m in ‘hair and makeup’ with studio guest Afghanistan conflict veteran Evgeny Khrushchev, now Military Analyst at Russia Today, preparing to go live to air to discuss the assassination of Pakistani presidential candidate Benazir Bhutto. It’s December 27, 2007. No-one knows who killed her.

As our faces are powdered I quietly ask Evgeny whether he thinks President Pervez Musharraf – as early reports have speculated – might have been responsible. ‘Without a doubt’, he intones in his James Bond villain’s drawl, ‘and I can’t help admiring his Machiavellian pragmatism’.

-oOo-

 

 Russia Today offers a view of the world you won’t find on CNN, Fox, the BBC or Sky. It’s arguable that every media outlet has a bias – a philosophy that guides it in selecting, reporting and interpreting the news. At Russia Today, the state has a vice-like hand in the determination of what is said and what is not. Like the heavy electric buses of Moscow’s stolid streets – free to roam anywhere across a six-metre wide path as long as they stay attached to the overhead cables that determine their route – editorial independence is on a tight leash.

I arrive in Moscow on the night of my predecessor’s farewell. She’s an accomplished journalist from Australia – formerly Channel Nine – who’s been reading the news in Moscow’s RussiaToday news channel for two years. Local and expatriate colleagues deliver admiring toasts and roasts and I hear half a dozen variations on ‘her defining moment’ from faces glistening with tears of laughter.

At 5.50 in the morning a News Editor sits passive and battered at his desk. ‘Do you check your balls in at security every time you come to work?’ the news anchor screams.

 

She’s railing against Kremlin PR spin in a story she’s due to read on-air in ten minutes, and takes it out on Yuri, whose job it is, she reasons, to demonstrate some form of objectivity and commitment to the truth.

‘Come on Yuri, have you forgotten how to think for yourself? This is a news station for God’s sake.’

Yuri, a 45-year-old Muscovite, shrugs his shoulders, signalling that – news station or not – it is pointless reading anything on air that could be construed as anti-Russian. Or even not pro-Russian.

‘Alright everybody, gather around,’ she-whose-shoes-I-am-to-fill directs, pied piper-like. ‘I am a journalist. I cannot get any direction from my News Editor, so I’m leaving right now.’

And, much to everybody’s surprise, she does.

Quick as a flash Yuri hands the news script to sports presenter and former Irish kickboxing champion Eunan O’Neill, who gives a marvellously engaging read of the latest insights into Ukrainians stealing Russian oil and the failures of US foreign policy, seamlessly followed by Spartak’s fiery clash with Locomotiv in the city’s soccer league.

It’s a highly spun, factually light script, and RT – like Yuri – packs no punch, even with a kickboxer out front.

I wonder what I’m getting myself into, but it’s just another mad morning at Russia Today, Moscow’s 24-hour English language news channel set up in 2005 by Russian leader Vladimir Putin. It’s available to 120 million television viewers worldwide including – since 2007, when Russia Today was added to Time Warner Cable’s digital package – 20 million people in the New York City region.

The channel is modelled on CNN, and billed as an antidote to the negative western perception of Russia perpetrated by antagonistic and ignorant western journalists and politicians.

Russia Today’s boss is 30-year-old Margarita Simonyan, who said in an interview with The New York Times in 2008: ‘We want to develop into a really trusted name that people turn to because they want to know what’s going on in the country.’

As a graduate journalist Simonyan cut her teeth in the Kremlin Pool – a select batch of obedient scribes and TV presenters accustomed to presenting as the truth the United Russia Party line. Newsroom legend has it that she made her name in August 2004 when, as a 24-year-old, she covered the Beslan school hostage crisis. Chechan and Ingush terrorists took 1,100 hostages and demanded an end to the second Chechen War. What they got instead was a full-scale attack by Russian forces that left over 330 hostages – including 186 children – dead.

While western media were reporting the death toll in the hundreds, Simonyan stuck with the Kremlin line of around ten casualties. It was in the government’s interests to downplay the disaster, which drew unwelcome attention and criticism from around the world. Simonyan towed the party line and earned a reputation for loyalty – perhaps the most highly valued of Russian qualities.

On her 25th birthday, Putin presented her with a bunch of flowers and an affectionate kiss on the cheek. Later that year he appointed her founding editor-in-chief of Russia Today. She became the youngest head of a global news and entertainment TV channel in the world.

Simonyan was allocated a budget of US$35 million to establish the station and another US$60 million for the first year of operations. The station went to air on December 10, 2005, employing 100 English-speaking journalists worldwide. Today it has a workforce of over 1800, with both Arabic and Spanish incarnations and a US bureau with a staff of 70.

In a Moscow Times interview on the channel’s first anniversary Simonyan said she aimed for ‘an approachable management style’ and ‘did not want to be sitting behind closed doors.’ Given this statement I was astonished she hired me as a newsreader in September 2007 without meeting me. I was equally surprised that she didn’t, to my knowledge, step into the newsroom once in the five months I was there. A veteran of three-years at RT told me he’s neither met nor seen her, but that when Putin came to visit the building, she was spotted several times in the newsroom telling people not to get too close to him!

I fell into the job. After eight years as a TV presenter and producer in Australia my family and I moved to the UK. I met a journalist friend of a friend in London, who urged me to send my showreels to Alexey Nikolov, second-in-charge at Russia Today. Nikolov responded that he would consider me if I got to Moscow under my own steam.

I sponged newsreading tips from generous Melbourne presenters, Peters Hitchener and Mitchell; flew to Moscow to be interviewed by Nikolov; screen tested for two days; and slept on the couch of Bill Dod, stalwart English news anchor at Russia Today. The interview was illuminating. After a brief explanation of the role, Nikolov asked if I had any questions. I had two. ‘What is the image RT is aiming to project?’ and ‘Who is our audience?’ Nikolov paused, shrugged his shoulders and replied without a hint of irony, ‘Very good questions. How soon can you start?’ My two questions were never answered.

 

I took a crash course in everyday Russian from RT entertainment reporter Martin Andrews. The most important word to learn is hello, which in Russian is ‘zdrastvuyte’. Andrews suggested helpfully that I pronounce this ‘Does your arse fit you?’ ‘Say it quickly and with a gruff accent and you’ll make friends in no time,’ my teacher advised. To this day it’s how I remember hello in Russian.

 

Nikolov made quite an impression. A former golf journalist, he was still mad about the game, and kept two putters in his office for relaxed meetings, with a portable plastic hole.

He had a Kalashnikov machine gun on the wall behind his desk. Real. ‘Time me,’ he’d say to new employees, taking the gun from the wall, stripping it down and reassembling it in 14 seconds. ‘All the boys learnt that at school.’ As he held your gaze, he telepathically interrogated your soul.

If it wasn’t for Nikolov’s stutter, he might have made a terrific TV correspondent. He was deadpan hilarious, with good English and smatterings of French, German and Ukranian.

After my screen test Nikolov offered me a contract: 12 months with a three month trial. My salary was generous, and taxed at a flat 13%. We toasted my employment with drams of single malt highland whiskey from his office cupboard in espresso-size plastic cups. Two weeks later, with my family happily ensconced in Como, Italy, I returned to Moscow. I read the news in a six-hour shift, four days on, four days off. It was battery hen journalism, with a steep learning curve, and I loved it.

There were strange sights and sounds to get used to. Studio cameramen frequently fell asleep during bulletins, and the snores were audible from the news desk. Makeup technicians who held down two jobs – this one with 11-hour shifts – slept in the makeup room, so presenters on night-shift had to wake them for attention.

My first story on Georgia contained the tongue-twisting challenges Levan Gachechiladze, Mikhail Sakashvili, Irakly Okruashvili and Badri Patarkatsashvili. I introduced packages from correspondents with names like Kosharnitskaya, Parachkevova, Chichakyan and Shapovalova. Pronunciation was a continuous challenge. The rhythms were counter-intuitive to my western ear and salvation only arrived when I started to ‘think in a Russian accent’. Thus the correspondent Igor Ogorodnev, whose name I started pronouncing EE-gor o-GO-rod-NEV, became ee-grr O-go-ROD-nev – a battle we were both relieved I eventually won.

The office was open plan, with a bank of screens and clocks showing times in New York, London, Paris. Journalists tapped at their keyboards, throwing occasional comments and in-jokes to each other. Mostly they were graduates, using Russia Today as their grounding. Before long I discovered that journalistically they were rarely dilligent; being more often captivated by Facebook – which has since been blocked – YouTube, or movies downloaded from the net. Consequently, poorly researched and clumsily crafted stories went to air in hourly news bulletins for up to three consecutive days.

There was a piece on a woman who claimed to be 125 years old living in the Caucausus. The story relayed that she had a 45 year-old son. The frequently furious Simonyan directed the journalist to rewrite the story from the sensational angle that the woman had given birth in her 70s – the real story! Of course it was all complete fiction. Initiative and thorough research were rare.

The Russia Today newsroom is the domain of Moscow’s young, multi-lingual rich and socio-political elite. Sophie Shevardnadze – granddaughter of the former President of Georgiahas a sought-after role, as do progeny of powerbrokers and friends of Simonyan from her home region of Krasnodar. 20 year-old journalists flit to London to buy a frock, but for all the frivolity, many have a steely and ruthless determination to prove themselves, and an ultimately forgiving petrie-dish in which to develop a saleable on-air presence.

In the newsroom, objectivity and state-based funding can be awkward bed-fellows. The channel called itself ‘an autonomous nonprofit organization.’ In 2007 Andrei Illarionov, a former adviser to Putin and now one of his harshest critics, called the channel ‘Russia’s best propaganda machine for the outside world.’

Illarionov was right. Within a week of arriving, I learned that although we covered many big stories in the region and around the world, when it came to politics, conflict and international relations, Russia Today was little more than a conduit for Kremlin propaganda. If something went to air that seemed likely to offend the sensibilities of Messrs Putin or Medvedev it was immediately pulled and Simonyan would throw a tantrum. Those responsible could be officially reprimanded. Russian journalists would be fined for ‘errors’. While it is debatable whether anyone senior in the Kremlin watches RT, the Russian obsession with trying to please those above while not always knowing what those above want, perpetuates the political bias and adds to a general sense of confusion.

When I was conducting live interviews, my questions were scripted by Russian journalists, and straying from the script was forbidden. When on a rare brave occasion I ad-libbed an innocuous but logical question to our New York correspondent Marina Portnaya in a live cross, an audibly alarmed avalanche of Russian – from a phalanx of producers in the control room through my earpiece – left me in no doubt that I’d crossed a line. We missed some spectacular stories; not because we didn’t have the resources but because we were told by Simonyan, via Nikolov, that we would not be reporting them.

With Sochi hosting the winter Olympics in 2014, President Medvedev saw its 2008 mayoral elections as a showcase to the world of how Russia epitomizes the ideals of democracy. He also wanted a United Russia candidate to win. Opposition leader Boris Nemstov was denied chances to meet with voters and prevented from advertising in the media, and businessman Alexander Lebedev – another Kremlin critic – was disqualified by the election committee. Government workers were allegedly pressured into voting for the United Russia party’s candidate Anatoly Pakhomov, but Russia Today reported the election as fair and democratic and the Kremlin got its man into power.

Gazprom, the government-controlled oil and gas behemoth, cut off Ukraine’s gas supply annually for years in a bid to exert control over its neighbour, causing unrest and influencing the outcome of elections, as in the case of Yulia Timoshenko’s election bid in 2007. RT reported it as Ukraine defaulting on payment, and ran the headline ‘Ukraine steals Russia’s gas.’

At the same time we pursued some inane stories. When reports came in about the Russian who won a pole dancing championship in Helsinki a reporter was dispatched forthwith. The story ran for days, as did the one about a Siberian man whose x-rays showed a fir tree growing in his lungs. On an international front, Portnaya’s series of feature stories about a tiny group of Vermont residents attempting to secede from the union made it appear that the US was on the brink of collapse. Aleksandr Gurnov’s Spotlight interview with Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov portrayed the teflon-coated dictator as a loveable larrikin with a penchant for beekeeping. (Kadyrov has been accused of involvement in political murders and organized crime, and enjoyed the overt support of Vladimir Putin in his rise to power.) Gurnov is a recipient of the prestigious ‘Defender of Russia’ award.

Any reports that could be seen to harm the national interest were pulled immediately.

William Dunbar, a Russia Today correspondent based in Tbilisi during the Georgia conflict, mentioned during a live cross that he had been informed that Russian bombs were being dropped on the town of Gori. The interview was immediately cut short and Dunbar was removed from the story and his satellite bookings cancelled. In fact while the BBC and CNN had correspondents in Gori – reporting that it was indeed being bombed by Russian planes – Russia Today sent no journalists or crew and went completely silent from Georgia. Dunbar resigned in protest.

During the Presidential elections of 2008 reporter Leah Ferguson made mention of the lack of media freedom in Moscow. Her piece ran once before being pulled off air after a panicked phone call from Simonyan. Similarly Luke Harding, TheGuardian’s Moscow correspondent, said live on air in an interview from Red Square that there was little media freedom in Moscow and the Russian government was an autocracy. The presenter was quickly told to wrap things up.

Most Russians source their news from television, and all six national television stations and two national radio stations are owned either fully or partly by the government. The state media empire includes 60% of the country’s 40,000 local newspapers and periodicals, and the broadcasting of international television and radio is heavily restricted. The FSB (formerly KGB) actively monitors web and email posts, and removes content not considered ‘acceptable’. According to the 2006 report of Russia’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Vladimir Lukin, independent media outlets routinely perform ‘self-censorship’ as a survival strategy to avoid economic pressure from business and interest groups loyal to the state.

 

After the 2007 elections in Chechnya – during which 99% of Chechens supposedly voted, and all voted for the United Russia Party – Russia Today’s political commentator Peter Lavelle explained the unanimous figures by claiming that Chechen people were grateful to Russia for the ‘changes’ they had brought to the republic. Lavelle’s report was laughable given that barely 15 years had passed since Russian forces destroyed much of the capital Grozny, killing at least 100,000 Chechens. A text arrived on an expat editor’s phone from a former colleague at the BBC: ‘Great coverage. Very entertaining. Much rolling in the aisles here.’ Lavelle took the John Laws defence – ‘I’m an entertainer, not a journalist’ – when he conceded that part of his job at Russia Today was public relations. His weekly half-hour slot – an intellectualised pro-Kremlin rant called IMHO – In My Humble Opinion – was often referred to by colleagues as IMPO – In Mr Putin’s Opinion. He now hosts a global News outlook program called Crosstalk.

 

Russia Today often reflected a patriotic tilt in questions of justice. When grieving father Vitaly Kaloyev murdered Peter Nielsen, an air-traffic controller with the Swiss company Skyguide after Kaloyev’s family had died in a mid-air collision, Russia Today aired views that praised him for taking ‘justice’ into his own hands.

 

After serving his time in Zurich, Kaloyev was feted as a hero and made mayor of his home town upon returning to North Osettia. There was no suggestion he’d done anything wrong. A subsequent trial convicted a number of Skyguide managers for their roles in the disaster, freeing the murdered Nielsen from blame.

 

Though some stories of significance received short shrift, when Vladimir Putin was declared Time magazine’s Person of the Year, Russia Today dedicated 11 of the 26 minutes of each bulletin for an entire day to the news.

Incidentally, Moscow-based satirical underground trash-mag The Exile parodied Time describing Putin as ‘Moron of the Year’. The Exile’s office was subsequently visited by officers from the Federal Service for Mass Media, Telecommunications and the Protection of Cultural Heritage, and shortly thereafter the magazine ceased to exist. It wasn’t just the Putin parody that got the provocative publication shut down. The Exile had, as an RT source explains ‘been skating on thin ice for quite some time’.

And there were some spectacular cock-ups. Reporter Natalya Soboleva and her news crew flew to Portland, Maine, instead of Portland, Oregon, to cover the Davis Cup Final – USA against Russia – in late 2007. They had to foot the bill personally to get themselves to the right Portland, by which time the rubber had been decided 4-1 in the USA’s favour. A peeved Soboleva chose not to interview anyone and returned to Moscow empty-handed.

Russia Today covered every twist and turn of the trial of notorious serial killer, Alexander Pichushkin, also known as the Bitsevsky Maniac and the Chessboard Killer. We interviewed prosecutors, the defending lawyer and families of his victims, of which there were 48. Pichushkin aimed to kill 64 people, one for each of square on a chess board. It was a high-profile case, so there was more than a little embarrassment in the newsroom when someone noticed that our website headlined him as the notorious Cheeseboard Killer.

The senior staff – Russian News Editors and predominantly expatriate Output Editors – varied wildly in their approaches. Those who’d distinguished themselves at the BBC or Sky generally spent a few months coaxing the best material they could from their teams, others quickly picked up on the lack of rigor and fell into the rut of compliant mediocrity, and a dedicated few remained true to their journalistic creed, urging independence of thought in the face of intractable deference to state authority.

In Moscow poverty is obvious, as is wealth. When I asked a Muscovite colleague about the popularity of Vladimir Putin in the face of social inequity and poor life expectancy – 59 years for Russian men – she told me that ‘Russians are not concerned about hardship for themselves, as long as Russia is strong in the world.’ The post-Soviet nation loves to see a masculine leader, hunting and fishing with rippling Russian muscle flexing the nation once again to prominence. One of his weapons of choice is Russia Today.

To be critical in Russia is dangerous. As Nina Ognianova of the Committee to Protect Journalists wrote in The Guardian last year, ‘In the past decade alone, at least 17 journalists in Russia have been killed.’ All were ‘engaged in critical reporting that upset powerful interests’ and 16 of the murders remain unsolved. When I asked colleagues for input into this article, one who remains wrote: ‘they monitor everything and I suggest you be vague about names etc. if you are writing anything about RT for public consumption – even now you are no longer employed you really would not want to get on the wrong side of them.’

It was five months before I joined the list of foreign journalists shown the door for no specific reason. One morning I was called into Nikolov’s office after my shift and given my marching orders. I was devastated and asked for reasons. ‘Budgetary considerations, many reasons, too numerous to mention,’ he sputtered.

My mind raced to the mistakes I’d made – after an AIDS Day organiser listed achievements in the battle against the disease, I’d asked him whether it might then be appropriate to say ‘Happy AIDS Day’. ‘No it would not’ was his icy response. (That story also became somewhat embarrassing because our journalist had bungled the date – RT commemorated the 10th World AIDS Day a week early.) There was the time when I bizarrely read ‘whale’ instead of ‘woman’ in a 4am bulletin, and worst of all I’d received an official reprimand for ‘rough violation of technology discipline and impromptu substitution of correct terms in favour of words that may be characterized as wrong and misleading’ when I referred to Chechnya as a country instead of a republic. (I’d put language before politics without considering the meaning – carelessly replacing a repeated word in a clumsy script with a poorly-chosen synonym. The resulting nuance conflicted starkly with Russia’s stance and as such was considered a major blue.)

In the end I wondered if it was my scepticism – had I allowed the feeling to become a look that crept onto my face when I wasn’t entirely convinced of the truth of every scripted word? Perhaps it was obvious that I lacked the ‘Machiavellian pragmatism’ so prized by Evgeny Khrushchev. I’ll never know, but in a way I’m glad to have been fired. 17 journalists in ten years haven’t been so lucky.

-oOo-

After my last bulletin, Nikolov and I sip single-malt from plastic cups in his office at 10 in the morning. I ask if I could have a photo with him. Before I’ve worked out how to request the inclusion of the Kalashnikov, he leaps to his feet. ‘Yes, yes, very good. How about with Kalashnikov?’ as though the weapon is a stoic comrade with whom we’d spent a gruelling winter on the front. He seconds a staffer from the corridor to take the photo. I suggest he points the weapon at my head, and with apparent pleasure he obliges.

‘I’ll probably see this turn up on the internet sometime,’ he laughs. ‘This is how they treat their foreign journalists at Russia Today! Ha ha….’

end

 

Contact

James Freemantle 0411 592299

www.jamesfreemantle.com