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How did Russia get here? My personal window into Putin’s media | TICKER VIEWS

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In 2005, Vladimir Putin was relatively new into his Presidency. But he knew the power of the media. And a young Ahron Young was among the first journalists to work for Putin’s new news network, Russia Today.

In 2005, I sat down for a job interview at Camden Lock in London. After a 45 minute audition, where I spoke off the cuff about Michael Jackson as if he had died (a test to see my ad-libbing skills), a woman arrived at the interview, and quietly sat down.

“How would you feel about living in Moscow?” she asked. It was the only thing she said.

I’d never thought about Russia before, other than James Bond films. I’d applied for a job at a “new English language news channel”.

I’d soon be offered a job as a producer and presenter at something called Russia Today, now known simply as RT.

A week and a lot of paperwork later, I was one of 84 American, British and Australian journalists on a British Airways flight from London Heathrow to Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport.

Before I go on, I’d like to state to the reader that isn’t a “tell-all” piece designed to offend anyone. But given Russia is right now the aggressor in an invasion in Ukraine, it felt like the right time to shed some light on the early days of RT, from my perspective. Just one of many who worked there. RT has now been banned from the airwaves of many countries. So how did the adventure we optimistically started get to this point?

I like to think of myself as an opportunistic guy. But it was immediately clear to me that Russia was very different to anywhere I’d ever been before. A BBC correspondent put it this way: “It’s kind of like going to the moon. It’s round, but completely different to earth.”

The first thing we did when we got off the plane was visit a clinic to be tested for HIV. At one stage there was a mixup and they almost used the same needle on me that was used on the person before. We then spent our first 24 hours nervously waiting to find out if our adventure would be cut short.

I was just 23-years-old at the time and it felt like I was heading off to university. All these young, fun, opportunistic journalists from around the world getting set for an adventure. We partied hard and had no idea what to expect on day one. Some moved in together, I decided to rent a super cool but expensive apartment in Kievskaya. My real estate agent told me there were more billionaires living in my street than in all of Manhattan.

Admittedly, I’d never worked for a start-up before, and in hindsight my expectations probably far exceeded what my new employer could deliver. Our new offices were pretty basic. Our studios were luxurious compared to what the Russian journalists endured in other parts of the building. We called the dividing corridor the Berlin Wall.

The early days at Russia Today. Sasha Twining kicked off RT’s first ever bulletin.

In the weeks that followed, we met former CIA agents who told us how to survive living in Moscow, and how we could avoid paying police bribes. Never keep your wallet in your hand. Never smile at anyone you don’t know.

Management continually told us and international media that RT aspired to be Russia’s version of CNN or BBC News. But in their second breath, they’d criticise CNN and the BBC for pushing western values.

Late on air

We were due to go on air late 2005, but cold temperatures froze the satellite dish on the building’s roof on launch day. Management said it was a “cyber hack”., while a few of the engineers thought it might just need a bucket of hot water.

The place was uber-mysterious, but that just added to the excitement – that feeling you’d never know what would happen next. This was much better than being a suburban newspaper reporter back home in Melbourne, the normal career path for journos my age.

A few things stood out. We were divided into six teams. Three teams working 12 hour shifts, four days on and four days off.

Most of the Russian journalists were young and fresh out of university and were the sons and daughters of influential Russians. I loved the opportunity to work alongside people who could one day become influential Russians.

Editor-in-chief of RT and Rossiya Segodnya — Margarita Simonovna Simonyan

Is the Kremlin watching?

There was an ever-present feeling that the Kremlin was watching. We were told they had a live feed of our three month rehearsals. There was an “Output Editor” some of us were weary about, who watched everything we put to air. Our Russian colleagues told us he’d worked for the intelligence agency.

Our boss, the young Margarita Simonyan was polite and respected by the staff. She never suffered fools. I rarely saw her on the newsroom floor. Her office was upstairs, behind double security doors, just like M’s office in James Bond. Sound-proof and seemingly emotion-proof too.

Then there was Putin. He was never there but he was always there.

In the first few weeks, the adjustment to Russia’s limits on free journalism were laid bare. One British journalist was reprimanded for referring to extremists as “Chechen Rebels”. A rebel sounds sympathetic to the cause.

There were LGBT protests in Moscow, but I never saw them covered on RT’s news. I was once reprimanded for accidentally making a pro-gay gaffe. A sports story about a sack race and I said off the back “there’s nothing inappropriate about two men in a sack”.

Shortly after, Moscow’s mayor Yury Luzhkov told the BBC “there are no gays living in Moscow”, only to correct himself weeks later and thank “those who work in the airline and entertainment industries for their efforts”.

Vladimir Putin’s visit to RT

There were two studios at RT in those first few years. The main news studio was absolutely tiny. And the second studio was huge, devoted to one show that aired one hour a week.

I wondered why we didn’t swap studios, given the news was on 99% of the time and should therefore require a larger, grander space.

“Because if President Putin visits, he’ll be interviewed on the one hour show, so he needs the biggest studio,” came the response from a floor manager.

The first time I ever hosted rolling coverage was when Ariel Sharon went into a coma. Lucky RT had checked my ability to adlib before they hired me, because I had to talk continuously for 45 minutes about his history, and let’s just say that at 23 I was not an expert in Middle Eastern politics!

Then there was the hilarious moment a producer rushed into the studio to save me by handing over some background notes. But she was stopped from entering the studio because the paper was white, the machine had run out of pink paper, and scripts had to be printed on pink paper. But we got through!

Visiting the Kremlin

I toured the Kremlin three times, and was arrested four times. Three of them for not paying a bribe to the underpaid police who constantly demanded papers from tourists, and the other was a late night goose stepping episode with my mates at Red Square. I shall never apologise for that one.

I’d walk to work through the snow, wearing everything I owned, my nostril hairs spiking into my nose, my iPod earphone cables would snap if I moved direction too quickly. I’d call Dad back home in Queensland where it was the middle of summer. Everyone was happy… and smiling!

In Moscow, during that winter, it was easy for depression to set in. It’s daylight for about an hour a day, and that light feels like there’s a fluro on somewhere miles away. Many of my colleagues used sunbeds to help boost their moods, while others quit and headed home to the comparably pleasant English winter.

I discovered the best entertainment on a weekend was to hire a gypsy cab on the side of the road and see how far I could travel while negotiating for the lowest price. When I originally arrived in Moscow, it cost me 2000 Rubles to get to the city from the airport. I got it down to 150 after four months.

The cab drivers would give this young Westerner the same history lesson every time. They despised Gorbachev, were embarrassed by Yeltsin, and while they didn’t entirely trust Putin, they admired his self-made image as a strong leader.

This is a city where tourists could easily buy a bobbing head plastic figurine of Stalin. That’s right, the Soviet dictator who killed an estimated 40 million of his own citizens.

Whenever you questioned a Russian about something bad the country had recently done, they would immediately snap back – without flinching – with a catalog of similar, but not the same, failures by the United States. At that time, it was the invasion of Iraq and Bush’s failure to respond to Hurricane Katrina. Both valid points of course.

But my memory of the Iraq war was being a radio journalist in Melbourne three years earlier. As the US and allies were preparing to invade, there were massive protests in Melbourne and Sydney against the war. Over 200,000 marched in Melbourne every weekend alone. And I covered it live. It led the news on every network and splashed the front pages of newspapers.

In Moscow, unauthorised protests were illegal. Political experts say it’s the difference between western democracy and a managed democracy. It didn’t matter who votes, but who counts the votes.

Young Russians love the high life

Obsessed with the West

During that period, it felt like Russia was a country obsessed by the West.

I often wondered if anyone back home had ever referred to “the East” with the same eagerness to prove a point that no one else worries about.

Russia reminded me of Jan Brady, always looking up to her older, better known sister, shouting “Marcia Marcia Marcia”. Except in this world, Jan has nukes.

I made a few lifelong friends at Russia Today, and everyone was very open about their motivations for moving to Moscow and taking the job. For many, it was the higher pay than working for a news network in London. Some of them are still there. We all had different experiences.

RT was the first of its kind, but now just one of many English language news channels financially supported by governments around the world. During that first year, we never knew who was funding RT. The Kremlin said it wasn’t them. There were rumours it was a friend of Putin’s who received tax breaks.

Story first, safety last

There were several times I didn’t feel safe, and I was open about my editorial concerns. The Russia Focus segments, which we ran during the news, focused on happy stories about Russian animals mostly. I felt that the stories of the lives of every day Russians could be better told. Shouldn’t news shine a spotlight on homelessness and inequality in the hope that things will change?

By June, it was time to go. There had been knocks at my door at weird hours, and I never answered. One day I got on a plane, left all my possessions behind, and headed back to the UK.

I was 24, it had barely been a year, but I left Russia feeling like I’d had the best adventure ever. The most thrilling experience of my life. Sure, not everything was perfect, but I got to start something under unusual circumstances.

Seventeen years later, I fear that Russia has regressed back into its darker, inner self. A look around any democracy in the world shows you it isn’t perfect. But it’s like a harsh diet – you can’t quit it after three weeks and expect results.

I remember going to the Moscow Conservatory to watch a performance of Tchaikovsky. As we entered with our expensive tickets, a group of little old Russian ladies, known as babushkas, were arguing with the attendants as to why they could no longer get in for free. What was this paying business? Well, that’s the difference between communism and capitalism.

The young Russians

I remember the young Russians as friendly extraverts, who loved to visit super cool cafes and nightclubs, who frequently travelled to Europe and had the latest Motorola phone. They represented a stark contrast to the older generations and all those gypsy cab drivers who lamented for the Soviet Union.

The young Russians longed to be citizens of the world, and loved western and European culture. The most popular bootleg DVDs at the markets were Hollywood films. The handbags were fake Guccis and D&G.

This week, former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright remarked on her first meeting with Putin, and how the West completely misunderstood him in 1999.

Even if the West is somehow able to deter Mr. Putin from all-out war — which is far from assured right now — it’s important to remember that his competition of choice is not chess, as some assume, but rather judo. 

Madeleine Albright, US Secretary of State
US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright meets Vladimir Putin

Ahron Young is an award winning journalist who has covered major news events around the world. Ahron is the Managing Editor and Founder of TICKER NEWS.

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Trump’s campaign debut was panned – but don’t underestimate his chances

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Last weekend, Donald Trump held two events in New Hampshire and South Carolina, his first official forays onto the 2024 presidential battlefield. 

The experts panned it.  

“Former President Trump’s first campaign swing of the 2024 campaign generated little of the excitement that has long defined his glitzy political rallies…The widespread sentiment among Republicans there is that Trump served the country well, but he’s unelectable in 2024.”  

Axios, the super-sophisticated DC political newsletter

“As he hit the trail for the first time since launching a third bid for the White House in November, signs of Trump’s newfound vulnerabilities came into focus. The trip effectively ushered in the start of the 2024 Republican presidential primary campaign season, with Trump fighting to keep his place at the top of a potentially crowded field.” 

The Washington Post

“He remains the clear front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, yet the solidity of his support seems increasingly in doubt.  Longtime donors have been reluctant to recommit. Leaders in the Republican National Committee are openly encouraging other candidates to run. Voters rejected the handpicked candidates he vowed would win Republicans control of the Senate, but whose losses instead left the chamber in Democratic hands.”

The New York Times

A lot of the political class is talking about Trump in the past tense, and not the future, briefing out to the media that his rambling, Fidel Castro-like  monologues bore his audiences silly, that his obsessions and battles with his political enemies do not have the reach they did in 2016 and during  his term in office, that he is immersing himself more deeply in extremist QAnon cult waters, that he faces indictments and trials that will derail his campaign and might even put him in jail.

Trump 2020

And more: that Trump wallows in the “stolen” 2020 election, knowing that there was no way he could have lost since he got 12 million more votes than in 2016.  Trump never concedes.  Six years later, he does not acknowledge that Hillary Clinton got almost 3 million more votes than Trump in 2016 – and that he won only because she lost in the Electoral College.

The telling critique – the one driving Republicans in private to say that Trump is done (or should be done, or will be done) is that Trump is a loser. 

That Trump lost Republican control of the House of Representatives in 2018, bringing back Nancy Pelosi who secured not one, but two impeachments of the president; that he lost the White House in 2020; that he lost control of the Senate in January 2021 when Democrats swept both Georgia Senate seats, giving them control of that chamber; and that Trump-backed candidates in Pennsylvania, Georgia, New Hampshire, and Arizona again cost Republicans control of the Senate in the 2022 midterms.   As Vince Lombardi, legendary gridiron coach of Green Bay and Washington, said, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Lombardi would say Trump was a loser.

Trump is having none of it, and his iron resolve was on full display for those listening more closely when he gave his orations last weekend.

“Maybe he’s lost his step,” Trump said in evoking the musings of some Republicans. But, “I’m more angry now, and I’m more committed than I ever was.”

Former U.S. President Donald Trump points as he announces that he will once again run for U.S. president in the 2024 U.S. presidential election during an event at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, U.S. November 15, 2022. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The anger is palpable.  The Trump 2023 brand joins his anger with the hottest culture war buttons he can press. Immigration, the open wound that is the southern border, the wall he will finish, the rapists and criminals who are flooding in and that he will keep out tomorrow.  Immigration is his lead-off weapon.

Then promises of energy independence and oil forever.  Utter hostility to electric vehicles and wind energy – especially if the windmills are offshore.  No transgender women in sports.  No way they are tolerated.  A purge of woke content from school curricula, schoolbooks, school libraries, and school boards.  Parents empowered to fire the principal of the schools their children attend; Trump says the parents can vote them out of their jobs.

Trump never goes far into the culture wars without conjuring up Hunter Biden, the president’s son. 

Hunter Biden with Joe Biden

Trump cannot get enough of Hunter’s laptop and the criminality of the Bidens, their business dealings and their money.  We can barely follow all the Trump twists and turns in this tale, but there is no mistake that Trump wants Hunter nailed and his father to bear the consequences.

Reprising his role as Commander-in-Chief, Trump said, in case we have not been paying attention, that we are on the brink on World War III. That Ukraine would not have happened if he had been president. That we could have a peace deal “in 24 hours.” Trump wants to call Putin and knows Putin will be waiting for that call.

Trump’s great loyalist, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, was on the podium with Trump and put it this way after the event. “How many times have you heard we like Trump’s policies but we want somebody new? There are no Trump policies without Donald Trump.”

That’s the message Trump delivered to his base last weekend.  And that’s how Trump intends to win.

Buried in Trump’s massive monologue was the core of what could be a winning message.   “My mission is to secure a middle-class lifestyle for everyone.  I did it before and I will do it again.  And we will be respected in the world once again.”

Three powerful sentences which, coupled with the red meat of his anger and rage, mean that Trump is very much alive and kicking.

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Leading athletes and medical experts push for medicinal cannabis in sport

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Leading lawmakers, medical experts and athletes are pushing for therapeutic use of medicinal cannabis for chronic pain and injury

Basketball star Brittney Griner is one of the leading players of her generation. She jumped into the spotlight for serving a sentence for possession of cannabis oil in Russia.

It begs the question whether medicinal cannabis and athletes are a good mix. Well, many lawmakers, health experts and athletes around the world want to break down the stigmas associated with its use.

Many want to use Griner’s ordeal as motivation to change cannabis laws and therapeutic use exemptions in sports.

Mark Brayshaw, Managing Director of Levin Health has spoken closely with Dr. Peter Brukner who is a world-renowned Australian sports medicine clinician and researcher.

Dr. Peter Brukner

Brukner believes athletes should be able to compete in their field with medicinal cannabis because it doesn’t enhance their performance.

“Medicinal cannabis is arguably performance diminishing rather than performance enhancing…

It’s likely to be taken off the ban list in the near future.”

Mark Brayshaw, Managing Director of Levin Health

“I don’t see there are any risks at all.”

Mark Brayshaw, Managing Director of Levin Health

Brayshaw believes there are higher risks for athletes becoming addicted to anti-inflammatory and opioids. As opposed to any risks associated with taking medicinal cannabis.

He explains it enables athletes to function in a healthy way, pain free.

Overall, there is hope Griner’s case will break down stigma surrounding natural medicines and athletes.

In Australia, there are tens of thousands of new applications for medicinal cannabis every month.

“We’re seeing a significant stigma reduction… There are 30,000 new applications every month [in Australia] for medicinal cannabis...

In the right hands, and through a GP it can be a very safe alternative to opioids and anti-inflammatories in the treatment of chronic pain.”

Mark Brayshaw, Managing Director of Levin Health

There are also growing calls for countries to adopt therapeutic use exemptions in sport, including in the Australian Football League.

“We’ve got Alistair Clarkson and Damien Hardwick on our board, they’ve taken a keen interest… Yes, it’s on the rise.”

Mark Brayshaw, Managing Director of Levin Health

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Why is China’s changing its strategy to handling the pandemic?

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Changes to China’s COVID policies are coming thick and fast, much faster than many people anticipated given how strict the country has been in the last few years, the latest big announcement is around an app that people had to install on their phone

Then it tracked them when they travelled across the country, alerting them if they’ve been to a high risk COVID area, the government says that that app is now deactivated and people no longer have to have it installed on their phones.

It’s yet another indication of the change in China’s strategy to handling the pandemic.

We’ve seen changes related to quarantine, and also testing as well. And a real change in narrative from the authorities when talking about the virus and how dangerous it is. Now officially case numbers are dropping.

But that is largely due to the fact that much less testing is taking place, and we are seeing signs that in reality cases are surging.

There’s queues of people outside of pharmacies, queuing to get medication for colds and for fevers, and also self testing kits as well.

On social media, many people in China now saying that they have caught COVID For the first time, or that they know a number of people who have COVID When previously they didn’t know anyone at all.

So it’s clear that cases are rising, and this is coming just the month before the Chinese New Year holidays, which will take place at the end of January, traditionally a time when millions of people will travel across the country.

We would expect that to happen this year, as travel within China is now much easier.

So we would expect COVID cases to spread across the country talking to travel and is yet no sign of when the borders will open internationally.

Still very, very hard to get into China and very strict. When people do enter and the procedures they have to follow.

Maybe the government will wait and see how the first phase of reopening goes domestically, before thinking internationally?

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