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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.

Media

Disney vs Netflix – who will win the streaming revenue raise?

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Netflix and Disney shares fall as the streaming companies fight to stay on top of their game

Investors to evaluate Walt Disney’s shift from cable television to subscription service as the company’s shares fall by 31 percent.

This comes after Netflix announced its first ever decrease in subscribers last month. The company reported a loss of 200,000 subscribers in its first quarter while predicting more losses ahead.

Netflix’s decision to suspend its services in Russia also led to a loss of 700,000 subscribers. It’s shares have also fallen by a staggering 71 percent this year, a bigger loss than its competitor Disney.

While Netflix struggles with its subscriber count, FactSet Estimates predicts Disney+ to have attracted 5.3 million new subscribers through march leading to a total of about 135.1 million subscribers.

Disney also predicts it will have amassed more than 230 million subscribers by September 2024.

Netflix is reportedly considering adding an advertisement-based subscription option by the end of the year as the company looks at how to stay competitive in the increasingly saturated streaming market.

In a previous statement, Netflix’s chief executive said they were looking to introduce advertisements in a year or two but a leaked internal note to the employees has revealed the company is introducing it as early as October 2022.

The note also says Netflix will begin cracking down on password sharing by monetizing it.

All of this has resulted in Netflix being sued by shareholders who argue they have been mislead about the state of the company and future prospects.

Rijul Baath contributed to this report

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Biden on his bike for 2024

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Before President Joe Biden fell from his bike while dismounting in Rehoboth Delaware – at his summer home for his 45th anniversary celebrations with Dr Jill Biden and Fathers Day on Sunday – he had a lot on his mind

Bruce Wolpe joins ticker NEWS – Donald Trump teases 2024 presidential bid

When he spoke to the Associated Press late last week he was very candid. 

In discussing the mood of the country, the president said

“ People are really, really down. They’re really down. Their need for mental health in America has skyrocketed because people have seen everything upset. Everything they counted on upset. But most of it’s a consequence of, of, of what’s happening, what happened is a consequence of the, the COVID crisis.

People lost their jobs. People are out of their jobs. And then, were they going to get back to work? Schools were closed. Think of this. I think we vastly underestimate this.”

BIDEN FALLS OFF BIKE

As a politician, Biden has always felt the people who he works for in his gut

The White House can be a bubble, but Biden’s was a pretty accurate take on how so many Americans are feeling right now. He went deeper:

“We have a little thing called climate change going on. And it’s having profound impacts. We got the tundra melting. We’ve got the North Pole, I mean, so people are looking and, and I think it’s totally understandable that they are worried because they look around and see,

“My God, everything is changing.” We have more hurricanes and tornadoes and flooding. People saw what — I took my kids years ago to Yellowstone Park. They call me, “Daddy did you see what happened at Yellowstone, right?” Well, it’s unthinkable. These are 1,000-year kinds of events.

I think, you know, I fully understand why the average voter out there is just confused and upset and worried. And they’re worried, for example, you know, can they send their kid back to, back to college? What’s going to happen? Are we going to take away the ability of people to borrow? So I think there’s a lot of reasons for people to want to know what comes next.”

Biden talked about his legislative program, and he thinks he can get the votes to lower the household costs of utility bills and prescription drugs, make investments in technology and broadband, and enact fairer taxes for the super-wealthy.  

Biden knows he has to deliver the goods. 

While the political chatter in Washington lurched into making his stumble off the bike a metaphor for his presidency right now, Biden immediately got back on it and pedaled ahead to his destination:  re-election in 2024.

There is a lot of speculation on whether he will run again. 

Here are the facts:  Biden wants to run again.  He especially wants to run again if Trump runs again.  Biden entered the presidential campaign in 2020 because he felt he had to save the country by stopping Trump from destroying America’s democracy.  And he did. Trump in 2024 only re-ignites the urgency of Biden’s mission.

There is no whispering from inside the White House undermining or contradicting the president’s intention. Among political professionals, there no material dissent from the judgment that Biden is the strongest Democratic candidate:  there is no obvious alternative who commands anything near the support Biden has among Democrats.  

Biden knows his approval rating.  He knows the Republicans smell blood. He knows many Democrats who voted for him have doubts given his age and his current standing.  But Biden knows that inflation will recede, the economy will recover, and the Republicans in 2023 will be the most extremist cohort of radical lawmakers the country has ever seen, and  that the place to be is in the centre, where elections in the United States are won and lost.

Rep. Jim Clyburn, Democrat of South Carolina

Rep. Jim Clyburn, Democrat of South Carolina and the third ranking leader in the House, whose support for Biden effectively sealed Biden’s nomination in 2020, said over the weekend   “My advice: be yourself, stay focused. Make the promises and keep them.”

That is exactly where Biden is.  To Joe Biden that looks like the winning hand in ’24.

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EXCLUSIVE: Ukraine’s Ambassador to Australia speaks out

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Vasyl Myroshnychenko is seeking to engage private and public investment in Ukraine to help with its war recovery

Vasyl Myroshnychenko could not have possibly foreseen under what circumstances he would be accepting his ambassadorship.

The 41-year-old was fast-tracked into the important role of Ukraine’s Ambassador to Australia when Russia invaded his nation in late February.

Myroshnychenko is seeking to meet with Australia’s newly-elected government to discuss trade and aid opportunities after returning from the war-torn country.

During Myroshnychenko’s eight-day visit to Ukraine, he met with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s most senior advisors, the prime minister, and other military officials.

“I hope Putin dies tomorrow, maybe today.”

Vasyl Myroshnychenko

Myroshnychenko spoke exclusively to TICKER NEWS, in which he says morale is at an all-time low in his home country.

Ukraine has been fighting Russian forces for nearly four months. Russia’s latest military offensive is seeing troops fighting in the east of Ukraine, where hundreds of civilians have lost their lives.

“As long as Russia stays on Ukrainian territory, this war will continue. We need to get the Russians out of Ukraine, free the nation of Russian occupation and then we will be free.”

Vasyl Myroshnychenko

The ambassador is seeking to hold talks with Australian lawmakers on the current situation. He says more lethal aid and economic assistance is essential.

President Zelensky speaks to Australia’s Parliament.

President Zelensky has invited Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to Ukraine. Meanwhile, leaders from France, Germany and Italy travelled to the war-torn nation on Thursday, where they toured regions that have been decimated.

“I think that’s it’s very important that the world hears Ukraine, the world steps in, because that can solve energy issues that can solve the food crisis,” Myroshnychenko told TICKER NEWS.

Trade on the horizon

A bilateral trade deal between Australia and Ukraine could be on the horizon. The deal would reportedly be modelled on the U.K. free trade agreement.

“My role is to mobilise more support for Ukraine and Australia, I will soon be credited to New Zealand as well,” Myroshnychenko says.

Vasyl Myroshnychenko says he hopes President Putin dies.

Myroshnychenko studied international trade at the London School of Economics. He says additional military might is needed urgently.

“My job is to get more military assistance, more financial assistance for Ukraine. But every Ukrainian no matter what he or she is doing, is able to contribute either on social media, either fighting in the trenches, or doing the work they are doing to help Ukraine become stronger,” he says.

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