Political sketch: Sky News is the only winner in this war

The news isn't sticking to the timetable, and it's ruining everyone's fun.

It is axiomatic in military circles, and down the British Legion Club, that there can only be one winner in a war and this week that prize goes to Sky News.

Anyone watching events unfold in Tripoli over the past few days knows that the Osterley upstart has led the way both in style and substance. The BBC rightly makes the point that it must be the people on the ground who make the final decision on whether to put themselves in the way of danger just to give us viewers the vicarious thrill of being up with the action, but being first in our business still counts.

Thus the appearance of Alex Crawford in the centre of Tripoli as the insurgents broke through was one of the most impressive moments of the conflict's coverage.

Alex, who has won many awards for being in the right, most dangerous, place at the right, most dangerous, time proved once again why this is not just luck.

The BBC's defence sounded a little hollow as it excused being absent during the storming of Gaddafi's palace, seen live on Sky, because its man was getting something ready for the six o clock news!

The real culprits for this diminution of the Corporation are not Sky, of which more in a minute, but the pesky foreigners who are simply not sticking to the script.

As we embarked on the Libyan adventure we made it quite clear that this was just another extension of the Arab Spring, but the timetabling of this event seems to have been ignored by the participants who determined to turn it into the Arab Summer with almost no attention being paid to pre-booked holidays and other August-type plans.

The rot had set in earlier in the month when those not already on the continent and apparently without the wherewithal to get there decided on some late-night, if rather unorthodox, shopping. This, you may remember, required Prime Minister Dave, after a couple of days to think about it, to quit Chiantishire for the slightly less attractive delights of Croydon. Indeed, MPs were forced to return from exotic spots throughout the world for half a day to remind those of us at home we had not been forgotten.

But no sooner had Dave embarked on holiday number two than the Libyans, perhaps emboldened by events in North London,decided to continue their revolution right through August.

Dave, who hardly had time to unpack his bucket and spade for his staycation in the West Country, was forced back on the overnight bus again to appear on the steps of Number 10 to tell us Libya was in his thoughts. He then got back on the bus and returned to his holiday.

And of course this is what lies at the heart of Sky's summer success: the holidays.

Not that it's been much of a year for the Sky brand until now. Its bosses the Murdochs, pere et fils, have spent recent weeks caught between the attentions of Messrs Sue, Grabbit and Run and Plod of the Yard. Indeed the attentions of Plod may well be the reason for the higher and higher octaves achieved by Murdoch the Younger which may yet give him a new career as a countertenor.

How different from this very day two years ago when in all his pomp and circumstance he turned up in Edinburgh at the annual TV-fest (why Edinburgh? Cos it's the holidays, stupid) to lecture on the media to the rest of the great and the good.

"The only reliable, durable and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit", said the man who at the time was in charge of the News of the World, which you may remember had discovered "one rogue reporter" with his mitts on several people's mobiles, now translated into a roomful of rogues, more mitts than the haberdashery department at Peter Jones and much of the phone book of Central London.

But all good things come to an end and the Sky News end of the Murdoch empire should enjoy its success while it can for the holidays are finally over. Spotted in all his splendour yesterday was none other than the wonderfully-titled Word Affairs Editor of the BBC, John Simpson himself.

John, remembered by many as the Liberator of Kabul - not least by the BBC correspondent who was living there - hove into view in Tripoli having spent, he told us, 48 hours getting there. Whether the 48 hours were from the borders of Libya or his holiday home were not clear.

Normal service has been resumed.

By the way, has anybody seen Gaddafi?

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the alter of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot