Stay classy: Wake up London’s Vanessa Bafoe
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Capital punishment: the launch of London Live

There can’t be a human being alive who would willingly sit through most of the new station’s original output.

London Live

According to a certain newspaper website, on the evening of the launch of London Live, the capital’s new television station, its proprietor, Evgeny Lebedev, invited 30 friends over to his place to celebrate this historic moment. Stephen Fry, Liz Hurley, Andrew Neil, Tracey Emin, Ed Miliband – you know, just your average midweek crowd. Lord, how I would have loved to have been there, my hand deep in a bowl of salted almonds.

Assuming a flat-screen was in play, what did his pals make of it? And if, as I’ve read, Tony Hall, the opera-loving director general of the BBC, was in attendance, what was his reaction to London Live’s magazine programme Not the One Show (weekdays, 7pm)? At the least, it must have put the axing of BBC3 in a new light, for beside the incontinent wittering of Not the One Show’s presenter Louise Scodie, even Snog Marry Avoid? starts to look like something Lord Reith might have enjoyed. Poker faces all round, one imagines.

Like BBC3, London Live is aiming to attract a young audience. I don’t think it should hold its breath. It may be that some people will tune in to watch the programmes it has bought in – Misfits, Peep Show . . . er, London’s Burning – but there can’t be a human being alive, young or old, who would willingly sit through most of its original output (under the terms of its licence, the channel must screen five and a half hours of London “news” a day). Ten minutes is my unbroken endurance record so far, though with wine and a takeaway I might be able to make it to 12.

The first show I caught was London Go (weekdays, 6.30pm), a guide to all that’s happening in the capital. Or not. Outside the O2 in Greenwich, Maleena Pone was talking to people as they arrived to see Justin Timberlake. “Do you play an instrument?” she asked a schoolgirl fan. “I play the clarinet,” said the girl. “I think Justin would like the clarinet,” said Pone. Keen to build the excitement, she made reference to the “flood” of people coming her way. Three blokes duly sauntered past. She then handed over to her co-presenter, who was outside the Assembly Hall in Islington, north London. “What’s Justin’s favourite colour?” she asked him. “I don’t know,” he said. We flipped back to Pone but she didn’t know either. My God. Even now, I’m on tenterhooks. Could someone tweet me the answer? Still, on the upside, it seems there are loos at the O2. Try finding that kind of information in Time Out.

A comfort break for me – I soothed myself by banging my head on the kitchen table –  and then it was time for Not the One Show. (See what they did there? I’d be tempted to quote the proverb “A cat may look at a king” if The One Show weren’t so dire.) This programme comes from the London Live studio, which is roughly twice the size of Phillip Schofield’s old broom cupboard and has a Do It All aesthetic that DIY fans will adore (think bar stools). The young panellists, among them the homes and property correspondent of the Evening Standard, which has lately come over all North Korean in the cause of its sister company, were doing a news quiz. “I see a haystack and a needle,” said one, gazing at a photograph of, yes, a needle and a haystack. “Something is . . . lost.” It turned out that the thing in question was – stay classy, guys – flight MH370.

Does this stuff count as “current affairs”? It seems that London Live is hoping it does, its definition of “news” having to do mostly with “connecting” people, with persuading them to join the big “debate” (ie, send us your tweets, which will fill up minutes of airtime and cost us nothing). Unfortunately, its idea of what constitutes a debate-worthy issue beggars belief. When I turned on Wake Up London (weekdays, 6am), the breakfast show, the presenter was asking: which are better, cats or dogs? A “reporter” had been despatched to Battersea Dogs and Cats Home to gawp at cute kittens and droopy-faced mutts.

What’s that? You already knew there was a world-famous dogs home at Battersea? Oh, well. Plenty more insights to come. Next week: London Live reveals that Tower Bridge sometimes opens right up. Plus, cabbies: aren’t they comedians? Do send us your texts on that one!

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Anxiety nation

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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