Solidarity with our Russian colleagues

NUJ chief Jeremy Dear reports on attempts to evict Russia's journalism union from its HQ in the late

The murder of Anna Politkovskya - gunned down in the centre of Moscow - shocked many in the west. Yet for Russia’s journalists it was just one more killing to add to a growing and grim toll.

Statistics about the killings of journalists vary depending on the criteria used but one thing they all show is that media freedom in Russia is seriously under threat from killings, physical attacks and the impunity with which they are carried out.

And now one of the few organisations prepared to stand up for Russia’s journalists – the Russian Union of Journalists (RUJ) is itself under attack.

Last week the World Congress of the International Federation of Journalists took place in Moscow. The city was chosen to allow the world community of journalists to show solidarity with the crisis facing our Russian colleagues. And yet the congress itself became a target for those who seek to silence debate and stifle independent media in Russia.

On the eve of the congress the RUJ was served with papers by the Russian Agency of State Property threatening it with eviction from its premises after 27 years. Pressure was brought to bear on sponsors of the conference causing huge financial hardship for the union. Speakers were pressured to pull out and media were discouraged in no uncertain terms from reporting the major event on impunity and the killing of journalists in Russia which opened the congress. A planned protest over the killings of journalists had to be called off amid fears for the safety of delegates after police had attacked other recent protests.

Since 1993 more than 40 journalists have been killed in Russia.

In 1994 Dmitry Kholodov, a reporter on the popular daily Moskovsky Komsomolets was blown to pieces by a parcel bomb in a suitcase he had been tipped off to collect. The 27-year-old reporter had been investigating corruption in the paratroop regiment and his death sparked one of the highest-profile scandals in former president Boris Yeltsin's Russia.

A year later Vladislav Listyev, a popular journalist and talk show host was gunned down in his apartment block. He had irritated powerful advertising interests with links to the government. Despite a major public outcry, his killers and those who ordered his killing, were never found.

Since Putin took office in 2000, 14 more journalists have been murdered in contract killings, including the Russian American editor of the Moscow edition of Forbes magazine, Paul Klebnikov. Only one in ten of the murders since 2000 has come to court.

Dozens of others have been attacked, beaten, threatened, harassed by officials, kidnapped and in some cases charged with criminal defamation. Russia is up there with Iraq, Colombia and Algeria as a nation where the killers of journalists have impunity.

But it is not just the killings. For three or four years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, things changed. There were guarantees of greater press freedom under a more progressive media law. Pravda, Izvestia and other papers came under the control of the journalists themselves for a time.

But it didn't last. As the much-vaunted free market took over, as the country's assets were plundered by corrupt entrepreneurs, so the media came under the control of big business as well. Banks, oil and gas companies came to control newspapers and TV. And after Vladimir Putin started his crackdown on the rogue oligarchs, all the others fell in to line – and the media came under the effective control of the Kremlin and the man from the KGB.

Closing the recent IFJ Congress Aidan White, its general Secretary said: "There is a process of intimidation in Russia that is unacceptable.

"We must say loudly and clearly that we stand with our Russian colleagues and when we go home we must still stand shoulder to shoulder with the Russian Union of Journalists."

Jeremy Dear was elected as the NUJ’s youngest-ever General Secretary. He is also a former union President and National Executive Council member.
Biteback and James Wharton
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“It was the most traumatic chapter of my life”: ex-soldier James Wharton on his chemsex addiction

One of the British Army’s first openly gay soldiers reveals how he became trapped in a weekend world of drug and sex parties.

“Five days disappeared.” James Wharton, a 30-year-old former soldier, recalls returning to his flat in south London at 11pm on a Sunday night in early March. He hadn’t eaten or slept since Wednesday. In the five intervening days, he had visited numerous different apartments, checked in and out of a hotel room, partied with dozens of people, had sex, and smoked crystal meth “religiously”.

One man he met during this five-day blur had been doing the same for double the time. “He won’t have been exaggerating,” Wharton tells me now. “He looked like he’d been up for ten days.”

On Monday, Wharton went straight to his GP. He had suffered a “massive relapse” while recovering from his addiction to chemsex: group sex parties enhanced by drugs.

“Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army term”

I meet Wharton on a very different Monday morning six months after that lost long weekend. Sipping a flat white in a sleek café workspace in Holborn, he’s a stroll away from his office in the city, where he works as a PR. He left the Army in 2013 after ten years, having left school and home at 16.

Wharton left school at 16 to join the Army. Photo: Biteback

With his stubble, white t-shirt and tortoise shell glasses, he now looks like any other young media professional. But he’s surfacing from two years in the chemsex world, where he disappeared to every weekend – sometimes for 72 hours straight.

Back then, this time on a Monday would have been “like a double-decker bus smashing through” his life – and that’s if he made it into work at all. Sometimes he’d still be partying into the early hours of a Tuesday morning. The drugs allow your body to go without sleep. “Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army expression,” Wharton says, wryly.

Wharton now works as a PR in London. Photo: James Wharton

Mainly experienced by gay and bisexual men, chemsex commonly involves snorting the stimulant mephodrone, taking “shots” (the euphoric drug GBL mixed with a soft drink), and smoking the amphetamine crystal meth.

These drugs make you “HnH” (high and horny) – a shorthand on dating apps that facilitate the scene. Ironically, they also inhibit erections, so Viagra is added to the mix. No one, sighs Wharton, orgasms. He describes it as a soulless and mechanical process. “Can you imagine having sex with somebody and then catching them texting at the same time?”

“This is the real consequence of Section 28”

Approximately 3,000 men who go to Soho’s 56 Dean Street sexual health clinic each month are using “chems”, though it’s hard to quantify how many people regularly have chemsex in the UK. Chemsex environments can be fun and controlled; they can also be unsafe and highly addictive.

Participants congregate in each other’s flats, chat, chill out, have sex and top up their drugs. GBL can only be taken in tiny doses without being fatal, so revellers set timers on their phones to space out the shots.

GBL is known as “the date rape drug”; it looks like water, and a small amount can wipe your memory. Like some of his peers, Wharton was raped while passed out from the drug. He had been asleep for six or so hours, and woke up to someone having sex with him. “That was the worst point, without a doubt – rock bottom,” he tells me. “[But] it didn’t stop me from returning to those activities again.”

There is a chemsex-related death every 12 days in London from usually accidental GBL overdoses; a problem that Wharton compares to the AIDS epidemic in a book he’s written about his experiences, Something for the Weekend.

Wharton has written a book about his experiences. Photo: Biteback

Wharton’s first encounter with the drug, at a gathering he was taken to by a date a couple of years ago, had him hooked.

“I loved it and I wanted more immediately,” he recalls. From then on, he would take it every weekend, and found doctors, teachers, lawyers, parliamentary researchers, journalists and city workers all doing the same thing. He describes regular participants as the “London gay elite”.

“Chemsex was the most traumatic chapter of my life” 

Topics of conversation “bounce from things like Lady Gaga’s current single to Donald Trump”, Wharton boggles. “You’d see people talking about the general election, to why is Britney Spears the worst diva of them all?”

Eventually, he found himself addicted to the whole chemsex culture. “It’s not one single person, it’s not one single drug, it’s just all of it,” he says.

Wharton was in the Household Cavalry alongside Prince Harry. Photos: Biteback and James Wharton

Wharton feels the stigma attached to chemsex is stopping people practising it safely, or being able to stop. He’s found a support network through gay community-led advice services, drop-ins and workshops. Not everyone has that access, or feels confident coming forward.

“This is the real consequence of Section 28,” says Wharton, who left school in 2003, the year this legislation against “promoting” homosexuality was repealed. “Who teaches gay men how to have sex? Because the birds and the bees chat your mum gives you is wholly irrelevant.”

Wharton was the first openly gay soldier to appear in the military in-house magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

Wharton only learned that condoms are needed in gay sex when he first went to a gay bar at 18. He was brought up in Wrexham, north Wales, by working-class parents, and described himself as a “somewhat geeky gay” prior to his chemsex days.

After four years together, he and his long-term partner had a civil partnership in 2010; they lived in a little cottage in Windsor with two dogs. Their break-up in 2014 launched him into London life as a single man.

As an openly gay soldier, Wharton was also an Army poster boy; he appeared in his uniform on the cover of gay magazine Attitude. He served in the Household Cavalry with Prince Harry, who once defended him from homophobic abuse, and spent seven months in Iraq.

In 2012, Wharton appeared with his then civil partner in Attitude magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

A large Union Jack shield tattoo covering his left bicep pokes out from his t-shirt – a physical reminder of his time at war on his now much leaner frame. He had it done the day he returned from Iraq.

Yet even including war, Wharton calls chemsex “the most traumatic chapter” of his life. “Iraq was absolutely Ronseal, it did exactly what it said on the tin,” he says. “It was going to be a bit shit, and then I was coming home. But with chemsex, you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

“When I did my divorce, I had support around me. When I did the Army, I had a lot of support. Chemsex was like a million miles an hour for 47 hours, then on the 48th hour it was me on my own, in the back of an Uber, thinking where did it all go wrong? And that’s traumatic.”

Something for the Weekend: Life in the Chemsex Underworld by James Wharton is published by Biteback.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.