A battle with The Daily Beast

Did Tina Brown jump or was she pushed?

On 2 August 1999, under the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbour, Talk magazine held its launch party. It was “impossibly glamorous”, according to the New York Times, with a guest list that had Henry Kissinger rubbing shoulders with Queen Latifah, Madonna and Salman Rushdie. At the centre of it all was Tina Brown, the founder of Talk and serially victorious media darling.

Brown had every reason to believe that Talk would be a success: she had been editorin- chief of Tatler at the age of 25, of Vanity Fair at 31 and of the New Yorker at 39, overhauling editorial boards and boosting circulation beyond expectations each time. In the end, Talk folded after the advertising slump that followed the 9/11 attacks, but not before it had published a series of scandalous interviews, including one with Hillary Clinton in which she blamed her husband’s philandering on childhood abuse.

In 2008, after a brief spell as a talk-show host for CNBC, Brown founded the news website the Daily Beast, which was supposed to be her proof that she could win on the web as she had in print. This decision had little to do with money – the advance for her biography of Diana the previous year was, she said, “not unadjacent” to $2m – and everything to do with ambition.

However, something clearly got lost in translation from print to online. Since the Beast’s disastrous merger with the moribund Newsweek in 2010, which was repeatedly criticised in public by her business partner, Barry Diller, Brown’s illustrious career has floundered.

And, on 12 September, it seems to have come to a sudden stop with the announcement that Brown will not have her contract renewed at the Beast. She is now devoting her time to ensuring as dignified a departure as possible.

What made Brown so irritating to a horde of jealous and grudging admirers was her ability to navigate a respectable media career and at the same time intersperse it with unashamed gaudiness. The launch of Talk magazine at the foot of the Statue of Liberty was tacky and her book The Diana Chronicles was deemed not “literary enough” to befit a former editor of the  , yet she endured.

One of Brown’s most engaging talents is her absolute commitment to that antijournalistic device, the ad hominem attack. In an article she wrote for the New Statesman in 1974 about her Oxford finals, she referred to a fellow student as a “tiny self-possessed figure with wall-to-wall halitosis”.

More recently, she described the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, on Twitter as “a creepy, lisping, giraffe-necked liar”. Because sometimes a political attack just won’t do.

Happily for those of us who enjoy personal takedowns of malodorous students and the president of Syria, Brown won’t be retiring into obscurity. With characteristic initiative, she has established Tina Brown Live Media, an events business specialising in conferencing. Such a venture did risk leaving her with a tiny amount of leisure time – a risk that she has negated by agreeing to write a memoir, reportedly titled Media Beast.

So, we needn’t feel bad for Tina Brown, who has conquered and rebuilt so many worlds and remains as rich, well connected and happily married (to the former Sunday Times editor Harold Evans) as any lifetime media mogul could hope to be.

It is not surprising that she would leap straight from the industry that has fallen out of love with her and into another. But did she jump or was she pushed?

Tina Brown speaks at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in her capacity as editor-in-chief of Newsweek The Daily Beast. Image: Getty
Holly Baxter is a freelance journalist who writes regularly for The Guardian and The New Statesman. She is also one half of The Vagenda and releases a book on the media in May 2014.

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

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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