At 26, in the world today, she is the youngest head of a global news and entertainment TV channel. In the past year formerly vocal critics of the channel have been replaced by a more balanced discussion about what type of news an English-speaking audience expects from a Russian information channel broadcasting only in English. Passport Moscow Editor Jeremy Noble interviewed Margarita Simonyan in her office, on the one-year anniversary of Russia Today. (The interview naturally was in English).
Jeremy Noble: Do you think that it is accurate to say that Russia Today is the face of Russia today? I mean by this, that the channel presents a very professional, very polished and very articulate image of Russia.
Margarita Simonyan: We are aiming to become the face of Russia today. We want to be the first, the best, the quickest, the most aware TV channel talking about Russia and the CIS. We want people to trust us, when they want to know about Russia, we want them to watch Russia Today.
J.N.: As the Editor-in-Chief do you see yourself as being somehow part of what we are calling the face of Russia Today?
M.S.: I am not the face of Russia today as a channel; we have many handsome and beautiful presenters who can claim to be the face of the channel. I feel myself a part of my country but no, the channel is not about me.
J.N.: Do you then see yourself as being only one part of a large team?
M.S.: Yes. We are all in the same boat, Russia’s and foreigners. I am proud of my team, I trust them; they are all dedicated people who are %u218into’ this channel, who know %u218what the story is about.’ There are no %u218accidental people’ here, as we call them in Russia. It doesn’t matter if they are Russia’s or foreigners.
My parentage is 100% Armenian, although my parents themselves were brought up in Russia. I too was born and brought up in Russia. My motherland is Russia, no matter that I have not one drop of Russian blood.
J.N.: How would you present on Russia Today, say, a conflict that might arise between Armenia and Russia which might affect you on a personal level?
M.S.: I have only been to Armenia once, on an official delegation accompanying President Putin.
What you see is dependent upon where you stand. A sophisticated Cambridge-educated Englishman will see Russia but won’t feel her. But if you were born and brought up in a distant provincial region, and felt with all your inner being the %u21890s in Russia, the end of the USSR, you would feel your country in a different way. When you have experienced a country’s history like that, you understand.
J.N.: Can I ask you please more about your upbringing. You were born in Krasnodar and educated there. In the 10th Class you went on an exchange programme to the US; how was that visit important for you?
M.S.: It was 1995 to 1996. I was fifteen, the age when your views on life are being formed. When I was in the US I came to better appreciate life in Russia. At the same time I got into American habits and beliefs, large and small. Small beliefs can be important, for thinking about other people. I will give you an example; when I am driving in Moscow and I see that people are trying to cross the road, I stop; that is not a very Russian characteristic. About beliefs, you have to start with yourself. If you want to fight corruption, then you have to stop the cheating in the classroom.
J.N.: Would you say that you have a Western work ethic?
M.S.: In Russia Today there are things that we do in a Russian way, and others which can be called %u218Western.’ You received your higher education at Kuban State University, and then at the Television School of Vladimir Pozner. Pozner is perhaps the most famous example of a Russian media personality who is equally at home in both Russia and the West. Do you see yourself in that same way, I mean, as someone who understands and is comfortable in both those %u218worlds’?
I am comfortable in both of them, yes; understand the West just as well as I understand Russia, no. I don’t think that one can say that one fully understands a foreign country, the West. I won’t claim that I understand any other country as well as I know Russia.
J.N.: You have had a very varied and interesting career, with periods of journalism %u218in the field’ and a stint as Kremlin correspondent for Rossiya TV channel. How is that background important for being the Editor-in-Chief of Russia Today?
M.S.: I think that what we are talking about is balance. It makes it much easier for me to talk to people who work with me, with the experience I have. It would be impossible to be a part of my team without those two types of experience. I understand my colleagues when they are in the field and when they are in the Kremlin.
J.N.: What is the difference between %u218field’ journalism and %u218red carpet’ journalism?
M.S.: The difference is that it is difficult to make %u218red carpet’ journalism interesting for viewers. In the field, in Beslan, for example, it is not difficult; you have action, background, everything is there. But you have to show that %u218red carpet’ reporting is also just as important; the decisions you might be talking about could be affecting millions of people. You have to find a common language with the audience. Sometimes a journalist will call me and ask, “Margarita, how am I going to write this story?I always try to suggest a personal angle, “how does this situation affect a typical family?”
J.N.: It sounds as if you have a very approachable management style?
M.S.: I try to. I do not want to be sitting behind closed doors.
J.N.: President Putin sent flowers to you on your twenty-fifth birthday. Clearly the President thinks highly of you; how does this high regard affect your work?
M.S.: (Laughing) That question! I was at a press conference, where President Putin was talking with the President of Tajikistan. It was my twenty-fifth birthday, which is a special anniversary. The other journalists were talking about it, the President heard them, and that was how I received the flowers. It was very spontaneous. I don’t think that you can call it a presidential high regard. Don’t you think that the President has more important things to think about? Like all of the other heads of TV channels, we meet at celebrations. I understand that the President watches the channel and I hope that he likes it.
J.N.: You are twenty-six; that is very young to be the head of a major TV channel. Do you think that your youth is one of the reasons why the President picked you for the job?
M.S.: Do you seriously believe that the President personally chooses an editor for Russia Today? (laughing). To be young and ambitious is nothing unusual. But yes, even for Russia, that is young. Having said that, you will know yourself how young the senior managers of companies can be in Russia. My youth, I agree, is important. My generation does not have old stereotypes about the West. I was eleven when the Soviet Union broke up. We had the chance to travel, to see with our own eyes. We are not suspicious about everything that comes from the West. This is an advantage; it allows me and my generation to be more open and objective. Just because somebody does something differently doesn’t mean that it is wrong.
J.N.: You are a Russian woman with a high-powered job. In Russia there are not so many women who have made it to the top of the tree in their chosen profession. Do
you see yourself as somehow breaking the mould of traditional Russian society?
M.S.: (Laughing) I hear many top managers telling me that women are more reliable than men. (Pause). It is not that women cannot achieve what they want to achieve in Russia; it is only that in Russia, less women than in Europe want to have a career. For example, here at the station we have had situations where very talented and promising women have decided to take a long break in their career because they have had babies.
J.N.: Do you see yourself as a role model for other ambitious Russian women?
M.S.: I can’t talk about people I do not know; but I can say that many of my friends do not want to work such long hours as I do.
J.N.: Let us talk about Russia Today. You have been quoted as saying that you did not want to move away from the programming format used, for example, by CNN, Euronews and BBC News. How, then, is Russia Today different from these other channels?
M.S.: It is not about format; it is about content. It is about looking at things from other perspectives.
We pay more attention to the regions in Russia, for example, which are not covered by the other channels. We don’t want to cover only what everybody else is covering. We do cover, obviously, for example, the death of Litvinenko, what we call the headlines; but at the same time we are always trying to find what nobody else is talking about. We want to go beyond that, deeper. We look at conflicts in Georgia, elections in Ukraine, something more detailed. We wouldn’t exist without the details; they are what make us different.
J.N.: Why does Russia today need a Russia Today?
M.S.: Well, because until recently Russia did not have a way of speaking to the world. Russia needs a visual voice. Take, for example, a person who is interested in Russia, but doesn’t speak Russian, he could not know what is happening in Russia, which is not right. France has France 24, the Arab world has Al Jazeerah; now Russia has Russia Today. We want our audience to trust us, to believe that what they are seeing is what we have seen with our own eyes. The image that we broadcast is not coming from something we have read or copied, but is based upon what we have seen, or experienced. We are looking through native Russian eyes, and speaking what we see.
J.N.: You have been quoted as saying that you are not translating Russian news into English, but that you are writing and broadcasting in English as a first language. Can you please explain what you mean by this?
M.S.: We hold meetings in English here at the station; we run the station in English; the cameramen and technicians are speaking to presenters in English. In other departments, for example the legal department, we are working in Russian. As far as Russia Today as a channel is concerned, we don’t merely polish to a high gloss, or mirror and report second-hand information; we explain what is happening in Russia because we want our audience to understand. We cannot expect our audience to know about Russia a priori as a native Russian; we have to always ask ourselves how much information our audience might have already, before we begin; but at the same time we are not going to explain about Ivan the Terrible. We expect that our audience switches on because they already have an interest. That said, we are learning about our audience. Russian TV channels are only broadcasting for Russia’s. They know their audience. As yet, we do not know our audience, when it is coming from all over the world; say from Iowa, or Japan, but we will.
J.N.: You said also in a recent interview that, “we are not translating Dostoevsky.” what did you mean?
M.S.: We are not translating words, we are translating a country.
J.N.: Do you think of your job as being in any way political?
M.S.: Let me think about it. No. And I wouldn’t like us to be political; we want to stick to pure journalism. But it is easy to be tricked into politics nowadays by a slick PR campaign which you can mistake for the truth. We have to be careful as a channel.