Putin toys with media in annual press extravaganza

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  • Putin manhandles the media in annual year-end press conference.
  • Will Trudeau's $ 1.6 billion aid package for Alberta's struggling energy sector have an impact in the long run?
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Putin on a show

Vladimir Putin will never be accused of being media shy. 

This morning in Moscow, the Russian president held his sprawling, 14th annual year-end press conference. 

Many of the headlines will correctly focus on his support for Donald Trump's snap decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria — "that is the right move," said Putin, noting that the Islamic State has been dealt a "severe blow." Or his endorsement of U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May's chaotic Brexit push: "The referendum was held," the Russian president told reporters. "What can she do? She has to fulfil the will of the people."

And above all, Putin's sobering warning about the rising threat of nuclear war, now that the Americans are pulling back from a 1987 intermediate-range missile treaty. 

"We are essentially witnessing the breakdown of the international order of arms control," said the Russian leader. "It could lead to the destruction of civilization as a whole and maybe even our planet."

But those bits of news obscure the fact that the pre-Christmas affair is now less of a serious question and answer session than some sort of marathon journalistic carnival. 

This year's event attracted a record 1,700 Russian and foreign correspondents to a downtown Moscow hotel ballroom, and lasted just short of four hours. And as both the size of the venues and the duration expand, reporters have resorted to innovative techniques to try and attract the attention of the Russian president.

Many journalists also bring signs to wave. Some simply feature their employer's logo, like CNN, TASS, or ABC NEWS. Others promise to "tell the truth," if picked, or try to appeal to the Russian president's vanity via shirtless photos of him fishing.

It doesn't always work. 

And in some cases, the messaging can bring trouble — as was the case this morning, for the brave soul who wore a T-shirt with the picture of opposition leader Alexey Navalny and drew some extra scrutiny from Russia's secret service

Regardless, the breadth of subjects that get covered remains impressive.

Here's just a small sampling of what Putin pronounced on this morning:

Olympic doping, swearing in rap music, the so-so quality of Russian television, and whether Evgeny Prigozhin, the catering-company owner popularly-known as 'Putin's chef,' is in fact in charge of the country's internet troll farms

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during annual news conference in Moscow, Russia December 20, 2018. (Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin via REUTERS)

A reporter from the Wall Street Journal boldly asked if the Russian president "wants to rule the world."

"Well, of course," Putin kind-of-joked, before going on to suggest that the headquarters of international domination remain in Washington, and that Russia is simply "trying to be an equal partner on the world sphere."

The once KGB agent again denied that any Russian intelligence agents were involved in the Novichok poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the U.K. last winter. And said that the international sanctions that have since followed are just part of a long-standing "Russophobic" pattern. "It's just a way to keep Russia from developing, as a possible competitor," he said. "If there was no [poisoning of] Skripal, they would have made something else up."

Putin even contended with some personal questions, skating smoothly away from a query about whether he intends to remarry. "As a decent man, I will have to do this sooner or later."

In between, the four-term president offered his personal assistance to build a soccer field for disadvantaged youth in St. Petersburg, promised to protect investigative journalists from intimidation, and drew an odd, if not entirely inaccurate, comparison between spies and reporters. 

"Intelligence, counterintelligence and journalism are essentially the same line of work. You deal with information and special services deal with information too," he said.

At around about the three hour mark, things started to get a little testy, with Putin repeatedly complaining about the shouted questions, and general demeanour of the press corps. But despite his threats to cut things short, the conference continued on for close to an hour.

The 2018 edition of the Vladimir Putin show lasted exactly 3 hours and 50 minutes, eight minutes longer than last year, but well short of the record, 4 hour and 40 minute session in 2008.

And just in case anyone was worried, it appears that there was a nice selection of pastries too.

At Issue

Ottawa's $ 1.6 billion backstop for Alberta's ailing energy sector won't fix the problem long-term, writes Rosemary Barton.

The announcement by the federal government this week that it would offer a $ 1.6 billion aid package to the oil and gas sectors was intended to be a sign that Ottawa was listening. That it understood the frustration. That it wanted to do something to help. 

The problem of course is that what is happening in Alberta is much bigger than even $ 1.6 billion.  

There is a glut of oil and there are no new pipelines to get it out to new markets. 

Hundreds of truckers took part in a convoy in and around Nisku, Alta. on Wednesday in support of the oil and gas industry. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

The aid will help people who aren't working and maybe fund innovation, but it won't deal with the long-term problem. 

A pipeline has already been purchased but as the government responds to the Federal Court's directions to do better consultation with First Nations, it cannot be expanded. And this is not a process the federal government can be seen to be speeding up or exerting pressure on. 

So the aid was what they had in the moment. 

It happens at the same time that Quebec's premier calls Alberta's oil "dirty" and at the same time the prime minister says Energy East (the pipeline running through Ontario and Quebec that was abandoned by the company) has "no support."

So at his year ending press conference, Trudeau was asked whether there is any concern for national unity to which he said this: "I can tell you there are not many Canadians out there who wish ill on other Canadians, regardless of which part of the country they're from, whether it's Albertans or Quebecers or anyone in any part of the country."

Maybe there is no real crisis but things are fraying a bit and it's worth asking what, if anything, can or should be done. 

Andrew, Paul and Sacchi Kurl will join us tonight. 

See you then. 

– Rosemary Barton

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A few words on … 

The artist Bansky highlighting air pollution in a small, Welsh town.

Quote of the moment

"This indictment was based on evidence and testimony before the grand jury. It was not based on the #MeToo movement. So, let's be clear about that."

Gloria Allred, the lawyer for one of Harvey Weinstein's alleged victims, reacts to a New York City judge's decision this morning to move forward and hold a pretrial hearing on five sex-assault charges that prosecutors have laid against the disgraced Hollywood mogul. 

Attorney Gloria Allred talks to reporters after Harvey Weinstein leaves court in New York, Monday, July 9, 2018. (Seth Wenig/Associated Press)

What The National is reading

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Today in history

Dec. 20, 1956: Kid hockey player Ab Hoffman turns out to be a girl 

Abby Hoffman wanted to play hockey like her brothers, but there were no girls leagues in 1950s Toronto, so she cut her hair and registered to play as "Ab." The fact that she turned out to be a stand out on defence — good enough to make the league All-Star team — didn't matter to the men in charge, who tried to drum her out once they discovered the ruse. But intense media coverage and a court case eventually forced the league to let her finish out the season. And Hoffman went on to represent Canada in track and field at four Olympics, bearing the flag at Montreal's home Games in 1976.

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