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Anchor in a storm

Ann Curry

Then: News anchor at nbc’s Today programme; journalist specialising in reporting from crisis-hit nations.

Now: Journalist and documentary-maker for US broadcasters such as pbs.


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When monocle sat down for an imaginary last meal with Ann Curry at the UN Delegates Dining Room in New York 15 years ago, the US journalist was the news anchor of nbc’s Today programme and had made a name for herself as a roving foreign correspondent, reporting from the toughest corners of the world, from Darfur to Rwanda and Iraq. Much has changed in her career in the years since but very little has shifted in her journalistic ethos or her values, despite the media industry transforming around her.

After joining nbc News in 1990, Curry rose through the ranks to become co-anchor of Today in 2011. But she didn’t last long in the position: a year later, Curry was deposed and given a role as anchor at large in circumstances about which she has expressed confusion. In 2015 she left nbc.

It was a tumultuous time for the station. Two years later, Today’s co-host Matt Lauer would be fired from the programme after being accused of sexual harassment.

“The truth is not always fair. Not to make the effort to find it is doom. I’ll always be looking to do work that does good in my own way”

Ever a journalist with a global perspective and an eye for humanitarian stories, when asked about how the world has changed in the past 15 years, Curry takes a wide, if disillusioned, view. “People are more afraid, more interested in protecting themselves, more fearful of change,” she says. “That’s a hand-and-glove story with what’s happened to journalism. Fifteen years ago, newsrooms were panicking about the future and how new technology would challenge old models. The iceberg was right in front of them but many turned too late. The biggest wounds were self-inflicted; to survive in terms of ratings, they increasingly gave people what they wanted and not what they needed.”

Having spent years reporting on conflict, human tragedy and natural disasters, Curry is not one to settle for stories that are written to please or outrage an audience for clicks. “Great journalism is still being accomplished but it’s spottier even at the best papers or broadcasters.”

Curry has recently been working on documentaries on subjects such as reunions between people who have lived through major events in modern history, or linking people who are in search of a cure for mysterious health conditions with doctors. “I care about the stories that made us bigger, that allowed us to recognise ourselves in each other, which is something that we have pulled away from now,” she says. “Politics has limited who we are and what part we play in the world. We don’t see ourselves as part of a bigger humanity.”

A lot of her time is also spent mentoring and giving talks, which is where her more optimistic views about the media industry come to the fore. “People have been left with a yearning for verifiable fact, for trustworthiness,” she says. “This need will have to be met. I find hope when I meet young people in the US. There has been a big jump in applications for journalism school. It’s my obligation to step up, talk to them about the work and contribute to rebuilding this thing that I have risked my life for.”

Despite the effect of Donald Trump’s presidency on tarnishing the media, Curry remains adamant that journalism should never be mixed with campaigning. “To find truth, you can’t be motivated by opinion and activism,” she says. “When I was anchoring on a daily basis I saw it as a tremendous obligation to be someone who speaks the truth. People wonder whether the truth even exists. Of course it does, if you’re willing to pay attention to nuance. ‘Both-sides-ism’ is lazy journalism but objectivity is possible. And the truth is not always fair. Not to make the effort to find it is doom. I’ll always be looking to do work that does good in my own way.”

It’s in this conviction that Curry seems to have changed the least. Without realising, she goes on to recount the same anecdote that she told monocle 15 years ago. “My father has been a major influence in my life,” she says. “The greatest thing that he said to me when I was really young – and repeated over and over as I grew up – is something that has influenced all of the choices that I have made since. He said, ‘Ann, whatever you choose to do, do something that is of some service to someone else. Only then will you know that it mattered that you were born.’ As I breathe my last breath, I want to feel that I have done my part.”


High in the sky

All-Business Class flights

Then: During the brief boom in all-Business Class services, new airlines jostled to meet the demand for exclusive premium flights.

Now: Following a period of rapid decline, a new generation of aircraft and the evolving habits of leisure travellers are poised to give all-Business Class services a new lift.


In the mid-2000s there was a burst of airline launches offering All-Business Class services on transatlantic runs. Eos and Silverjet led the pack but there were others too. Within a few years, however, most had ceased operations. 

The 2008 financial crisis didn’t help matters but it wasn’t necessarily the main culprit of their decline. For a start, it’s difficult to run a reliable operation with small fleets of generally older aircraft. But even an upstart airline that has its act together faces several other reasons why it will probably fail. With just one or two flights a day, how can you compete with an airline such as British Airways (BA), which typically offers a near-hourly service to New York? Start-ups also tend to lack other key offerings, such as options for connecting flights or high-quality airport lounges.

What’s more, the major airlines have more tools in their arsenal – including deeper pockets – to lure back travellers even if a new competitor offers a better experience. Flag carriers will get nasty in this type of fight, slashing fares or dangling frequent-flyer promotions and then waiting it out. Or they can simply buy the upstart, as BA did with L’Avion, a French attempt at a similar model.

Even BA’s own all-Business Class service, an a318 between London City and jfk International Airport in New York, has been scrapped; after suspending the service as the pandemic emerged, the airline confirmed in August 2020 that it will not return. All of that presents a daunting picture. Yet the major airlines on a route such as London to New York could do with some improvement and added competition.

But the landscape has changed of late and all-premium is far from dead. There are many more leisure travellers shelling out for Business Class on their getaways. They are in some ways the ideal customer for a small, all-premium airline with just a flight or two a day. There are also different kinds of aircraft now that can fly further, burn less fuel and turn a profit with fewer people onboard. These developments are creating new options. French all-premium airline La Compagnie has even been expanding. Armed with the new economical Airbus a321Neo, it’s starting up routes such as New York to Milan and Paris to Tel Aviv. 

So don’t be surprised to see more airlines try out all-premium services in the coming years, using aircraft such as the smaller a220. Perhaps one or more of those will eventually find their niche and manage to defend it. 


India’s financial daily 

‘Mint’

Then: Reporting on an economy that was fuelled by heady optimism, opportunities at every turn and foreign capital pouring in.

Now: Publishing in print and digitally for an audience thirsty for news of the hottest start-ups and investment opportunities.


When Mint entered the scene in early 2007, India’s economy was in full swing. The new financial daily proudly promised to serve as the “unbiased and clear-minded chronicler of the Indian dream” for “free economies, free people and free societies”. Then came the global financial crisis, massive anti-corruption protests, rising nationalism, the disintegration of a credible opposition, demonetisation and, later, the pandemic. And yet both India and its chronicler continue to grow. 

While India’s gdp growth never reached the anticipated dizzying double digits, it has maintained a solid 6 to 8 per cent over the past 10 years (until the pandemic hit). And the country has developed a $3.1trn (€2.7trn) economy.

In 2007 most big companies were either family owned, multinationals or IT services whereas now there are 90 much-lauded unicorns in India – a staggering 46 of which have cropped up in 2021 alone. “India has always had the entrepreneurial energy but not the access to capital,” says Sruthijith Kurupichankandy (known as SK), who became editor in chief of Mint in 2020. “That all changed when the venture capitalists came in.”

India’s middle class traditionally invested in gold and property or, in the past few decades, parked their money at banks in fixed-rate deposits. But with the expansion of smartphones and access to faster data came an explosion of online financial services and money moving into equity mutual funds and stocks. “So with more retail investors comes more demand for information about business and personal finance,” says SK. 

India’s traditionally strong newspaper market suffered during the pandemic, due in part to fear of contracting coronavirus from its hand-delivered pages. Mint’s daily circulation of 120,000 copies took a hit but its digital platforms have continued to grow. It has 40 million unique users every month and is the top-ranking digital business publication for India’s mobile phone users. 

And like India, which dreams of being a $5trn (€4.4trn) economy by 2025, Mint wants a bigger piece of the pie. “Our single obsession is to be the platform of choice in digital,” says SK.


Chile’s economist politician

Andrés Velasco

Then: As Chile’s finance minister, preaching that countries with volatile incomes be prudent with their surpluses.

Now: Advocating for diversified economies, as dean of lse’s School of Public Policy and member of the World Bank-International Monetary Fund high-level advisory group.

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In monocle’s inaugural issue, Andrés Velasco argued that governments should hold extra revenue in reserve for a rainy day. As finance minister in Chile’s centre-left government led by Michelle Bachelet, he was able to implement such a policy. When the 2008 financial crisis hit, he tells monocle (this time in the present day), “it found Chile in good shape”. He adds that while Spain’s economic downturn lasted six years, Chile bounced back in six months.

His stint in the cabinet ended with Bachelet’s government in 2010 but Velasco wasn’t done with politics. With the right back in power, he eyed Chile’s 2013 presidential election. He didn’t pick an easy primary battle, going against Bachelet, who wanted to win back the presidency. “It was like playing against Brazil in São Paulo,” he says of his loss. “It was a four-person race and I came second.” 

Velasco, who is also a novelist, has now swapped the political pulpit for the teacher’s lectern in London. He’s still an economist but since 2018 he has been the inaugural dean at the London School of Economics (lse) School of Public Policy. “I’ve spent half my life in academia and half my life in politics,” he says. “I’ve gone back and forth a number of times; I don’t necessarily see them as different things.”

The dean, whose name invariably crops up during Chilean election cycles, still speaks like a politician, measuring his responses and being careful not to give too much of himself away. He is still a regular commentator on what’s happening in his country, from the groundbreaking re-writing of the constitution to the recent presidential victory of former student leader Gabriel Boric. While society might not have changed as much as Velasco would have liked since that 2007 interview, he sees reasons to be optimistic for Chile’s future, highlighting its potential to become a solar-technology exporter. 

While not ruling out a return to the political fold, Velasco says that he’s more than happy at lse. “I went to an English school [in Chile] so I grew up playing rugby and singing ‘God Save the Queen’,” he says. Now living in the UK, his son has shown an interest in the sport. “I’m glad to see he is a lot more talented than I ever was.”


Life and sole

Russell Moccasin

Then: Producing its signature Zephyr boot, popular in Japan, with prices for custom-made pairs soaring.

Now: Business is still booming but with ever fewer skilled craftspeople able to take on the task of handmaking moccasins.


When monocle first caught up with Wisconsin-based shoemaker Russell Moccasin in 2007, the brand’s signature Zephyr boot, which owner Ralph ‘Lefty’ Fabricius deemed “ideal for the dog trainer and upland hunter”, was all the rage in Tokyo. At the time, a custom-made pair that sold for $240 in the US was fetching $500 in Japan. 

Business is still booming. But according to Ralph’s daughter, co-owner Suzie Fabricius, producing custom-made, handcrafted shoes is even harder than it used to be. While the family-owned brand has prided itself on making its shoes in its Wisconsin workshop for more than a century, the younger Fabricius is well aware that it isn’t always the easiest approach. “We have a lot of business,” she says. “But just like everyone else in this climate, we’re short on employees to get the product out the door in a timely manner.” 

“To keep the brand intact, we have to keep everything in-house and make them one pair at a time”

Suzie, who now manages Russell Moccasin with her brother, Joe Gonyo, believes that part of the challenge is finding staff to learn how to make moccasins by hand. “The younger generation isn’t keen on sitting on a cobbler’s bench day in, day out,” she says. “The trade industry is a dying art.” Even so, it’s an art that the Fabricius clan clearly sees as indispensable. “We’re an old-world American company that hasn’t lost its values to outsourcing,” says Suzie. “We know that to keep the brand intact and to give our customers the best footwear their money can buy, we have to keep everything in-house and make them one pair at a time, just like we always have.” Here’s hoping this continues to be the case, and that the company keeps putting its best moccasin-shod foot forward. 


No place like home

Genoa, Italy

Then: An attractive option for those seeking a second home or a decent property investment.

Now: A city transforming its architecture and attracting tourists, investors and new residents alike.

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Fifteen years on from monocle’s visit to the Ligurian capital of Genoa in search of second-home options, the observations made in our property prospectus still ring true. The seaside city remains an attractive investment for those seeking a spacious apartment, especially in city-centre palazzos within the Unesco-protected heritage site.

Large flats with terrazzo flooring and high ceilings are affordable: homes on average go for €1,600 per sq m versus €4,900 per sq m in Milan. Businesses such as clothier Pescetto, shirt-maker Finollo and confectioner Romanengo attract discerning clients and there are a few upscale hotels – Palazzo Grillo being the standout. 

“Genoa is a great city – close to the sea, a city centre designed for pedestrians and a rich assortment of shops”

One shopkeeper doing brisk business is Lorenzo Bagnara (pictured), whose interiors emporium Via Garibaldi 12, is an anchor of the commercial district. 

“Much of what makes Genoa a great city to live in remains,” he says. “You have the proximity to the sea, a city centre designed for pedestrians and a rich assortment of shops that you won’t find elsewhere.”

This sunny Riviera outpost has also had to heal a terrible wound, following the 2018 Morandi Bridge collapse. Native and architect Renzo Piano stepped in with a design echoing the hull of a ship in a nod to the importance of the sea to the city’s fortunes. The waterfront will see a Piano-led development that reduces the area’s concrete footprint by razing old pavilions to make way for a navigable canal with berths for yachts, an urban park and apartments.

In 2024 a completed tunnel project should make Milan reachable in an hour by high-speed train, making many no doubt ponder a move to the seaside once they get a glimpse of Genoa up close. 


Staying power

China in Africa

Then: A growing presence looking to expand further, with expatriates establishing themselves across the continent. 

Now: A powerful political, diplomatic and economic force, offering African countries investment in infrastructure.


When monocle traversed Africa back in 2007, China’s growing presence was evident from the signs written in Chinese and shops run by new arrivals from the country. It was clear that China was set to become a powerful force across the continent.

The activity cranked up in 2013 with the launch of the Chinese government’s Belt and Road Initiative, an ambitious infrastructure plan to link the nation with developing and established markets. The country began a lending spree to build roads, ports, stadiums and warehouses, which many African countries accepted. Not only is Chinese-built infrastructure now everywhere but so is its political influence.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the Horn of Africa. In January, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi began his annual overseas trip in Eritrea, a country that recently signed on to the Belt and Road Initiative, just weeks after US secretary of state Antony Blinken had visited Kenya. Eritrea’s decision to sign a memorandum of understanding with China has contrasted with the US’s string of diplomatic setbacks in the region. In January, Washington removed Ethiopia from its African trade pact to exert pressure on its government to end the civil war in the Tigray region, having already sanctioned Eritrea for its alleged involvement in the fighting. The decisions have failed to secure the US friends or influence, while China announced that it would appoint a special envoy to the Horn of Africa to convene a peace conference.

Of course, these decisions aren’t without self-interest, says Stephen Chan, professor of world politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. “There is a diplomatic struggle [between the US and China] for leverage and opinion in the Horn,” he says. “If China can pull off becoming the olive-branch brokers in the region, this can only add to the kind of reputation they want to have.”

Meanwhile, African countries’ desire for economic development and infrastructure mean that China will continue building greater regional influence than either the EU or US, says Hassan Khannenje, director of the Horn International Institute for Strategic Studies in Nairobi. 

While many critics have voiced concerns about the potential debt-traps associated with Chinese infrastructure loans Khannenje believes that, “the desperation for investment is stronger than that of fear”. In the absence of any real alternative, China will continue to play a powerful role across Africa. 


Plenty of bottle

Happy Cat

Then: A novelty wine from the Mosel Valley in a cat-shaped bottle that was popular with Scandinavian consumers.

Now: A global sensation with a cult following and a firm foothold in the North American market.

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To a master sommelier, the idea of novelty wine might be toe-curling. The success of Happy Cat, however, is not to be sniffed at. The semi-sweet German riesling comes in a cat-shaped glass bottle that has established a global cult following since monocle’s first visit to the Bernkastel-Kues winery in 2007. 

According to Chris Braun, export manager for the US, this marketing strategy has prevented flash-in-the-pan success. “We create new bottle colours every year and there are people out there who will collect the entire range,” says Braun. They’ll see an uptick in sales of a specific colour when there is an important sporting match. “American football teams have their own colour scheme so people will buy the purple bottle if, say, the Baltimore Ravens have a big match coming up,” says Braun. “There’s also more demand for the black and orange bottles over Halloween.”

On monocle’s first visit, their biggest market was Scandinavia. Today it’s the US and Canada. “There are a lot of consumers who find European wines quite daunting,” says Braun. “They have complicated labels with names they can’t pronounce. And then there’s this cat. It’s distinctive and kind of friendly and once someone picks up a bottle, they’re three times more likely to buy it.” The taste makes Happy Cat approachable too. “German rieslings are sweet and very easy to enjoy, particularly for someone who doesn’t know much about wine.” 


No clear option

East Asian geopolitics

Then: An area where Japan’s Shinzo Abe wanted to revise its pacifism, and China sought to increase its power.

Now: A region where China is stronger, North Korea is testing weapons, and Japan’s leaders are still worried by its constitution.


Much has changed in East Asian geopolitics in the 15 years since we ran our first cover story. But two narratives have been constant: the spectacular rise of China and North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. 

China is a far more muscular presence than it was in 2007. Since then it has been building military outposts on disputed Pacific territories, nudged up against Japan’s airspace, and has become more and more strident about its ownership of the Senkaku Islands, a group of rocky islets controlled by Japan in the East China Sea.

“Shinzo Abe was Japan’s longest-serving prime minister but did not achieve his greatest ambition”

In response, Japan’s military budget, although dwarfed by China’s, has increased to record levels. Shinzo Abe was in office from 2012 to 2020, making him Japan’s longest-serving prime minister. But he did not manage to achieve his longstanding ambition of revising Japan’s pacifist constitution. The Self-Defence Forces (sdf) we met back in 2007 are still fundamentally just as they were then: an army that cannot instigate aggression but serves to keep peace. One important change came in 2015, which now allows the sdf to come to the aid of allies under attack. And just as it was in 2007, the US remains the cornerstone of Japan’s defence strategy. The Donald Trump years certainly tested the relationship. Former US national security adviser John Bolton revealed that Trump tried to stiff Japan for an eye-watering increase in the amount it pays to host US troops on his soil, while the president’s bro-style diplomacy with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (“We have fantastic chemistry,” Trump once said) had no effect; Kim is now testing all shades of missiles on a regular basis. 

Things are on a more even keel with the US these days under the new presidency but what will happen on Japan’s doorstep is still uncertain: the prospect of conflict in Taiwan, about 100km from the Japanese island of Yonaguni, leaves Japan in a vulnerable position. And as Kim’s missiles grow in distance covered and precision, the threat of North Korea will continue to be a headache for pacifist Japan. 


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Radio star in exile

Massood Sanjer

Then: The Kabul-based presenter of the most popular radio show in Afghanistan, Arman FM’s breakfast programme Safaye Shahar.

Now: Exiled in Istanbul and off the airwaves since the Taliban’s rise to power but still working as Moby Group’s channel director. 

Sunday 15 August 2021 would turn out to be the last time that Massood Sanjer’s cherished breakfast programme, Safaye Shahar, would air as he knew it. Just hours after the veteran host finished his broadcast of Afghanistan’s most popular radio show, the station, Arman FM, went quiet as the Islamic republic government collapsed and the Taliban swept into power. The Kabul-based station’s programming was replaced with news bulletins amid the uncertainty that engulfed the country.

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Having spent almost 20 years nurturing the country’s leading music station, starting out as the first employee when Dubai-based media group Moby Group launched it in 2003, the efforts of Sanjer and co-hosts Humayoon Danishyar and Sima Safa now lie in tatters. Though its slogan is “Music never ends”, the station no longer plays music from around the world. Instead, religious Islamic tunes fill the airwaves.

“It was a show for the people from the people. So many people would listen. It wasn’t just a very serious talk show, we made jokes and poked fun at politicians”

Fearing for his safety, Sanjer fled Afghanistan on a military flight to Turkey a few days after Kabul fell, weeping throughout the journey. From here he continues to work as Moby Group’s channel director. Istanbul was already home to his wife and two sons; he moved them there after he began receiving death threats due to his involvement with the radio station – but he had remained in Kabul.

Sanjer looks back with painful nostalgia to his  much-loved mornings broadcasting the show. “There’s no way of measuring ratings in Afghanistan but I can tell that you if you opened any car door in the morning you’d see so many people were listening to the show,” he says. “It was a show for the people from the people. It was a call-in show, so people would call up with problems and we the presenters would speak to officials live to get their response. It wasn’t just a very serious talk show, we made jokes and poked fun at politicians.”

Since Sanjer left, the show has been relaunched with two new hosts, stripped of its vibrancy and cheekiness. 

“The problem is the censorship at the moment in Afghanistan,” he says. “When Ashraf Ghani was in power, we used to make fun of the president, but can you do it right now? Talk about [acting prime minister] Mullah Hasan Akhund? You can’t, you’d be jailed for it.” 

“I spent all of my life in Afghanistan, I never wanted to leave,” he adds. “Sometimes I’m just so hopeless. We can’t do anything for our country right now. My son said to me the other day in relation to the Turkish lira losing value: ‘Dad, when [the Turkish] have a problem, they stand up and they take to the streets. The Afghans just run away.’ He’s 13 years old. He doesn’t know how difficult it is to face the Taliban and face the realities in Afghanistan.”

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