Digital debate that is striving to 'dumb up' democracy

October 19, 2001

The abominable media coverage of major world events inspired Anthony Barnett to create a forum to encourage democratic debate. Huw Richards reports on opendemocracy.net, a digital hub for scholars everywhere.

"People see websites as ephemeral and flashy. We are the opposite of that." So Anthony Barnett, the serial civil entrepreneur, whose contributions to public life include the Charter 88 civil liberties campaign, characterises his latest brainchild, opendemocracy.net.

The concept for the website was rooted in British political debates, but it now plans to create "a global network for debate and invention, tackling the major issues of our time". It invites "the best thinkers, policy-makers and creators to debate with thoughtful and questioning people across the world".

There is a sense in which Barnett's site is a return to the internet's origins. Long before the possibilities for transmitting music, cricket scores and chat were recognised, academics, particularly those with international interests and contacts, were using the internet to exchange information and ideas. James Curran, professor of communications at Goldsmiths College, London, and co-editor of the media strand on opendemocracy.net, calls this reclamation of territory "dumbing up".

Inevitably, many users and contributors are academics, but Barnett is anxious that they should neither monopolise debate nor lard it with jargon. He sees the site as "a public, not a specialist space" encouraging participation by "anyone who might be called a scholar - people who are constantly engaged with the truth, seeking to uncover and explain it, rather than simply trying to argue for what they happen to think. Not all scholars are academics, and not all academics are scholars - although the best are."

It is symptomatic of the site's lively, questioning atmosphere that when Barnett says that he includes artists under the term "scholars", a short and spirited debate ensues with senior editor Susan Richards, a film producer, who argues that "scholars are analytical, where artists are not".

The site has its origins in Barnett's disquiet about Britain's existing media: "We have had a whole series of significant events, such as the creation of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly and the implementation of the Human Rights Act. Coverage of them in the mainstream media has been abominable, because the most important events have occurred away from London and outside official politics. My original idea was to create a website to cover these events by involving the people engaged in them, but I rapidly realised that fundamental debates about the nature of our political culture and democracy could not be contained within Britain. They cannot be explained without taking in Europe, corporations and globalisation."

Two years ago, Barnett won a small development grant. What has emerged since as the core of the site is a series of "strands" - debates on major issues, each run by a series coordinator and two editors. The point about the two editors is that they should disagree fundamentally, but should be prepared to engage and debate with each other. Richards says: "One of the weaknesses of media, print and electronic is that the like-minded tend to gather together."

Thus the City and Country strand is edited by Roger Scruton of Birkbeck College, London, and writer Ken Worpole, while Media matches Curran with David Elstein, former chief executive of Channel 5. On Europa, Richards debates with Frank Vibert of the European Policy Forum. These carefully chosen odd couples are encouraged, in Barnett's words, to "engage with their opponents' arguments at their strongest rather than their weakest points". Their contributions are intended to stimulate debate that is "global, of high quality, that includes the voices of authority and power and of scepticism, and is independent and participatory".

Some contributions are specifically commissioned, while others are responses to debate. None is paid for. The articles are also of a length and sophistication at odds with the assumption that the net is a short-attention-span medium - 1,000 to 1,200 words is common, while some, such as a remarkable piece by Hungarian philosopher Gaspar Miklos Tamas, which mixes intellectual autobiography with a critique of globalisation, are two or three times that length.

Personal abuse is barred, although Barnett is keen to encourage vigorous, colourful prose. Richards, concerned that contributions should be accessible, advocates using the language of email rather than literary reviews or political journals. Barnett finds that most contributors are instinctively mindful of the medium and the need for accessibility.

"They do not simplify their arguments, but write in shorter, clearer sentences and paragraphs, ensuring that their prose is not clotted with allusions."

A look at the front page suggests that many of the contributions could easily fit into the political weeklies. But the net scores on rapidity and interactivity. Strands grow rapidly as argument develops. Barnett says:

"The debate on public service broadcasting started with the BBC, but rapidly took in contributions dealing with experiences in countries such as Italy, New Zealand and the Czech Republic." He also notes a softening in the position taken by Elstein, generally a free-marketeer: "Changing your mind is an essential part of debate - you cannot do it unless you think. One of my problems with some academics is that they work out a position and then spend their careers defending rather than developing it."

Flourishing a hefty printout of the public-service debate, Barnett points to it as potential teaching material for media studies students, an idea being road-tested by media editor Casper Melville, who lectures at Goldsmiths. He expects a positive response from net-friendly students.

September 11 was a challenge that Barnett and Richards believe has been met with huge success. It has dictated much content, including New York eyewitness accounts - US editor Todd Gitlin, first of an international network of country editors, is based in Manhattan; contributions from frontline states such as Pakistan and Israel; articles on the nature of Islam and debates on "Is terror the new cold war?" and "Which way to justice". It has undoubtedly raised the profile, with more than 10,000 visitors each week - far more than the business plan predicted at this stage - of whom 60 per cent are from outside the United Kingdom.

"The numbers are still quite small, but they have answered the question, 'Is there a need for us?'," Richards says.

Grant-funded by the Ford Foundation and the Esmee Fairbairn Trust, the site is seeking finance to move beyond the pilot stage at some point next year. Options include voluntary subscriptions after the pattern used by public broadcasting in the US, or charging libraries subscriptions that will license all users to reproduce material from the site.

Ambition is not in short supply. Richards talks of "taking on the passivity of current political culture" and acknowledges that a key test of the site will be its ability to broaden debate beyond the existing chattering classes.

One potential step towards that is a project to link with student newspapers around the world, offering them articles and inviting students to participate in debates.

Details: www.opendemocracy.net


WORDS ON WAR FROM THE DIGITAL DOMAIN

"The cultural and religious schizophrenia experienced by a man like Mohamad Atta is microcosmic when compared with that of a whole society.

"Modern Saudi Arabia, where Osama bin Laden's father, a street-porter from Aden, made a fortune constructing palaces for princes, exemplifies the paradox of a high-tech society wedded to a pre-modern conservative theology. The chief religious dignitary, Sheikh bin Baz, still holds a Ptolemaic or geocentric view of the cosmos based on his reading of the Koran. Yet Saudi Arabia has bought into the US space programme, sending the first and so far the only Muslim astronaut into orbit."

Malise Ruthven
is a writer on Islam.


"In recent years, growing numbers of westerners have been dissociating themselves from the classically colonising, orientalising attitudes of their countries, even trying to go beyond concepts such as 'toleration' (which implies a kind of coexistence without mixing) and embrace 'the other' with his/her cultural values and identity. When Khomeini ordered a writer to be killed for 'abusing the Prophet in a novel', it was not easy for such left-liberal democrats in the West to defend the validity of Islamic values. Amid the ruins of the World Trade Center in the world's capital, the simplistic 'live and let live' of modern western 'multiculturalism' is even less a viable option. Instead, the assault challenges East and West alike to enter a new, serious and hard dialogue - within as well as between their societies."

Murat Belge
is head of the department of comparative literature at Bilgi University in Istanbul.

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