Authority, credibility and openDemocracy

David Hayes
13 June 2008

Everyone approaches the themes of this conference from a particular professional experience and angle of vision. In my own case they are a role at openDemocracy which involves commissioning and editing much of the material we publish on the front page of the site. From this perspective, thinking about the issue of what kind of credibility openDemocracy might hope to achieve in the "new news" environment has been a challenge.

David Hayes is deputy editor of openDemocracy

This article is the text of a talk delivered to a conference on "credibility in the new news - opportunities and challenges to building public trust in online news making" at the London School of Economics on 29 February 2008

The conference was co-organised by Polis, the MacArthur Foundation and openDemocracy. The participants included Anthony Barnett, Charlie Beckett, Felix Cohen, AC Grayling, Steve Herrmann, John Lloyd, Evgeny Morozov, Jeremy O'Grady, Tony Curzon Price, Elspeth Revere, Flemming Rose, Roger Scruton, Bella Thomas, Tamara Witschge and Jonathan ZittrainIt's a challenge partly because the heart of my work lies in the relationship with an author and his or her writing; it is largely concentrated and inward, and not public-facing. It's also a challenge because amid the daily and weekly routine, the intellectual principles that inform the work can come to seem remote or are simply less articulated than they should be.

I am reminded here of the French film director Éric Rohmer, who in describing his "moral tales" once said: "I am interested not so much in what people do as in what they are thinking about when they are doing it". What then am I thinking about when I do what I do? What follows is brief attempt to answer that question by taking a step back from everyday practice into the world of core principles, deep instincts, and generative assumptions.

In the flow

The task of meaning-making is an attempt to deliver something to the reader - some combination of words, voices, ideas, images - that does something other than add to its noise or than fuel its angers and troubles.

Most important of all for openDemocracy, is the world itself in all its complexity: both the uncapturable prolificity of immediate events, and the longer-term trends and dynamics. The task we set ourselves is to work with authors to bring to the site - and thus back to the world - their insight and informed understanding. As an editor, I depend on the author's expertise and need to intuit how this might be focused to match the reader's curiosity and need. The whole process - commissioning, writing, editing, publication - involves a filtering of the flux in a way that (in principle, and at its best) works to everyone's advantage: produces material that expresses the writer, engages and enlightens the reader, and extends openDemocracy's role as an agent of serious, trustworthy discourse.

The larger context of this work is for all involved a now-familiar one: the swirling, boundless, techno-rich, always-on, 24/7 media landscape and cyberscape. This is also the world we live inside and that lives inside us. In the context of our particular professional experience and angle of vision, we are all living a "double life" - trying to discover what it means to be "ourselves" amid the constant awareness of the astonishing, ungraspable surplus that is permanently only an eyeball, ear-socket or finger-click away. (The inferno in the background - moronic or intelligent by turns, but in either case relentless - is always there.)

For openDemocracy, this "double life" can be said to have three aspects. The first (it might be called definition) is that as a small organisation our work's value lies partly in the doing of what other, larger media companies don't or can't do. Part of this entails avoiding the temptation of trying to process the waterfall into formula or using it as a pretext to confirm to ourselves and our readers what we already think we know about it. Part of it entails refusing cynicism, contrarianism, orientalism, Chomskyianism, or other certain routes to intellectual closure and disempowerment. Part of it entails rejecting the imprisoning categories of "mainstream" and "alternative" as descriptions of our own or others' work - both in principle, and because "alternative" orthodoxies can be as conformist as the other kind. 

More positively, this aspect of the "double life" involves respecting the prolific, multi-centred character of the world "out there", and trying from the inside to make sense of as many parts of it as we can - by offering accurate and relevant information that can be read with interest equally by people inside the country it is about and by those outside; expert and evidence-based analysis (that often explores the historical context of current events); resources for education and discussion; and an enlarged frame of reference for the reader via new and interesting voices. Part of respecting our readers' intelligence and curiosity is thinking for ourselves, and expecting that they do the same. We seek not to mobilise opinion behind a particular view of the world but to allow different and grounded judgments to mix and be open to critical and sympathetic questioning. We want to make a public space that is true to the world by being both broad and deep.

All this suggests a distinction between credibility and authority. It seems to me that a key difference between them lies in the fact that authority is exercised (and owned, possessed) by an agent or body, whereas credibility is attributed (or denied) to the agent or body by others.

In the moment

What does this distinction mean in practice? To sketch an answer I refer to what we have done in some of the big moments of recent years where the geopolitical and intellectual fractures of the world have been exposed in especially stark form:

* 9/11 (2001)

* the Iraq war (2003)

* the French veil debate (2004)

* the Madrid bombs (2004)

* the Danish cartoon controversy (2005)

* the London bombs (2005)

* the Pope's Regensburg address (2006)

* the Archbishop of Canterbury's sharia lecture (2008)

These are moments when we focus our efforts on providing a concentrated cluster of materials on the topic in question to serve the purposes I have just listed. This means commissioning and publishing material from a variety of sources - scholars, journalists, analysts, participants - and perspectives. Sometimes this involves a sort of online symposium with short contributions addressed to a particular aspect of the controversy. What results is less often a direct opposition between defined positions as a mosaic of arguments. The accumulated outcome - clearly different in each case in its overall shape - is a product-mix that amounts at its best to "tools for understanding".

A reference to just one of these large events, the Danish cartoon controversy - which began at the end of September 2005, but escalated on an international scale in February 2006 - can provide an example of how we try to provide these tools. In a single month, we published twenty-five articles on the wide ramifications of this event - including Neal Ascherson on what he called a "carnival of stupidity" and Ramin Jahanbegloo on the "clash of intolerances"; a series on the various local contexts of the row from Ulf Hedetoft (focusing on the Danish dimension), Patrice de Beer (on the French), Zaid Al-Ali (on the Lebanese); Faisal Devji on the rise of a global Muslim political identity; and a symposium of twenty contributors - academics, journalists, Muslims, non-Muslims, from a dozen countries - on various aspects of the row.

This model - immediate in response, defined in length, extensive in the range of voices, soliciting informed reflection and grounded judgment rather than opinion and position-taking - is one we have applied to the other cases referred to above. The results are permanently and freely available on our archive, as a resource for all interested citizens.

The second internal aspect of this "double life" (it might be called combination) works here; in that the aim is to publish pieces that both have intrinsic merit and along with others of a different kind enrich the environment in which they appear. The character of the contributions, to emphasise the point, lies both in the quality of the individual articleså and in the context of irreducible (but editorialised) plurality they belong to - the fact they are participants in a "shared space" (to use the late Hans Monderman's term).

The implication here is that - at least in terms of what and how we choose to publish - the authority of the "brand" is in our hands in a way that the credibility of what we do with it is (ultimately) not. The former inheres greatly in the quality of our authors, and in the nature of our judgment - including (perhaps crucially) the boundaries of that "range of perspectives".

About credibility, there has to be more of a confident letting-go. openDemocracy can hope to be credible because its content, and (again) the space where it appears, are respected and (a quality not to be underestimated) useful. We must establish as true a relationship as possible with our readers and supporters; and it is they who will control the credibility we are afforded.

In my memory, credibility's modern usage derives from the period of what our columnist Fred Halliday called the "second cold war" in the 1980s; and in relation to the nuclear standoff between the superpowers at the time. It was one element in a discourse of power and fear, and is perhaps not entirely free of its imprint of calculation.

In the times

There are the same constraints and dangers here as there in any consistent pursuit of a particular editorial take on the world: tunnel-vision; a bubble-effect; an instrumental connection to the world; allowing original insight to harden into fetish; attitudinising rather than thinking; losing touch with those who identify with you - or becoming too close to them. (I am reminded in the latter context of Peter Drucker's insight: "The sole purpose of a business is to create a customer", which seems far more than a "marketing" point).

The opening decade of the 21st century is a deeply conformist as well as a fearful time; and one of its many traps is tribal thinking, the hunger for agreement and for confirmation of what we already think, rather than trying to discover what we do not know and expanding our worlds accordingly. In this light, two things can help serve openness as an editorial strategy: first, to be always looking to bring outsiders into the conversation, rather than reinforcing the worldview of those who are already participants; second, to strive for a mix in contributors that reflects the irreducible variety of the world while trying to maintain consistent, exacting standards as a guarantee of contributors' moral equality.

The third internal aspect of the "double life" is here (which might be called generation). One of the most creative aspects of openDemocracy since the beginning has been its generational mix (as well as other kinds, though I'd like now to stress this one in particular). I owe very much to two brilliant editors, Anthony Barnett and Isabel Hilton; but also to the enlarging influence of many young colleagues in their 20s over the past years, starting with Paul Hilder and continuing today with Jon Bright, Felix Cohen, Grace Davies, and Kanishk Tharoor. The lesson I take from this kaleidoscopic experience is that to be fully in and of the world in the 21st century, it's not enough any more to be just one thing - whether old, white, Christian, and male or the counterparts of these things. Everything now works both ways, and that is part of the excitement and the challenge.

If the world itself in all its complexity is the vital first reference-point for all we do, the answers to the huge questions it poses won't come from either a retreat into dogma or to an imaginary higher ground that holds the difficulty and irreducibility of the world at bay; nor a complete accommodation to the flux that outsources judgment to the remorseless 24/7 cycle. The role of a serious publication and of an editor is to maintain and nurture - but also where necessary to refresh - a consistent character, as part of a constant effort to make meaning and advance understanding. My own editorial guiding light here is a saying of Mahatma Gandhi:

"I want the winds of all the worlds to blow through my house, but I don't want to be blown off my feet".

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