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An improbable team

It took an unlikely combination of talents to start building openDemocracy’s Tower of Babel, comments one of its founders
Susan Richards
12 May 2011

Once Anthony had made the decision to ‘do something global’, the team he brought together to develop this idea was a pretty unlikely group. At least Paul Hilder, today Oxfam’s Director of Campaigns, was familiar with internet technology, unlike the rest of us. There was nothing in David Hayes’s cv to suggest that he was a celebrated editor-in-waiting – Anthony just knew it. As for me, an ex-film producer, my one global credential was that I’d written a book about Russia and spoke the language. Anthony himself – a veteran revolutionary and democracy campaigner -  was the most unlikely of us all.

It proved surprisingly easy to work out what the key features of openDemocracy should be, and they have changed little. The internet was a brand new medium. We were still dialling it up laboriously on our home phone lines.  Across the developing world, access was limited to cities and universities. Routers, wifi, light lap tops were a long way off. But the medium’s potential was clear. openDemocracy’s defining features were inspired by that potential.

We had grown up with media which told us what to think. Our global forum had to be different.  We needed to build a place that would be strong enough to pose large questions. A crucible that could contain difference. A place to host civilised debate about how to design a common future - one that would be more just, more democratic and sustainable than the past.

Accessible to all cultures, to people everywhere, this had to be a place where the voices of the marginalised and oppressed counted as much as those of the powerful. A place where power could be held to account.

To those under 30 that vision may already sound unremarkable. But we had grown up in a world in which very few divas sang all the main arias. Dominating that old stage was a soprano of massive proportions (the western Establishment) singing an aria about the free world to those developing countries it hoped would come onside – and giving them a slapping if they were recalcitrant. 

But this world stage was divided by walls of class and ideology and violence with a growing threat of corporate power. In response there could be glimpsed various choruses marching in step, singing in unconvincing unison other songs about a bright tomorrow. There was an acute need for more voices, and fresh tunes that recognised and engaged with the new realities.

It became clear in the course of those early discussions in ‘the  garage’ in London’s Tufnell Park that this seedbed for fresh ideas and solutions could not be driven by the marketplace, or it would lose its way. It had to be unhampered by the manoeuvring of corporate and national interests. We had no idea how oD was going to be financed.

In the context of the time, this is less surprising than it sounds now. The internet had only emerged into public consciousness in the mid 1990s. No one yet knew how money was going to shape this global space– indeed, the first e-bubble was bursting  even as we launched.

So what is really remarkable, looking back, is not that we came up with the idea. It is that a series of foundations was prepared to accept our proposition that only time would teach us what funding streams would sustain it. Those foundations had to be endlessly patient while we learned that, in the long run, there would be only one way to guarantee openDemocracy’s future – by asking you, our readers, to support the idea and find ways of paying for it that keep it open for anyone around the world.  

It’s not quite right to say that we founded openDemocracy, either. For this Tower of Babel of ours is being founded and refounded every day. Foremost among those who have refounded it is Tony Curzon Price, our Editor in Chief.  Except for Paul, we came from a print background, so we imposed that corset on the infant oD. Tony turned the organisation upside down, releasing it from top-down management, transforming it  into an entity with the capacity to grow and evolve. Today, controls from the centre are light; the centre serves the organisation’s separate editorial forums which feed onto the main website.

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Meeting in progress, openDemocracy 2002, courtesy Ian Christie

It is appropriate that the first of these editorial forums to thrive, acquiring a distinctive character and readership was the Our Kingdom blog that Anthony started after he had handed over responsibility for openDemocracy. I had to wait seven years before the opportunity arose to realise my cherished dream of founding opendemocracy Russia, along with Zygmunt Dzieciolowski.

This pared down, adaptable model is what makes me confident that by the time we celebrate oD’s 20th anniversary the list of openDemocracy’s founders will have grown much longer. Whole continents, like Latin America and Africa, await the moment when the right editorial talent finds the financial leg-up to initiate more forums inspired by oD’s ideals and openness, each with their own appropriate character. We will not be fully fledged, in my view, until more continents and cultures are regularly feeding their stream of voices onto our front page. 

Early days, openDemocracy 2002, courtesy Ian Christie

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