In with the bricks, out for life

A recollection of openDemocracy’s early days, by David Hayes.
David Hayes
12 May 2011

It is a decade since openDemocracy began its public life as a live website on 13 May 2001 with the publication of Rajeev and Tani Bhargava’s article “The Indian experience” (originally part of a longer feature with several contributors, posing the question: “Are elections any way to run a democracy?”). The moment marks the symbolic launch-pad of a project that has survived many vicissitudes to reach its tenth birthday - an honourable feat in the voracious environment of internet media.

That survival is a huge credit to all those involved - not least the authors who have contributed so much to building the substantial archive of analysis and argument, reportage and reflection that lies at the heart of openDemocracy’s work. More broadly they include funders, both institutional and individual, and employees and other colleagues across this entire period.

The latter amount to more than 400 people, according to my own mix of personal recollection and accounting: a figure that includes both editorial staff and those who have worked for or been closely associated with the company in many capacities - administration, finance, technology, publishing, marketing, public relations, advisors, interns, and board members. Their individual trajectories and tenures, sometimes very lengthy (years) and sometimes more fleeting (one lasted for a single day, but that’s a tale for another time), are also an inextinguishable part of the collective reality that has led openDemocracy to this point.

Some of these are acknowledged in an article I wrote for our five-year anniversary in 2006, which also maps in necessarily compressed form the editorial output of that first half-decade (see the boxed inserts in “openDemocracy’s five years: the editorial story”, 11 May 2006). Many more will be on another occasion.

Every beginning is at the same time part of a larger process. My own active involvement in the project began in January 2000, and those intense sixteen months of preparatory work are also indelible. This period includes the year spent in the obligatory start-up garage with Anthony Barnett (whose generous household and family are a fond memory), Paul Hilder, and Susan Richards. By the start of 2001, two more members - Bola Gibson and James Hamilton - had been ingathered. This entire period preceding the opening to the world is an integral part of the openDemocracy story, both in terms of the same combination of collective and individual experience and because it contributed in many ways to what came later.

A move to the first proper office, in Goswell Road in the London district of Clerkenwell, made it all start to seem real. The time came, the stars aligned, the day arrived. Rajeev and Tani Bhargava’s reflection on elections and democracy considered why the poor in India vote in such large numbers, and answered with a quietly potent argument that carries a further charge against the backdrop of the Arab democracy wave of 2011:

"On its own, political democracy is unlikely to improve the economic condition of the poor. But it has given them the self-confidence and the much-needed social space to strive to improve their own life-chances. This could never have happened without their birth as voters."

The first “issue” of openDemocracy was circulated by email newsletter almost three weeks later, on 1 June 2001. The list of contents shows a digest of material published since 13 May, including further responses to the elections debate from the Czech Republic, Cyprus, and the United States; an “election polemic” from Tom Nairn (in advance of Tony Blair’s second victory a week later); a discussion of “the future of the centre-left” with Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Matthew d’Ancona, and Matthew Taylor; perspectives on the future of Europe from Reinhard Hesse and Krzysztof Bobinski; Dominic Hilton on the political marketing-cliche “Worcester woman”; Laura Sandys on the encircling certitudes of George W Bush’s Washington; Ken Worpole and Roger Scruton on the urban-rural relationship; Ann Pettitt on a Welsh farm amid a health crisis; Andrew Graham and David Elstein on the BBC; Isaac Leung on the filmmaker Ang Lee; Michael Ashburner on the privatising of genes; and David Hayes on England’s northeast.

It feels like yesterday, and also a century ago. How is that possible?

The initial media reception was a vast indifference, though Jeremy Vine (then presenting BBC2’s Newsnight) turned up with a crew one day. Such experiences led me to imagine how we might cut it on the celebrity circuit (see “The media and openDemocracy: the garage tapes”, 11 May 2006).

The team grew, the office filled. At least one romance bloomed (but that’s another tale for another time). This singular area of London - which was to be our home for eight years - imprinted itself on our work and character, imbued a new-media initiative with the spirit of an old place, and entered our structures of feeling in yet unexpressed ways.

When the full history of openDemocracy is written, there will be a chapter on its links with Clerkenwell. We marked the end of that year with a guided walk (a sequel came three years later) around the by-then blessed plot. The invitation was part-inspired by Mr Culpepper’s lecture in the greatest of all English films, Powell & Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale (1944) (see “The openDemocracy walk”, 11 May 2006).

Three months earlier, on 11 September 2001, the defining event of the year and the decade had arrived, wrecking lives and wrenching the world off its axis. How could it be rebalanced? That moment and that question also marked the end of openDemocracy's beginning.

This article is dedicated to Anthony Barnett, Paul Hilder, Susan Richards

openDemocracy's second Clerkenwell home, 2002, courtesy Ian Christe

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