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openDemocracy turns 20: from 9/11 to the climate crisis

Over 20 years, oD has developed from a small ‘magazine on the internet’ into a force for truly global reporting and debate on the world’s most important issues

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
28 September 2021, 5.01pm
On September 11 2001, hours after two planes crashed into New York's Twin Towers, openDemocracy began publishing
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Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

Around the turn of the millennium, a small group of English radicals decided to launch something a bit like a magazine, only on the internet.

As the openDemocracy legend goes, this was seen by many as a bizarre idea. The word ‘blog’ had only just been invented, and while some newspapers were starting to develop websites – guardian.co.uk was launched in 1999 – these were very much offshoots of paper products.

But they pushed on. The alter-globalisation movement, which would storm to the world’s attention in Seattle in November 1999, needed a media. openDemocracy Ltd was incorporated as a company on 8 October 1999 and, after a long pregnancy in which funds were raised, was born as a weekly online magazine in May 2001.

The editors had lots of interesting material. The earliest edition available on the internet archive includes an interview with the anthropologist Hugh Brody by, among others, the philosopher Tom Nairn. There was another with Esther Dyson, the first chair of ICANN, which is responsible for domain names, about internet governance.

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However, it still looked very much like a paper magazine transposed without much elegance onto a glowing screen, with weekly edition numbers. I think it’s fair to say the group hadn’t exactly worked out how to do this online thing yet.

Four months later, something happened which forced them to rethink their publication schedule. On 11 September, American Airlines Flight 11 was flown into the North Tower of the World Trade Center complex in Lower Manhattan at 8:46 am, Eastern Standard Time. Seventeen minutes later, the World Trade Center's South Tower was hit by United Airlines Flight 175, followed by the downing of two more planes.

That day, openDemocracy started publishing on a rolling basis. And it has kept going since.

To mark the 20th anniversary, I’ve chosen pieces from each of these 20 years. And as the Afghanistan war comes to a violent end, it seems fitting to start with Paul Rogers’ first column for us.

Before 9/11 became 9/11, oD’s co-founder, Anthony Barnett, had seen a lecture from Rogers, a professor of peace studies at the University of Bradford, in which he had predicted that something like the attacks was likely to happen. Initially, Barnett tells me, he didn’t take this notion very seriously. But when the horrifying footage of the attacks beamed around the world, he picked up the phone and asked Rogers to write a regular column.

He has continued to write a weekly essay ever since, but that first piece, entitled ‘Afghanistan: the problem with military action’ is worth revisiting.

From Al-Qaeda’s perspective, he wrote, “the most desirable US response would be widespread military action against training, logistical and other anti-US paramilitary facilities in several countries, together with direct attacks against the Kabul regime and possibly Iraq.

“If the US takes any such action it will be precisely what the group wants – indeed the stronger the action the better. In its view, such action will serve to:

a) weaken the strong pro-US international coalition

b) weaken the position of the more moderate elements of the Kabul regime

c) above all, enable the group to recruit more support.”

An American flag is draped over the side of a watchtower manned by armed guards
Watchtower teams at Camp X-Ray, at Guantanamo Bay, rehearse for handling incoming detainees, 10 January 2002 | Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

2002: Paul Gilroy on Guantanamo

“It was in Cuba that concentration camps were first added to the political technologies of colonial modernity, during the Spanish-American War, an episode that ushered in The American Century we have just left,” wrote top Black academic Paul Gilroy, on 31 January 2002, in a beautiful piece entitled ‘Diving into the tunnel: the politics of race between old and new worlds’.

Musing on the mixed-race would-be shoe bomber, he wrote: “Britain’s jails are brimful with Richard Reids. The unacknowledged effects of institutional racism have polluted the waters of the country’s civic culture... A generation has passed since anybody sat down and tried to make sense of the politics of race in Britain.”

His essay appears under the heading ‘After 9/11’ and, by this point, openDemocracy had found its stride. These days, when I’m editing an article which perhaps needs to be a little more pointy, I sometimes ask the author, “What are you writing against?"

Shortly after its launch, openDemocracy had found its purpose: it was writing against the war on terror.

2003: Losing the peace in Iraq

If openDemocracy found its feet writing against the war on terror, then the invasion of Iraq taught it to march. In January 2003, the site published an iconic series of short essays by prominent figures from across the UK and around the world laying out their positions.

“This is High Noon for American democracy,” wrote John Le Carré. John Berger wrote poetic stanzas about shame: “Shame, as I’m coming to understand it, is a species feeling which, in the long run, corrodes the capacity for hope and prevents us looking far ahead. We look down at our feet, thinking only of the next small step.”

“Three horses draw George W. Bush’s furiously racing chariot of war. Their names are Vengeance, Greed, and Fear,” wrote Pervez Hoodbhoy, a Pakistani nuclear physicist.

People attend a protest against the Iraq War in London
More than a million people attend a February 2003 protest against the Iraq war in London. Simultaneous demonstrations are held in 600 cities around the world | Anine Wiedel Photolibrary / Alamy Stock Photo

Not every essay was firmly against war: Salman Rushdie equivocated, Roger Scruton was pro. But the overall tone was expressed in Anita Roddick’s essay – a depressingly rare female voice. “Shame,’ she wrote. “Shame on Bush and Blair for threatening their illegal and immoral war.”

“Is the coalition winning the peace in Iraq?” asked Arthur Helton and Gil Loescher on 7 August 2003, in an essay entitled ‘Destination Baghdad’.

“Much is at stake in Iraq for its people; but also politically for the presidency of George W. Bush, the prestige of the United States, Britain and their allies, and the future of the Middle East more generally. Peace in Iraq is simply too important to lose,” the pair wrote.

Their trip would answer the question in the most violent possible way. While they were in the UN embassy, interviewing the ambassador for openDemocracy, the famous Baghdad bomb went off. Helton was killed instantly. Loescher, left in the rubble, lost both legs and was seriously wounded – and was found only because the ambassador managed to reach his mobile phone and call for help, before he himself died.

In December, after months in hospital, Loescher told his story: ‘I was not going to die in the rubble’. A decade later, I interviewed him, and he sadly passed away last year.

2004: Chinese poetry and cultural politics

openDemocracy has a number of roots, but one of them is what I sometimes call the ‘old New Left’. Anthony Barnett, one of our co-founders, was on the board of the New Left Review as a young man, and grew up in the intellectual world of people like Raymond Williams, Tom Nairn and Stuart Hall, the latter two both having been contributors to the site.

A key part of the inheritance from figures like Williams and Hall is an editorial tradition of believing that culture is both ordinary, and vital; that we can’t understand the world without understanding the arts, and seeing them fully as expressions of how different societies live together. I’ve tried to learn from this approach in my own recent reviews of ‘Buffy’ and ‘Queer Eye’.

One feature from 2004, an interview by Lucie Kalvachova of the Chinese poet Liu Hongbin entitled ‘The Republic of Poetry’ is very much worth revisiting in this context. Liu, described by Arthur Miller as “a fine poet of deep democratic convictions and powerful talent”, was living as an exile in London, having fled the Chinese regime after the 1989 uprising most famous for the Tiananmen Square massacre.

“When I first fell in love with poetry,” he told openDemocracy, “I fell in love with the words and language. I still see every Chinese character as alive, with a life, a skin, a nervous system. But as I grew up, my understanding of pain invaded the world of my imagination. I felt the urge to become concerned with social and political problems. The choices everyone has to make: human dilemmas of value, morality, ethics and aesthetics.”

Not long after this, openDemocracy having been banned in China, our China coverage grew into the separate, dual-language website China Dialogue.

2005: Democracy and openDemocracy

In October 2005, oD’s then lead editors, Isabel Hilton and Anthony Barnett, laid out what they saw as the real threats to democracy.

“The end of the Cold War in 1989 opened the way for the extension of democratic government to many countries around the world. Now, terrorism, fundamentalism and the imposition of the neo-liberal form of globalisation threaten to halt and even reverse this process. Democracy is under attack from without, and, even more insidiously, from within,” they began, in what can only be described as a firm-handed introduction.

They went on to clarify a crucial point.

“Terrorism is barbaric, immoral and indefensible. But in itself it is rarely a threat to the continued existence of a democracy unless that democracy connives in the damage. Terrorists can frighten, maim and kill our citizens. But they cannot change our political systems. That is something we do to ourselves. It is terrorism and the response to terrorism that threatens democracy.”

The piece came in the aftershock of a chain of bloody terrorist attacks: the 2002 Bali bomb; the 2004 Madrid train bombings, just days before Spain was to vote; and the 7/7 explosions in London, a violent intrusion into the carnival of protest against the G8 at Gleneagles.

If the basis for democracy is deliberation, we have to ask: who hosts the conversation?

Responding to these, Hilton and Barnett argue that “we must not inflate the capacities of the terrorist. The point of terror for a terrorist is exactly that, to terrorise: to spread fear and to panic peoples and their governments into behaviour that furthers the aims of the terrorist. The more democracies play along, the better it is for the terrorist.”

Instead, they argue for more democracy. And, “If the basis for democracy is deliberation, we have to ask: who hosts the conversation? If the answer is the corporate media, then discussion will be limited and access to debate controlled. The internet provides a new means of democratising debate, but only if its users maintain quality, accuracy and clarity, and include global participation.

“This is our ambition at openDemocracy,” they conclude, just as boldly as they began.

These days, we wouldn’t claim to be the alternative to corporate- or oligarch-owned media. But we hope we are part of the conversation.

In the article, they talked hopefully about the human rights situation in Turkey, and, that year, they published a beautiful essay by Hrant Dink, editor-in-chief of Armenian-language newspaper Agos, ‘The water finds its crack: an Armenian in Turkey.

I first read the article in 2016, on a flight to Istanbul, where I was meeting a number of old friends of openDemocracy to see if they would set up a Turkish section.

2006: A trial in Turkey

But the next year, things got worse in Turkey. As the country became more authoritarian, a group of writers, including a regular openDemocracy contributor, were charged with public denigration of Turkishness. oD editor Anthony Barnett went to the trial.

“What seemed plain in that Istanbul courtroom is that there is a battle between two Turkeys,” he reported. “One is lively, cosmopolitan, growing in wealth, feels humiliated by the trials and wants to see an end to the influence of militaristic nationalism. Its patriotism seeks an enhanced place for Turkey in the world through membership of the European Union. The other draws upon an incendiary mix which is in the Turkish air: of rightwing (even fascist) rage, nationalist opportunism and Islamic fundamentalism.”

On the way to that meeting a decade later, it was clear which of these had won, as police tear-gassed a small protest against the closure of an independent TV station to allow a youth rally for the governing party to march past. The AKP youth, in matching Turkish flag T-shirts, were chanting slogans and carrying placards targeting that other Turkey, including Kurds, progressives and Armenians. “Don’t use the water from the cannon,” they suggested to the police. “Use the bullets from the tank.”

When I arrived at the meeting, oD’s friends told me that it wouldn’t be safe for them to establish a section. And I didn’t challenge them. On 19 January 2007, Hrant Dink, who had contributed three beautiful essays to oD, had been murdered by an extremist while facing trial for public denigration of Turkey.

2007: Financial crash

As early as 2003, economist Ann Pettifor had written for openDemocracy predicting what she called ‘The coming First World debt crisis’, which went on to be expanded into a 2006 book of the same title.

In 2007, the crisis she anticipated crossed the horizon.

A trader on the New York Stock Exchange rubs his forehead and looks stressed
Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on 9 August 2007, which Ann Pettifor termed ‘debtonation day’ | Reuters/Alamy

“A single day, 9 August 2007, will go down in history as ‘debtonation day’ – the beginning of the end of the deregulation and privatisation of finance that marks the era of globalisation,” she wrote on 15 August.

“The bitter truth of grand market failure on 9 August 2007,” she continued, “is that when the financial sector faced meltdown, it had to rely on the state – in the form of central banks in the United States, Europe and Japan alike – to intervene in order to restore a semblance of stability. In the real world, citizens and taxpayers are once again obliged to bear responsibility, and pay the costs incurred by the reckless and unrestrained greed of the world of high finance.”

2008: Banks collapse and food prices soar

Just as the US was electing its first Black president, the fuse that had been lit in 2007 reached its explosive level in 2008. The global banking system exploded.

But, as Heidi Fritschel explained, that wasn’t the only economic disaster that year.

“Poor consumers across the globe are protesting about their rising food bills,” she wrote. “In December 2007, Mexicans rioted in response to an enormous jump in tortilla prices, which quadrupled in some parts of the country; in January 2008, Indonesians took to the streets to protest high soybean prices; in February, protesters in three major towns in Burkina Faso, angry about the rising cost of food and other basic goods, attacked government offices and shops; unrest linked to food markets has occurred also in Guinea, Mauritania, Morocco, Senegal, Uzbekistan, and Yemen.”

A combination of growing demand for meat diverting crops from food into animal fodder, climate change destroying fields with droughts and floods, and speculation on food prices, was driving up the cost of eating around the world.

If the first eight years of openDemocracy’s life were focused on writing against Bush and Blair’s war on terror, then the global destabilisation of 2008 marked the beginning of the next period.

2009: Copenhagen and modern liberty

Before Lehman Brothers liquidated in 2008, openDemocracy had begun gathering allies for an event aimed at challenging the authoritarianism of the New Labour administration. The Convention on Modern Liberty, with “a call to all concerned with attacks on our fundamental rights and freedoms under pressure from counter-terrorism, financial breakdown and the database state”, was held in February 2009.

In London, 1,500 people attended the gathering, with live-streams linking it to parallel events in Glasgow, Belfast, Manchester, Bristol and Cambridge. A collection of essays, edited by oD’s Rosemary Bechler, was published on openDemocracy alongside the event, and can still be bought in paper form today.

From the outset, openDemocracy had been a platform for an argument, growing out of that ‘old New Left’, that the British state was a huge barrier to democratic progress. In many ways, this event gathered that energy in preparation for the new era.

But if I have to choose one piece from 2009, then it’s about something else. Because, as the decade came to a close, world leaders gathered in Copenhagen to try to hammer out a deal on climate change. I remember the exhaustion of an overnight coach to join the demonstration outside, of being aggressively frisked by armed guards at the border, and the very moment that it became clear that the conference was a disastrous failure; the moment Obama lost his sheen.

Our coverage was a rare example of telling it like it is amid the bullshit of major international conferences

“Poor nations at Copenhagen climate summit outraged by leaked memo,” read openDemocacy’s coverage of the issue, by Rukeyya Khan.

“The Copenhagen climate summit has been thrown into disarray after developing countries said the current plans for a deal on global warming condemned millions of people to ‘absolute devastation’,” she wrote.

“The draft agreement has been criticised by campaigners who have argued that it risks alienating poor nations. The proposal has been interpreted by developing countries as setting unequal limits on carbon emissions for developed and developing countries – meaning that people in rich countries would be permitted to emit nearly twice as much.

“Lumumba Stanislaus Di-Aping, the chief negotiator for the G77, a group of 130 developing nations including China, said the leaders of the rich world had a ‘moral obligation’ to cut greenhouse gases. He added that developing countries would not sign an 'inequitable deal' nor 'accept a deal that condemns 80% of the world's population to further suffering and injustice’.”

The coverage – centring the voices and analysis of the Global South – was a rare example of telling it like it is during the bullshit and spin of major international conferences.

If oD had been conceived a decade earlier in the passion of the Battle of Seattle, as a media for the summit-hopping, alter-globalisation movement, then this was the final gathering of that era. The climate movement, which had grown powerful in the late-Noughties, had put too much hope in Copenhagen, and, as the vortex of the global financial crisis swirled, it drowned in disappointment.

2010: Is the world shrinking, or growing?

The geographer Doreen Massey was one of the great thinkers of our time, and all of her contributions to openDemocracy – and, frankly, everything she wrote for – are worth reading. When I first joined the team in 2013, we had agreed a partnership with her, Michael Rustin and Stuart Hall to co-publish a series of essays they produced, ‘The Kilburn manifesto: after neoliberalism’, which began with a lovely essay from her on the vocabularies of neoliberalism.

But I’m getting ahead of myself – we’re in December 2010. The banking system had collapsed, Obama was president, Twitter was just a year old, ‘Heroes’ by the ‘X Factor’ finalists was number one in the UK, David Cameron and Nick Clegg were facing huge student protests as they announced they would treble tuition fees and force through brutal cuts most of the UK had voted against.

Neoliberalism was trying to reboot itself, and Doreen Massey was kicking the shit out of its very assumptions. Her iconic openDemocracy essay ‘Is the world getting larger or smaller?’ is a classic of the form.

Protesters hold a banner reading 'Clegg: Do not Con-demn us'
UK students protesting the raise in university tuition fees, holding an anti-Nick Clegg banner, London, 30 Nov 2010 | Alex MacNaughton / Alamy Stock Photo

“It is hard to escape the grand statements: the world is getting smaller; we live in a global village; speed-up has conquered distance; time, finally, has annihilated space. We read of the death of distance, and that geography too is dead. (But then we are subjected, also, to assertions of the ‘end of history’),” she wrote.

Going on to quote Jumanda Gakelebone and Roy Sesane of the First People of the Kalahari, the impressions of people in the Pitcairn Islands – for whom the replacement of shipping by flights has accentuated feelings of remoteness – as well as the experience of Londoners and New Yorkers, who feel closer than ever, she shows how the assumptions of neoliberalism are often based on the experiences of the powerful, and those at the core of the global system, and actively ignore the experiences of those pushed to the periphery.

“​​The notion of a shrinking world is precisely such a manoeuvre, projected above all in aid of the project of ‘Davos man’: that new global elite of neoliberal wealth and its cheerleaders, represented by Bill Gates's and Nicholas Negroponte's digital future, and Thomas Friedman's ‘The world is Flat’. Their world (of business, of virtual communication, of touchdowns in selected technological hotspots in the global south) is presented as the world,” she argued.

2011: The year of protest

Protests around the world, which began in the autumn of 2010, swung with centripetal force into the spring of 2011. European governments had decided to respond to the crisis of neoliberalism by delivering more neoliberalism, cutting health and education budgets to pay for the sins of spivs and speculators, privatising public services into the hands of those whose failures had produced the crisis and deregulating in response to a disaster triggered by deregulation.

At the same time, Obama’s quantitative easing pumped trillions into the computers of banks, but failed to plant it deep in the pockets of workers. It washed around the world as speculative finance, driving up food prices even further, along with other living costs, and inflaming hunger and rage, and a set of political conflicts which would play out over the next decade.

2011 was the year of the occupations and the squares. openDemocracy ran interviews about the ideas and experiences of the 15 May movement in Spain, Occupy Wall Street, London’s occupation at St Paul’s and many more.

But it was uprisings across the Arab world which defined the year, and birthed a new openDemocracy section – now called North Africa, West Asia. And if I recommend one piece from that year, it would be Hania Sholkamy’s essay ‘From Tahrir Square to my kitchen’.

People are seen in front of huge plumes of smoke in Egypt's Tahrir Square
Riot police clash with protesters in Tahrir Square, Cairo, during Egypt’s November 2011 uprising | Benedicte Desrus / Alamy Stock Photo

“This is how I found openDemocracy,” Walid Houri, NAWA’s editor, tells me, “through analysis written by activists and academics in the region – it was a very rare debate, it was a unique debate, I think. And still is.”

NAWA has continued to produce unique coverage of the region, led by people from the region, as movements for democracy and liberation have, over a full decade now, struggled against violence, oppression, environmental collapse, crony capitalism, poverty and war.

Something else happened in that hopeful summer, too. In August, on the Norwegian island of Utøya and with a car-bomb in Oslo, Anders Breivik murdered 77 people, in a targeted far-Right attack against a Norwegian Labour Party youth camp.

As progressive movements had driven events of the world so far that year, this was the response, not from the neoliberal establishment, but from a fascism it had allowed to develop, the violent edge of a structure of feeling that all of us would soon become familiar with.

openDemocracy editor Rosemary Bechler persuaded Norwegian journalist Magnus Nome to write a response, which calmly dismembered US coverage of the attacks.

Why let the facts ruin the story?’ quickly became the most-read piece in openDemocracy’s history up until then. If oD’s first, tentative steps had been into ground zero on 9/11, then Utøya, which happened as Twitter took off – meaning readers could easily share articles from whichever publications they liked – was when it arrived at high school.

Magnus became editor-in-chief, and still sits on our board.

2012: The BBC and the NHS

In the UK, the austerity bonfire lit by the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition was starting to blaze. While cuts to university and college funding had fuelled the first year, in 2012, the National Health Service was next on the log pile.

Despite significant concerns about the government’s Health and Social Care Bill, there was a strong sense that the BBC’s coverage of it was limited, and sometimes seemed to consist of reading out government press releases.

By 2013, it was clear that the 2008 crash hadn’t produced the end of neoliberalism

In September of that year, oD editor Oliver Huitson investigated the allegations, and came to the conclusion that the BBC had “abandoned the NHS”.

“It appears,” wrote Olly, “the BBC made a concerted effort to follow the government line, censor critical facts, bury fundamental elements of the reforms and present opposition to the bill in an intentionally limited and shallow manner. Their requirement to report impartially appears to have been fundamentally breached.”

He clearly wasn’t the only person to think that. The piece beat Magnus’s record and became the most read on oD to that point.

2013: How to kill a zombie

By 2013, it was absolutely clear that the 2008 crash hadn’t produced the end of neoliberalism that many had hoped and believed it would, and much of the Left became introspective. Writing for openDemocracy, the brilliant Mark Fisher expanded on his ‘capitalist realism’ thesis of 2009, framing neoliberalism as a zombie – no longer exactly alive, but marching on nonetheless.

Among other things, Fisher was critical of some of the ‘horizontalist’ strategies that anti-capitalist movements had adopted over the previous two decades, in an argument that perhaps foretold what some describe as the ‘party turn’ taken by much of the Left in the global north in the years that were to come.

2014: Scottish independence

The movements of the squares, of occupations and of resistance to both authoritarianism and austerity had largely succumbed to the forces of inertia by 2014. But in Scotland, they were able to gather the focus of a deadline. The SNP had won a surprise majority in the 2011 Scottish elections and secured a referendum on independence.

Scotland newspapers independence
A Scotsman newspaper board reads 'Yes or No?' in the run up to the vote on Scottish Independence | Credit: Alan Wilson / Alamy Stock Photo

The Yes side, initially around just a quarter of the population, was boosted as this anti-establishment energy came in behind it. And openDemocracy, one of the only media outlets to take the movement seriously and see the surge in its support coming, benefited hugely. A look at the graph of our readership over the years on Google Analytics still shows a significant bump in the month before the vote. My own ‘Scotland isn’t different, it’s Britain that’s bizarre’, which argues in favour of independence, is still my most-read piece to date.

2015: ‘A fraud against its readers’

In February 2015, Peter Oborne resigned as chief political commentator of The Daily Telegraph. Announcing his decision on openDemocracy, he wrote, “It has long been axiomatic in quality British journalism that the advertising department and editorial should be kept rigorously apart. There is a great deal of evidence that, at the Telegraph, this distinction has collapsed.”

In an astonishing piece of writing, Oborne went on to accuse the Telegraph of spiking stories about HSBC and Hong Kong to please major advertisers, while running puff pieces for other commercial interests.

openDemocracy’s relationship with Oborne had begun with the Convention on Modern Liberty, and we’d run the occasional piece from him since – including an article on HSBC shutting down the accounts of Muslim businesspeople for little reason, which the Telegraph had spiked. But from the moment I hit the publish button on this letter, it was clear that he’d given us something special: the editor in chief, Mary Fitzgerald, and I sat and watched as readers crashed in, and in some ways, the site has stood taller ever since.

In May, Ed Miliband’s Labour lost the UK general election, triggering a leadership election in his party. While most of the media laughed at the idea that the left-wing outsider Jeremy Corbyn might win, we were almost unique in taking the prospect seriously.

The academic and regular oD contributor Jeremy Gilbert wrote an essay reassessing the history of Labour in the 1980s and making an equivocal case for a Corbyn vote. The piece, read by more than 100,000 people, was probably the most significant sustained argument for the outsider candidate published in the UK press, and I still think it contributed significantly to his victory.

2016: The Irish slaves myth and white nationalism

The most-read piece on openDemocracy in 2016 was in fact written in 2015: Liam Hogan’s clear and precise refutation of the idea that Irish people, like Black people, had been slaves in British colonies.

In a sense, the fact we had to publish this is in itself depressing. Historians are very clear, as Hogan sets out, that Irish people were never chattel slaves, never subjected to hereditary enslavement, never treated as badly as Black people. But the fact that so many people understood why we did, and shared it, tells a powerful story.

Over the previous decade, white racism had morphed

Over the previous decade, white racism had morphed. Where once it had been an assertion of power and strength, now supremacist ideas were twisting into notions of victimhood: white people – and particularly men – are the ones who are really oppressed, the story goes. White people will cease to exist, they tell us, if we keep interbreeding. And anyway, white people were, they say, the original slaves.

At its extreme end, this notion of victimhood among some of the world’s most powerful people became a form of fascism. But it’s a structure of feeling that had run deep through white and patriarchal communities since the financial crisis, at least, and it helped drive the major electoral events of that year, Brexit and Trump.

2017: Dark money and the DUP

During the lead-up to the Brexit referendum, I ran into some Leave campaigners at the top of Edinburgh’s Waverley Steps and started to interview them. As our conversation got hotter, I spotted something at the bottom of one of their signs: the imprint said it had been printed and promoted by Jeffrey Donaldson of the Democratic Unionist Party.

“Do you even know who the DUP are?” I harrumphed, and stormed off back to my flat.

As I walked down the steep hill I lived on, my mind turned to the obvious question: why are the DUP paying for materials in Edinburgh? As I unlocked the door, it reached an answer: political donations aren’t transparent in Northern Ireland. The party is being used to funnel dark money into the campaign.

The next day, Peter Geoghegan, a fellow journalist working in Scotland, whom I vaguely knew, posted a remarkably similar story on Facebook, with the same conclusion.

For months, the thought niggled at the back of my mind, until the boss, Mary, came back from maternity leave. In the midst of listing all the things I’d failed to complete while she was away, I mentioned this lead.

That night, my flatmate reminded me of Peter’s Facebook update, so I rang him to see if he wanted to work together on the story.

Four years and a book later, openDemocracy is still investigating dark money in British politics. And Peter has replaced Mary as editor-in-chief.

2018: NHS staff pay

Battles over the NHS rumbled on, and openDemocracy’s Caroline Molloy continued to provide rare reports into what the government was really doing to the UK’s supposedly most precious institution. In this context, in the spring of 2018, the government had managed to avoid an unprecedented strike of all non-doctors on the NHS staff payroll.

Now, the NHS is one of Europe’s biggest employers. A pay deal is an agreement with nearly a million people. But as the results of that negotiation started to trickle in, Caroline spotted that more and more staff were saying that they weren’t getting what they thought they would.

She quickly went back to the numbers, and compared them with the communications that staff had received from the government and their trade unions, encouraging them to accept the proposed deal.

“NHS staff vented fury yesterday as newly published figures suggested that they may have accepted a pay offer last month on the basis of information that did not mean what they thought it did.”

“Many NHS workers could be in for a nasty shock,” she wrote. “NHS Employers, the official body in charge of NHS staff, has just published the new 2018/9 pay rates – and to many NHS workers, they do not appear to be the same as the 2018/9 pay figures staff were pointed to before they voted on the deal. In fact, averaged across all pay bands and scale points, they appear to award initially only around half the pay rise from April 2018 that many staff may have been expecting, according to OurNHS’s calculations.”

The general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing apologised to her members for having bought the government’s spin, and resigned.

2019: Bolsonaro’s Amazon fires

Much of the media coverage of Russia and the wider former Soviet Union has always focused on the Kremlin and its current inhabitant. And in the years after Trump’s election, the treatment of Vladimir Putin in much of the Western media became obsessive.

openDemocracy’s oDR section has always taken a different approach to understanding this vast swathe of the planet and humanity: attempting to understand and explain what’s going on not by trying to guess what’s in the mind of the man in the middle, but tracing its finger around the edge.

Fires Brazil
Wildfires raged in Brazil throughout 2019 | Pixabay

From its coverage of environmental movements, the struggles of Russia’s indigenous peoples, the battles fought by Queer Russia and more recently, section editor Tom Rowley’s ground-breaking digging into gold mining in Armenia and the role played by the UK in hiding vital information from local communities resisting the corporate plunder of the country, oDR provides unique reporting for us monoglot English-language speakers into a region which is so often so poorly understood or explained.

If oDR is a model for trying to understand the events across a whole huge region of the world, then openDemocracy’s Latin American section, democraciaAbierta, is a more recent example. Launched in 2015, it published its biggest ever scoop as forest fires in the Amazon horrified the world in 2019. A government slideshow, leaked to its reporters, showed how the government had active plans to destroy the world’s biggest rainforest by vilifying the indigenous people protecting it.

2020: Tracking the Backlash

By 2020, openDemocracy’s visionary gender editor, Claire Provost, had recruited a team of feminist investigative journalists across the world, and they were breaking major stories into the international media, tracking the backlash against women’s and LGBTIQ rights.

From the outset, Claire had wanted to show how a flurry of misogynistic, homophobic and transphobic politics across much of the world didn’t result from a spontaneous twitch of bigotry among working-class people – as much of the media often implied – but is better understood as an outgrouth of a feral global elite.

In 2020, unperturbed by the pandemic, Claire, Nandini Archer and their team broke a number of major stories, including one showing that US Christian conservative groups had poured $280m of dark money into campaigns around the world.

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The backlash against women’s and LGBTIQ rights is driven by the powerful, and oD’s Tracking the Backlash team do brilliant work investigating them.

Meanwhile, as the pandemic took off, oD revealed a slew of stories about government contracts being doled out without due process. We think we coined the term COVID-cronyism, and forced the government to reveal details of NHS contracts with big-data firms.

On our economics section, ourEconomy, Laurie Macfarlane put his steady hand and clear mind to work explaining why China is doing particularly well out of the crisis, and showed how the pandemic might mean a transition away from neoliberalism, to a new form of authoritarian capitalism.

And in Ukraine, oDR interviewed nurse-turned-activist Nina Kozlovska. The resulting piece, ‘Be like Nina’, by Hanna Sokolva, typifies so much that I love about oDR’s work – showing how a region that is so often reported as a playground for oligarchs is also full of ordinary people, organising for a better future.

2021: FOI and trans rights worldwide

In the Space Western TV show ‘Firefly’, the mechanic is a woman called Kaylee, who keeps the ramshackle smugglers’ spaceship flying through quiet creative genius, and that rare deep expertise of someone who loves their craft.

openDemocracy’s dark money team has its own Kaylee. She’s called Jenna Corderoy, and she’s the expert in all things related to Freedom of Information. Jenna is often quietly battling away for the public’s right to know some vital piece of information buried in a government file somewhere, and earlier this year, she won a major victory.

Having previously revealed on oD that the Cabinet Office, Michael Gove’s department that coordinates the activities of government, was running a ‘Clearing House’ for Freedom of Information requests, Jenna led oD into a court case against the government to challenge this practice.

In July, she and Peter Geoghegan reported: “openDemocracy has won a significant legal victory against the UK government. The judgement forces transparency on a secretive unit accused of ‘blacklisting’ Freedom of Information requests from journalists, campaigners and others.

“After a three-year battle, judge Chris Hughes found that the documents the Cabinet Office presented in court about the controversial Clearing House unit were ‘misleading’. He added that there is a ‘profound lack of transparency about the operation’, which might ‘extend to ministers’.”

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Trans rights activists at a protest on 6 March 2021 | Ibrahim Oner/SOPA Images/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News

A parliamentary inquiry into the Clearing House is due to launch soon.

One of the best things about the astounding growth of openDemocracy’s Tracking the Backlash project has been its work employing fellows on six-month contracts, helping early-career journalists – often from backgrounds traditionally excluded from the media – to advance in their careers.

I’ve had a great time working with some of these fellows, and if I can cite one piece so far from this year, it’s from the brilliant Arya Karijo.

Arya, based in Kenya, knew that she always heard about the experiences of trans people in the global core – the UK and USA. She wanted to hear from people in other countries, and has published three remarkable interviews with people in Yemen, Kuwait, and Pakistan.

But it was her comment piece, drawing on all of these, which was angriest. “Stop imposing your imperialist Western transphobia on my people,” she wrote.

“Our existence is our truth. For centuries, your people have tried to erase us. But we won’t let you.”

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