Peter Geoghegan, openDemocracy investigations editor and author of 'Democracy for Sale', left Ireland as a young man desperate to get away but has returned in lockdown to find a country much changed. Speaking from his childhood bedroom, he tells us why and explains the need to dig deeper into unaccountable money in politics, in the UK as well as the US.
Changed My Mind is a podcast from The Depolarization Project. Each week, we talk to someone who has undergone a serious shift of opinion about something that matters deeply to them. It's hosted by chief executive Ali Goldsworthy together with behavioural insight expert Alex Chesterfield and director of campaigns and communications at London First, Laura Osborne.
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Peter [00:00:00] I grew up here. I'm in a small town, rural town about a hundred miles from Dublin. Not a very remarkable town, in what would be the bog, basically, it's bog land. It's flat. It's gray. Gray skies and flat. And when I was growing up, I really wanted to leave here. Very, very desperately. It was a huge thing, I really wanted to get out. I wanted to get out. I found Ireland stultifying and thought it was very conservative. It was very religious. It felt very parochial and backward. I felt kind of very hemmed in. I kind of felt I couldn't express myself in the place I grew up.
Ali [00:00:37] Welcome to Changed My Mind, the podcast where we ask leaders what they've changed their mind on and why. I'm Ali Goldsworthy, the chief executive of the Depolarization Project. You just heard from our guest today, Peter Geoghegan, an investigative journalist and author, talking about how much he used to want to leave Ireland. Yet that was where he talked to us from. He'll also be talking about his book, 'Democracy for Sale'. But before we get to that, I'd like to invite you to sign up for our email newsletter at depolarizationproject.com. We promote the show with openDemocracy to their eight million regular monthly visitors. You can find the back catalog to our show and more information on this episode at opendemocracy.net/depolarizationproject. As always, I'm joined for today's episode by my two wonderful co-hosts, communicator and business thinker Laura Osborne.
Laura [00:01:29] Hi, Ali.
Ali [00:01:30] And our behavioural insight expert Alex Chesterfield.
Alex [00:01:33] Hi Laura, Hi Ali.
Ali [00:01:34] So Peter's a renowned investigative journalist who's got a great nose for a story. And you can sense it as he starts talking about slowly peeling back the layers when he realized how dark money was entering the British political arena. What stood out for you from this, Alex?
Alex [00:01:49] Well, Peter's talked about how much significant change Ireland has been through in the last 20 to 30 years from a position where divorce was prohibited under the constitution until 1995, was it? To more recent shifts around abortion and gay marriage. It's a dramatically changed country. And whilst there's no panacea, the role that deliberative democracy has played in fusing sides together is really worth thinking about.
Ali [00:02:14] And what about you, Laura? What should listeners look out for?
Laura [00:02:17] Well, they can look out for the unexpected mention of the condom superhighway between Belfast and Dublin. That took me by surprise, which still didn't seem to endear Peter to his home town. But with my business hat on, it was interesting to dig into how businesses can and should legitimately engage in politics. Now, clearly, some of the dark money examples Peter gave are quite absurd, but there is an important and distinct role for businesses and how they use their voice when policy decisions directly influence them and their workforce.
Ali [00:02:47] And so with all of those things in mind, let's give Peter a call.
Ali [00:02:59] So, Peter, welcome to the show. Your book, 'Democracy for Sale', which comes out in a couple of weeks' time. It talks about the rise of dark money on both sides of the Atlantic and influence that it's had on politics. I wondered if you could just explain a bit more about how you think that's manifested and what it's doing to our democracy.
Peter [00:03:18] So when I came to write this book, I thought well I'm going to have to define my terms here to start with. So I'd like to define some of these terms for the audience. So when we talk about dark money, what we really mean is an unaccountable political contribution. So money that goes into politics from anonymous sources, from sources I don't know where it comes from. Some of the most obvious examples of that have been in the United States and the term dark one is kind of synonymous with Jane Mayer, who's a really great journalist at the New Yorker, and she wrote a lot about the Koch brothers and their influence in American politics. And they spent hundreds of millions, billions of dollars on campaigns in America that kind of suited their interests, they are big into oil. That's kind of where the idea of dark money comes from. But actually, we see a lot happening in Britain, too, because our political regulation system is so poor. It's quite easy, actually, to spend unaccountable money in Britain, whether that's by kind of evading electoral laws, whether it's by kind of spending money below the threshold, funding anonymous groups on Twitter or just funneling money to things that groups like think tanks. So I'm kind of taking it in the broadest possible way of what does it mean when money from unaccountable sources come into our politics? And how does it affect it? And what we saw in the United States over the last 40 years, this rerise of kind of libertarianism on the right of American politics. And it's been the defining feature, really, of a lot of American politics for 40 years. This is how something like climate change went from being, you know, basically an accepted tenet of politics to something that in America is now contested. And you ended up with this current situation where you've got, you know, huge tax cuts being the kind of modus operandi of the Republican Party in the States. And in some ways, it kind of did provide a big breeding ground for what came with Donald Trump. In Britain it's quite interesting because what you've seen is you've got a history in Britain of private money funding politics, unlike in America, where it costs, you know, huge sums of money to run for electoral office, even in down ticket races across eye watering amounts of money. Somebody I interviewed for my book, former cabinet minister Guto Bebb, former conservative cabinet minister, he left over Brexit. He said to me, you know access in Britain is really cheap. And that's the one thing that is really striking about it. When I first started looking at this, I thought that that was something that made Britain less susceptible to money. It meant that money would have less influence in Britain because there was less of it about. But actually, in many regards, I think it makes Britain even more susceptible to money and to donations because political parties rely on donations to survive. So there's more opportunities to kind of buy influence through money and the other thing that's really important when you think about the role of money in politics and unaccountable money is online. My book is really broken up into three sections. One is about the role of money in politics. One is about lobbying and the other is about online disinformation. And all of our electoral laws and rules in Britain are from an analog age. They're about 20 years old, they were quite cutting edge at the time, but now they're totally dated. We've actually got no laws really at all about online politics. I'm kind of trying to chart how that has arisen in Britain and the effects it's had. I think it's had a really profound effect in our politics. I think it's changed our politics in quite substantial ways, not just the content of our politics, but also how we do politics. And I think anyone who's been in Britain for the last five years can see that our politics has shifted massively. And I think one of the reasons, one of the parts of why that's happened has been the rise of what we'd say is clandestine political campaigning and almost political campaigning, becoming a constant feature of politics, which is a very American way of politics in America for a long time has been a constant campaign.
Ali [00:06:55] There's some great research out here in the States showing that people feel more unified, for example, around Independence Day than they will at election time. And if you are continually campaigning, you increase those divides. How much, or if at all, do you think that dark money is likely to have contributed to what is a growing polarization both in the UK and in the U.S.?
Peter [00:07:15] To kind of segway briefly into how I came to this subject, you know, I didn't expect you can probably tell from my voice. I'm an Irish journalist that lived in Britain for about 15 years. I didn't expect to spend the guts of four years researching and writing about dark money in politics and ended up writing a book about it. This all started actually back just a few days before the Brexit referendum if you remember that. And I was in the town of Sunderland in the northeast of England. I was working for the Irish Times and I was just there.
[00:07:41] Could you describe Sunderland for our American listeners?
Peter [00:07:44] Sunderland is a former industrial town of about 80,000 people that kind of hugs the North Sea in the northeast of England, which was a big industrial heartland. You know, if your American listeners have ever been to Ohio? Youngstown, Ohio feels a lot like somewhere like Sunderland. A town that once was reasonably prosperous, had very large, heavy industry, large mines, large shipbuilding. All of those things are gone now. And the town has struggled to find a new identity in the world now. And so I was in Sunderland writing a report for the paper ahead of the Brexit referendum. And I was leaving the city. I was on the metro, the suburban rail line and I noticed a free newspaper that's kind of available across England. And the front of the newspaper is this big, huge advert that said 'Vote Leave, take back control'. And that was the slogan, the slogan of the main Leave campaign. But I noticed when picked it up and on the back of it, there was the logo of a political party called Democratic Unionist Party. And this is a small party, the biggest party in Northern Ireland, which has no footprint outside of Northern Ireland. And I was hundreds and hundreds of miles away from Northern Ireland. So I was interested by this and I'd worked as a reporter in Belfast earlier in my career. And I knew that Northern Ireland had donor secrecy laws, which meant that you didn't have to declare who gave money into politics in Northern Ireland. And I was interested in who would pay for this huge advert. And I thought maybe someone's trying to use the Democratic Union Party to spend money in this referendum. And then I promptly gone on the metro and kind of forgot about it. I got to filing my report for next day's paper, which was all about how everybody in Sunderland seemed to want to vote for Brexit. And 48 hours later, Sunderland was a first place in Britain to declare in the Brexit referendum. And famously it was 62-38 for leave, which was a huge, huge result. And it kind of set the tone for a very big night in British politics for the Brexit referendum. And then afterwards I found myself returning to that issue, returned to that question of that advert. We end up doing a big story about this, which was the first big story about this kind of dark money of politics. And we found out that the Democratic Unionist Party it spent almost half million pounds, which is a huge amount of money in British politics. And they'd used this loophole in Northern Ireland. And the reason I'm giving this big back story is that I think it's really interesting to think about, you know, in terms of campaigning, in terms of it, that was a very close election as well. So this was money that really we'd never been able to be spent if it wasn't for using this loophole. There's no suggestion this money came from Northern Ireland. And I think it was really interesting during the Brexit referendum in general to see the amount of how these campaigns used pushed the boundaries to spend money. It happened on both sides of the political aisle. The leave campaign was much more effective at doing this. It was much more insurgency, more of an insurgency spirit kind of behind it. But what was interesting was because it was a referendum, whereas traditionally political parties might have been a bit resistant to pushing the boundaries because they might get caught and get in trouble afterwards, because it was a referendum, all these campaigns disappeared the next day. So there didn't seem to be the same feeling that this might be something we'd have to stand over. And in many ways, what happened then became, I think, the kind of way British politics has worked for the last four years. So I don't think about it in terms of like shifting someone's vote or shifting someone's one person's opinion or another person's opinion. I think it's less about the kind of content of the politics and more about the way politics is done. And I think what we've seen, you know, is a real shift in that in the last years. What's interesting, as well as in my book, I talk a lot about the world of corporate think tanks and in Britain, which is very much an American world. You know, this idea that you have liberal, mainly libertarian think tanks who don't declare where their funding comes from who are on the television all the time on in the newspapers all the time, producing endless, often quite thin policy documents that are held up by, you know, conservative politicians as the way forward. And what was very interesting in Britain, and I do think in Britain in the years after the Brexit vote, a small number of well-funded, corporately funded think tanks really did change the political discussion. And my book is goes in to this quite a bit because what you had in Britain with the Brexit referendum was do you want to stay in the European Union? If you voted to leave there wasn't much prospectus there. There wasn't much filled in. It was a bit of a tabula rasa. And it was one of the advantages of the leave campaign was that this was kind of you can make of it what you wanted.
Laura [00:12:13] You said a moment ago that the book is essentially in three parts and there's a thread of ideas that runs through them all. I wanted to ask you about the tech companies element of that and how that's increasing polarization and also the information seen by the electorate. And I wondered if there's a time when you've been taken in by dis or misinformation that you've seen online? And what was it? How did you find out it wasn't true?
Peter [00:12:39] I've definitely been taken in by that BBC Breaking News account on Twitter. Definitely. Either Kim Jong un being dead. I'm pretty sure I tweeted that at one stage. Also in a BBC breaking news, and he's looking pretty well these days, smoking and walking around Pyongyang. Yes, I think it's very easy. I actually sometimes think I remember Channel Four News about two years ago did this kind of segment where they went around the pub asking people things and people are saying they believe stuff and that turned out not to be true. And Channel Four News was like, see fake news is everywhere. And I was like, no, I don't think that's how that works. I don't think it's about like we will all take in incorrect information at times. And I think the problem is less that someone believes something that turns out to be false. It's about not interrogating the source of the information that you are seeing. And in those instances, I wasn't interrogating the source of the information I was seeing, I was seeing the BBC logo, but I was using a very heuristic shortcut. So I was tweeting it out. And I think also we are all to some extent or at least I find myself to some extent kind of tending towards believing things that reaffirm your own biases and not believing things that don't reaffirm your own biases. And I was just thinking about this today. For example, I'm currently in Ireland speaking to you and we've had a long, a big issue in Ireland at the moment, a funeral of a former IRA man, a very prominent IRA man in Belfast, the Irish Republican Army who died a couple of days ago. And at the funeral there was very little social distancing and the leaders of Sinn Fein were all there, all next to each other. And this has become a huge thing in Ireland. For people who are pro Sinn Fein and anti Sinn Fein, we had something very similar in Britain with Dominic Cummings, it's basically Ireland's version of Dominic Cummings, I was thinking. It's so interesting because I'm seeing people who were really castigating Dominic Cummings for breaking the lockdown rules by going to Durham now saying that it's totally fine to break the lockdown fules for the funeral of an IRA man.
Ali [00:14:45] And just to play slight devil's advocate here, I mean, I share your view that it's fundamentally changed politics. But in terms of the way that we have divided into tribes and what it's doing for democracy and our discourse, how responsible do you think the tech companies are?
Peter [00:15:03] I am wary of the idea that, like, tech alone is responsible for the entire systemic problems we have right now. I think the financial crash has played a huge role in the politics that we've seen emerge post financial crash. And in some ways, tech was there as part of that. Correlation does not mean causation. But I think at the same time as well, though, I think a lot of tech companies have shown a very, very ambivalent relationship to their, I think to their own kind of power. And I think it's understandable given where they come from, the kind of Silicon Valley Californian ideology view of the world that looks and sees where we're both arbitragers. I thought it was very interesting. So, for example, if you look back last October, about 250 members of staff at Facebook wrote an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg in which they talk about misinformation, how it affects us all. And they said our current policies on fact checking in political office are a threat to what Facebook stands for. And they said the Facebook was allowing politicians to weaponize our platform by targeting people who believe that content posted by political figures is trustworthy. And I think there's some truth that I do think people see content that a political figure posts and thinks it's trustworthy. And I think the problem is the response from Facebook in response to that. Nick Clegg, the same Nick Clegg who used to be deputy prime minister, remarkably, who now works for Facebook, said, you know, we don't he compared Facebook to tennis umpires. You know, and how you play the game is up to you. And I think there has been a very ambivalent relationship towards democracy from the tech companies, which in many ways reflects, I think, where they come from, which is a very American view of the world and a very American view of democracy. Like America has allowed big money to have a big role with democracy for a long time. And that happens across the board, happens across the piece. A lot of other countries are not like that, especially European countries. Britain is closer, but European countries are very, very different, have got very tight rules on political financing. And I think that's a huge part of it. Just from a purely the business of politics side of it, I think it's that, you know, the way in which the American model, the Silicon Valley model has then because of the size of these companies. These are behemoths. You know, Facebook is more powerful than almost every nation state on earth, and they have huge sway. You know, I'm speaking to you from Ireland where Facebook has its corporate headquarters. We know from information that's been released under freedom of information here in Ireland, that Facebook has very successfully lobby the government at various times. And that's not surprising. Look at the size of Facebook's GDP versus the size of Ireland's. You know, these are huge companies who are well able to take advantage of their role in the marketplace. In terms of polarization, I think I think it's hard. Like I think on the one hand, in some ways it's the pendulum effect of it, too. You know, if you look back, I was as a journalist, I was, you know, looking in some ways to be to be able to cover some of the Arab Spring in Egypt back in 2011. And at that stage, we were talking about tech revolutionizing democracy in a good way. You know, we all remember those articles that Twitter, you know, basically was the Twitter revolution and the role of technology to connect people in ways that, you know, a hundred years before people would have clambered onto the back of a railway carts to go across the country to make these connections. They can now make them instantaneously. And 10 years later, we'll talk about how tech is destroying democracy. I think probably tech certainly has allowed the herd tendencies to become more pronounced. Tech companies have been very slow to realize, or intentionally not wanted to realize the role in which the architecture of tech has played in polarization. And that's before you even think about how tech can be used by kind of malicious actors, malicious political actors to kind of consciously push disinformation. But I do think, I'm sure I said in the book somewhere what we're seeing now, I think, is actually, you know, the whole kind of scare with things that Cambridge Analytica really now I think a lot more of the concerns I would have about tech are about its role and democracy are less to do with outside actors or states, it's actually individuals. And it's often actually, you know, just average individuals sharing lots and lots of false content and going down the rabbit hole. QAnon is a great example, I won't rehearse the conspiracy theory for your audience because we'll be here all night. And it would still be kind of confused because I'm not that great at it, because it is a bit of a mindbender.
Ali [00:19:45] It's all right, we'll put something in the show notes, it's fine.
Peter [00:19:48] The Atlantic has been very good on it. They had a great article on it recenly by Adrienne LaFrance. But, you know, that couldn't exist without without the Internet. And I think that's that's having real world effects. Now, we're seeing that Covid I think is exposing that, too. So, you know, whereas maybe it is true that people can be very polarized. And, you know, like I've seen that. We saw that in Ireland. You know, I from a good old country to had civil war politics for a hundred years. You know, had a lot of polarization and somebody ways that that's really changed now. And maybe tech has helped to end some of that polarization. But by the same token, I think it's also driven a lot of polarization.
Laura [00:20:24] And thinking about outside of the tech world for a second and the role of sort of the wider business community, you know, not so much on that think tank end, but more generally. I wanted to get your take on how you think businesses can and should effectively engage with politics.
Peter [00:20:42] I think there's an interesting question to be asked about the role of of business when it comes to kind of politics and in the broader sense, like if you look at what's happening now, let's say with Facebook and all the boycott of Facebook around hate speech, you know, Unilever, lots of other big names have pulled out. Just about 900 brands have pulled out of Facebook. Oh, I think it's very interesting. That's an interesting example of where business can pull and prod and can actually force change in ways that civil society activism would really struggle to. I think there also needs to be no question about what happens when business are engaging with politics purely for their own ends. So, for example, I do a lot of stuff on party funding. I write a lot in my day job as investigations editor at openDemocracy UK about party funding in Britain. And I recently published stories a lot about the Conservative Party funding and under kind of reliance on funding from property developers. And I think there's a lot of companies and businesses, large and small, giving money to the Conservative party, you know, stretching from hundreds of thousands of pounds to a couple of thousand pounds. And there's a fair question to be asked. I think in that context about what business gets from that kind of relationship. You know, what does a business get from from political donations? What does the business get from funding you know, a think tank. What is the outworking of this for business? We're starting to see, I think, some pushback against business's involvement in politics from the public and from their users. There's a need for businesses who are lobbying government. I think that needs to be a lot more like a hell of a lot more transparency around it. And also there's a revolving door between business and politics. I think that's very damaging. Almost everyone goes out, seems to go of politics now, go into business and vice versa. We see secondments from business into government. So I think what we need is far tighter regulation around that, a hell of a lot more transparency. And I think, you know, from businesses, if they're going to engage in politics, I think it is incumbent on them to kind of be able to answer what's my incentive on this? Is it a social responsibility thing? Is it to try and push a social policy that works across society or is it for a narrow sectional interests? And unfortunately, what we've seen is a narrow sectional interests can get representation in government. We see it in Britain. We see it in America, we see it everywhere. And I think that's a huge problem. And it feeds mistrust in politics, understandably so. It feeds my own distrust of politics.
Laura [00:23:23] It's interesting, actually, that what you just said about the kind of exchange of personnel is, well, I was reading something over the weekend about France where you can't donate directly to parties, but where they are studying that kind of cross over the issues where, as you say, by the ideas come from, when what you're effectively doing is swapping people between the two, even though no money is changing hands. But before we get onto our main question, which we will ask you, I wanted to just ask for your take on the role of business in responding to more social issues. Obviously, that's a huge area of debate at the moment. You know, whether it is predominantly virtue signaling or whether actually some good change is being prompted by this sort of corporate action. You touched on it a bit there with Unilever and Facebook. But I wonder if you've got any other thoughts on the way that that's taking shape and where that might lead.
Peter [00:24:12] Clearly, business seems to be responding to what it perceives as a kind of cultural shift. And we're seeing lots of brands put out statements, you know, whether it's Yorkshire Tea as telling people not to drink their tea or it's Unilever deciding to boycott Facebook there's a sense in which I think businesses scrambling to figure out what, you know, what's its role in all of this. But I think that in some ways again feels quite surface. I think there's a much deeper question to kind of ask about. I think what you're seeing is businesses are concerned about, they're concerned both about their own brand, about brand management, and they're concerned about getting caught up in kind of what would be seen as kind of scandals. And I think that all feels like there's a lot of tunnels around that. There's a lot of it's kind of like agitation. And I think that's what's happening in boardrooms. And they're kind of wondering. But we're still also seeing a lot of window dressing as well. Still, I think that's probably huge. That was something I would be concerned about, I see Palantir, Peter Thiel's slightly Dr. Evily tech company is going to go for IPO initial public offering soon. And it brought its first woman onto the board. This is quite a few boards that have a very, very tokenistic levels of female representation, additionally diversity. So there's a kind of I think there's a tokenistic aspect which a lot of what we're seeing around business and what businesses are doing. And I think the big question is, what are the long term things? I would be very surprised if these businesses don't go back to Facebook, for example, in terms of advertising. You know, Facebook is the biggest game in town.
Ali [00:25:58] As you say, not only that, it's not even actually had much of an effect on Facebook's market cap. I mean, I just did a check that but it's you know, the value of Facebook is higher than it has ever been. So it's had no impact at all.
Peter [00:26:08] It tends to do that, the Cambridge Analytica scandal was not dissimilar. It knocked money off Facebook. And then the money came back because, of course, Facebook is such a monopoly player. And that's a huge, huge aspect it and the market actually believes it. It'll be interesting to see — slight digression —who the vice president nomination is for the Democratic Party. And I think the market might react to that far more than reacts to 900 companies pulling ads from Facebook. And that's what tech is worried about is regulation.
Laura [00:26:39] And on that cheery note, I wonder if I can take you to the question that we ask everybody who comes on, Peter, which is what they've changed their minds in a substantive issue where that's been the case. And you told us that you changed your mind on your home, Ireland. And I wondered what was that shift and why?
Peter [00:26:55] Well, it's interesting. I'm currently talking to you from my childhood bedroom.
Ali [00:27:02] Can you tell us, what's the duvet on the bed?
Laura [00:27:03] It's not care bears, is it?
Peter [00:27:05] It's not a million miles away from it.
Ali [00:27:09] Oh come on you can't give us a tease.
Peter [00:27:11] I'm actually looking at this. There's lots of stickers, just football stickers from 1993 stuck all around the bed. The duvet, the duvet has changed. The bed has stayed the same. I never slept in a double bed until I was about 25, I think, so it's one of those little crucifix beds that somehow you're supposed to fit.
Ali [00:27:28] What's a crucifix bed?
Peter [00:27:30] You can only lie like Jesus on the cross. It's a Catholic thing.
Ali [00:27:44] Yeah. So you're in your childhood bedroom with your stickers from 1993.
Laura [00:27:50] And you've changed your mind on Ireland. Why?
Peter [00:27:52] I grew up here. I'm in a small town, rural town, about a hundred miles from Dublin, not a very remarkable town. And in what would be the bog, basically it's bog land. It's flat, it's gray, gray skies and flat. And when I was growing up, I really wanted to leave here. I very, very desperately, it was a huge thing, I really wanted to get out. I wanted to get out. I found Ireland stultifying and it was very conservative. It was very religious. This was the mid 90s. It felt very parochial and backward. I felt, you know, kind of very hemmed in. I kind of felt I couldn't express myself in the place I grew up. I went to college in Ireland, but then I left. I moved to New York when I was 22 and I ended up living in the UK. And I kind of really felt that it was what I needed to do. I needed to get out of it. My parents divorced, my parents separated in 1999, at that stage, divorce had only come to Ireland in 1995, we had a divorce referendum, which was very tight. It was only about thirty or forty thousand votes in it if memory serves. It was fifty point zero one to forty nine point ninety nine. And the country narrowly voted for divorce. And even then on very strict terms, you had to be separated by three of the previous four years. So this is a country, you know. Contraception was banned when I was growing up. You know, famously the train from Dublin used to bring guns up to Belfast and condoms back down from Belfast to Dublin, during the Troubles. And so, yeah, this was a kind of context in which I grew up. I've now been back in Ireland for four months, I came back initially for a week from London to kind of help my mom kind of get ready for what kind of see coming with the pandemic in early March. And I ended up staying. It's been really refreshing to be in such a in many ways, a very, very changed country, you know. There's the headline stuff about the gay marriage referendum and with the abortion referendum, both of which were passed, we just incredibly, incredibly strict abortion regime where the fetus had the same status legally as the mother. Which actually had been brought in at the behest of American religious conservatives who came to Ireland. That kind of pushed for it in the late 70s. And so we've gone from that to having a very, very different view of the world. And I'm really struck by, you know, when I went to school I'm not sure anybody I went to school with ever came out as gay, whereas nowadays that's not an issue really at all. It's become very much part of life. And it's not just that as well I find Ireland's place is a kind of small, outward looking country, that's kind of how Ireland is has positioned itself now. It's really interesting, actually it feels a far more open society in many ways to the countries I went to live in, to America and Britain. London and New York are different types of cities. But there is as a general kind of societal dispensation and kind of view of the world, you know, it's one to two towards multilateralism and towards alliance building. Surprisingly as well far less given to kind of huge political temper, it's been really interesting for four months being in Ireland. We haven't had government for months. The government was only we had an election in February, in late February, and then a long coalition building process that took four years, which ended four months. It felt like four years because it was during the lockdown, it ended up with in terms of polarization, the two parties of the Irish Civil War, Fianna Gail and Fianna Foil, the opposing sides of a civil war, doing a coalition deal with each other for the first time ever. And now we have a government. And what I found really interesting in that period was, you know, if I was in Britain, Sky News would have had ticker-tape below the bottom of the screen, telling you how many days it has been since there'd been a government. Imaginen four months in Britaih without a government.
Ali [00:31:53] I remember when it was five days and the pressure.
Laura [00:31:59] A lived experience for you, Ali.
Ali [00:32:00] Yes, a very lived experience. Peter, as you're talking about this, you talked about the civil war and the Troubles. How much has the resolution? I know it's not completely resolved by any stretch. How much is that reduction in tension do you think affect you? Did it affect you very much when you were growing up?
Peter [00:32:23] I think yes, to an extent. I'm in the Republic of Ireland, about 30 miles from the border. And so we would've been kind of on the edge. We're not a border county, but we're quite close to the border. And so you would have grown up with that. That was part of our politics. I was watching a programme on RTÉ, the national broadcaster earlier today. And they kind of were showing highlights from 1981, which is the year of the hunger strikes. And Charlie Haughey, he was the prime minister, the Taoiseach of Ireland for many years, leader of Fianna Foil, the biggest party in Ireland until the economic crash was saying that he was talking about Northern Ireland and he was talking about how we had to have Irish unity. And in the election in 1981 the big issues were the economy, which was in the doldrums, and Northern Ireland. Nowadays, you would never get, you know, somebody in a senior political role in Fianna Foil or Fianna Gael saying that unification had to happen. Sinn Fein would say that, we've just had a program for government that really struggles to find a language to talk about the island of Ireland and Northern Ireland — "this shared island" was the language used. And Northern Ireland isn't part of our political conversation anymore. And I think that's definitely helped to detoxify Irish politics. I think it's definitely helped change. It's changed relationships, it's had in some ways a negative effect too. The end of violence is very, very positive, but I think it's allowed people in the Republic of Ireland to see Northern Ireland as somehow completely detached from them. And I think it's meant that people in the Republic of Ireland have really not been very good at trying to understand Northern Ireland's ongoing problems. You know, Northern Ireland's still a very, very is a post-conflict society with huge problems. And there's a tendency for us to kind of just go, why can't Northern Ireland just be normal without realizing what the trauma of Northern Ireland's history does to it. But there's a lot more understanding, you know, I think it's allowed Ireland to be much more grown up, more mature. So I'm currently watching on Irish television a program, it's a hundred years since the Irish War of Independence. So RTÉ has commissioned a program on one hundred years since the war of Independence. And the man who's presenting this is Michael Portillo, the former Conservative minister.
Ali [00:34:45] Is he in red trousers?
Laura [00:34:45] I was just going to say, what's he wearing.
Peter [00:34:48] He's quite flamboyantly dressed, it has to be said. And it's fascinating. It's really, really interesting. And I think that's a kind of move that the Irish broadcaster could never have made 20 years ago. In the same vein, because I'm in Ireland I've been watching a lot of Irish television and there was a famous football match, a soccer match about 25 years ago, Ireland-England, it was a friendly I happened to have been there. I was 12 or 13. My father brought me and it was abandoned when Combat 18, the neo-Nazis, basically ripped up the stadium and started chucking it down. It was a terrible moment in Irish football and actually I remember it very vividly it kind of scarred me, not scarred, but it really was a horrible moment. I remember feeling very anxious when I was there, but they showed the prematch advertisements from the television in Ireland and the pre match advertising was running like a series of battles – like Battle of Boyne, Battle of 1916 and now 1995, Ireland versus England. You know, it just jarred so much because that would never happen now. I think our understanding of our own history, oddly at the same time as a feels like Britain has actually struggled with ambivalence about its own history and retreated into very, very set narratives about the past, Ireland, I think, has opened up its history is much more interesting ways, and I think that is a product of the peace process. And it's also a product of the economic improvement.
Laura [00:36:13] We ask everyone who comes on a second slightly cheeky question, which is who would they like to hear from about the time they changed their mind on an issue?
Peter [00:36:23] Actually, it's Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugoslav leader, I spent a lot of time working in the Balkans earlier in my career, particularly Bosnia. And I find that a really fascinating place. I used to work in Northern Ireland and I found that in many ways there was aspects of of life and post-conflict trauma and society that you could read across from one to the other. And the thing that I find most interesting approach about Slobodan Milosevic is I want to know about was his conversion to nationalism. So in the mid 80s, Slobodan Milosevic was a communist apparatchik in in the Yugoslav regime. He was a functionary, a factotum, but very, very, very smart and very able and very driven. And what Slobodan Milosevic realized, partly actually due to power of television, to the power of the big television channels in Belgrade, was the power that hadn't been tapped of Serb nationalism. This increasing anger among Serbs about their position in Yugoslavia. And there's an incredible piece of footage from a great documentary that's on YouTube called The Death of Yugoslavia. And it's Slobodan Milosevic going to Kosovo. And I think 1987. At this stage, Kosovo is a province. It was an autonomous province in the Yugoslav system. It was Serb dominated in terms of the way it was run but it was majority Albanian. Milosevic goes down there because local Serbs are saying they are being attacked and undermined by the Albanians. But in many ways, it's really the opposite. The Albanians are kind of real second-class citizens in Kosovo at the time. And Milosevich goes down there and does the footage of him meeting kind of local Serbs and listening to their demands. He looks like he's quite scared. He's not sure what he's going to do. He's not sure why he's there. And it gets broadcast on television and he speaks to local television, the television chief in Belgrade afterwards. And he says going to have a meeting the next day. And the television chief says, no, you this is your opportunity to really seize this. And the next day there's cameras are there again. And Milosevic is a man transformed. He's a rabble-rouser now. He's saying, you know, I will never let the Serbs here be done down, I will protect you. And he's realized you can see in his eyes, he's realized the power of this nationalism. And incredibly, he really you know, he was a master media manipulator. The story of the Balkan wars was a story of media manipulation. It wasn't a story of ancient hatreds and all the kind of the same in Northern Ireland, wasn't it? It is kind of kind of very trite way of looking at it. Actually, what you saw was, you know, in a very analog age. Incredible media manipulation, the use of television to spread lies, falsehoods and hatred. And Milosevich did that incredibly successfully. And he would have sold another message if it had worked. You know, if it hadn't been in your system, he would have sold something different, had the direction of travel than, you know, Western liberalization. He would have gone there. But I would love to kind of have a conversation with Slobodan Milosevic and to understand his thinking when he changed his mind to when he decided actually, you know, this whole communist system, so that. It was rotting and it was rotten. But he realized and was kind of willing to go down the nationalist route and to polarize a population, which is what he did. And he did it with the help of others incredibly successfully. You know, he took a fragile polity that was already kind of fraying and broken and had underlying issues and incredibly successfully polarized it. And I think we can see, you know, I covered a Trump 2016 campaign. I covered that election. I drove across about 10 states in America and the run up to the vote. And I spoke to a lot of just voters. I wasn't following any campaigns. I was just talking to voters. And I find it's a really interesting way of kind of getting a handle on just kind of what's happening in the world. I was really struck again. How kind of it is simple messaging and the power of television, the power of mass media, whether it's Internet or television, to kind of change the political conversation in ways that you wouldn't predict and to polarize people and to radicalize them. And it wasn't hard to feel that people were radicalized. I think we're almost a bit shy about talking about how our politics has been radicalized. And often it happened intentionally. And it's very hard to unradicalize it once it's happened.
Ali [00:40:54] Thank you for that. We'll put in the show. It's actually a few studies that we've come across about preference falsification about how people rapidly change their views as other people do. And think one thing in public and another in private, particularly aligned to the former Yugoslavia and lessons that we can learn. Like I was astonished to find that in Belgrade, 90 percent of young people refused to be conscripted. That's not the image I would have picked up from watching the media itself, like the degree of noncompliance because of how quickly Milosevic shifted things. And he didn't bring them with him, but he bought enough people to do ethnic cleansing and ravage an entire region for many, many years. But yes, thank you. That was a great and non and unexpected answer. Peter, thank you so much for joining us. It's been a pleasure to have you with us.
Peter [00:41:42] Thank you very much for having me. I've really enjoyed it.
Ali [00:41:51] Before we discuss, let's have a quick word from our sponsors.
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Ali [00:42:19] So now we've heard the full interview. Was there anything that you went to to reflect on?
Laura [00:42:24] Honestly, it was so refreshing to hear a tale of hope and optimism about change and bringing different sides together. The Irish government now being formed of two parties who previously opposed each other. And as someone who grew up seeing the Troubles on the news, really constantly as a kid it's a good reminder that change and resolution can come, at least in part, and that you sometimes have to wait quite a long time for it.
Alex [00:42:47] Yes, similar to me, I think what was really poignant is the distance that so many people have emotionally and politically traveled. I'm speaking to you now from my hometown in Guilford, which in 1974, so a long time ago, but it still doesn't feel that long ago, was ripped apart by a bombing in the town center by subgroup of the Provisional IRA. So, yeah, it does feel it does feel very real to me.
Ali [00:43:10] For listeners who aren't familiar with the Troubles and debate around Northern Ireland, Irish politics and the peace process, we'll put some links in the show notes. Alex, I did want to just pick back up on the deliberative democracy point, though, and ask you a little more about how it works.
Alex [00:43:27] Yes, I want to take a brief minute to talk about how deliberative democracy works and can bring people into the process. So in essence, you recruit a representative sample of the population and ask them to look at an issue. It can be every day, every few days. And they can be different sizes of samples. Citizens juries involve bringing in expert witnesses or independent expert witnesses, and that might last two to three days as a normal or traditional jury might, whereas citizens assemblies, for example, might last half or a full day. But basically, you bring people in who might have a limited knowledge on a topic and through written materials, representations or hearing from others, they discuss and deliberate an issue and then form an opinion or judgment at the end. And when it's done really well, the outputs from those sessions inform an actual policy decision.
Ali [00:44:19] Alex, that's really helpful. Thank you. And I just one thing I've noticed, there's a bit of a tendency for people looking at tackling polarization to reach for this for an easy solution to everything. And Laura, I know that you've been looking into this. Do you think that's fair?
Laura [00:44:33] I think it's a fair critique. It's also something that the losing side will often want the winning side to engage in. You know, sometimes just to tell them that they're wrong. It seems you can still get left with a big separation between people taking part in the exercise and those who aren't. Ireland actually had nine deliberative exercises running at the same time as the abortion and gay marriage ones, and they were the only two that have led to concrete change.
Ali [00:44:56] Yeah, and there's a great article on that and a bit more on deliberative democracy that will put in the show notes. If Peter has inspired you to think of a time you changed your mind and why at the end of this series, we'll be doing a special listeners edition of the show. Email [email protected] and tell us about what you've changed your mind on and the best response will get a copy of Peter's book, ‘Democracy for Sale’, whizzed out in the post.
[00:45:24] That's all from us today. Don't forget, we've got a full back catalog of fascinating interviews with leaders. You can find them all by searching Changed My Mind in your podcast app. We'll be back next week with a new episode featuring one of the UK's most senior and established political columnists Danny Finkelstein, who writes for The Times and is also a politician in the House of Lords. Thank you to openDemocracy for their support of the show. Caroline Crampton for editing. And to Kevin McCloud, whose ‘Dreams Become Real’ is our theme music.