On the contrary
11 February, 2011
Richard Burge, Chief Executive, writes:
When does a legitimate minority view become an irrelevant contrary opinion held just for the sake of it? I do not suppose I am alone in being irritated when the broadcast media seem to drag almost anyone off the street to give the contrary view. But who am I to decide what is a valid difference of opinion and what is being said just for the sake of being different?
The world of 24 hour news puts pressure on journalists to find someone prepared to say something. As significant events, such as those we are seeing in the Middle East, roll on unpredictably for weeks, there is a desperate urge to have new voices. The problem is that there are very few new voices with something worthwhile to say.
Vox pop (interviews and opinions from ordinary people caught up in or affected by events) are different. These people do not pretend to be experts they simply have a raw experience which can throw new light on a situation. No, what I find troubling is the swathe of experts who pop up from obscurity with what purports to be intellectual analysis but really, as my mother used to say, they are just being contrary.
The pressure is not just on the journalist. We live in the world where appearance on the media (especially television) is essential for credibility and proof of expertise. This is a fiercely competitive ocean; a tough ecosystem populated by private sector consultants, academics, think-tankers, politicians, and yesterdays men most trying genuinely to apply the wisdom of experience, a few sadly seeking a return to the limelight. Many have to be contrary just in order to be heard. This is the ocean in which Wilton Park fishes.
My colleagues at Wilton Park are looking for wide ranges of legitimate opinion, for unconventional thinking that may offer new insights, and for new innovative solutions to knotty problems. We seek individuals who are brave enough to think in ways that are politically uncomfortable or even dangerous.
So I sympathise with a media that suddenly discovers an interviewee is simply hunting the limelight and potential downstream business rather than adding to the collective understanding of complex and uncertain situations. But I also sympathise with the holder of what might seem to be a contrary view when it is the media attention that pulls them from the anonymity that the brutal agents of oppressive states use to consign their dissidents to oblivion. Giving these brave contrarians visibility is a duty for those of us who enjoy the safety of living in a liberal democracy.