The Reading Room
The digital revolution in which any interesting organization can generate their own content and stream it online should have been a boon for think tanks. But it’s been a while coming. When I worked in policy wonkery ten years ago, I would often listen to fascinating expert discussions on Kosovo, Russia’s Energy Empire, and the origins of Britishness laid on for an audience of about twenty people – often with lids dropping after a heavy lunch at Shepherd’s. These events would usually be more highbrow and informed than anything on Radio 4. And yet, unless you plied your trade in the SW1 think-tank village, there wasn’t a hope you could ever hear them.
The riches of Washington think-tankery are now available through podcast. The Council on Foreign Relations and the Heritage Foundation provide audio-links to most of their major events. Though these blithely ignore the need for concision in podcasting – most are great indigestible slabs of seventy minutes or so –there is no better way of finding out about counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan or the political order in Yemen.
It has taken much longer for British think tanks to get their act together on podcasting – perhaps surprisingly for institutions whose stock-in-trade is predicting the Future. For years, there would be one or two recordings of events hidden in dusty corners of their website. The Fabians are a wonderfully energetic institution – but their podcasts still sound terrible – as if they’ve been recorded in a house three doors away from the microphone. And, amazingly, some major thinktanks, like the Centre for European Reform and the supposedly zeitgeist-defining Policy Exchange don’t offer any video/audio material online at all.
Of course, British think tanks are poor and overstretched at the best of times and, through the recession, most simply concentrated on keeping their head above the waves. But it’s heartening that in the last six months some excellent things have been happening. I’m not wild on Demos’ video gimmickry explaining their ideas (“What is Power? Power is strength”) but their “Policy Beat” podcasts – including a studio debate with the three leaders of the youth wings of the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems are excellent. The staid old IPPR have a no-frills debate on immigration with the Home Secretary and his Labour and Liberal Democrat Shadows that is the best hour of debate on the subject between mainstream politicians for years. But the think-tank with by far the best offering is the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). Their new Director of Communication, Nicholas Walton, is an ex-BBC journalist who worked on the podcast offerings for the BBC World Service. And his training in broadcasting shows. Every week, he chairs a discussion on the forthcoming agenda in European politics – something that is almost impossible to follow in the UK outside of the pages of the FT. He is fluent, isn’t afraid to ask simple questions, and doesn’t suffer from the faltering speech patterns that way-lay many a wonk in full-flow. He’s helped by a great team of in-house experts from the ECFR’s offices in London, Paris, Madrid and Berlin. The New Year podcast on the last year in Foreign Policy between Daniel Korski and Mark Leonard fizzed with fascinating analysis. The ECFR’s podcasts are now on i-tunes – a first, I think, among the British think tanks. For me, they are better analysis of Foreign Policy than any of the audio offerings of the Guardian, the BBC, or the Economist. RB
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