Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia and lazy journalists

“They were always lazy, now they’re just a little better informed.”

Tomorrow marks the tenth anniversary of the birth of Wikipedia, the collaborative online encyclopaedia launched as an experiment on 15 January 2001 and now hosting 17 million pages across 271 languages.

Yesterday, I spent most of my day in the company of Wikipedia's founder, Jimmy Wales, as he spoke at the Bristol Festival of Ideas (his only public outing of this visit) and then on the journey back to London, where he hosted a party to thank the army of British Wikipedia volunteers, under the umbrella of Wikimedia UK.

Before talking to Wales I did the social (media) thing and canvassed for questions via Twitter. My favourite came from The Media Blog's Will Sturgeon, a former colleague.

So I asked Wales: do you feel guilty about breeding a generation of lazy journalists? His answer:

I think they were always lazy, now they're just a little better informed [laughs].

No, actually I think oftentimes journalists who are lazy and using Wikipedia get caught out; and there are lots more journalists who understand how to use Wikipedia correctly. [As a journalist] you go out to interview the head of a company, or a certain politician and you don't know much about them. So this way you can quickly get some background and, also, read the discussion pages to find out what are the things the public don't quite know.

During the rest of our interview – conducted mainly on the 14.30 from Bristol Temple Meads to London Paddington (carriage D) – he talked about a broad range of subjects, from the neutrality of Wikipedia and internet censorship, to Sarah Palin and the Tea Party, to David Cameron and the "big society", to Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. He also offered a fascinating answer when I asked him whether he votes.

The interview will form part of a piece for a future issue of the New Statesman.

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.