Bill Emmott New Chair of the Trinity Long Room Hub Board
02 July 2019 – Bill Emmott was recently appointed as the new chair of the Trinity Long Room Hub board, taking over from Geoffrey Crossick who served on the board for 8 years.
Bill is a former editor of The Economist and has had a distinguished career in journalism since 1980 when he first joined the magazine. At the Trinity Long Room Hub recently he spoke to us about the Arts and Humanities, politics and his fascination with Italy and Japan, two countries which have been the focus of many of his 14 books and a number of documentary films. His most recent English-language book is entitled The Fate of the West: The Battle to Save the World’s Most Successful Political Idea.
You were appointed to the Board of the Trinity Long Room Hub in January 2019. What was it that attracted you to the Institute?
I’m a new arrival in Ireland and the opportunity to be on the board of an ambitious and active research institute right at the centre of Trinity College, right in the centre of Dublin, seemed, to an outsider like me, simply irresistible. It was an opportunity to get to understand what was going on in the Arts and Humanities in Trinity and to have some small role in shaping the future of the Institute.
Bill Emmott with Jane Ohlmeyer, Director of the Trinity Long Room Hub.
In 1980 you joined The Economist’s Brussels office to write about EEC affairs, going on to enjoy a long career with The Economist, including being its editor for 13 years. How would you characterise EU affairs almost 40 years on?
I think that European affairs are in a real adjustment process to an extraordinary series of shocks: the shock of the 2008 financial crisis, which Europe responded to less well than did the USA; the shock of the refugee crisis of 2015 onwards thanks to the war in Syria and migration from sub-Saharan Africa; then the shock of the sovereign debt crises which rocked the euro; and I haven’t even mentioned Brexit yet…
Brexit is, in some ways, the most important of those shocks from a British point of view and also matters a lot to Ireland of course, but it is a lot less important from a European perspective compared with the other issues I’ve mentioned. I think that Europe’s held together very well and European national politics have also held up quite well to these shocks but there are nevertheless political forces rising in response that are more nationalistic and somewhat anti-European, reversing the trends of further integration seen in the previous decades.
But then Europe sometimes seems to always be in some sort of crisis. When I arrived in Brussels in 1980, there were many debates about what was called ‘Euro-sclerosis’ – a worry that the European economy was falling behind in response to competition from Japan, the United States and elsewhere. The debate about British membership was also very lively then – Margaret Thatcher had arrived in power demanding a refund of Britain’s contribution to the budget; it was unprecedented, unprecedented even to admit that you could calculate a country’s net contribution – and was a very disruptive factor.
You have a particular interest in Japan and Italy, with many of your books and feature films based on those two countries. What is it that sparked your interest in those places?
In the case of Japan, I was sent there in 1983 by The Economist out of the blue really and Japan immediately struck me as being both a very modern country but the most culturally different country that I’d ever been to and I still think that that’s the case. Trying to understand what makes it tick and where it’s heading has been of endless fascination to me over the last 30-40 years. I’ve got a new book coming out on Japan and I’m still addicted to the place.
Italy was a more recent addiction, but also arose from trying to figure out what makes it work and why it has gone in the direction it has over the past 20 years, suffering a bad decline, as can be said for Japan in different ways. I’m interested in understanding what is it that turned, what was previously an economic champion of Western Europe, into a stagnant and divided country with some throwback to nostalgia-based political figures such as Silvio Berlusconi (who was the Donald Trump of Italy in the 1990s and the 2000s). Italian politics has now taken a very populist turn, for they’re still struggling to make their accommodation to the modern technological, globalised, political economy.
Both Italy and Japan have proven to be rather socially and institutionally rigid in response to the modern world, and by the modern world, I mean the recent social changes we’ve all seen through technological development and globalisation. Their institutions, their way of doing things have proven too rigid to adapt, and that adaptation is one of the difficulties of our time.
Both Japan and Italy are known for their enduring culture and tradition. What can you say about the way that the Arts and Humanities can enrich our understanding of a culture or a society?
I think the Arts and Humanities, which encompass a great spectrum of activity, have a common focus in looking at the ways in which human beings think and behave and interact with one another. Economics, by the way, really also has the same human concern. But in both Japan and Italy, for example, film, literature and to some degree art have responded to those crises of adaptation in trying to understand how things are being portrayed and how people react to them. I think this is a very fruitful thing to do.
One of my other roles is as chairman of the Japan Society in the United Kingdom, and one duty that that role brought to me a month or so ago was to give an opening speech at a big exhibition of Manga art in the British Museum. This is the first time the British museum has put on such a huge exhibition of Manga and its siblings, anime films and cosplay (“costume play”). It’s a big industry – but it’s also a great snapshot of a changing society, of the way in which artists see it but also how the readers react. This is one of the ways the humanities can bring an awareness of where the issues exist in a society.
In a world experiencing rapid change and many problems associated with, but not limited to, the advance of artificial intelligence, what learnings or skills do you think disciplines such as English, History, Creative Arts, and languages have to offer to the world?
Artificial Intelligence brings profound questions of ethics and philosophy that revolve around what it is to be human. There’s already a range of novels about artificial intelligence by contemporary writers– e.g Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro and others. They explore how we should think about an artificial brain and how we might relate to it. Books like this also ask how artificial intelligence fits into our ethical codes and our social understandings of what a human is.
I think that as artificial intelligence develops – it’s still at a very primitive stage compared with where it will be in 10 or 20 years’ time – there is going to be a massive need for ethical examination, the modern equivalent of previous periods of ethical examination of developments in biology and bio-technology particularly to do with reproduction. It’s very important that philosophers and people in the wider humanities and social sciences are talking about this, and sharing their thoughts in a public way.
You mentioned some novels dealing with the topic of artificial intelligence. But what have you been reading lately?
I’m reading Seamus Mallon’s recent memoir, A Shared Home Place – his memoir of life as a politician in Ireland, in the North. It’s been bringingback to me the reality of what has happened in the North and the complex layers of identity in that region. The reason I’m reading it is of course because I’m living now here in Dublin but also because I think Brexit has brought back into focus how poor the understanding is in British politics of the civil war in the North and the divisions in the North, but also the necessity for people to think about solutions that are going to be needed as the prospect of a united Ireland comes closer or at least becomes a very real issue. It has to be examined and discussed anew, especially issues of identity and the compatibility of groups who have become so forced apart.
As a distinguished journalist, what are your hopes and concerns for the future of the media and the profession of journalism?
I think it’s a great time to be a journalist, it’s a time when more and more people want to be journalists; and certainly online media has lowered the barriers of entry. But the difficulty is making a living out of it both as a company and as an individual and I think we’re still in a transition towards a new normal.
The business models of media have been massively disrupted by digitalisation and particularly the arrival of Facebook, Google and other platforms that have basically competed away the advertising business. So, the principal option is pay-per-view and subscription, and journalism and media have to reorient themselves towards subscription. Now I think that’s entirely possible and is happening already, but it’s clearly a tough transition to make when you’ve had models that have been so subsidised by advertising.
You left The Economist in 2006: were Trump and Brexit unthinkable then?
A Trump-like phenomenon was highly thinkable. Brexit didn’t feel very thinkable. Trump was conceivable partly because we’d had Silvio Berlusconi, and in The Economist we’d viewed Berlusconi in Italy as a harbinger of possible futures in which billionaires, especially those with either control of media assets – as in Berlusconi’s case – or media talents as a communicator as Trump has had, might be able to manipulate public opinion and would be able to capture government and turn it to serve their own personal business interests. So I think Trump was conceivable and we were already worrying about the effect of billionaires entering American politics.
Brexit has always been possible in an abstract sense because Britain has always been so detached and a reluctant member of the European Union. Its 43 years has been a series of crises, a sort of rebellion to create a special status for itself inside the European Union and deal with a whole range of objections to the way the European Union works. So I think if a referendum were to happen I think it was always conceivable that people would vote to leave. If you had said to me in 2006, will there be a referendum for Britain? I would’ve said no because our political leaders would not be crazy enough to allow it to happen.
Click here to listen to Bill Emmott’s talk as part of the Behind the Headlines Panel discussion on the Crisis of Democracy organised by the Trinity Long Room Hub in early November 2018.
Oxford University was your alma mater. They’ve recently received a record breaking £150 million private donation to fund the construction of a new hub for the Humanities, with a special institute to focus on ethical questions around artificial intelligence. How can an institute like the Trinity Long Room Hub ensure sustained funding for research-related activities in the Humanities?
That wonderful donation to Oxford should act as an inspiration to Trinity and the Long Room Hub: it shows that by being ambitious, by focusing on existing skills and how they can be enhanced and brought to bear on contemporary policy issues, and by bringing together all of Arts & Humanities behind specific, priority research programmes, it is possible to fire up the enthusiasm of major donors. I am sure the Long Room Hub can do the same. With public funding in decline, philanthropy has to become a main part of our future. If we are to carry on "inspiring generations" we need to inspire donors. I know we can.
The feature film “Europe At Sea”, directed, produced and written by Annalisa Piras, for which Bill Emmott was a consultant, will be screened in the Trinity Long Room Hub on October 16th, followed by a panel discussion about migration and Europe’s development and security strategy. Details to follow on www.tcd.ie/trinitylongroomhub.
Aoife King, Communications Officer | Trinity Long Room Hub | firstname.lastname@example.org | 01 896 3895