The Oxford Political Review: An Interview with Brian Wong

I had the chance to sit down and have an interview with Brian Wong, the founder of the Oxford Political Review. Our chat took us on a wild journey through modern media, digital platforms, online polarisation and the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

I was left wondering… is there hope for online media after all?

Thanks for agreeing to a chat Brian! I was wondering if you could tell me a bit about what made you create the Oxford Political Review (‘OPR’) to begin with, and what got you interested in politics as a topic to write about?

I was inspired to start the Oxford Political Review for three main reasons. Firstly, I felt that there was a dangerous absence of publications that effectively enabled students and aspiring young academics and researchers to have a public-facing platform. Both to voice their thoughts and basically transform their research into a form that could be deliverable to the public.

Secondly, I wanted to create a publication that could bridge partisan divisions and views from a wide range across the spectrum. This was particularly prominent in light of the post-Brexit splintering and fragmentation of British politics. But also the political deadlock and stalemates I saw in Hong Kong.

Finally, I was in many ways inspired by friends who just came up to me at Oxford and said Brian, surely there’s a market out there for us to produce quality journalism that bridges that theory and practice gap. And that’s precisely where the idea came from.

What do you think is the problem with traditional media? Do you worry about polarisation? What about the role of young people in the media today?

I think there are several issues in terms of the media landscape in Hong Kong particularly. The first is that there’s an apparent disjunction between traditional media, which is conceived of by folks aged 40-plus, and digital media, which ironically, tends to be consumed by older folks, but under the age of 50. You end up with this scenario where print media and print journalism is dying in the city. A corollary of that is that the younger demographics are simply not the consumers anymore, and so as a result, they are not represented.

As someone who is a relatively young writer, I think the youngest ever columnist or syndicated columnist on one of the two main broadsheets in Hong Kong. One of my main objectives is indeed to just bring out the young or the youth voice in newspapers like that, because, frankly speaking, the rejuvenation of print media is unlikely to occur. But that doesn’t mean adaptation and reforming it to incorporate voices like the youth is, therefore a fundamentally impossible Herculean task.

There’s something about this kind of work being an alternative. So you have traditional media on the one hand, and you have academia on the other hand, and then you have this ‘new’ kind of media in the middle, which is often young, often focused on podcasts and videos and online discussions, with longer form discussions. What do you make of that dichotomy?

To be entirely honest, our publication spans the spectrum from academic works and writings to more popularly-oriented but still high quality journalism. So it’s not so much a dichotomy as a bridge.

I’ll make three observations however. The first is that I think the language, the tone and the means in which the information is conveyed, is far more accessible. The second is the diversity of methodologies and the way we present information is of a wider range than in an academic journal. The third is with respect to how responsive we are to recent events. Our publication prides itself in having responses to what’s going on right now as we speak, with instantaneous commentary. And of course, the adverse setback is that can damage the extensiveness, or the robustness of the analysis. But one thing we never compromise upon is the veracity and truthfulness of our claims. We still care about true journalism, we just care less about perhaps the rigorous robust analysis that you get in academic articles, and that’s entirely fine, because there’s a higher level of division of labour here.

OPR has conducted various long-form interviews with leading politicians, thinkers and academics. Do you see yourself as fundamentally striking out in a new way to engage with top level thinkers and politicians in a different form to that they’re usually engaged in?

Absolutely. I think that’s indeed what we aspire to become, you know, a media outlet where we can engage politicians directly and often without reservations or pre-screened questions. That’s what we’re about. We’re about honest answers and honest interrogation.

A couple of final questions. 

Writing as you do about Hong Kong politics, there’s a lot of controversy and there’s a lot of antagonism. And so how do you take to being criticized by people online? And what’s your general response been to that over the years? 

Obviously there have been criticisms, and criticisms from both sides. But in practice, the way I take to this is quite simple. Obviously it hurts right? It would be a lie to say it did not hurt or affect my psychological state at first. 

But in all honesty, I then grew accustomed to it. If I wrote to constantly placate and please people, that would be an inherently futile exercise because (A) folks’ preferences are heterogenous and evenly distributed throughout the spectrum, and (B) I would not be writing to do what I really want to do when I’m writing, which is to change the world to make it a better place. I do not think hating or pandering to the folks whose opinions I may hypothetically care about insofar as they exist will help me achieve that end goal.

One thing that is very important to anyone who writes for a living to realise is that criticism is part and parcel of what you do. And a lot of folks criticize you not because they are justified in doing so but because they are emotionally, very much opposed to something you. And in all honesty, you know, who cares? About what a random person thinks, to the extent that doesn’t jeopardize or undermine your mission? I don’t think you should let that affect you. That’s the lesson I learned the hard way the past few years.

I would be remiss not to ask you, given the current state of things, whether we can go through this COVID-19 crisis without giving up our freedoms in some fairly permanent sense? I think it’s quite a huge risk at the moment with surveillance technology, with our losses of internet freedom, freedom of movement. Various dangers that are currently cropping up around the place, even in developed countries.

In terms of transformations to liberties, I’ll make four comments. 

The first is that a lot of these transformations and changes to liberties in terms of curtailing rights, in terms of surveillance technology, restricting our right to privacy… I want to make a controversial point here. I think all of that was bound to happen inevitably anyway. Regardless of COVID-19,

regardless of whether there’s a pandemic at work. 

The question isn’t so much about whether we think these curtailing and restrictions of liberties are going to happen. But what is our natural rejoinder to it. And here COVID-19 has actually forced us to confront these questions a lot more systematically. Because COVID-19 has become the primary news event all around the world, we’ve actually seen the rise of a concerted effort to contemplate the implications towards privacy, towards our rights and liberties, in reaction to what’s been going on around the world. That is if anything, a blessing in disguise, we would never have had the sort of air time, attention space and attention span directed towards questions of privacy, as we would today.

And the third point to note is, rather than thinking of liberty as intrinsically opposed and antagonistic towards security, it’s worth reflecting upon the fact that they probably have a symbiotic relationship. You cannot have formal liberty without at least some form of security and knowledge. For example, knowledge that when you walk down the streets and exercise your liberty you won’t be accidentally be infecting yourself with a lethal pathogen or security risks.

Now, I’m a libertarian, I believe in civil liberties. I believe in the importance of rights and enshrining them, but I’m also an instrumentalist when it comes to rights. I think they’re important insofar as they help us attain core interests. So I don’t hold that very narrow Nozick view. That these rights always operate as constraints and cannot be trumped intrinsically. 

Or rather, let’s let me be more precise. I think that there are certain rights that do act as de facto constraints but that’s because they are normatively and morally binding, not because they map onto very intense and important interests. And insofar as they only map onto interests, they are at best prudential but very important in benevolence to prudential reasons to respect them. And given all of that long winded equivocation what I’m trying to say here is suspending rights to privacy and rights to liberty, independent of downstream consequences, is probably not as problematic and faulty as some people would suggest it is when it allows us to attain or achieve all these intrinsically important security goals that we do care about. This sort of feeling of safety, the feeling of fundamentally not being caught up in an epidemic with no recourse and no ability to control it spread. 

So as it is a balancing act, I refuse to believe that we should subscribe to a form of absolutism when it comes to rights of privacy. Freedom of speech is probably trickier. So I think there’s a bit more sort of intrinsic value in ensuring that a site constraint of freedom of speech is not constrained and also it is an agent centric constraint, not to violate freedom of speech. 

But I think broadly speaking in terms of information, in terms of privacy, my take is just when it’s necessary, when it’s least invasive and even when the interference might be quite significant, it can occur. The worry comes in when there’s a slippery slope – at that point I fear truly about the practical policy implications of these restrictions.