That dead cat bounced, just not very high

My bid for Open Society Foundation research funds

Surprised? Moi?

Back in August, the Right’s scary vision of George Soros as Machiavellian Bond villain got a boost from the publication of a batch of documents that some hackers had stolen from his Open Society Foundations computer system.

It also revealed a network thinking hard about the work they do, as I found when I went through the leaked papers and blogged about them here. My interest was especially piqued by the leaked details of the OSF’s Fellowships programme, which I had applied to a few days before.

At the time I’d failed to find a subject in the Foundation’s current focus list that matched my interests. So I had simply presented a thesis important to me. As I wrote, a friend described this as “finding an open window in the OSF wall, and throwing a dead cat in a bag through it”. Again, as I wrote at the time, that sounded about right.

Anyway, dead cats really do bounce. A day after the blog went online, the OSF responded to my application. The proposal “showed promise,” it wrote, before adding the predictable ‘…but’. “Your inquiry,” the unsigned email read, “did not address our current call for proposals based on the crisis in human rights. For your full application, you will have to show your project proposes to address in any way this call or it will not be considered to proceed further.”

Now I would have thought that freedom of expression was a human right in crisis, but out of courtesy to an organisation that I respect, but which I had been slightly disrespectful about, I felt I had to a have a go.

The expectation was to develop the idea in line with the Open Society Foundations’ privately stated, but subsequently leaked intention to “effectively achieve constructive dissonance,” by communicating my work “in a way that resonates with OSF’s thinking”.

The OSF brief was to invite “individuals pursuing innovative and unconventional approaches to fundamental open society challenges” to submit proposals relevant to the proposition that: “Those who carry out human rights analysis and reporting have been seduced by legal frameworks and largely ignore imbalances of power that lead to rights violations”.

My focus was still on one particular set of human rights — freedom of expression — rather than human rights in general, and the ‘those’ referred to were still the media rights defenders and media development groups I have worked with — and OSF have funded — for years. But otherwise I tried to be as flexible as possible. You can read the proposal here.

Naturally, trying to make one of Rohan’s round ideas fit one of Soros’s square holes turned out be a complete bust. Presumably I failed to be “constructively dissonant” or “resonate with OSF’s thinking”. One or both or neither, I’ll never know.

When the OSF emailed me on December 15 to inform me that they were declining my proposal, they were unable to give a specific explanation why. “Due to staff capacity constraints,” wrote the OSF Foundations’ Fellowships director Leonard ‘Lenny’ Bernardo, who had signed his division’s missive for once. Lack of reasoning aside, from my side it felt like a reasonable decision though.

And despite the rejection, the whole exercise had allowed me to flirt with a general theory of media networks. One based around the idea of empowering “critical voices of quality” and focusing on practical ways to amplify those voices when they challenge frameworks — legal or otherwise — that as OSF correctly point out, sustain imbalances of power that lead to rights violations. This meant addressing the power imbalances in what should be a mutually sustaining relationship between media workers and ‘the media’ itself.

I believe that strategies of empowerment and a critical approach to imbalances in power relations come naturally to the principled, socially aware journalist. But, for the media institutions that employ them, empowerment means keeping on the upside of that power imbalance.

Now, as is the way of things, a few months after I submitted the proposal, The Donald and his own “critical voices” on the network tipped his country’s media institutions right off that particular set of scales and into the dust. (Remember, as the hacks say, you read it here first. Just sayin’.) But for the OSF, the proposal didn’t work for them.

So is it all over? No. It ain’t over till the Fat Hack sings. And even then, it ain’t over.

OSF have reopened the original call for Fellowship proposals with a new deadline of March 1, 2017. So do feel free to have a go if you think you can be more “constructively dissonant,” or can better “resonate with OSF’s thinking” than I can.

But regardless of OSF’s decision in my case, Google’s Digital Media Initiative, bless its heart, felt free to embrace the tech without engaging with the theory. The DNI Innovation Fund is part seed funding the software development, an activity that OSF couldn’t support anyway. It means I can put the theory — that empowering and amplifying critical voices of quality challenges societal power imbalances — into actual practice. Or at least test it.

I still get to do the research, but my done my way. And OSF will probably still get their book out of it, without paying for it. So everyone’s happy this morning.