From Moscow to Margate spanning media, politics, global affairs, the arts and third sector: A Q&A with John Kampfner

29 July 2019

This summer many young adults will be taking their first steps on the career ladder. An exciting, yet daunting time, the opportunities which lie ahead are at your fingertips while the support structure around you fosters the rich learning experiences which will form the foundation of your chosen career.

Now imagine trying to begin your career in a foreign city, perhaps with a harsh winter climate admist a culture war against the very values you grew up with!

Well John Kampfner, former editor of New Statesman, did just that. Starting out in Moscow, John covered many of the huge stories which dominated the front pages in the 1980s and 1990s.

Since then, John's written his own news moving into the creative industries and third sector, as well as of course hosting and speaking at events. For four years running he has been named one of the 1000 most influential Londoners in the Evening Standard Progress 1000 survey, so we couldn't think of a better reason than to sit down with John and find out if this was his masterplan since his first days in Moscow...

We were intrigued to read you started off your journalism career in Moscow. Did that whet the appetite for a career reporting on politics and international affairs?

I've been lucky enough to witness some of the biggest events of the past 30 years, from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the collapse of Communism in the then Soviet Union, to the aftermath of the horrors in Rwanda to the political ramifications of Iraq, in my book 'Blair's Wars'.

All of this has given me an insatiable curiosity and a zeal to see journalism as much more than reporting on the big stories. It's about identifying the major trends and understanding the great waves of history.

You’ve lobbied for libel reform, and worked with Google examining free expression, privacy and data. How can traditional and social media manage the fine balance between a thirst for news and the subject’s privacy?

This is the big question of our time. We were all swept along by the first internet revolution of the 1990s. We saw it as only a force for good. That was before hate speech, fake news and privacy incursions. Now everyone is agreed that the internet has to be policed. But how? For dictatorships, that's a charter to clamp down on freedoms. For democracies, it's licence to snoop in the name of anti-terrorism. The debate has only just begun

What was the inspiration behind your next book “Why the Germans Do it Better”?

I've lived and worked twice in Germany. Although lots of things about the country wind me up (the bureaucracy, the terrible service culture to name but two), I'm a great admirer of it. The Germans literally rebuilt their house over the last 70 years.

My book looks at everything from the constitution to culture, from the green movement to towns and cities, from defence and security to local businesses. I'm going to argue that the political culture is far more reliable and grown up than that of deeply divided Brexit Britain.

We’ve covered the big 3 (media, politics and international affairs), but you also have spent time in the arts and third sectors. What challenges do they face at the moment, and indeed how can they be overcome?

The love of my life was setting up and chairing the art gallery, Turner Contemporary in Margate. That's now regarded as setting a benchmark for culture-led regeneration around the world. It's transformed the town. I've hosted the Queen, Duchess of Cambridge and the Prime Minister.

Even more rewarding was ensuring that the life boat crews next door felt they too belonged there. That's the biggest challenge for the arts - practising and not just preaching the mantra that they are for all.

You’ve spent a lot of time over your career hosting or speaking at events. What’s been the most memorable events you’ve presented at?

Where to begin. I've done so many. The most intriguing was hosting a round table for spy chiefs in Brussels on the internet (don't ask me to reveal any secrets)! I've spoken at the Oxford Union, which was hair raising; I've had to interview famous authors in front of thousands of extraordinary school children at the Jaipur festival in India.

I've chaired speeches and Q+As with several government ministers, including the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The most amusing perhaps was having to interview William Hague's wife at Hay about her book on Lloyd George's lovers. I had been given 90 seconds notice, as the moderator had gone AWOL. I survived. I hope the audience did too.

If you could leave any audience with one message to take home, what would that be?

At any event I want every member of the audience to go home saying to themselves, "wow, I never knew that". I call that the wow factor.

Finally John, we’ve mentioned the book but what else is next for you?

I'm loving my new-found portfolio existence. I'm helping to organise and chairing a new conference at the Frankfurt Book Festival; I'm preparing a project for a military think-tank on the role of Facebook and fake news. I have a couple of radio documentaries up my sleeve. I'm back doing what I love - journalism, broadcasting and public speaking. Oh, and I've just launched a brand new podcast with the comedian Shazia Mirza.

We look forward to catching up on the podcast John!

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