By David Young
Reuters Fellows Lecture
Scholarship, Intelligence and Journalism
Dr. David R. Young
10 March 2004
I would like to divide this talk in two. First I would like to make a series of eight declaratory propositions, and then I would like to share some personal reflections in a conclusion. I do not have enough time to connect all the ideas, but I want to challenge you to take these away and reflect on how they relate to you personally.
My subject is, Scholarship, Intelligence and Journalism — or, if you will, ‘What do they have to do with each other?’
My question for each of you is: ‘Where are you coming from in terms of your careers, and where do you want to go? What type of career and experience has made you what you are today? Do you see yourselves being in the business of “truth”, of catching liars, of educating the public, of challenging assumptions or of something else? And what will make you an even better journalist tomorrow?’
A while ago I was asked to speak to a group of Princeton undergraduates at a Careers evening. And as I was considering the kinds of disciplines that are useful in the work of an analyst for Oxford Analytica I came to a surprising conclusion. I could make the case for pretty much any college ‘major’ or discipline, and that it really came down to what you liked and what you were good at. It didn’t matter if you were a mathematician, scientist, philosopher, historian, writer, artist, or theologian. And the same is true for the journalist and the scholar.
It was/is really a matter of what you enjoy – gives you a sense of fulfilment, makes the most of your gifts, and where you can add personal experience. This is key — and of course the more experience one has, the greater the chance there is of seeing patterns, of getting answers; of cornering the truth, before anyone else.
Proposition 1 The Craft
The craft and skill of the journalist is similar to the craft and skill of the intelligence analyst and scholar, in terms of what I would say is a layman’s definition of intelligence; namely: “It is the capacity to discern, to see, to detect a pattern with the least number of dots.” We all know that the great detectives, the great spies, the great journalists and the great scholars often operated on the basis of a hunch, an insight, a glimpse of something more. One thinks one sees a pattern with fewer dots (clues, sources, leads) than any one else – but you have to be right in the end.
Proposition 2 The Content
I believe there are three essential attributes or components to content: Accuracy, Speed, and Context. All these are as important to the scholar and journalist as to the intelligence analyst – but arguably with different priorities.
For the scholar, accuracy is more important than speed – but context is perhaps the most important of all. For the intelligence analyst I’d say the priority ranking would be accuracy, then speed, and then context. And, for the journalist, while he or she would aspire to the dictum of C.P. Scott, the legendary editor of the Guardian in the 1930s: “Comment is free, but facts are sacred”, in practice I believe most of you would admit that speed edges out accuracy as the top priority. Context – determining how significant something is, to whom, and why – is probably the least important of the three for the journalist. Of course there is and always will be an intense battle between speed and accuracy, especially for the analyst and the journalist.
Proposition 3 The Process
Even before the current notoriety of the intelligence business, I had been reflecting on this idea for a number of years. In part, it came from my time in the government with Henry Kissinger, as his private secretary between 1969-73.
By way of backdrop, Kissinger would often begin public remarks by saying something like, ‘in any intelligence system, whether it is in our own mind or a national intelligence agency, there are always going to be three steps:
1. Collection: The data, the facts — in essence, what is really happening?
2. Analysis: Breaking apart the facts and data to figure out its meaning and what is most likely to happen next? (And this leads to a subset of ‘What If?’ questions on the most likely scenarios.)
3. Communication: Getting the answers from 1. and 2. to the decision maker(s) — Each is an essential step. Any two alone amount to nothing.
Thus collection and analysis without communication result in nothing; analysis and communication without collection are meaningless; and collection and communication without analysis is vacuous. This last combination is what has exploded under the internet. ‘Spam’ and ‘spin’ predominate and everyone thinks they know what’s happening, but no one knows what it means. (In short, this is the story of why Oxford Analytica was founded.)
I must add a footnote here from my good friend Sir Colin McColl, retired head of MI6 and now involved with us at Oxford Analytica, who sent me the following e-mail this morning:
“Proposition 3. The three steps. I would add a fourth, namely the willingness of decision-makers to accept intelligence which runs contrary to their current policy or thinking. The story goes that when Maurice Oldfield (then head of MI6) had his first meeting with Callaghan, the PM asked him what he regarded as his most important task. Oldfield replied “to give you unwelcome intelligence”. One could write a book on this subject, e.g. which generals in World War II acted on intelligence (Paton) and which resisted intelligence. Hitler seems to have made a point of denying what his intelligence people told him; and there are plenty of examples nearer to the present. So receptivity by decision makers is a vital part of the chain.”
For Proposition 3, then I would say that the same three steps are obviously required in each profession – and for the intelligence analyst to be effective there is a fourth – receptivity.
Proposition 4 The Significance of Collection
I often say to my students and children; “Life is like a pyramid — you can only build it as high as you make the base wide.”
The same picture applies to intelligence: it is like a pyramid — the broader the base the more likely you are to collect the right facts, all other things being equal, but you can only get a decision when things come together at the top.
This is the same for the scholar and journalist – but the difference is that once the decision maker (publisher or editor) says “OK” – then the audience becomes the world – of your circulation. On the other hand, with intelligence – when the decision or policy maker acts, the result usually reaches only a very narrow audience (of users) although it may have much more profound policy consequences.
Several reflections emerge from the picture of the pyramid:
1. We can make the base so wide, the collection so extensive, that we never actually transmit the vital information to the point at the top for decision making. (You never get the story written.)
2. In the intelligence world modern technology has perhaps fooled everyone by making the capacity to collect so exceed the capacity to absorb, that no one can actually perform intelligent analysis and decision making. We all know about analysing the intercepts relating to 9/11 at the NSA, which was weeks behind in being able to translate and understand their significance (and didn’t do so until only after 9/11).
(This is probably an area for those of you who have studied catastrophe theory to reflect on. It seems to me that it might be relevant in that catastrophies result from big miscalculations, even though those miscalculations may be made on the basis of very small bits of information, e.g.: Iraq, Pearl Harbour. But by the time one realizes a mistake has been made, it is too late – and the consequences are catastrophic.)
3. This brings me back to collection. Perhaps the problem in the first instance is knowing what to collect.
Sources are the “sine qua non” of all three professions: scholarship, journalism and intelligence. Hence the need to check and corroborate, to confirm independent sources. And independent must at least be non-interlinking circles of sources.
People often say that the best intelligence service in the world is the Israeli one, the Mossad, because they do not have the resources of the G7 countries, particularly the Americans, and therefore they think more thoroughly ahead of time about what to collect. They apply their understanding of the enemy’s situation or threat and then prioritise what they will, in the first instance, seek intelligence on.
(Even Paul Revere had a very simple system whereby he knew where to look to see from where the British were coming, and he managed to communicate the decision pretty quickly with his ‘One by land, Two by sea’ lanterns in the Church tower.)
Proposition 5 The Significance of Communication
What is the common feature in “historic failures” — for example Pearl Harbour, Churchill versus Chamberlain re Hitler, the fall of the Berlin Wall, or 9/11?
I think the answer is that they actually are not failures. It isn’t as if no one knew or surmised what was happening, or failed to comprehend the threats that existed — someone did know. And their collection of intelligence and underlying analytical assumptions were correct. The pattern was indeed discerned, but it was not possible to communicate it effectively to the decision maker. Or, the decision maker was not receptive – to pick up on Sir Colin’s point under Proposition 3 above. Thus, the breakdown occurred at the communication stage. The decision maker decided to accept and proceed on the basis of the wrong analysis and assumptions.
Whether you are a journalist, scholar or analyst – you are in the business of challenging your audiences’ assumptions. And to do so effectively you must have your sources, your facts, your arguments lined up and communicate them as effectively as you can.
There is therefore a premium on communicating clearly and convincingly — and here, the scholar, the journalist and the intelligence analyst have much in common. The scholar could be said to be trying to convince “history”, the journalist to convince first his editor and then his readers as to the accuracy or truthfulness of his position; and the intelligence analyst is trying to convince the ultimate decision maker or policy maker of the same – be he or she Minister or President or Prime Minister.
So our Proposition 5 is that the ability to communicate effectively and convincingly is every bit as important – and sometimes even more important than steps one and two – i.e. “collection” and “analysis”.
This ability is just as important for the journalist as it is for the intelligence analyst or scholar. Put another way, the more effective a journalist is in communicating the closer he or she comes to being a good, articulate, convincing intelligence analyst or scholar.
Perhaps you are all aware of it, but I think one of the most powerful essays ever written on how to communicate and write effectively is one by George Orwell called, ‘Politics and the English Language’ (which, incidentally, if you haven’t read, is very worth reading). And of course I am sure you are all aware of the famous little book entitled ‘The Elements of Style’ by Strunk and White, and the admonition “to use definite, specific and concrete language”, and a list of other rules which I dare say are still applicable today.
Proposition 6 The Significance of Analysis
The foregoing two propositions (The Significance of Collection, and the Significance of Communication) are bottomed on the issue of assumptions. And it is the significance of underlying assumptions that I want to focus on as being at the heart of the Significance of Analysis.
There was a prominent lecture by Sir Colin McColl (mentioned earlier) a few years ago at Cambridge wherein he proposed that the essential starting point for good intelligence analysis all came down to having the right underlying assumptions. He argued persuasively that when major intelligence failures have occurred throughout history it was because the underlying assumptions were faulty. He explained how his own work on the Soviet Union was about having the right underlying set of assumptions and right sense of where the tectonic plates of Russian culture met, and how they might interact and change. These assumptions were the basis for collecting information and intelligence at the right place and at the right time. In short, Sir Colin’s thesis was that we should constantly be challenging our basic underlying assumptions.
Another don with an appreciation of the “tectonic plates” theory of history is Wilfrid Knapp from St. Catherine’s (now retired). He would often say that if you really knew a country, society, culture, or system, you knew that there were certain aspects of it that you were pretty sure were immovable, but that you had to at the same time keep checking that they hadn’t moved.
In a sense we are searching for the DNA of the culture or political economy system or of the national personality/psyche. The nation’s DNA would allow the country (government, culture etc) to do certain things, but not other things.
Kissinger always likened nations to individuals – with their own personality/psyche and character. Talking about Putin – at a breakfast in New York just last week – Kissinger raised the impact of the Tsarist tradition in Russia on Putin’s view – as well as the people’s view – of his presidency. And we all know the story of the fox and the scorpion (“it’s in my nature”).
One of my favourite stories on the importance of assumptions is about Einstein. There are two quotes that I think sum up the foundations upon which he worked out his theory of relativity – and changed the world forever.
One was that, “God does not throw dice,” — in other words, things are not left to chance, but reason and meaning in the end will prevail over meaninglessness.
The second was that, “Grappling with mystery* was one of the greatest challenges a human being could ever engage in”. And so whenever he was confronted with a mystery, he would see it as a challenge to unravel the mystery – and his underlying assumption was that God did not throw dice – reason would prevail.
And once he felt he had figured out “the mystery of relativity”** he spent the rest of his life trying to change others (and history’s) assumptions.
The significance of having the right underlying assumptions is fundamental to each of the professions under discussion. But perhaps even more importantly – are the assumptions of one’s hearers – one’s audience – one’s boss – the policy makers (again Sir Colin’s point). And understanding and challenging those assumptions, if necessary, again brings us to the Significance of Communication. But such challenging of assumptions, even with the gift of communication are nothing if not fortified by courage (moral and physical). And courage often comes from the conviction that one is dealing with truth.
Proposition 7 The Underlying Fundamental Assumption
Fundamental to all this is that we have to have a correct understanding of human nature. If we miscalculate human nature, if we tend to think that a particular person has worse instincts and values than is actually the case, we can be off just as much as if we thought he had better instincts, values or inclinations than he actually has. So understanding human nature and where it starts is key. As we wrote in our Founding Principles for Oxford Analytica, “…the tradition of scholarship is the relentless search for truth, and begins with an accurate assessment of human nature”.
This point on human nature is fundamental*. From personal experience I often say that the key to the understanding which Kissinger, Nixon, Mao and Brezhnev had of each other during various high-level and intense negotiations when I was in the White House was that they all understood human nature. They had all grown up, so to speak, on the same “block” – or if you will – in the same gutter; they all saw life in the raw “… red in tooth and claw”. They did not see this as a Pollyanna world.
One cannot have a Pollyanna view of man, which fails to recognise the overriding power of the ego or the seductiveness of self-interest, (as over against national interest). Indeed it is the self-interest in seeking personal recognition – perhaps strongest with the journalist and scholar – that can undermine trust and credibility, and in turn the search for truth.
Proposition 8 The Centrality of Truth
The pursuit of truth is at the heart of all good scholarship, good intelligence and good journalism. But it is important here to make a distinction between spiritual truth, human truth and descriptive truth, while at the same time recognising there is a link between the three. In other words they go together just as spiritual falsehood and human falsehood go with descriptive falsehood. Three quotes will suffice. The first was mentioned by Geert Linnebank of Reuters in his lecture here to you last summer.
John Donne: ‘On a huge hill
Cragged and steepe, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must, and about must go’
John Locke’s memorial stone in the Cathedral in Christ Church here in Oxford:
“I know there is truth opposite to falsehood that it may be found if people will and is worth the seeking.”
And my own one line reflection which I kept on my desk in the White House:
“Truth will prevail in the end, not because men are honest, but because they like to trap liars”.
Unfortunately this has come to be characterized as the “Gotcha” school of journalism.
Without wanting to get bogged down in a philosophical debate, let me just say that the best practical definition of truth I know is:
“Truth is what conforms to reality.”
But how does one know what reality is. Yes, I admit, reality is not always easy to know, but maybe “knowing” also involves, dare I say, “trust” and “love”.
Reflecting on all of the above in recent days I came to the realization that it wasn’t enough to try and help you understand your profession – through a series of propositions – even if the comparisons are with two other laudable professions. What was missing was that I hadn’t tried to answer “why?” Why do we at Oxford Analytica do what we do? Why do you do what you do as a journalist? Why are we interested in getting to the bottom of things, of getting to the “reality” of things, of “knowing” the “truth”? And often for many of you, at serious personal risk and danger.
And while I cannot answer the “why?” question for everyone I realized I needed to at least try to share – where I am coming from. In short, what is my “why?” My “why?” is that those “in authority” – whether in the world of business or the world of government are at the epicentre of the battle over what conforms to reality – what is truth. Their decisions affect whole nations, societies, organisations – and they need all the help they can get, because good leaders can make bad decisions, and bad leaders can make good decisions. And truth is at the heart of good decisions. Thus my mission for nearly 30 years now has been to do all I can do to convey truth to power i.e. those “in authority”.
And so if I may, I would like to step back for a minute and put all this in a kind of personal view of where we – scholar, intelligence analyst or journalist – are in the sweep of history.
· The Meta Narrative
Consider how “man” of the Enlightenment thought of himself as the measure of all things, and that with the benefit of the scientific age and the industrial revolution we would be able to discover the answers to all of life’s and nature’s mysteries. And this was called “modernity”. And then “modernity” produced the two ‘Great Wars’, Auschwitz, the Gulags etc. And Marx, Nietzsche and Freud combined to show us that man was not, is not, indeed, the measure of all things and did not have the answer to all things. Their conclusion was that we were in a world in which money, power and sex had become the norm or coinage of relationships.
And so we are now at a point which is called the “post-modernist” world. A world characterised by distrust, fear and suspicion. This is the world you live and work in every day. But as a journalist to live and to work in it and sometimes take the risks you do, you need more. You must have a sense of knowing, of finding answers, of climbing John Donne’s “Huge hill, cragged and steepe” where “truth stands”, of finding some one (some source) you can trust, and who trusts you.
· Truth and Trust
Here I would argue that there is a direct correlation between trust and truth. It’s as simple as – when you write the truth you are trusted – and when you do not – you are not trusted.
We all know about Francis Fukuyama’s book on the ‘End of History’, arguing that all forms of government henceforth are going to be variations of the market economy and Western liberal democracy. His hypothesis, however, is based on the assumption that there will be an underlying culture of “trust”. He draws a distinction between Western culture and Eastern culture and argues that the cement that holds Western society together is very much one of trust — the concept, the notion, the practice of trust. And again at the heart of trust is truth. One has to, at the same time, also recognize how growing distrust and falsehood continues to undermine western culture. And if trust goes so does truth.
· Truth and Trust and Love
Maybe the problem is that we are becoming an ever more “me” culture – an “I did it my way” Sinatra culture – a more narcissistic culture – an ever more arrogant, self promoting, self-indulgent, and self-important culture. If so, no wonder no one trusts anyone. And if the journalist (or analyst or scholar for that matter) adopts this set of cultural values then we will be in danger of losing our capacity for self-correction. But your job as a journalist is just the opposite. It is your calling to be “in” the culture, but not “of” it. You have to learn how to trust and to be trusted without being co-opted. You have to learn how to be the clear – non-ego driven – messenger of truth. The challenge for you therefore is to find a way to step outside the “me” culture and take it on. Because, after all you are in many ways the eyes and ears, the keepers and guardians of the traditional values of your society and your culture. And you cannot allow yourselves to adopt the values of the “me” culture around you.
Here a quote from the Bishop of Durham, N.T. Wright, is relevant:
“We are told that in the post modernist world you can’t trust anything; you have to be suspicious of everything. But is that true? I believe that there is such a thing as a love, a knowing, [a framework] of trust rather than suspicion, which is what we most surely need as we enter the 21st Century …” “We must take love as the basic mode of knowing – where love is simultaneously an affirmation of the Other and an intimate relation to that Other.”
Indeed, on the wall of the BBC’s Broadcasting House one finds the following quote from its founder Lord Reith inscribed in Latin in 1931: ‘What ever things are beautiful and honest and of good report, think on these.’
In other words, you should see your job in the first instance to be constructive and positive and not negative and destructive. Settling scores and taking revenge is not part of a journalist’s job.
Perhaps for a journalist, this is a way of saying “love your enemies”.
In part, one could say that Lord Reith’s vision was that the aim of the first and, dare I say as an American, the most respected, national broadcasting company in the world, was and is – “to speak the truth in love”, and that it is love that helps one find his or her way between trust and distrust to discern reality and truth.
Finally, from our own home, Baldon House, here in England, carved in the marble fireplace 200 years ago is the motto of the family that lived there at the time. It reads, “Verite sans peur” — ‘Truth without fear.’ Many of you work in places where finding and telling the truth is a dangerous business. And therefore you must have courage as well as love.
And so whether scholar, intelligence analyst or journalist we are all in the same game. We are all driven by the same “why?” We want to discover reality – we want to discover truth. And, dare I say, it is not a game.
So I hope this has been a useful way of encouraging you to go forward in your chosen profession.
Thank you very much.
* Professor Joseph Nye, Director of the Kennedy School at Harvard: “My principle regret from my time in the Department of Defence is that I wish we had spent more time and money trying to understand mysteries and less trying to steal secrets.” Oxford Seminar 2002.
** E = MC2
* See Robert S MacNamara, Secretary of Defence under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, in current Documentary on his life: “Fog of War”. One of the central lessons he draws from his career is: “You cannot change human nature”.