The Trouble with Wikipedia: A Cautionary Tale

Back in February, I published an article on Pajamas Media documenting the substantial financial support provided by the German federal government and other German public agencies to the production of Roman Polanski’s film The Ghost Writer. The film is about a former British prime minister who is suspected of having been controlled by the CIA. Any resemblance between the character in question and a certain living former British prime minister by the name of Tony Blair is obviously intentional.

Nowadays, of course, Blair is most famous -- or, more exactly, infamous -- in continental Europe for his support for the Iraq war. The fact that such a film received some €5 million in backing from the country that led the self-styled “axis of peace” that opposed the war struck me as being of evident public interest. How readers want to interpret this fact is, of course, up to them. Perhaps it is just coincidence, after all. But I also provided some examples of other recent English-language cinema blockbusters that have received substantial German public subsidies. The list suggests that the logic of German funding of English-language cinema is not merely economic, as defenders of the practice in Germany commonly insist.

A couple of months after the publication of my PJM report, Erik Svane of the euroblog ¡No Pasarán! wrote me to tell me that he had added a reference to the article to the Wikipedia entry on The Ghost Writer. “One sour note came from John Rosenthal,” the otherwise glowing entry on the film now read,

who points out that the winner of Berlin’s Silver Bear received a large amount of financial support from the German federal government, which happened to be "part of the self-styled 'axis of peace' that opposed the Iraq War" led by Blair and George W. Bush.

A footnote provided reference and link to my PJM report. I was, of course, glad that the information had been linked. But I am no fan of Wikipedia and, from previous observations of the evolution of Wikipedia entries, I strongly suspected that the reference would not last long.

About a month after that, John Rentoul, a columnist for the British daily The Independent, posted an entry on his blog likewise citing my research on the German financing of The Ghost Writer and linking my PJM report. Earlier, Rentoul had independently raised the issue of German public subsidies for the film, but he had originally cited a much lower figure of only €200,000 in German public support.

After being informed about the Rentoul post, I became curious what was happening in the meanwhile to the entry on The Ghost Writer on Wikipedia. So, I had another look. Lo and behold, the reference to my PJM report -- and, with it, any reference whatsoever to the German subsidies -- had been removed. The before-and-after versions can be viewed here and here respectively. As the dates in the Wikipedia history log make clear, the reference had remained in the entry for all of five days.

The Wikipedia editor -- or perhaps in this case, more exactly, censor -- responsible for the revision was one “Alandeus.” On April 26, in the “talk” section on the article, Alandeus made the following comment. The "Babelsberg" to which he refers is a film studio in Potsdam, outside Berlin.

Practically all films that are produced in Babelsberg are eligible for or get Federal funding, i.e. loans, so interpreting so much political ill will into it is carrying it a bit far. On the other hand, I question whether Wikipedia is well severed [sic] by opinions from such blog sites. Is this good or valid reference?

Two days later, Alandeus apparently decided unilaterally that it was not and proceeded to remove the reference. Note that he did not, at this time, add his general claim suggesting that German public funding is politically unproblematic. He simply removed all reference to the funding, so that readers would not have to bother themselves with the matter. The irony of a self-appointed editor of a Wikipedia entry suggesting that an online media is not a worthy reference can be passed over here without comment.

As it so happens, the Wikipedia user page for “Alandeus” identifies him as Alan Benson, an “American translator living in Berlin.” Benson’s webpage proudly recounts how he participated in a hundred-thousand-strong anti-Iraq war demonstration that took place in February 2003 in Berlin. It also notes his membership not only in “Democrats Abroad Berlin,” but even in the German Social Democratic Party or SPD. It was, of course, the Social Democratic German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder who would spearhead the international campaign against the American-led intervention to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein.

After I pointed out to Erik that the PJM reference had disappeared from the Wikipedia entry, he then put it back in, along now with a reference to the Rentoul post on the website of The Independent. It took another five days for none other than Alandeus to remove the reference once more. Yet again, Alandeus, in effect, flagged his intentions in advance. In the Wikipedia “talk” section, he defiantly rejected the charge that his previous edit had been politically motivated, noting that per Wikipedia’s “principles,” “personal and group blogs are largely not acceptable as sources.” “Therefore,” he concluded, “John Rosenthal would not be acceptable, but The Independent's John Rentoul would be.” Never mind that Pajamas Media is neither my personal blog nor a group blog. Above all, never mind that the “unacceptable” source -- namely, my PJM report -- was precisely the cited source for the “acceptable” one!