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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!

True to his own tortured logic, two days later Alandeus removed the reference to the PJM report, but left the reference to the Rentoul post.  But no matter. At least some mention of the German funding had finally managed to escape the censor’s vigilance.

Now, however, Alandeus sought, in effect, to “neutralize” the information on the German funding by adding other information. An amusing French expression describes this sort of procedure as “drowning the fish.” The problem, however, is that one key element of Alandeus’s “new” information consists, more precisely, of misinformation. Although Alandeus’s party comrades/colleagues in Germany and the U.S. rarely showed similar forbearance toward Tony Blair or George W. Bush, I will not call it a “lie.” There is no need, after all, to attribute to malice what can be explained by ignorance.

Here, then, is how the Wikipedia entry presently concludes following Alandeus’s latest revision:

Most major films produced in Germany can receive a grant (to be repaid) from the German Federal Film Fund (DFFF).[17] The Elfte Babelsberg Film GmbH received a grant of 3.5 million euro for producing The Ghost.

Now, it is true that many films produced in Germany can and do receive support from the DFFF. This fact alone, of course, hardly demonstrates the political neutrality of the practice. Perhaps sometime in the future, the German government will finance a film that insinuates that French president Jacques Chirac was controlled by the German foreign intelligence service, the BND, when he rallied to Schröder’s crusade against the Iraq War in late 2002/early 2003. But I would not recommend that Alandeus hold his breath in the meanwhile.

It is not true, however, that the DFFF grants have to be repaid. It is common knowledge in Germany that the DFFF provides subsidies, not loans. Why else would the German Taxpayers Association protest against the DFFF’s “subsidy-madness,” as it has put it? (See here from the German news site Der Westen.)

But Alandeus need not take my word for it. Here are some official German sources on the matter. The Film Fund of Hamburg and Schleswig-Holstein: “The repayment of [film] project support is only necessary in the case of loans, but not in the case of subsidies (e.g. the ‘reference’ grants of the FFA, the Federal Film prize rewards, and the DFFF)” (p. 13). The municipal government of Potsdam: “…in the case of the DFFF, it [the support] consists of susbsidies that do not have to be repaid…”(p. 27). The German-French Film Academy: “the [DFFF] measures consist of a credit that does not have to be repaid [sic!].”

Or how about the DFFF itself? The very DFFF webpage that Alandeus cites ostensibly in support of his claim contains a link to the English-language version of the DFFF guidelines. Article 13 of the guidelines is titled “Nature of a Grant.” Article 13, paragraph 2 specifies: “The financial aid is awarded as a non-repayable grant….”

So, why did Alandeus suggest otherwise? Only he can know for sure. Perhaps he was confused by Article 19 of the guidelines, which is titled “Repayment” and which merely serves briefly to specify the joint financial responsibility of co-producers. The otherwise enigmatic article is presumably included to cover cases where the grant gets revoked. As is sometimes discussed in German film industry literature (see here, for instance), in theory, such revocations can occur.

It should be noted that some film financing provided by other German public agencies takes the form of “conditionally-repayable loans.” The qualifier “conditionally-repayable” means precisely that the so-called loans do not necessarily have to be repaid: neither in full nor even in part. Even much of this funding thus amounts de facto to subsidies.

Will “Alandeus” now correct his addition and finally permit the Wikipedia readership to know not only that the German government subsidized the making of The Ghost Writer, but that German subsidies are precisely subsidies? Well, in the grand scheme of things it makes little difference if he does.

The larger moral of this story is that Wikipedia itself  is a fundamentally flawed and unreliable source. In fact, it is wrong even to describe -- much less to use -- Wikipedia as a source. Wikipedia is merely a platform. Since anyone and everyone can edit Wikipedia entries and since they can do so anonymously, Wikipedia is, by its very nature, susceptible to constant manipulation. Indeed, even editors who choose to reveal their real identities remain for all intents and purposes anonymous. Readers will not, as a rule, search out the authorship of each and every edit, and they would not, as a rule, know who the authors are even if they did. As such, Wikipedia editors have no reputations, so they have no reputations to hurt.

At its best, Wikipedia would be essentially just a clearing house of citations of other sources and those sources would necessarily often be competing and discordant. The truth, as is its wont, would only emerge in the process of discussion and debate. But, as the example of “Alandeus” and the entry to The Ghost Writer demonstrates, interested parties can simply decide to “sit on” an entry and exclude citations that contain unwanted information. Since I began writing this article, Erik again added the footnote reference to my PJM report, and Alandeus has again removed it – for the third time!

What is worse, the interested parties editing Wikipedia  might not only be individuals, but also institutions and even interested states or state agencies. If the latter possess the slightest bit of new media savvy, no one else will normally ever know. In 2008, for instance, it emerged that none other than the German foreign intelligence service, the BND, had been engaging in Wikipedia edits. (For details, see my Weekly Standard article on “The Strange Career of Wikileaks.”) The “outed” BND-linked IP networks were quickly purged from the European IP registry.