Achilles Tsaltas has every reason to be content. In the wake of the 2016 Athens Democracy Forum (ADF), he can definitely say that this year’s event was a success. This should come as no surprise, not only to those who follow the annual forum, which gathers some of the best and brightest minds of the planet in Greece, but also to those familiar with the man himself.
Born and raised in Australia, Achilles Tsaltas is one of the international media industry leaders. After a successful run at The Australian, he went on to become the International Herald Tribune’s executive director in Asia, which in turn led him to become the vice president of The New York Times’ international conferences division.
In this capacity, he shared with Neos Kosmos his thoughts on the Athens Democracy Forum, explaining how his Greek background has influenced his overall professional development.
How did the Athens Democracy Forum come to be?
The Athens Democracy Forum was established as an annual event dedicated to highlighting the political, economic and social challenges currently faced by liberal democratic societies.
The aim was to create a community with a common mission to enhance society through better governance.
When the forum was first established, we aspired to recreate the ancient Greek agoras, or public squares, where diverse members of society would meet to trade, network and discuss the important issues of the day.
The New York Times has achieved this by bringing together some of the most influential speakers from the worlds of politics, business, academia, journalism and the non-profit sector, to identify and respond to the urgent challenges facing liberal democratic governments, institutions and societies. Its ambitious mission aims to strengthen this ancient governance and value system, and to ensure it continues to be relevant and beneficial to all of us.
What has been this year’s highlight?
It’s too hard to choose as there were so many!
Personally speaking, my most unforgettable experiences from this year would have to be watching NYT London bureau chief Steven Erlanger interview Edward Snowden, watching the international student debate, and seeing architect Patrik Schumacher (from Zaha Hadid Architects) and Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman debate architecture and democracy in stunning Costa Navarino.
What was your main focus while setting up the 2016 ADF?
The focus for each year’s event is very much determined by the pressing issues affecting liberal democractic societies. Recent world events have highlighted the most pressing issues facing liberal democracies, as well as the urgent need for rigorous, informed debate on how democracy must evolve to ensure it continues to work for everyone.
To this end, this year’s forum brought together an influential array of experts to identify and respond to key flashpoints, including mass migration due to conflict, religious zealotry, authoritarianism, wrenching social change and the role of business and entrepreneurship.
What is the significance of Athens, both as a historical influence and as an example of a country struggling with an ongoing crisis, in setting up a conference addressing the challenges modern democracy is facing?
We naturally felt the forum should be based here, in Greece, where democracy was born more than 2,000 years ago. Despite the political turbulence of recent years, it’s important to note Greece’s significance as a valuable model of democratic governance and values.
Why is it important for a news organisation such as The New York Times to set up the ADF?
As a news organisation, The New York Times understands the importance of democracy and its values very well. The New York Times prides itself on reporting – without fear or favour – on the pressing issues that matter to our readers. Our ability to fulfil this obligation is reliant on the values and ideals underpinning liberal democracies: free speech and press, rule of law and equality under the law, protection of human rights as well as robust civic engagement.
By highlighting, and robustly debating, the significant issues that challenge liberal democratic societies, economies and their general way of life, the forum aims to ensure that democracy continues to work as it should, that is, for the benefit of all people in society.
Who would you want to see participating in the ADF, but have yet to get on board?
There are many thinkers on democracy that we would want to attract so it is difficult to outline a long list, but if I was to point out a handful, they are people like Justin Trudeau, as he represents a new breed of visionary politicians; Mauricio Macri, as we would like to have a leader from Latin America; Eric Schmidt of Google; Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, as it would be pertinent to see how the corporate world of technology is changing the debate on democracy’s evolution; Dambisa Moyo, as democracy needs the voice of activists; Ouided Bouchamaoui, who brought hope to Tunisia and the Arab Spring; Kevin Rudd, as he is so outspoken and his current role as president of the Asia Society will bring a new dimension; more refugees and students to make the forum even more rounded and inclusive; and many, many others.
How has your professional experience influenced your outlook on life?
I am lucky to be working for an institution (The New York Times) that has freedom of speech and diversity of opinion as its core values.
Freedom and diversity are also two guiding principles in my life. Through my professional experience I have managed work and teams in different cities and cultures (Sydney, Hong Kong, Paris, London and up to a point, Athens). I have come to learn that despite all we read in management books, my ‘4 Hs’ of intercultural management are: Humanity, Humility, Honesty and Humour. Armed with these one can survive and excel in any culture.
How has your Greek background affected your professional development?
I approach my work on the Athens Democracy Forum by wearing two hats: one, of course, is as an executive of The New York Times and my desire and obligation to fulfil its mission of enhancing society through quality news and information.
The other, more personal hat, is that of a member of the Greek diaspora. As an Australian-born Greek, my parents instilled in me a sense of Greek heritage and culture, so I find myself today wanting to spread this to the world.
I’m not only inspired by the historical fact of Greece as the birthplace of democracy, but more importantly, because I believe that the current struggle that Greece is going through is something from which the world can learn and out of which democracy can evolve in a time of profound transformation for our world.
As Socrates said: “I am not a citizen of Athens or of Greece, but of the world”. To me this is my guiding principle in life and what it means to be Greek.