London Mayor Sadiq Khan will address this year’s South By Southwest conference in Austin, Texas. NPR’s Michel Martin speaks with the mayor about the themes of his speech.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now to Austin, Texas, where the annual South by Southwest festival kicked off this past week. It’s the 32nd annual festival. Now, South by Southwest used to be all about music, and music is still at the heart of it, so in a few minutes, we’ll hear about a few of the featured artists who will be performing. But South by Southwest has also become a place to talk about cutting-edge technologies and some of the issues raised by those technologies.
Our next guest is going to talk about that. He’s the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. He’s in Austin to offer a keynote. Mayor Khan was elected in 2016 – the first Muslim mayor of London – and that, along with his inspiring personal story, has made him an international figure. He’s the son of Pakistani immigrants. He grew up in public housing in South London. But he’s also made it a mission to use government to address issues of the future as well as of the moment, which is what he’ll talk about tomorrow. And we called him to see if we can persuade him to offer us a bit of a preview. Mayor Khan is with us now from Austin.
Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for speaking with us.
SADIQ KHAN: Absolute pleasure to be talking to NPR. Good to be talking to you.
MARTIN: And, of course, two crucial questions – have you had any barbecue, and are you going to buy some boots?
KHAN: (Laughter) I’ll tell you all, it’s a pleasure to be here at South by Southwest in Austin. And the hospitality and warmth of Austinites is legendary, but now I’ve experienced it at first hand. And the food – put aside, you know, barbecue food and, you know, the boots and the hats that they wear around here (laughter), but the food is amazing…
KHAN: …All sorts of cuisine. I had Mexican last night. There’s a number of mayors here in Austin – 40 mayors from across the U.S. Conference. And they’re having a barbecue tonight, so I’m really looking forward to catching up with mates – we are friends – but also enjoying the Austin, Texas barbecue cuisine.
MARTIN: Absolutely. But the boots, though. I mean…
MARTIN: I mean the boots.
KHAN: I’m not sure…
MARTIN: I’m just saying.
KHAN: I’ve got two teenage daughters, and I’m not sure if they’d allow me back in the home with the boots, but I’ll try my best.
MARTIN: (Laughter) OK. But before we talk about your keynote, I did want to ask you about some of the issues in London. I mean…
MARTIN: …London has really been at the center of it. I mean, the shock of the Brexit vote, which most Londoners opposed, and then several terrorist attacks at Westminster and then London Bridge. And that sparked some back and forth between you and President Trump. I just – I know it’s a difficult question, but how would you assess the public mood of Londoners?
KHAN: Oh, we’re a resilient city. We’re a resilient people. And, you know, we’ve survived many previous difficult times, and we will survive this time as well. And one of the ways we do is because it’s who we are. You know, we know that we will bounce back, and we’ve got friends, no matter how difficult the times. But the cultural links we have with other parts of the world, particularly America, are huge. And here in Austin, for example, every other accent I hear is a British London accent, which demonstrates (laughter) that we’re everywhere. And long may that continue.
MARTIN: Let’s talk about your speech tomorrow. South by Southwest is known for being a showcase for innovation, and that’s something you’re going to talk about. Can you just give us one or two lines – maybe the executive summary, if you will – about what you’re going to talk about tomorrow?
KHAN: Well, one of the things that your listeners will recognize, I hope, is we are currently going through a fourth, if you like, industrial revolution – a tech revolution. And what I’ll be saying during the course of my speech is politicians and policymakers have had their head in the sands while all this revolution’s been taking place around us with huge advances in technology, in social media, in the shared economy, the peer-to-peer economy. And we’ve not been making sure that regulation evolves as fast as our economies.
And the consequences, for example – something we’ve experienced on both sides of the Atlantic – where there is concerns about elections being interfered with through social media. There are concerns around fake news. There are concerns around how social media can be used to amplify messages of hatred and division. And I think tech companies, politicians, have a responsibility to respond to those concerns.
MARTIN: Technology individuals in this field have, I think, tended to make the argument that they have thrived by being free – free to, you know, think wild thoughts. I mean, not to quote Rihanna here, but that’s where they feel their strength has come from – is they can sort of think their thoughts, they can dream things that people have not imagined. And they have been very resistant to regulation as a consequence of that because they argue that that inhibits that ability to think kind of wildly and experimentally. What is your argument to them?
KHAN: Well, disruptive pioneers is nothing new. For example, I think it’s fantastic. You can get a date using social media. You can even fall in love, dare I say. You can book your holiday remotely from home without having to go to a travel agent, going through brochures and stuff. That’s a great, great thing, and nobody wants to stop that. But at the same time, this same medium is being used to spread messages of hatred to divide communities. And just like we stop hate speech that’s said face-to-face, we’ve got to work with the disrupters to stop hate speech that works via social media.
MARTIN: Give me an example – I’m told that you have actually brought a small selection of some of the racist tweets that have been directed at you as mayor. Is that so – and that you might be sharing some of those?
KHAN: I don’t talk about some of the vile stuff that I receive on a daily basis – I mean, literally thousands and thousands of tweets. And…
MARTIN: Really? You get thousands of hate messages every day?
MARTIN: And are they local? Are they – do you have a sense that they’re from around the world? I mean, I guess what I’m – what do you think is at play there?
KHAN: I’m not the only person who receives, you know, these sorts of messages. You speak to a lot of women in public life, a lot of minorities in public life – they receive these sorts of messages. And my concern is with free speech, and with technology comes responsibility. And I think it’s really important for mayors like me, politicians and policymakers to work with the tech companies to make sure we address this issue.
MARTIN: But why is that a mayoral responsibility, per se? It seems, given that these algorithms are global, these companies are international – I mean, is this a primarily local responsibility, or is it mainly that you’re using your platform to call attention to this as an issue?
KHAN: Well, I’m using the bully pit of City Hall as a mayor to raise issues that matter to my citizens. But this morning, I met with 40 or so mayors from the U.S. during the U.S. Conference of Mayors. And what’s clear to me is, actually, mayors can move far more nimbly and swifter. We’ve got far better relationships with these giant tech companies and with innovation. But also national governments in all countries just move far more slower. And so we as mayors, you know, bring often pressure on national governments to take swift action.
One of the great things about South by Southwest is the sort of people who are here – you’ve got politicians, you’ve got policymakers, you’ve got innovators, you’ve got startups, you got scale-ups, you’ve got (unintelligible) from giant tech companies. And so when you’re given the privilege of doing a keynote speech at South by Southwest, you know, what I’m using it for is, of course, to use it as a way to drum up investment for London. And, of course, I’ll be reminding people that London is, you know, a great place to attract investment – the data, the connectivity, the innovation makes London a byword for a smart city – but also raising issues that are really important to citizens in London, citizens in the UK. But I know from the conversations I’ve heard it’s troubling many citizens in the USA as well.
MARTIN: Nice plug as we enter the travel season for your city, Mr. Mayor. I did take note of that, and…
MARTIN: …But you don’t have cowboy boots so…
MARTIN: …Just saying. That was the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, talking to us about the keynote speech he’ll give tomorrow at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. We reached him there. Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for speaking with us.
KHAN: Cheers. It’s my pleasure, Michel. Take care.
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