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  • Writer's pictureJonny Ainslie

Alan Rusbridger - Journalism is a Public Service

Updated: Jun 30, 2019

Previous Editor in Chief of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger unpicks how journalism has adapted to the internet age, and it's role as a public good.

You brought ‘Pass Notes’ to the Guardian, and wrote a number of the irreverent early stories yourself. What’s that all about?

Well, the paper was expanding a bit in size, there was a feeling that papers were very serious – very masculine. When we launched G2 in 1992, it was the first time a British newspaper had had a features section, and you needed a bit of levity and a few entry points where you could ease yourself into reading a newspaper – and a bit of wit, I think, never goes amiss.

Far from this masculine world of newspapers, you’re now the Principal of LMH, Oxford, the first college to accept women (in 1878). You’ve talked about introducing new voices to The Guardian in your time; today, to what extent are these voices as important as what they say?

Well in the end I think reporting is the most important thing. And you could argue that we’ve gone too far down the direction of having too many personalities and voices and columns; if you’re strapped for resources or money, the most valuable thing a newspaper can do is to report. As budgets contract, and with no shortage of voices on the internet, I think quite a lot of Editors are thinking that the core business of papers is reporting.

In 2007 you personally launched the Katine initiative, that provided funds for Guardian news coverage of a sub-county of north-east Uganda – alongside training local journalists to help culture their unique voice. Did you try to avoid some kind of ‘Schrodinger’ effect: i.e. modifying the state of your subject by observing it?

I think we were trying to modify them. When the internet was becoming a two-way thing, for the first time you could try and allow people to speak back to you rather than just to speak at them. We thought this was interesting in terms of aid, so that if you wanted to actually harness the knowledge of the world and the money of the world and take it to places that needed it – how could a newspaper fit itself into that kind of thing. We definitely wanted to improve the lot of people who were there, but to also write about how typical that is. It wasn’t anthropological, it was trying to improve their water, healthcare, economic conditions. How much could you do if you had the ability to tap into the knowledge the internet could give?

You’ve done several things through your role as Editor not necessarily related to journalism in an attempt to do good: persuading the Guardian group to divest of fossil fuels, for example. Was this a private thing, or a professional responsibility?

I don’t think it was a private thing – I think climate change is a very public thing. The divestment thing came about through a particular frustration that, arguably the most important story in the world, is one that defeats a lot of journalists. Lots of people are bored reading it, frightened of reading it. The story doesn’t change much from day to day. And journalism is not very good at saying “these things might happen in 20 years’ time”, it’s better at saying “these things happened yesterday”. Even when you get hurricanes and storms, it’s very difficult to get climate experts who definitively say: that is climate change. So we were trying to think bigger and say, “what are the root causes that you can try and draw attention to”, and a lot of people think unless you divest from fossil fuels, then you’re not going to effect change. It’s more meaningful than cutting down the number of baths you have. And it was an attempt to get leverage into the debate, which was a very public thing.

Your semi-autobiographical story in Breaking News, quickly becomes the Guardian’s story. You’ve mentioned that you didn’t play very much music for 15 years as Editor in Chief. What has the responsibilities of a job that might be defined by public service, or corporate branding, wrought on you?

Well, I was lucky or unlucky enough to be Editor of The Guardian at the moment of most profound change since it started. I was confronted with having to adapt The Guardian, or seeing it die; and that required a very fundamental reassessment of what journalism was – what the purpose of a newspaper was. Almost the longer I edited I found the more I questioned some very basic things: Who is a journalist? What is journalism trying to do? Why would people choose journalism over the internet? That’s what made that period especially fraught, but it also made it incredibly interesting.

Why is it that people don’t trust us?

It was under your tenure that the Guardian received its first Pulitzer prize for releasing the Snowden files that revealed the NSA were spying on world leaders and the American people. You’ve struggled to find a place for the act of editing news in a world of open information; it was you who was in charge as the paper’s gatekeeper, and you walked the line. Would you change anything?

Of course you reflect on twenty years of Editing, and you think there are things I could have done differently, judgments I could have made differently, particular stories. The broad picture, which was evident to me from 1994, was that newspaper sales were going to go continuously down, and whatever digital was it was going to go up – very crudely. Nothing has changed my mind since in twenty-five years. That’s the obvious picture, and you can argue that perhaps we did it too slowly, perhaps we did it too quickly – we didn’t always judge the balance between revenues and costs well. But the fact that The Guardian now has something like 180m browsers a month accessing it, is a tremendous base on which to build. It’s not yet there financially, but I think it’s made the transition as well as anybody in this new world.

Let’s look at this ‘gatekeeping’ role that you outline in Breaking News, how you decide to act as a filter between information and the public. Julian Assange chose to publish everything from the files he sourced, including those which may have zero public interest, and for that he has been widely condemned. But perhaps, when anyone might be a citizen journalist, there are no official gatekeepers anymore, or it’s just – that we all are. Is everyone responsible for ‘good journalistic practice’ as an activity we all partake in as internet-connected publishers?

There are four billion people connected to the internet, each of whom has the ability to publish. That’s so utterly different even from the world of fifteen years ago, that we’re working out what each individual responsibility is – and whether journalism deserves to be held to a higher standard, what that standard looks like – how we define our craft. These are all very new questions exploding left right and center. It’s all about five minutes old – Facebook started in 2006, Twitter did the same. And it’s not surprising to me, any more than it was after Gutenberg, that in flux and turmoil bad stuff gets published as well as good stuff. There’s a period of information chaos compared with what went before.

Do you foresee an answer?

Not by next Monday. There are people who do say, “Facebook, you’ve got to do this by next Monday” – the problem is just too complex.

As a musical man, I wonder if you’ve heard of the Speech to Song Illusion: academics have investigated the power of repetition at ‘organising’ the brainwaves of listeners – rather than our brain doing the opposite. The music, in effect, might be playing us. Could the internet, in its absorption of individuals’ personas and viewpoints to a grander narrative, be marching us to its own tune?

Could be. Anybody who uses Facebook, or even Twitter, or even Google - you’ve got no idea about what the decisions of the algorithms might be that are influencing what we read. I think most of us are completely innocent about how the internet is or isn’t exploiting us. But who is the internet? There are a bunch of cleverer people than I am, who would understand the answer to that question; but I am aware of the issues.

Do you think change will now speed up continually?

Developments in AI, robotics, cryptocurrencies, blockchain… who knows where this is all going to lead. But journalists are going to have to decide what it is they do in society, why anybody would want journalists. And to my mind it’s a public service. It helps the public decide between truth and untruth; what is data, what are facts. Because otherwise societies can’t operate. Unfortunately, people don’t trust journalists to do that job right now. The very moment when journalists have to make the existential case for what they do, coincides with an incredibly low level of trust in journalists. Why is that? Why is it that people don’t trust us? And I don’t see a very serious debate in the UK about that question, more so in America, but there’s an tremendous defensiveness in Britain – “we’re the world’s best journalists, why don’t you just shut up and pay us”. I wish it were that simple.

I turn to news organisations to impose order on information

This makes me think that if the problems are being caused by arrogance from a top-down position, that they’re not going to be solved from a top-down position. Marketing campaigns for journalistic integrity might do a good job, but really people are going to want good journalism themselves.

Yeah (laughs). Marketing campaigns about journalistic integrity are not going to work. In an age of Twitter, the people who are most trusted are people who listen while others talk – and respond. Because people are getting used to testing their belief in things, by wanting to see the evidence: “send me the link”, “I want to see the screenshot”. People are very suspicious. And OK, there’s still a sort of brand effect, if things are in The Times or The Guardian, it’s more likely to be true than not – the BBC are still quite trusted. Even so, and I’m not saying this is good or bad – but people are beginning say “I’m not going to take it on trust any longer.”

It reminds me of a ‘there is no God’ moment, we’ve followed it up with ‘there is no truth’; people are so cynical of the idea that what you’re being told is necessarily right that you might as well start with the idea that it’s wrong and figure it out yourself.

And that’s not a necessarily wrong position – I think it’s right to be sceptical. But a world without any trust… This should play to journalism’s strengths. You should be able to say, “broadly, from what I know of the Editorial processes of, say, the New York Times, I should be prepared to say that’s been through a very high level of editing. The New York Times, in my experience, does not like publishing things that are not true – and so I’m inclined to believe things I read there than at random on the internet.” That ought to play to the strengths of ethical news organisations. But a large part of journalism, the last hundred years, say, has been also dominated by the business model. And if the business model is “we need lots of readers because we can sell advertising against it”, then that’s a different imperative. You don’t have to tell the truth to sell lots of papers.

Quickly, before we descend down that rabbit hole, you’ve argued that “the more invisible decent journalists became, the easier it becomes to denigrate their work”. Is the appearance of order itself an end within news? Trust doesn’t necessarily come down organisational lines – but we may need to have them as a symbol of, or a place to go, for those who want to do the job.

I think it comes down to individual choice, but… I spend too much time on Twitter, and I love the serendipity – the random voices, but at another level it’s just all too much for me. When I can’t cope with it – I turn to news organisations to impose order on information. And I’m glad of that. Having these two in tension with each other, is quite interesting.

So to business models. You’ve quoted the developer Bill Thompson when describing how readers are now the source of the Guardian business model “The online reader can be a valuable commodity in their own right”, as they help shape the content - and subsidise the paper with volunteer subscriptions. Do you think it’s problematic to commodify the reader? It has echoes of the way Facebook monetises its users’ information.

This wasn’t my side of the business, I don’t speak with any great expertise. But newspapers are not the only business who are very interested in capturing data. Most businesses now try to capture as much data as possible. Now maybe there is a backlash about that. Most people want to at least know or control what data other people can see or how it’s being used. Nevertheless, when I was there that was part of the business model. However, I think that is different from the subscription bit – or the voluntary payment bit, which was really not commodifying readers, almost doing the opposite. Saying we want you to be an active part, to hear your voices – for you to contribute to The Guardian. You give me money for The Guardian not so Carla in the next door room can’t read it, but so that Carla can, so that everybody in Oxford can, in fact, that everybody in the world can. That’s fair in an age when there’s so much misinformation being pumped into the ecosystem. It’s a public good to have reliable information. Now that seems to be working. There’s a million people who are contributing – they want to make it two million, which seems to me fantastic if they can do that.

Nobody’s compelled to do any work for The Guardian, but I think there would have been a way, and we never really tried this like Wikipedia, of saying “are any of you so engaged in The Guardian as a cause that you would like to get involved in editing or organising or moderating. We never went that far, but I don’t think there would have been a shortage of readers who were devoted enough to do that without feeling exploited. Equally, the productivity that's expected of journalists now is off the scale. You used to have a single deadline, and then you went home; not a blackberry keeping you answering emails until midnight and expecting revisions at 7a.m. You've got a high degree of burnout, and it's become a very high-pressure environment.

There was a view of journalism that you just observe and record, and witness. What Woodward and Bernstein did was to dig, and interrogate, and to dig deeper.

To me, your presentation of responsible journalism is as one of several different dogs that are all chasing their respective bones. When deciding not to leave their citizens alone, the government legislates, the journalists snoop, the police prosecute, the judges condemn. We all try to do what we should, and not seek further corruption. Each has, in their way, a public place; but all in all - what for?

Well, I think there is such a thing as society. We need to make jointly collective decisions about some things that aren’t purely private. Let’s go back to climate change, something that requires collective decisions or we’re all going to die, you know. There needs to be a public sphere in which that is aired and discussed, and the information we need has to be truthful and reliable. Which places a special obligation on journalists – to think about how to cover that, with great responsibility. And I don’t see that. Some people don't cover it. There are some people who are disinclined to believe, and some who give a disproportionate voice to those without expertise - or who are positively wrong. That's the opposite of a public sphere, and fails to allow the public to debate this. That's what the public sphere is - enabling, broadening, collective decisions.

That makes me think of when you were being threatened by the most powerful member of the British Civil Service, the Cabinet Secretary, to desist in publishing the archives leaked by Edward Snowden. How could the mechanisms of state be made better to engage with journalists and expose wrongdoing?

There’s always going to be a tension, because states are generally unkeen on transparency. National security’s always going to be the toughest bit. My experience of America and the UK, is that the US has a better balance, generally. They take the view that they don’t like journalists having this material if they have it, but if they have it – they will have dialogue with them, they will work with them to help them publish responsibly. The British establishment will take the view that you shouldn’t have it, and they’ll try and stop you. If you concede that national security can’t be totally secret, and it has to operate with democratic consensus, then they’re going to have to talk a bit about what they do, what they want to do. And it turned out, post-Snowden, that when they did seek consent retrospectively for what they were doing, they got it. So I think the more thoughtful security people now think that actually, it was a painful process to go through, but that we’re in a better position now than we were.

Is The Guardian an ‘English’ voice?

Well we’ve wrestled with this a bit. Do Americans want an English view when they read The Guardian? I don’t think so. They want something that epitomises the paper; a sort of small ‘l’ liberal, an intelligent international voice.

You nodded to the 1976 film All the President’s Men, in which Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman starred to give us the “journalist as hero role model”. For a stretch you were also, the Observer’s TV critic. How do you find cultural artifacts like this inform opinion, in contrast to the business of newsmaking?

All the President’s Men was the defining moment of journalism for thirty years, or more. You could say the phrase ‘investigative journalist’ was coined around the 1970s. There was a view of journalism that you just observe and record, and witness. What Woodward and Bernstein did was to dig, and interrogate, and to dig deeper. That sort of bred an archetype of the journalist as the lone-crusader on the side of good, tackling power, bringing people down – and a lot of that’s great. So the ‘journalist as hero’ saw a lot of films follow on from that, and it’s almost a cliché now; so much so that you have to find ‘journalist as antihero’ or ‘journalist as troubled hero’. But it’s quite persistent, Clooney’s just done spotlight as Marty Baron, and they did the Pentagon Papers with Catherine Graham as the ‘publisher as hero’.

You are now portrayed in Hollywood yourself (in Spotlight, by Peter Capaldi). In 2002, you wrote a TV Film for BBC One, Fields of Gold, which was criticised by scientists for sensationalising the dangers of GM crops, possibly, as you seemed to insinuate in a Guardian editorial reply, as part of an effort funded by Biotech companies out to protect their image. In that article, you wrote that “between those two polarities – saving the world and harming the world – there is great dramatic potential”; how did your motivations for writing Breaking News, compare? Were you capitalising on the dramatic potential of your own career?

Well there were moments of great drama. If you close the world’s oldest tabloid Sunday Newspaper in circumstances in which every day there are speeches in Parliament, police chiefs resigning, editors resigning, people dying. I mean it was huge, a hugely dramatic thing (investigative reporter Nick Davies discusses this moment here). Snowden was a dramatic thing, Wikileaks was a dramatic thing, the Aitken trial was a dramatic thing – some of which have been made into films. A lot of it is mundane, but it was exciting actually, it was nervewrenching – but exciting.

You are effusive in your praise for the other individual voices in and outside of The Guardian, like Nick Davies or Emily Bell, when they performed work in public service. Holding their legacy in high esteem; do you think we will always remember individual contributions, no matter how big the web?

Hope so. Looking over your shoulder there is a wonderful history of The Guardian. A hundred and forty years, and a general index – and then an index of names. I know some of them. W. T. Arnold the leader-writer. James Bone, London Editor, he must have been 1910. John Bright – famous name. Winston Churchill. W.B. Crozier – I knew people who knew Crozier. Emily Hobhouse, amazing woman who exposed the Boer War concentration camps. J.L. Hammond. You see the point: these are the giants who built The Guardian. Nick Davies is in that tradition; Emily Bell is in that tradition.

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