Alan Rusbridger on journalism that can change the world
BY NORA MANTHEY
Alan Rusbridger has been the Guardian’s editor-in-chief for 20 years. Under his leadership, the British paper covered the Wikileaks and Edward Snowden affair as well as the hacking scandal, which ultimately led to the closing of the News of the World newspaper. His last campaign helped put climate change on top of the agenda. Described as brave by many and as too influential by some, Alan Rusbridger talked to our London Bureau about courageous story-telling, disruptive challenges journalism is facing today, and his personal challenges after leaving office.
It has been three months since you left the Guardian newsroom. How do you currently feel?
Alan Rusbridger: Well, it was very odd for about a month. If you spend so long immersed in news and the rhythm of news, waking up to it, going to sleep to it, you wake up the first morning and you think: what am I supposed to do with all those instincts?! But as time has gone on, I don’t miss the constant pulse of news. Occasionally, with extremely interesting stories like the refugee story, you wish you could be there saying something, doing something, having an impact. I have not quite come to terms with it but I am not bereft.
You were not only 20 years at the helm of the Guardian but you have been a journalist most of your life, already back at Cambridge University. What inspired you to choose this profession?
A. R.: I went into it because I could write, because I was not a specialist in anything. I think a lot of journalists are generalists, as in not specialised, and go into it for various reasons. Once they are in there though, they realise it is an incredibly important profession with great influence and impact. The longer I did the job, the more I went from a great way of passing time, being curious, travelling around the world to finding purpose in the profession.
This idea of influence seems to be a strong trait in your career. How does it go together with the idea of the journalist acting as impartial observer?
A. R.: Impartiality, I never really believed in that. If you work for the BBC you have to believe in that and I never thought that was my job. Hence, I never tried to be impartial or objective. I think the overwhelming duty of a news reporter is to report things fairly and accurately. But there are occasions you can try to intervene and try to influence things in a more forceful way. Only if you do that too often, you become a different kind of creature and people come to suspect your coverage of news. Therefore you have to use influence sparingly. Yet, there are times you can use a variety of techniques to emphasise what you care about.
Do you think that some people might say you have done that too often?
A. R.: I would doubt it actually, because I have been very sparing. I haven’t run many campaigns. You could argue, phone hacking was a campaign. I do not think so. That was a sustained piece of reporting. Climate change was a campaign for example – Edward Snowden was not. It’s very rarely that I actually went out and said we’re going to campaign on this. So I don’t think people would say “he always wore his heart on a sleeve.”
You already mentioned Edward Snowden. There was also Wikileaks. Both stories have polarised. Were you looking for trouble or did trouble come and find you?
A. R.: It’s not a bad thing for journalists to cause trouble. But it could be tiresome if you go out and cause problems. Things come to you not because you want to cause trouble but because people see that you do publish stuff. I do not really like using the word bravery but people sometimes say that the publication was brave. I think it is just doing our job. You have got to have this determination to publish stuff even if it going to be uncomfortable. That helps win stories. The reason Edward Snowden came to the Guardian and not the New York Times was because he thought the Guardian has got a history of publishing things like that. Your actions as an editor help determine who brings what to you. And this may not be about causing trouble, it may be about believing in publishing troubling stuff.
Or being brave. Were there tough moments between revision and the decision to actually go ahead with the story?
A. R.: Indeed, some of the people we have been taking on have been very big targets. If you are taking on the Western Intelligence Community – they are quite powerful people. If you take on Rupert Murdoch, for example, he is quite an influential man with the means to attack you back if he wants to. So there comes a point at which you have to look in the mirror and say: “Am I up for it, am I prepared to take all the consequences of this story including going to jail?”
During your time at the Guardian you launched the G2 magazine and also led the newspaper into the digital age. Could you tell us a bit more about that?
A. R.: The G2 magazine was developed at a time where newspapers were changing their character. It was only comparatively recently that newspapers started having pieces about emotions, love, marriage, or about cooking – stuff that was outside news. But we did not have a vehicle for this softer or descriptive kind of writing. The idea was thus to create a separate section. Once you have done the ‘hard work’ of reading what was going on in the world, you could go on to read a profile or a guide to relations. All the things that are important in our lives. That was quite revolutionary for its time.
But nothing compared to modern internet. That is the most revolutionary development any generation of journalists had and has to deal with. It came in two stages. One was the pure fact of digital publication, the other was the so-called social web, which some people did not recognise as probably more revolutionary than the first wave. Every time you think, “okay, I’ve got that”, something equally disruptive comes along. There were some amazing things in my time.
What are the challenges journalism is facing today?
A. R.: I think reading and understanding how journalism fits into the structure of information today is huge. There is a tendency of journalists to narrow their profession to “journalism is only what we do” and then there is all the stuff which isn’t journalism. And they are different. Therefore, we would like to reconstruct the economic model to ‘proper’ journalism. I think this is too simple and too blocked. The most interesting thing at the moment is to work out this relationship between what we do and what everyone else does.
Could you give us an example for this?
A. R.: 10 or 20 years ago, only we could publish. Now, everybody can publish and link and distribute and discuss. Some of it can be discarded – some of it is brilliant. Increasingly, the agenda is set by non-journalists. Everything and everybody now is a media company, from a supermarket, to an NGO, to a church or university.
You wanted to leave with a bang, leave a legacy. And you turned to your readers in order to do so. What is your legacy?
A. R.: I have done that job for a long time and at some point I asked myself what regrets I will have. And the only regret I could really think of was that I thought journalism has not done very well on climate change. We have covered it but if you think climate change is the most significant thing that is happening in the world today and you map that against what journalism is doing, then one is enormous and one is tiny and not just tiny but often actually bad. It is essentially misinformation. So I wanted to shake people up. That led to the ‘Keep it in the Ground’ campaign. As we go up to the Paris talks on climate change in December, I am sure we will see a lot more coverage again.
What are you up to now, after the Guardian?
A. R.: The timing of my departure was to do with The Scott Trust, the owner of the Guardian Media Group. They needed a new chair and asked me if I would be up for it. Then I needed to find something that I could combine with it, this means I could not go abroad or work for another media company, and the job as principal of Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford came up. It is a liberal institution like the Guardian, it is a community that has to do with young people, all things I like. The Reuters Institute for Journalism is close by, there is an internet institute and one for climate change. So I got all the things I am interested in within half a mile.
Furthermore, my book ‘Play it again’ has come out, also in German. It is about journalism and music. Its origins are in my mid-forties, when I was trying to learn the piano again. I became very serious about it and obsessed with that one piece and started keeping a diary about learning that piece, which coincided with the year of phone hacking and Wikileaks. It was the craziest year of my life but I decided that music was also important to me. So it became a book about balance in life. How you create enough time for something outside your work life. I do not play well but there is a value of amateur endeavour. So many people have lost that creative side because when we go to work we become frantically busy and stress becomes sometimes overwhelming. Now people are trying to find meaning in their lives outside work again.
What advice would you like to pass on to us?
A. R.: Despite all I said about journalism and how it is changing, I never doubted its importance. Its importance is growing and the more information is out there that is assessed by decent, trained, honest, quick, accurate, brilliant communicators in order to produce a core of information that is going to tell us what is happening, the more valuable it becomes. I think it is an amazing time to be a journalist as long as you are interested in what journalism could become. Replicating the old ways however, would be missing the point.
This article was published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue Q4 2015. Picture credit © David Levene/The Guardian