In conversation with | Alan Rusbridger

9 Mins read

While on the train on my way to meet Alan Rusbridger in Oxford, I struggled to disregard the feeling of meeting an intimidating giant.

Appointed as editor-in-chief of the Guardian in 1995, Rusbridger was at the centre of British media even before I had learnt how to walk.

He’s now the principal at Lady Margaret Hall, a constituent college of Oxford University, and I felt as every other child feels when they’ve been disobedient in school and consequently sent to the principal’s office. In other words, I was a bit nervous.

The interview with one of the best newspaper editors of our generation and a principal at what was last year ranked as the world’s best university, had turned out to be something of a ‘big deal’.

However, when his personal assistant walked me into his office and I was greeted by the giant himself, any feelings of worry were quickly swept aside.

It was a very friendly Rusbridger who showed me the way to the sofas, I was more relaxed than ever before.

Rusbridger, aged 63, stood down from his role at The Guardian in May 2015, and a week after his resignation was announced, his appointment at Lady Margaret Hall became official.

After many years at the helm of Britain’s globally famous newspaper, he was to leave the metropolitan bustle in London for the tranquillity and peace of an Oxford college.

I was keen to find out how “a very average English student at Cambridge University” had transitioned into one of the most important newspaper editors of recent times.

During his period at The Guardian the journalistic industry changed drastically, while Edward Snowden, WikiLeaks and the phone-hacking scandal made numerous headlines.

Given Rusbridger’s long stint at the newspaper, it was pretty clear to me what I would ask him early on in the conversation. What accomplishment is he most proud of?

[pullquote align=”right”]“Destroying the hard drives was the most effective way to continue reporting”[/pullquote]“The single story that was the most complex and had the biggest ramifications, was Edward Snowden. Someone said at the middle of it, that we would have to be better than we had ever been in our lives in order to do the story properly. And I think we did,” Rusbridger says.

And he was right. Later on, The Guardian won the Pulitzer Prize for public service together with The Washington Post for their groundbreaking articles on the National Security Agency’s surveillance activities based on Snowden’s leaked files.

However, editors at The Guardian also found themselves to be in a rather strange position, when they received threats of legal action by the government in the UK.

One day, in a deserted basement of The Guardian’s offices in King’s Cross, a senior editor accompanied by a computer expert used angle grinders and other tools to pulverise hard drives and memory chips on which the encrypted files from Edward Snowden were stored.

Technicians from the Government Communications Headquarters were watching them while also taking notes and photographs, but they eventually left empty-handed.

Ironically, Rusbridger had earlier informed them that they had the material on the other side of the Atlantic as well, and that they would “report it from America”.

“We were faced with a government whose patience was sort of running thin, and wanted to do something or wanted to be seen as to be doing something. And the solution; they basically threatened us and said ‘unless you destroy this material we’ll come and either arrest you or restrain you’,” Rusbridger recalls.

Destroying the hard drives “was the most effective way to continue reporting. If we had allowed them to injunct us which I think is what they would’ve done, we would have had a two-year long legal battle of not being able to report it while The Washington Post would have had the field to themselves,” he continued.

From one whistleblower to another; many people compare Snowden with Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. The first few leaks by Assange in 2007 exposed governments and powerful companies around the world by displaying confidential documents and films.

While Snowden exposed the extensive surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency, WikiLeaks initially revealed horrifying video footage showing 15 people being shot dead by a US Army Apache helicopter gunman, as well as controversial operating procedures at Guantánamo Bay.

“The material with Assange was more sensitive. The logistics around Assange were very complicated because there were so many people involved,” Rusbridger says.

“Assange didn’t believe in what we would call editing and he might call censorship. So his general view was to put it all out there,” he continues.

While the main source for Assange and WikiLeaks, Chelsea Manning, was pardoned by Barack Obama just before Donald Trump took over, Snowden is still residing in Moscow.

Recently, government advisers in the UK were accused of proposing a ‘full-frontal attack’ on whistleblowers following plans to drastically increase prison terms for revealing state secrets and to start prosecuting journalists who obtained the information.

It prompted concerns from whistleblowers that severe punishments could discourage officials from coming forward in the public interest. One critic took it further and said the changes were “squarely aimed at the Guardian and Snowden”. Meanwhile across the Atlantic, whistleblowers are facing similar issues.

“America hasn’t been great on whistleblowers lately. Under Obama, more whistleblowers have been prosecuted than ever before so it’s not a great time to be a whistleblower,” Rusbridger says.

“I suspect, if Snowden went back to America they would try to jail him. I think that’s unsatisfactory because the Espionage Act allows him no real distinction between spies and whistleblowers, and it wouldn’t have allowed him to give a defence,” he continued.

As the conversation moves on with Rusbridger, we always tend to come back to his time at the Guardian. He was the 11th editor of the paper since its establishment in May 1821 – it is clear that the position is a long-term commitment.

After graduating from Cambridge University, Rusbridger got a job at the Cambridge Evening News, and later joined The Guardian as a reporter.

As time passed by, he became a prominent figure at the paper by being promoted to more senior roles.

After 20 years in the role as editor-in-chief, he resigned “to let other people have their go” and was replaced by Katharine Viner, the first ever female editor at the newspaper.

Katharine Viner, The Guardian

The Guardian‘s current editor-in-chief today, Katharine Viner [Rebecca Reid]

“I was perfectly happy to leave. I had done a long stint, we had achieved a lot and we had moved The Guardian into a position where it was briefly overtaking The New York Times as the biggest serious English language digital newspaper in the world,” Rusbridger says.

Considering the amount of time Rusbridger spent at The Guardian, it is clear that he was appreciated. After his resignation however, critics started voicing concerns over the financial state the paper was in.

While other competitors now have put up paywalls and have started charging readers for their digital journalism, The Guardian remains a free news source. So I ask Rusbridger; does he still believe that was the right thing to do?

“At the time, everyone had the same model. After time, one or two newspapers started putting up paywalls. And it wasn’t something that was tremendously ideological, the commercial team thought it was better to have a large international audience. They thought at the time that you could then get sufficient revenues from digital advertising from a large audience to make the sums work,” Rusbridger says.

“We had this paradox where we were the smallest paper in print in the UK and we were the largest paper online. So the strategy agreed by all was that we would see how large we could grow the digital version. And as I’ve said for a long time, that looked like a very sensible strategy,” he continues.

I continue by asking him about the Guardian’s finances; and he tells me that when he left there was around £1 billion in the fund and they also had £80 million a year coming in from digital, so that wasn’t “such a bad state to leave a paper in”.

Addressing the criticism, he claims that during his time in the role “the commercial directors, the chairman and the CEO all said that we’ve got the paper into a very safe and satisfactory position.”

But in the 18 months that has passed since Rusbridger resigned, Viner has announced redundancies and the paper is reported to be suffering from big losses and debts.

Digital developments have created challenges for the whole journalistic industry.

“In hindsight it’s a very wonderful thing to say. We didn’t realise as the people who were commercially responsible for the paper that the wind would change,” Rusbridger says. “There will always be people who will want to point at and blame someone else, but that is human nature.”

In the age of dumbing down, The Guardian carries a torch for serious newspaper journalism – more now than ever after the closure of The Independent’s printed edition. If I was to believe Rusbridger, print journalism is doomed.

“I’ve spent most of my career in newspapers, and I love newspapers and print. I still get The Guardian every day and spread it out on my kitchen table and read it, but I also get it on my mobile phone and my iPad,” Rusbridger says.

“As I’m travelling around I find myself more and more reading it on a phone. But my experience doesn’t matter. The experience in nearly all developed countries is that people are buying papers less and less, and consuming them more digitally,” he continues.

In the last two decades, journalism has evolved in many ways and directions. Rusbridger talks about the transition from one print deadline a day to continuous deadlines, which hasn’t always been an easy road.

“It’s now commonplace but it seemed quite surprising or controversial at the time, you would have to write stuff as soon as you could and there were great battles in the newsroom with people who were saying ‘we don’t want to do that, that’s going to make us like newsagents’,” Rusbridger recalls.

[pullquote align=”right”]“I think Donald Trump will be rather good for the news business”[/pullquote]Today, the digital world and its users require articles to be updated constantly. And while Facebook provides a “massive challenge and a massive opportunity”, Rusbridger wonders whether the distributor provides any financial return for news organisations or whether it is all about marketing.

“They [Facebook] have the money clearly, and they’re going to get the advertising, they have the data, all the chips are on their side of the table. But I’m not seeing many news publishers saying that they don’t want anything to do with Facebook,” he says.

The shrinking pot of advertising income available for journalism is effectively affecting the whole industry. Competition among rivals has sometimes resulted in, in retrospect, horrible decisions.

In 2011, the closure of the British newspaper The News of the World following the phone-hacking scandal sparked a public debate about the working ethics of modern journalists, and helped “clean up what was quite an ugly situation” in one of the most competitive markets in the world, Rusbridger tells me.

Six year after its closure, news organisations are faced with other dilemmas; following the recent inauguration of President Trump in the US, the White House has declared war on the press.

While some people may say that we shouldn’t encourage him by reporting on it, others mean that news is more important than ever before.

“It’s impossible to ignore him. He is the most powerful man on the planet, and he is speaking to 25 million people very directly through tweets,” Rusbridger says. “I think Donald Trump will be rather good for the news business,”

Although this interview was destined to be about his long and astounding career, I was curious to find out about Rusbridger’s spare time, if he had any at all.

As editor of The Guardian, I imagined his life being dictated by the constant demands of the 24-hour news cycle. But impressively, apart from editing the newspaper, he has also written three children’s books, he has authored dramas and an animation film script, as well as a play about Beethoven among many other things.

While still in his role at The Guardian, and as a keen amateur pianist he decided to learn one of the most demanding one-movement pieces on piano, Chopin’s Ballade No 1. So where did his interest in music come from?

“I’ve always, since I was a little child, sung or played one or more instruments. And it came a sort of moment in mid-life when I felt that I needed something other than work and family,” he tells me.

“When you edit, you don’t get much time to write. You’re editing other people, you’re thinking about strategy and you’re sitting in a lot of meetings and you meet a lot of people, and you’re always on the go,” he continues.

Rusbridger’s interest in writing seems obvious, and he says that he prefers that before lying on the beach. Simply, when the busiest family years were over, he strived to be able to find 20 minutes of time every day to do something else rather than work. In our busy working lives of modern time, who can blame him?

As the hour I’ve been given draws to a close, our conversation is heading towards a friendly tutorial. For me, a soon-to-be graduate in journalism, his career advice is invaluable.

And when I later leave his office and walk through Lady Margaret Hall’s peaceful and beautiful grounds I hear the birds chirp, and I cannot help but think that Alan Rusbridger is in his element.




Featured image by Alice Grahns

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