Juan Cruz Journalist
INTERVIEW: ALAN RUSBRIDGER | FORMER EDITOR OF ‘THE GUARDIAN’
18 AUG 2019 – 00:00 CEST
SURROUNDED by the peaceful atmosphere of his large office at the College in Oxford where he is the manager, Alan Rusbridger is already far from the earthquakes he lived as editor of The Guardian when that newspaper was fighting battles which made information history in his country as well as in the world. Rusbridger led (with Javier Moreno, in EL PAÍS) the Wikileaks revolt, which denounced the multiple espionage exerted by the United States in the world, and had Julian Assange as a difficult ally. He covered the various Arab springs, the death of Bin Laden, the collapse of European finance. He also put in check the empire of Murdoch, the English communication mogul, whom he accused with evidence of using his News of the World journalists to monitor colleagues and opponents. He was, in England, an apostle of the benefits that the Internet could bring to journalism. That faith led him to make one of the most powerful websites in the world in a traditional newspaper that changed format and methods to make it a global reference in the era of networks. He could not stand the Internet storm… after his withdrawal. Well, while he was in charge of The Guardian the deficit that the newspaper registered during his tenure had not emerged.
So Rusbridger left The Guardian healthy and commanding. And he was supposed to be able to access the highest position of the Scott Foundation, which controls it. But he found himself out of those honors because his management finally proved fruitless. He is now, in any case, a happy man as the head of Lady Margaret College, at the University of Oxford. He left Cambridge as a boy to join a provincial newspaper in which he did everything.
For four years now, he sees journalism from a calm barrier, his home and this office in which we speak on a sunny spring Friday in Oxford. After leaving The Guardian, in 2015, he narrated in Play It Again (An Amateur Against the Impossible) the secret that kept him impassive through those thunders of journalism. The piano is now, also, in “the afternoon of life,” as Carl Jung writes –according to him-, the matter of his calm. He was impassive in 2010, when everything happened in the world and he was the vital editor of The Guardian. That summer in which he ignored everything and, at the same time, he stopped in search of the tranquility of summer, went to a small town in Italy and there he obliged himself to return to the piano rehearsing an impossible piece, the Ballad number 1, of Chopin. He was, in effect, an amateur “against the impossible”. He finally managed to overcome the stormy resistance of that ballad. Upon his return, the fire and fury of the trade exploded in his face with the violence setting order and disorganizing the world. Five years later he left The Guardian.
“Now I look back and I say to myself: ‘My God, what a rhythm of life!’ I think that now the editors have it much worse with the advent of the machines”
You made that pause, while, in London, your newspaper maintained those struggles, which in 2010, when you were rehearsing Chopin, focused on the storm of Wikileaks… How, after the calm, did you endure the rush of life, the succession of news?
Now I look back and say to myself: “My God! What a rhythm of life!” The fact is that one of the ways to deal with it was playing the piano. It’s about finding a hole, a time when you’re not looking at the screen, you’re not answering an email. You have to use a totally different part of the brain. And I think that playing the piano helped.
Did it help you to stop being Alan Rusbridger just to be another kind of Alan Rusbridger?
Well, I think there is a part of me in both. I could not quit what I was doing and be a pianist. Nobody would want me to be a pianist. But a part of me is delighted to do artistic things. It is part of my personality. Another part of my personality is that I am very obsessive. Many times I would come home and eat dinner at half past nine, and then I would stay until one in the morning answering emails, because I had to leave everything done. I think that now the editors have it much worse with the advent of the machines. I don’t think it’s healthy to be obsessed with anything.
In several personal photos, with people, with classmates in piano courses, for example, you seem a stranger. Have you felt this way also as a journalist?
I’ve always felt like a journalist. I love newsrooms, the community of journalists. Yes, I have felt strange at some time as an editor. You become a public figure. Sometimes I was a little misplaced because I did not choose to devote myself to journalism to become a public figure.
You made The Guardian one of the most influential global newspapers. Do you think all that benefited you as a person, and not only the newspaper?
I don’t think it was beneficial for me. My feeling is that things happened fortuitously. I had been an editor for 14 or 15 years, and we published several difficult news, of much echo around the world. I felt that I had overcome many difficulties, we had fought great battles with accusations of defamation. I was quite prepared, I had the training, the experience. If I would have had those stories in my first five years as an editor, it would have taken me a lot to face it. Somehow, I felt well prepared to withstand all the stress that those stories brought with them.
You mention the pain in the trade, the pain suffered and the pain journalists make others suffer. How do you see today the figure of the journalist who deals with other lives? Are you worried about this cynical journalist who Kapuscinski warned against?
Yes, I worry about the issue. More and more I wonder, as the business model of a certain journalism disappears, how do we justify what we do? You justify what you do because there is a real interest in the public, you write certain things about the issues that matter, the things that influence people’s lives. If I write about an actress who has an affair with a soccer player, that’s not important, it doesn’t influence anyone’s life. If I write about corruption, tax evasion, criminality, the lies of politicians, that does affect the lives of people. As long as you are convinced that it is in the public interest, it may have more weight than the pain or evil caused to certain people. I hate journalism that hurts people casually, where there is harassment and cruelty.
With other colleagues, you wrote an ethical code for the future of journalism.
The levels of confidence in journalism were terrible, even 10 years ago. Now they are even worse. Before the great competition posed by the Internet, I was aware of the enormous power that journalists have. It is great to possess that power, but only if we are serious about behaving ethically and responsibly. With the advent of the Internet, the question we ask ourselves is whether we behave better than the Internet. One of the things we must do is behave ethically, tell the truth, distinguish between what is true, what the facts are, and what are mere comments. We must not invade the privacy of people unless we have to do it because it is in the public interest. We must rectify when we publish something wrong. And act fast. We must have a way of showing our trade, of being able to tell the public that journalism is different from the Internet,that we are better, and you must demand that we be.
In your books you emphasize the value of fighting lies. What should journalism contain, today and in the future?
There are many different forms of journalism and it is difficult to define the trade. The Sun is journalism, like the BBC, Fox News or The New York Times… But these are very different ideas of journalism. You cannot ask them to trust journalists, because they will tell you that they trust some and not others. In the most basic sense, journalism consists in publishing things that are true, things that are important to people’s lives. It is about establishing a factual basis for society to talk, because otherwise it will not work. For example, with Brexit we don’t even agree on what the facts are. If we cannot start with the basis given by the facts, it is not possible to establish a policy, we will not be able to save the planet… There is much at stake. That is the basis of journalism. But then we have investigative journalism, where you don’t just witness, you take an active part, you want to exploit a topic, challenge what is accepted conventionally. And there we are facing an even deeper version of journalism. Perhaps the most threatened variant because it is the most expensive.
The future of journalism was shaking in your own hands, at least since 2010. You trusted the Internet, the networks. What disappointments have you got?
I probably got it wrong because of optimism about how the Internet was going to develop. I could not write a book in which I would say that all journalism is wonderful and that the Internet is garbage. I think that journalism in its best version is fantastic and the Internet can be rubbish. But sometimes it can be wonderful, even better than journalism. I see too many journalists who adopt the discourse that “we are cardiac surgeons, we are brain surgeons, we have unique capabilities and the Internet is full of liars, thieves”. If you believe that, you are fooling yourself.
It could be a good combination to take the good of each of the two parties … I spend a lot of time on Twitter, more than I should. I talk about the things that interest me: laws, climate change, Brexit, music, news, education. In social networks I find people who are talking about these issues conscientiously, interesting things are said, even more deeply than I find in many newspapers…
Nicholas Carr wondered “what is the Internet doing with our minds”.
I don’t want to be boring, but it is doing many things. It is probably shortening our attention span: we are getting faster, but we are less able to deal with complex things. It makes us suspicious of people because we don’t know what to believe and what not. The Internet educates us, broadens our horizons, challenges us, forces us to listen better, to pay attention to people who never had the opportunity to express themselves. Internet does many things to us. Some good and others bad.
“The future will be better and worse. It is a pity that our attention span is reduced. But we are exposed to more information, and that is good”.
And according to that, what will the future be like?
It will be better and worse. It is a pity that our attention span is reduced. I’ve even noticed it in myself, and I think it’s a bad thing. I am exposed to more information, more diverse, richer, that’s a good thing. The future will be better and worse.
In your book Breaking News you refer to the creator of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, source of one of your great journalistic controversies, as someone “who was from another planet”. What perception do you have of that character today?
It is a somewhat confusing figure. His world is that of the Internet. He has been able to do things that nobody throughout history had been able to do. He has been a source, editor, activist, journalist, polemicist, entrepreneur, businessman. People don’t clear up with him. He says that he is not a journalist, but then it turns out that he is, part of what he did was journalistic, but it is not limited to that. Sometimes he is the source, but he is also the one who publishes. The law does not know how to deal with him, public opinion does not know where to place him. He is not a man to be much liked. He is a very complex character.
Do you regret anything you have done as an editor in that field, for example, in trusting someone like Assange?
Absolutely. In the 21st century we have those figures. How to call them: wayward figures who have the ability to publish huge amounts of data. What is preferable, that they go and release all that on the Internet or go through a responsible newspaper that says “we will not publish 98%, but we will give the 2% that we believe is of public interest”? I think we were doing something of public interest. We did what journalists do.
You say that journalism is ultimately defensible as long as it is a public good.
The best version of journalism, of course.
But how do we measure that public good at this time when, according to thinker Michael Sandel, “the market and market values govern our lives as never before?”
Today in many of the societies of the West we do not know how to value public goods. For example, public health is something we value, but we do not devote sufficient resources. The same goes for education, the police or the Army. In this country we have had all these services, but it is increasingly questioned whether the financing and management should be public or private. Will we be able to allocate the funds they need? Similarly, we are presented with the argument that society needs facts, people who testify, but perhaps that is no longer a business. And we come to Sandel’s question, whether we need things that are not business even if the market can provide them. And you have people on the right who say that if nobody can provide those things, if there is no market, then they shouldn’t exist. I even think that some of the journalists on the right who said this, now that the market is disappearing, think that maybe we do need some kind of support for journalism.
From this placid place now, don’t you ever want to call The Guardian to suggest another way of doing journalism?
I have not had that momentum. For me that is the great relief. I’m still very interested in journalism, what it is and where it is going; but the relief is not having to think about what we publish or if we did this report well or badly.
And how do you think the future will be? What things will last in this trade that you love?
Personally, I am of the opinion that society will always need journalists. It is not necessary to train for seven years before starting. But it is more difficult than many people believe. The best journalists are trained to work quickly, accurately, covering topics comprehensively. In society we see what it means to live in a world of informative chaos, it surrounds us, and it is leading to a kind of populist policy that affects people with little attention span or unable to discern a good source of a bad one. One gets up and says: “This is what I feel”. Emotion is surpassing reason in the world. The politicians who succeed are those who know how to appeal to emotions. Donald Trump is a phenomenon in this aspect. There is no longer anything known as facts. My facts are better than your facts. Do not believe their facts… He is very good when it comes to playing with people’s emotions. He is a genius in that. And the same is happening in Europe, in the United Kingdom. We have to ask ourselves if we want a world of facts to counteract the world based on emotions, which is a dangerous world. And if we want a world of facts, we will need journalists.