Alan Rusbridger welcomed me to his office at Lady Margaret Hall, a pioneering college at the University of Oxford where nine women were the first to be admitted to higher education 140 years ago. The man responsible for The Guardian’s digital transformation is currently engaged in research at the Reuters Institute on the changes in journalism and why its health is so important.
In the midst of the transformation of the sector I’m reminded of a phrase from your book Breaking News: "We all agree that nobody knows anything". Nevertheless, we all know that we don’t want a world without newspapers. With so many changes, do we have a shared idea of what journalism is and what it’s for?
I think journalism is a rather vague word because it includes both The Sun and the News of the World, the Daily Mail, the BBC, The New York Times, Fox News... I think the public doesn’t have a clear idea of what journalism really is, and part of the challenge facing us as journalists is to tell people why some forms of journalism are better than others and why you should believe some means of communication more than others. I think journalism isn’t aware of how much of an uphill struggle it faces to re-gain the public’s trust.
At ARA we like to say that we do classical journalism, old-fashioned journalism even, but with new tools. Do you think this type of journalism is feasible nowadays?
Well, I think some classical journalistic techniques will never go out of fashion. Writing things that are true and which have been verified, fact-checking, being precise, fast, reliable... These are all essential in any type of news. But I think that you’re absolutely right when you say that we need to look for new ways, means and distribution channels. I think it's a really good way to understand the times we live in: an antiquated profession with modern techniques and means of distribution.
Is journalism all about seeking honesty rather than truth?
Yes. The word truth is rather complicated, because sometimes, 200 years after an event, the historians are still trying to find out the truth. Journalists often have only 20 minutes to figure out the truth, and perhaps we can only find a single version of the truth. So, should we be truthful or honest? I think what we have to do is look for the best available version of the truth. But I've always been wary of using the term the truth, because I don’t think the public really think we hold the absolute truth.
Because we don’t and maybe we ought to accept the fact right from the start.
Nowadays, the major advantage the media has is that there are no Ten Commandments as such. We don’t say: "This is the truth, take it or leave it". Social media is largely a form of dialogue. I believe such and such, you contradict me, then I give you proof of what I said, you reply that you have contradictory information... I believe that these are trusted techniques —and help generate trust— that people use nowadays in their daily communications. Journalists would do well to learn from this, as there is a lot of evidence which suggests that 4 billion people who are connected on a horizontal plane rely on people who they know think like they do, or at least they’ll pay attention to what they have to say. The days when a journalist would throw a newspaper over the garden fence without wanting to interact with anyone are over. They no longer build trust.
Certain politicians encourage distrust of the media. Donald Trump is an example of this, as is Boris Johnson, who makes stuff up when he’s a journalist and then derides the media when he’s in power.
Then you get leaders who deliberately try to delegitimise the press by saying "They’re all fake and we’re real, they lie and we tell the truth". It’s something new and it’s really worrying. How can you take a great newspaper, like the New York Times, and say that everything is fake news. It’s happening all over the world, and the danger is that, if we take into account the economic situation which the media finds itself in, we don’t have the resources to deal with these kinds of lies about our profession, and this gives politicians the impunity to tell even more lies. I think the only solution is to establish a type of journalism which people can believe in, and set the bar as high as possible, and do things that people can trust. There’s no point in declaring a war on Donald Trump or Boris Johnson. The only way that people can once again trust us is to be, as we said earlier, somewhat old-fashioned and say things which are true and are based on evidence.
In your opinion, what would be the best business model in order to be financially strong and, therefore, freer?
The best business model is trust and quality. Nothing survives on the internet, if it isn’t the best or the cheapest. For example, Uber may not be the best, but it’s the cheapest and the most accessible. A huge number of sources of information are currently in competition with newspapers. Some are quite good, while others are terrible. We only deserve to win if we provide valuable information which can’t be found anywhere else on the internet, if we can offer a really good product. When I worked at The Guardian we did a lot of investigative journalism, which seems crazy, because it’s very expensive, it takes a lot of time and resources, you have to hire very expensive lawyers, and so on. But in the end it turned out to be the best business model, because readers decided that if this was the type of journalism we wanted to do, they wanted to support us. The worst you can do is try to isolate yourself from problems, isolate your writing until you reach a point where you do nothing that is of any value or of any interest or especially brave. Then readers will shrug their shoulders and say: "Why should I pay to read this?"
Isn’t providing quality information for free a way to devalue it?
I think that charging for information is valid and that it’s also valid if it’s free. The two things aren’t mutually exclusive. But the danger is that it creates an informed elite while the rest of the people only have access to nonsense. We could end up living in a society where 2% pay for access to good information while the remaining 98% have to settle for the dregs. There is a debate as to whether there ought to be certain free sources of information for everyone, like some kind of public radio and TV.
Speaking of The Guardian, you made me smile in Breaking News when you say that a newspaper editor either has to "piss or get off the pot". Ether you’re brave or you leave.
What I meant to say is that if you’re going to run a newspaper or any other news outlet, you have to make difficult decisions. You have to defend your journalists and sometimes you have to be a bit brave. And if you aren’t prepared to do so, there’s this English saying "Either piss or get off the pot": in other words, let someone else do it. Sometimes it’s difficult to take such decisions, but you’re paid to do it and that’s what your reporters expect from you, that you’ll make difficult decisions in their name.
You’re a journalist who’s spoken about journalists and who’s been very tough on the press. Is it important to be just as demanding as with the other sectors?
Sometimes it's hard to write about other journalists. Journalists don’t like it at all when people write about us, strangely enough. But I think that if we demand transparency from everyone else, it’s unfair if we ask others not to write about us. One of the most famous topics we wrote about was the criminal behaviour in the British newspaper industry and how management tried to cover it up. If it had been any other company —a bank, a car company, or an oil company— obviously we’d have got to the bottom of it. Therefore, it seemed strange to me that they hoped that a newspaper wouldn’t write about their colleagues simply because they were in the same business. But I understand that there were people who didn’t appreciate what we did.
What was your worst moment at The Guardian?
When the British government came into my office and told me that they had to destroy our hard drives, that we had to immediately stop writing about Edward Snowden and the revelations he’d made about a programme to spy on the public. It was a bad time because it was an act of pure censorship, and we had to transfer the publication to New York. But in some ways it was also the best moment, because it was proof that in the modern era it is very difficult to completely suppress information. We published in New York because we could do it with the New York Times and we were protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. Normally, when people nowadays generalise and say that the internet is terrible and newspapers are wonderful, or that newspapers are terrible and the internet is wonderful, you have to admit that both are true. We are living in very alarming times, but they are also very encouraging.
As a result of this case you had to answer questions regarding your patriotism before a parliamentary committee.
Yes, it was a very strange situation when I had to go to the House of Commons to defend what we’d published on Snowden, and the chair of the committee asked me "Do you love your country?" The implication was that if you publish things related to national security, then you are some kind of traitor. In fact, a lot of people felt that way, and that was what the question was implying.
Does good journalism always need to justify itself in order to conduct journalism?
I think that journalism must always be independent of all forms of power, be it publicity or politics, the state or the security services. Sometimes you have to think about the people. And if the government comes into your workplace and they say, "We think you’ve written enough about Edward Snowden" you have to say, "I'm sorry, but that's not up to you to decide, we're independent of the state and we’ll be the ones to decide".
You also worked with Julian Assange. Who is Julian Assange?
Julian Assange is a chameleon. He's all kinds of things: an editor, a person who leaks information, a whistleblower, a source of information, a businessman, an activist, an anarchist... This all makes him a very interesting person, but also a very difficult person for conventional structures, like the state or the law, and it makes other journalists find him hard to understand or believe.
What do you think about his personal situation right now?
I’m against him being extradited because I think that what the Americans say is highly irregular: "We have our laws on revealing secrets, you’ve infringed them and, therefore, you have to come here and spend a certain amount of time in jail". Can you imagine an American journalist who had written about, say, an Israeli or Indian arms program that had violated Israeli or Indian secrecy laws and that they were imprisoned in Israel or India? The Americans wouldn’t allow it. Which is why it seems as if something shady is going on ... Although it’s well known that I don’t like Julian Assange very much and he doesn’t like me —I’m against some of the things he’s done, I don’t think he’s a conventional journalist—, in spite of everything I still think he’s being charged for journalistic activities and I think that in that sense we probably have to support him.
Should whistleblowers have some sort of legal protection?
For sure. Whistleblowers ought to be protected, without a shadow of a doubt, if they raise the alarm on matters of public interest. If, as with Assange or Snowden, there’s something that needs to be talked about and it’s of great public importance, it’s a kind of public service, then yes, they ought to be protected.
There’s currently a big demand for easy answers to complex questions. Has the culture of complexity disappeared altogether, or is it just a passing phase?
In journalism we should always try to simplify as much as possible without being ashamed of what we write. We’ve been talking about Brexit for three years, during which time the press has tried to deal with it as if it were an easy question, and of course it’s not. It’s a highly complex issue. So if you oversimplify something, it makes politics more difficult, because then the politicians are forced to find answers which are also simplistic and which may not exist. I think that journalism must be sufficiently complex in order to reflect the kind of decisions that the government must take, though it must also try to be as simple as possible so that people can understand it better.
And do people want complexity?
I think that, unfortunately, most people don’t want complexity. People want simple answers, they want things to be black or white. They don’t want to spend the time that I think they ought to spend on the media. But, in spite of everything, I believe that the mass media owe it to the people and the democratic process to try to make the public look a bit further. And, as I said earlier, things like public radio and TV —which shouldn’t try to be popular in order to make money— are crucial.
A good democracy must have access to good information. To what extent are we responsible for the fact that journalism is often denigrated?
As journalists we have to think about how we can win back the public’s trust. We’ve been aware of the fact that journalism has problems with regard to trust for some time now, and we haven’t given it much importance. And now perhaps it’s clear to us that if we want people to see us as the answer to the information chaos —which I think we should be—, what do we have to do in order for people to trust us? If I go on Twitter and say something untrue, I’ll be corrected within a couple of minutes. Then I’ll have to rectify what I said. Normally people provide evidence that proves what they say with a link, a screenshot, a video. I don’t ask you to believe me because of who I am, just look at the data I’m providing. And, by the way, to answer your question, many journalists don’t do this. They don’t include evidence of what they say, they don’t provide links to the information, they’re reluctant to start a conversation, they don’t amend anything. Then they wonder why people don’t trust them! Our role as journalists is to think more rigorously about what we have to do to help people trust us. If not, we’ll end up living in a world where no one believes anything, or no one knows what to believe, and that would be chaos.
Once again, it's a question of the meaning of truth.
That’s right, we’re not in possession of the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth...
We must be honest.
We ought to be truthful, trustworthy, honest... All these things. It's amazing that we still have to remind ourselves, but to be sure, the greatest obligation of journalism is truthfulness. And if we can’t achieve it, journalism doesn’t make sense.
In general, does social media help us? Because we always talk about the bubble, the echo chamber...
It depends on how you use it. If you want to be a very narrow-minded person and you only follow five people on Twitter, you’ll only follow those who completely agree with you. According to the studies, it seems as if most people want to be shown the other side, so the concept of filters doesn’t seem to be supported by the evidence. When I was a child, at home we only had one newspaper and we watched the BBC, so I had access to very few sources of information, the equivalent of a bubble that served as a filter. Now I can access 200 sources of information in the same afternoon. The studies I’ve read seem to suggest that we are information-rich like never before.
If someone were to publish a newspaper today, what would you say is the most important thing to do? And what is the most important thing not to do?
Not to think about the financial models of the past. We already know that in the past you had to survive on advertising, provide a mix of entertainment and general news, the staples that everyone offered. Now you probably won’t get much advertising. There’s little point in paying attention only to the economic side of things, but rather in thinking about what is the objective aside from financial gain. Because it will only work if we persuade people that we have an objective, that there is a public interest in what we do, that we are a public service, we are serious, truthful ... I think it’s time we were more serious about what we do. As more and more people are horrified by having to live in a world full of informational chaos, as societies without reliable information go under, more people will fall back on real journalism.
And in terms of long-term business plans?
There’s no point in worrying about something that doesn’t exist. Journalism is in a difficult situation, but societies need reliable news. I would like to be twenty-two again, because when I left university there was only one way to do journalism: in the same way it had been done in the previous three hundred years. But if you’re twenty-two years old now, you have the chance to reinvent journalism. Revolutions are scary, but they can also be very stimulating. I think journalism will continue to exist for a long time to come.