Nobody wants a world where you have to navigate in the dark

Alan Rusbridger makes a case for the viability of the press that fulfils a genuine social purpose

Alan Rusbridger —a lean, fragile-looking man with a slender face and the hands of a pianist— has withstood some of the most extreme pressure ever exerted on a European journalist by the powers-that-be. While he stood at the helm of The Guardian (from 1995 to 2015), the newspaper published the revelations of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden and it exposed the criminal activities in which the Murdoch empire engaged through The News of the World, the newspaper that tapped the phones of hundreds of public figures and ordinary members of the public. As part of ARA’s ninth anniversary, an unsurprisingly softly-spoken Alan Rusbridger voiced his views on the future of journalism in these times of sheer information chaos.

The main tenet of his presentation —chaired by Esther Vera, ARA’s editor-in-chief— is that a news outlet will be viable from a business standpoint so long as it manages to have a clear mission and to provide an unquestionable social benefit. He drew a comparison between newspapers and lighthouses: they are not much as businesses go, but nobody wants to live in a world where you are forced to navigate in the dark.

Rusbridger explained that “there can be no justice —or education and government— without a shared view of facts” and he warned of the dangers of living in a world like today’s where a growing number of people (about two out of three) admit to struggling to sort the chaff from the wheat when in comes to news; in other words, telling the difference between sound reporting that is anchored in reality and fake or fabricated stories. “That’s why the strategy of the most powerful man in the world” —he said, referring to Donald Trump— “is about putting down news media and accusing them of lying” while his own public interventions are full of lies: about 12,000 according to The Washington Post’s count.

In a hall filled with subscribers, advertisers and media students from URL’s Facultat Blanquerna, Rusbridger insisted that the journalists in the room engage in self-criticism. While the press tends to point fingers at the internet and social media, which it sees as the root of all evil, Alan Rusbridger encouraged his audience to consider whether readers are better served by news outlets than by the internet. “We say Facebook is terrible and Twitter is filled with lies and hatred, And so they are. But why do they keep growing? What part of it are they getting right? And why does the press move in the opposite direction?”. His questions weren’t entirely rhetorical. “The trouble is that we use a single word —journalism— to refer to rather different things”. Minutes earlier he had shown several front pages from tabloid newspapers which he regarded as clearly harmful from a social point of view. The key to reversing this, therefore, is credibility. At present only 36 per cent of respondents in Spain claim to find news outlets credible. “The best thing about the internet is that it can manage many different ways from which trust can be built”. That is, in a world that is transitioning from verticality to horizontality —at least that’s what the most optimistic version of the analysis seems to indicate— there is much that media can learn from the internet’s adaptability and the capacity for interaction with all the network’s nodes.

The information gap

One of Rusbridger’s concerns is access to (good) information and the emerging gap between those who can and cannot afford it. He quoted Dean Baquet, the incumbent editor-in-chief of the NYT, when he said that he worries about the 98 per cent of Americans who do not read his newspaper. The Guardian’s model is out of step with that of most quality broadsheets because its content is made available free of charge as part of the public service it aims to provide (it is ultimately backed by a foundation). According to Rusbridger’s data, there is a growing gap between how much educated readers trust their preferred news outlets versus the general public.

The amalgam of information and opinion that many media churn out doesn’t help. As an example, he cited Brexit and the disinformation that was spread during the referendum campaign. “As a reader, I would ask to be given the information first, without pretending that a complex issue is actually simple. Secondly, I’d have the arguments from both sides and only then would I ask for the medium’s opinion. If we have to miss out on anything, let that be it: I will form my own opinion, provided I’ve been given the arguments”.

So the newspaper is seen as a cause. “Our idea was not to ask you to pay [for our content] so that others may not read it, but the other way round: to use your money so that others may get to read our paper, too”. The journalist acknowledged that this is easier when you have access to a global market. Rusbridger recalled how, on a number of occasions, The Guardian beat the NYT as the most widely read English language newspaper. One third of its readers are based in North America and another third in the rest of the world. However, readers on both sides of the Atlantic agree on one thing: the quality of The Guardian’s factual reporting. And the clarity that emanates from Rusbridger’s lighthouse.