An interview with Alan Rusbridger


On Wednesday March 26th, the day before US President Obama formally announced his intention to end the NSA’s bulk collection of data, Josh Booth spoke to the Guardian’s editor Alan Rusbridger about press freedom, spies, and how not to hide journalism behind a paywall.

Alan Rusbridger, the editor who brought the world the phone hacking scandal, Wikileaks and the NSA/GCHQ revelations, is quietly confident about the future. More than any other news organisation, the Guardian – which he has run for almost twenty years – has taken its place at the very centre of contemporary debate in Britain about the future of journalism and its role in a mature democracy. Attempts last year by British intelligence officers to stem the flow of Edward Snowden’s leaked material appearing in its pages – in one case famously destroying two MacBook Pros in the paper’s basement (related by Rusbridger himself in an article for the New Yorker) – only confirmed the Guardian’s status as a moral antagonist of disproportionate state power. Its exposure of tabloid misconduct in the phone hacking scandal a few years earlier had already given Rusbridger’s organisation a reputation as the holier-than-thou lone wolf prepared to turn on the pack if its moral compass suggested it should.

The dogged journalistic ethic on display throughout these episodes has been possible thanks to the rare power wielded by editors at the Guardian. Whereas other media organisations are owned by proprietors driven primarily by a short-term bottom line, the Guardian’s trust-based ownership seems to permit Rusbridger to take the long view, balancing editorial and commercial needs so that things work out in the long run even if the immediate future looks uncertain. This has allowed the paper to throw significant resources at important stories when the opportunity has arisen: it took “a team of up to ten reporters working full time” to get to grips with the Snowden material. And after a few years of doubt, Rusbridger is confident that things are indeed working out. The Guardian, he believes, remains “an ethical, serious news organisation” that is “generally a force for good in the world”. He told me that the paper could be economically sustainable “within two or three years” if it continues on its current trajectory – a projection that puts Rusbridger firmly at odds with figures such as Mike Darcey, chief executive of News UK, who recently questioned whether the Guardian’s open online strategy was viable. Recent figures show that the Guardian is “now neck-and-neck, virtually, with the New York Times in terms of a global audience. They’re slightly ahead of us, but basically – if you take the Daily Mail out, which is doing something slightly different – it’s between the New York Times and the Guardian”.

Today a third of the paper’s readers are in the US, a figure that has doubtless been boosted by its reporting on the NSA’s surveillance activities. The consequences of publishing confidential material leaked by Edward Snowden have, at least in America, been momentous – its impact proof that its publication was squarely in the public interest. Rusbridger is unequivocal: “there are not many stories that have been published in the last generation that have had quite so many consequences in terms of policy and debate”. He lists the political ramifications: action by Obama limiting the bulk collection and storage of data, “two enormous reports commissioned by the president himself, three bills before Congress, a federal judge declaring the whole thing to be unconstitutional”. But in Rusbridger’s view the debate has only just begun. “It’s too easily portrayed”, he told me, “just as national security versus freedom of speech”. The nub of the issue for Rusbridger is not primarily the villainy of the intelligence agencies, nor is it necessarily the duplicity of politicians. Instead it is fundamentally a problem of technological advances outstripping the capabilities of democratic institutions. Technology has not only made running a newspaper a far more complex business than it was when Rusbridger became editor of the Guardian in 1995; it has also left legal and political oversight of the surveillance apparatus running, and failing, to catch up.

Understanding the whole Snowden affair from this perspective imbues Rusbridger’s attitude with pragmatism, and little desire to cast blame. His take on the intelligence agencies’ bureaucratic expansion is Weberian, with a twenty-first century twist: “I think you’ve had extremely talented engineers saying ‘we can do more and more of this’ [and] if you’ve got the technology and you’ve got the budget you’re bound to use it – particularly if there’s no political check”. Politicians are reluctant to provide this check because they don’t want to be held accountable if something goes wrong; and laws “mainly designed for the analogue age” present no effective restraint either. In the UK the result is “really a sort of amateur oversight regime” that, echoing Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge Julian Huppert’s comparison with something out of the sitcom “Yes, Prime Minister”, Rusbridger describes in farcical terms: a “committee of MPs and peers, most of whom have very limited technological experience who meet once a week, Thursday afternoon, are also responsible for the entire auditing of three intelligence services, have been asked to look into the entire rendition inquiry and were running a parallel inquiry into the murder of Lee Rigby. . . . [T]o do all that on a Thursday afternoon with a budget of 1.2 million – I mean it’s just not adequate”.

Things in the US were slightly better, “but there are distinguished members of the parallel committee in America who feel extremely anxious too”. Any solution, according to Rusbridger, will have to dedicate far more resources to the problem: more money, more time, the “independent technological expertise of people who understand cryptology, who understand computers and networks, but who are independent of the agencies themselves”. Of course it’s difficult to know how this might be achieved. But whatever the solution, whether parliament is indeed willing and able to provide oversight suited to the digital age or not, it went about things in the wrong way over the Snowden leaks in Rusbridger’s view: “if you’ve got a situation in which for months Parliament have nothing to say about any of this, then I think they’re in a poor position to start pointing fingers at the press and saying ‘you shouldn’t be writing about this’. Somebody has to examine it – these are real issues that haven’t been resolved and it’s not good enough for parliament to say ‘leave it to us, but we’re not actually going to discuss it, and by the way it’s outrageous that the press is doing so’. That’s not a healthy situation”.

GCHQ’s strategy for dealing with the press was equally counterproductive. Its threats simply pushed the Guardian to report more stories out of the New York office and fewer from London, which ended up giving the spooks less input than they might otherwise have had. When it comes to interactions with the intelligence agencies, Rusbridger retains his pragmatism. The more conversations the better, as far as he is concerned: this doesn’t make the press any less independent, but it does help them do the responsible thing. Since two GCHQ officers oversaw the smashing of hard drives containing the Guardian’s cache of Snowden leaks, “there have been conversations where they’ve said let us give you the full context and this fact or that fact, and sometimes when they’ve explained the context we’ve said ‘oh well we get that and we won’t publish that’, and that seems to me how it should work”. Indeed that is more or less how things work in the US, as Rusbridger sees it: “Generally, when you ring the American agencies they will put you on the phone to an expert who will talk you through the issues, which helps that business of journalists taking independent decisions. It doesn’t mean you always take what they say, but it’s useful to have the background so you can make better decisions”.

Despite fears about the potential for prior restraint of content published by the press in the UK, the Guardian has at no point had publication blocked against its will. Daniel Soar’s suspicion, raised in an article for the London Review of Books, that the ‘spooks’ might have exercised some control over the Guardian’s output since last summer can be laid to rest: “no one’s actually stopped us”, Rusbridger says. And yet the possibility of such restraint does make the US, with its First Amendment protections, a more hospitable climate for publishing whistleblowers’ material: “why wouldn’t you want to go to the higher standard rather than the lower standard?”, Rusbridger asks; “It’s not that it’s a complete free-for-all . . . in cases like [the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971] the United States says that the risk to national security has to be very high indeed – it has to be an immediate threat to national security before the courts would intervene. That seems to me a reasonable balance to draw”. So while politicians, the intelligence agencies and the press talk to each other more in the US, newspapers actually have more independence.

Recent efforts to regulate the press in Britain have so far only threatened to make the problem worse. After the Leveson inquiry into the phone hacking scandal, there ensued a process that “was exactly what Leveson advised against”: a series of conversations in “smoke-filled rooms” that lacked transparency. Discussion about how the press might self-regulate in a way that improved on the work of the discredited Press Complaints Commission were held “with the Conservatives, not even the coalition partners or Labour”. The result was an inadequate conversation that ended up with the Royal Charter, “an immensely complicating thing which, however innocently meant or innocently portrayed, did leave a measure of political interference over an aspect of regulation”. Other newspapers’ subsequent attempt to form a separate self-regulatory body has resulted in IPSO, the Independent Press Standards Organisation, which resolves the problem of political interference by doing without a Royal Charter, but potentially lacks sufficient independence from the press itself. Rusbridger remains undecided as to whether the Guardian will join IPSO: it all hangs on “whether it is truly independent in terms of appointments, functioning, running and budgets, and whether it will be free to operate as a proper recognisable regulator would”.

The threat of political interference suggested by the Royal Charter and by the government’s reaction to the Snowden leaks has prompted some, including the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, to advocate a form of legal protection for the press, perhaps through a UK Bill of Rights. Though Rusbridger supports such a proposal in principle, he worries that a Bill of Rights would become “a proxy for a whole debate about Europe”. There’s a need for “more discussion about it and how it would sit in relation to the European Convention [on Human Rights] so that the one doesn’t become a substitute for the other”. The idea of a digital bill of rights at the European level would also be “an idea worth exploring” if it had judicial force.

More discussion is Rusbridger’s remedy for many of the issues thrown up by the strained relationships between politicians, the press and intelligence agencies over the past few years, and he reserves his major criticism for those who bury their head in the sand and refuse to engage – something they often do simply because they are frightened by the pace of change and their inability to cope. Parliament went for too long saying nothing about runaway surveillance and their inability to get to grips with it; the Information Commissioner declared himself “perfectly happy to accept [the spooks’] word for it because I know them”; GCHQ sometimes “just pulled the shutters up” instead of trying to convince Guardian journalists of the case not to publish. The Guardian’s role was to discuss these issues when everyone else was taping their own mouths shut and looking in the other direction.

This spirit of transparent, open conversation is driving Rusbridger’s business strategy – and not just because he believes this is the best way to do good journalism. Unlike many of its competitors, the Guardian hasn’t put its content behind a paywall. This is partly because, as Rusbridger put it, “I pity journalists who live behind total paywalls whose work is unread and unreadable by the majority of people”. But it is partly because it just wouldn’t make commercial sense: “I’ve never ruled out paywalls entirely but it doesn’t feel right at a time when you’re trying to build a global audience. If we went into America and said ‘here you are: you’ve got no idea who we are and we’re going to make you pay for stuff that you otherwise can’t read’, I don’t think that’s a great way of breaking into the rest of the world. And at the moment the commercial team here spend no time talking about paywalls: it’s not just a dogmatic thing from editorial, they don’t believe in them”. Convincing as Rusbridger sounds on this point, his story does seem somewhat at odds with remarks made earlier in March by Andrew Miller, chief executive of the Guardian Media Group, who declared that “If we could do a paywall, of course we’d be doing it now because we’d love to do it”. Perhaps there’s a further conversation to be had here within the Guardian itself – a conversation that, as Rusbridger admits, is not “a conversation you say you’ll never have”.

But for now Rusbridger is optimistic. Income from digital advertising is “upwards of seventy million”, a figure that should give pause to those who refused to have that conversation about digital publishing five years ago – those editors who buried their head in the sand saying, in Rusbridger’s words, “oh, you’re crazy looking at all this stuff, tell us when you make some money out of digital but until then I’ll stick to what I know: print”. But they were the crazy ones, now shuttered behind paywalls. Rusbridger puts it bluntly: “If you fail to understand and adapt then I think you’re dead”.

Because the Guardian had those difficult conversations early on, it is now in a position where its editor thinks its model “is as viable as anyone else’s, if not a bit more so, so I think we’re in the blessed situation where the journalistic imperative is matching the commercial imperative”. For the time being at least, an ethic of openness seems to be thriving under Rusbridger’s custodianship, and it doesn’t yet seem in danger of being sacrificed to satisfy an impatient bottom line. “The only question”, Rusbridger concludes, “is whether that leads to economic sustainability, and I don’t want to boast about it, and I don’t want to be hubristic about it, but you can only go on the evidence so far and the evidence so far is that the commercial people here think ‘yes’”.

Josh Booth is the founder of the King's Review and completed a PhD candidate in Sociology. His research looks at the ethics of publication, economies of knowledge and innovation.