An interview with Alan Rusbridger

Josh Booth
March 27, 2014

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’”.


All by
Josh Booth