Profile: Alan Rusbridger

To decide to interview arguably Britain’s leading newspaper editor of the past generation is, in retrospect, fairly sadistic. It was difficult to banish the image of an unflappable, hard-as-nails Fleet Street big dog staring at me with a look of regret and boredom at having agreed to be interviewed in the first place. So when the first thing Alan Rusbridger says to me is that the weekly shop took longer than expected and that he’s sorry for being 30 seconds late, I can breathe that bit easier. 

Given his journalism career began over 40 years ago, of which the last 20 were spent at the very top as editor-in-chief of the Guardian, Rusbridger doesn’t fit the stereotypes of a lifelong journo-type. He doesn’t check his phone, he isn’t even slightly abrupt, and his demeanour suggests cool, calm, and collected, rather than frantic desire to find the next scoop. He says he doesn’t think he’s sworn at anyone in his life. Perhaps the gear shift of going from editor of a national newspaper to principal of a medium-sized Oxford college wouldn’t be so great for such a seemingly serene persona. 

“Actually there’s something very similar about a group of people who are highly intelligent, seeking after the truth, without sounding pompous about it; a community and a collegiate way of solving things,” Rusbridger responds. “All that feels quite the same. Obviously I don’t wake up in the morning fumbling for the Today Programme and I’m not constantly at my screen checking things, which after 20 years is quite a relief.

“When I stepped down at the end of May, I thought this could be an enormous shift, so big you could almost get the bends. But I taught in India for three weeks, with the aim of leaving London behind, and actually I think that little Indian summer was a good way of transitioning from one to another.”

That stepping down marked the end of a career that began at the Cambridge Evening News before joining the Guardian in 1979. His first roles were as a feature writer, general reporter and diary columnist before being made the Observer’s TV critic. After a brief sojourn as Washington correspondent for the London Daily News, Rusbridger returned to the Guardian, playing an instrumental role in creating the Guardian Weekend magazine and the paper’s G2 section. 

He took up the editorship in 1995, meaning this was his 20th year in the role, a landmark that was significant in his decision to step down, given “it’s a very physically and mentally demanding job. I think in those jobs you don’t want to carry on, even if you’re doing it well.

“I had three or four really good deputies or potential successors, and it’s just bad if you hang on; I didn’t want to be in the position where people think I’m a bed-blocker. So for all kinds of reasons, I thought ‘go now’. And, you know, the old maxim, ‘Always leave when they’re crying for more.’”

And people certainly were crying for more if the smorgasbord of awards given to the Guardian under Rusbridger’s tenure is any indication. Within the last few years alone, the Guardian was awarded the UK Press Award for Newspaper of the Year, The Polk Award, The European Press Prize, The Walkley Award, an Emmy and, most prestigiously, a Pulitzer Prize. Rusbridger is quick to put this success into perspective, however; “It’s always lovely winning awards, but some mean more than others.

“The Pulitzer Prize was incredibly special because it’s the most sought-after prize in the world, and it was for public service, so it was the biggest Pulitzer Prize. And the Pulitzer Prize, like a lot of things in American journalism, is taken incredibly seriously. On one side there’s literature and poetry and music, and they’re saying that journalism is like those things. We also won the Right Livelihood Award, they call that the Alternative Nobel Prize in Sweden; we won that with Edward Snowden. And that again says that journalism is a force in society that’s worthy of recognition. Those things were really lovely to get because that’s what I think about journalism, that it’s a really important force.”

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As such, Rusbridger’s appreciation of the awards was not just for the work of him and his colleagues, but because “journalism was being compared to other very necessary, noble forms, and I think that, sometimes in this country, we lose sight of that. If you speak to some British journalists they laugh at American journalists because they think they’re all up their own fundaments, and they take it too seriously, and they have no sense of humour.

“But, you go to a British press award ceremonies and there are people getting drunk, and throwing bread rolls, and hitting each other, as if they’re saying ‘We’re too cool to take journalism seriously.’ And the danger of that is no one else will take it seriously if we don’t take it seriously ourselves.”

Yet, it’s tremendously ironic that Rusbridger thinks British journalism is so downtrodden when it was under his editorship that the most publically lauded news stories of the last decade were broken; those of phone hacking, Wikileaks and the Edward Snowden revelations. Beginning with phone hacking, I asked how the waves after the phone hacking scandal, the Leveson Inquiry and the public outrage had affected the Guardian

“I think it was a good and necessary debate. I thought it was long overdue. There were ugly things happening in journalism that shouldn’t have been happening; they’ve stopped. The debate went off the rails a bit because because of what happened afterwards. I don’t think we have yet arrived at a position of what the state of regulation is going to look like. Has it affected the Guardian? We were never at the top of the league table of offenders under the old system, and we aren’t now. Some colleagues on other papers, the ones that didn’t like the Leveson process, didn’t want or like that debate happening, tended to blame the Guardian for it.

“Everyone now comes out and says, there wasn’t any regulation when the press was regulating itself; this thing called the Press Complaints Panel was for mediation not regulation. The Independent Press Standards Organisation goes some way towards a better system. I’m watching that with interest, and thinking let’s wait until Moses himself comes down with the tablets or whatever the joke is.”

The two big data-dump news stories of this century also came via the Guardian, thanks to Wikileaks and Edward Snowden, two stories that have come to define questions of privacy, national security and government interventions in the modern era. Though it seemed facetious to ask if he had a favourite between the two, Rusbridger explained that, “Wikileaks was huge at the time, it was the biggest thing of its kind that anybody had ever seen, but I think Snowden was more significant, because it opened up a world that had never been seen before. 

“Only now are we beginning to grasp what it is that Snowden was trying to show. As the world has played out over the last three years, people are beginning to see that this was an immense canvas of subjects that Snowden was saying, ‘You, the world, should be aware that this is happening, you may like it or you may not like it, but you can only have this debate if it’s founded on some information.’ So that in the end feels more historically significant.”

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Rusbridger remembered the office on the night before Snowden as full of “adrenaline, and excitement, anticipation. It’s great to be in a newsroom on the eve of something like that. Everyone was super-professional, working at the highest level we ever had. We all knew it was the most difficult story we had ever done, and so we all had to raise our game another ten per cent.

“There was the Sunday after the first week, when Snowden had said he was always going to reveal himself. We had half an hour’s notice on the rest of the world, when the video arrived from Hong Kong. We looked at it and went ‘That’s Edward Snowden’, this young kid. So, we launched it, and that is an extraordinary feeling, when you’ve got something you know is going to be the biggest story in the world for the next few weeks. We launched it in the afternoon, when all the American networks are on loop, because they go have lunch on a Sunday or something. And so we launched it and sat there, looking at the screens, and nothing happened. It was unnerving, sitting there thinking, ‘Come on world, we’ve just done the most extraordinary thing!’”

The magnitude of the Snowden leaks was so vast that it wasn’t even clear what the central story was going to be. Encryption was only one part of the debate but “people like The Economist came out and said that’s the most significant story so far. Since then, people like Apple, or Google, or Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the worldwide web, have all said that is a really important story.”

In spite of a career so garlanded by success, Rusbridger says that covering climate change was the biggest regret of his career, “not that we hadn’t covered it, we had. But I think journalism as a whole has not responded to climate change with the kind of imagination and volume and seriousness that it deserves.”

Later this autumn, Rusbridger will take up the role as chair of the Scott Trust, the body that ensures the financial independence of the Guardian. With an endowment of somewhere near a billion pounds, the Trust gives the Guardian an almost BBC-like protection from needing to chase ratings or worry about revenue. Indeed, the BBC is an organisation that Rusbridger seems sympathetic towards, remarking that, “I think the BBC is the greatest news organisation in the world. And I also think in a world where you have the British national press, you need the BBC. It’s a mirror image of America, where The New York Times is like the BBC, and Fox News is like the British press. But I think in any society, you really need both.”

As the interview was wrapping up, I, self-interestedly, asked for any tips about working in journalism. In a moment of Yoda-like zen, he summarised his philosophy as “finding incredibly bright people and letting them flourish, rather than imposing your will on everything. I liked finding writers, thinkers, estimators, photographers or critics and just letting them get on with it. Most people prefer to work for someone like that.”