Interview: Alan Rusbridger
Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger talks to NATALIE GIL about tabloids, liberal stereotypes and journalism’s uncertain future.
Alan Rusbridger is one of the most important journalists in Britain. As Editor of The Guardian – the third most-read online newspaper in the world – for nearly 20 years, he has overseen some ground-breaking scoops. In 2010, the paper collaborated with Wikileaks and in 2009 broke the staggering News of The World phone hacking scandal, which the paper’s investigative trailblazer Nick Davies had long been pursuing.
Rusbridger read English at Magdalene and got his first journalism job at the Cambridge Evening News. He joined The Guardian in 1979, and became Editor in 1995, just as newspapers began catering for the Internet.
In a question-answer session at the Union on the Leveson report, he said he is proudest of the phone hacking exposé. The practice was endemic, and NotW journalists felt so bullied that they themselves “wanted” Davies to break the story.
The role of journalism, he said, is to hold people to account. But what about entertainment? Journalists need to keep readers engaged, particularly as print sales continue to dwindle. He agreed, telling The Tab: “If you can’t make people interested, they’re not going to read your stuff. Tabloid journalism at its highest is incredibly difficult and incredibly important.”
Despite this view, The Guardian won’t chase page views for the sake of it. Rusbridger doesn’t see the point of content solely geared towards search engine optimisation, unlike a certain other newspaper with its sidebars of shame.
Still, Rusbridger admires the Daily Mail’s online dominance – last year it became the most-read online newspaper in the world, beating the New York Times – which might make quintessentially liberal and progressive Guardianistas queasy. He told The Tab: “It does some really good things; it’s very politically engaged and is brilliant at entertainment.
“Its campaigning journalism is fantastic and often quite surprising…on the secret courts, and some civil rights stuff – the rendition of torture…the Mail’s quite good on those sorts of issues; it’s a very good paper.”
Rusbridger’s favourite tabloid is The Mirror, he told The Tab. But he’d still rather be stranded on a desert island with Daily Mail Editor Paul Dacre than former Mirror Editor Piers Morgan because “he’d be less exhausting.” Judging from his previous exchanges with Morgan, who could blame him?
Morgan called Guardian journalists “liberal sandal-wearers” who see themselves as “ethically, morally and intellectually superior to tabloid hacks.” Does Rusbridger see any truth in this stereotype? “The parody of Guardian readers as muesli munching and wispy bearded is wrong. We’ve now got the biggest audience in Britain, apart from the Mail, and if you’ve got an audience of 70 million a month, there is no stereotype. Two thirds of them are abroad, so they’re very cosmopolitan. We’re three times bigger than The Sun online, so it’s a very big operation.”
What about content? Are Guardian journalists as liberal as their paper’s ideology? Or do they just tell their readers what they want to hear? If true, this might explain the prominence of vegetarian recipes and commentary about organic wholegrains, for example, typically perceived as left-wing interests in Britain. But, Rusbridger reminds us, “Hitler was a vegetarian…”
Historically, the paper gained an unflattering moniker – The Grauniad – owing to an apparently high number of typographical errors during the days of hot metal typesetting. Is the continued use of this joke justified? “No,” he said, laughing, “these stereotypes have been there for a long time.” (The Guardian own the domain grauniad.co.uk, which redirects to its website, so orthographically challenged readers are never left confused).
In January, The Guardian and The Observer released an advert proudly shouting (literally) that they OWNED the weekend. Does Rusbridger feel like he truly OWNS it? “We totally own the weekend, yes.”
When he’s not presiding over readers’ time off, Rusbridger is in meetings trying to answer important questions about journalism’s future. These are what eat up most of his time as Editor nowadays. The Telegraph last year reported that The Guardian was “seriously considering” ending its print edition, but this was strongly dismissed. Talking to the Union, Rusbridger wouldn’t be drawn into where the exact future lies for printed newspapers because, as he correctly pointed out, no one knows.
He didn’t explicitly rule out a pay wall, but because the only papers to prove that the model can work are the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal, whose news is financially valuable, it wasn’t clear whether this would be the right path for The Guardian. Hadley Freeman, one of the paper’s most celebrated fashion and feature writers, told The Tab last year she thought the paper had no choice but to consider either a pay wall or to start charging commenters to participate in its online debate. Is this something he would consider? “Yes, we have thought about it”, he admitted, but added that there are “bigger questions” to answer before going any further.
As for the next generation of journalists, Rusbridger is involved in judging the Guardian Student Media Awards. Despite not having been involved in student journalism himself – The Tab hadn’t been created then(!) – he is extremely positive about student journalism. The standard is “incredibly high” compared to “what it looked and read like when I was a student… And just the sheer volume of it. The reporting and writing seems to get better every year.” But unfortunately for wannabe hacks like me, there aren’t any graduate jobs going – I did ask.
Despite industry job cuts – 100 were recently announced at The Guardian – and the economic trouble facing newspapers everywhere, the future of journalism is bright. The twenty-first century media technology boom is an extremely exciting environment for journalists to work in. Journalism is “there to be reinvented”, according to Rusbridger. So, I suppose we’d better get started…