ProMarket interview: Alan Rusbridger, former editor-in-chief of The Guardian, on media capture.

In 2003, Rebekah Wade (now Brooks), the former editor of the British tabloid News of the World, testified before a parliamentary committee. Asked whether the newspaper, the most widely read newspaper in the UK at the time, had ever paid police officers for information, Brooks admitted: “we have paid police for information in the past.”

That the most powerful newspaper in the country had engaged in illegal behavior should have become a major news story, but Brooks’ admission received very little attention at the time. Chris Bryant, the Labour MP who got Brooks to admit to paying police, told Frontline’s Lowell Bergman years later: “I tried to get other newspapers interested, hardly anyone even bothered to run the story.” News International, News of the World’s parent company and a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., controlled 40 percent of the British newspaper market, and very few people—especially journalists —dared cross it. Those who did, like Bryant, quickly saw their most shameful secrets splashed across the front pages of News of the World and Murdoch’s other British tabloid, The Sun. (Six months after grilling Brooks in parliament, Bryant was the subject of a sex scandal uncovered by News of the World, which, it was later discovered, had hacked his phone).

For years, the behavior of News of the World remained unchecked, until The Guardian reporter Nick Davies started uncovering the true extent of the paper’s criminality in 2009. News of the World reporters and private investigators, he revealed, had hacked thousands of phones belonging to celebrities, ministers, members of Parliament, senior police officers, victims of violent crimes, and ordinary people who had been unlucky enough to be considered newsworthy. Murdoch’s newspapers inspired great fear, and commanded incredible political influence. “The truth is that, in this House, we are all, in our own way, scared of the Rebekah Brookses of the world,” said Labour MP Tom Watson in a speech he gave in Parliament in 2010.

Despite the massive scale of illegality and corruption they uncovered, for years Davies and The Guardian had been completely alone in covering the phone-hacking story. British media and regulators, wary of Murdoch’s immense political power, refused to follow up. (Later it was discovered that other British newspapers were also engaging in the same illegal activities as News of the World.)

“When we started writing these stories, the police said ‘we’ll go and have an inquiry,’ and they came back three hours later and said ‘we’ve had our inquiry and there was nothing to find’,” said Alan Rusbridger, The Guardian’s former editor, on a recent visit to the Stigler Center at the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago. “The regulator unbelievably came out and said The Guardian was at fault and News of the World was fine—they had to apologize for that two years later—no MPs wanted to speak out. The rest of the press didn’t want to cover it. All the checks and balances which you think would work in a democratic society failed. It was an alarming moment in terms of democratic health.”

In 2011, Davies’ revelations (which he recounted in his 2014 book about the scandal, Hack Attackfinally led to public outrage. The scandal caused the 168 year-old News of the World to shut down and led to the resignations and arrests of Brooks, then CEO of News International, and Andy Coulson, the former News of the World editor who later became David Cameron’s communications director. (Brooks was later acquitted and in 2015 returned to her position as CEO of News International, now renamed News UK; Coulson was found guilty and served four months in prison). Cameron’s government launched a public inquiry into the ethics of British newspapers known as the Leveson Inquiry. Murdoch, who was forced to withdraw a $12 billion bid to take full control of BSkyB (now Sky), the profitable television company in which he holds a large stake, had to testify before the Leveson Inquiry. A year earlier, he also appeared before a Parliament committee, in what he described then as “the most humble day of my life.”

The Guardian’s ability to do what other British newspapers had failed to do and go against its own industry was the result of the paper’s unique corporate governance, and the editorial legacy of Rusbridger, who served as editor-in-chief from 1995 to 2015. Unlike other newspapers, The Guardian is not owned by a proprietor, but by the Scott Trust, which was set up in 1936 with the intention of securing the paper’s financial and editorial independence “in perpetuity.” The Trust’s constitution forbids it from interfering in the paper’s editorial line. “There’s nobody sitting above the editor that you have to look up and wonder what he thinks about what we should be writing,” said Rusbridger, who will soon become chair of the Scott Trust. “Your only conversation is with your colleagues and your readers.”

Under Rusbridger’s editorship, The Guardian has in recent years become one of the world’s leading English-speaking news outlets, thanks to a number of high-profile investigations which have turned it from a minor British newspaper into a leading global voice. The paper broke the News of the World phone-hacking story, the Edward Snowden revelations (for which it won the Pulitzer Prize), and played a major role in the coverage of Wikileaks’ diplomatic cables and the HSBC Files.

Shortly before Rusbridger stepped down, The Guardian launched a unique advocacy campaign titled Keep it in the Ground, in order to encourage divestment from fossil fuels. “It’s equally legitimate for newspapers, when they are convinced about injustice or inequality or impending catastrophe, to change the register, to shake the reader by the lapels and do something different,” he said regarding advocacy campaigns. “If you overdo it, then you lose trust and you’ll lose effect. But if you use it sparingly, powerfully, it seems to me entirely legitimate.”

Aside from journalistic achievements, The Guardian has also suffered massive losses in recent years, as the paper expanded its staff and invested heavily in its ambitious digital operation,
while advertising revenues fell. In March, the Guardian Media Group, the paper’s parent company, announced it would cut 250 jobs—including 100 editorial jobs—following annual operating losses of £58.6 million. In January, the paper said it would cut costs by 20 percent, in an effort to break even within three years. In light of the paper’s financial struggles, Rusbridger has recently been forced to defend his legacy.

With a roughly $1 billion endowment, the Scott Trust has enough money to finance The Guardian’s losses for a while. “But the money’s got to last in perpetuity, so there’s less money than we think,” said Rusbridger, who nonetheless noted: “We have enough money to innovate our way through this.”

Rusbridger, who stepped down as editor-in-chief of The Guardian in 2015, is currently Principal of Lady Margaret Hall at Oxford University and chair of the Reuters Institute. In September, he will become chair of the Scott Trust.

In an interview with ProMarket, Rusbridger discussed the capture of British media, the role of journalistic balance, the financial uncertainty that plagues newspapers like The Guardian, and why he feels the media failed in its treatment of climate change.

Alan Rusbridger
Alan Rusbridger

Q: The talk you gave at the Stigler Center was titled “Climate Change: Why Journalism Failed”. Did journalism fail in its coverage of climate change? What constitutes failure?

If we take it as a given that this is an incredibly important story, if not the most important story of our time, then common sense says you’d expect to see it on the front page four to five times a week. In fact, I’ve got some research that shows even the New York Times, inarguably the best paper in America, is barely covering the subject.

What explains the disparity between the seriousness of the subject and the fact that journalism has sort of given up covering it? There’s a variety of reasons; not all them are journalism’s fault. But journalism as it’s conventionally done is not moving the needle.

Q: A recent paper by Jesse Shapiro of Brown University argued that journalists’ fear of appearing biased leads them to adopt a “balanced” approach regarding climate change, which gives disproportionate weight to the views promoted by special interest groups and ultimately serves special interest groups who wish to cast doubt on the scientific consensus. Essentially, what he finds is that neutrality can serve as its own form of bias. Do you agree with this conclusion?

Yes, I do. I think that’s definitely a part of it. If you have too much of an emphasis on balance and objectivity, you can’t call the trappings. If you have one person saying that, and then you balance her with someone that says this, that doesn’t necessarily take into account that the overwhelming evidence and science is on one side and not the other.

If you start from the premise that things have to change, and that they have to change quite quickly and quite radically in order to stay beneath two degrees Celsius, then the more that you feel obliged to present climate change as a fifty-fifty issue, the more you’re playing into the hands of people who have commercial reasons for it not to change.

Q: Do you think this extends to issues beyond climate change? That in extreme examples, where there is overwhelming evidence in favor of one side or the other, journalists should avoid neutrality?

Trying to find out where the truth lies ought to be an important bit of what a journalist does, and the truth is not always best served by just saying “he said, she said.” Go beyond that: Who is she, and who is he, and why are they saying this? And does it stack up? Journalists are not always in a position to judge, but when you can go beyond the “he said, she said,” and if you have the time and expertise, then I think you owe it to your readers to say, “Well, he says this, but he is getting paid by so-and-so and doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and she is neutral, so probably we’re going to pay more attention to her.”

Q: The media missed a number of big stories in recent years: the financial crisis, climate change, the rise of Donald Trump. How could it have missed them?

Well, one of the causes is that the economics of newspapers are now terrible. Newsrooms are much less resourced and much more overstretched than they were. Even within the space of weeks or months, the economics can shift drastically. It’s very difficult to cope with that kind of uncertainty and maintain a fully-staffed room of reporters and specialists. That’s one big reason. To use the phrase “media capture,” I am sure the ownership of newspapers may be another factor.

Q: Is one of those factors the sources that journalists tend to rely on? In an interview with ProMarket, journalist and media critic Dean Starkman criticized the reliance of business media on insider, elite sources. Is it that media became too reliant on experts?

The more you get stuck behind your desk, relying on the same sources, the more likely you are to be out of touch and out of date. A good reporter operates in the space between the elite and street: you’re supposed to be the hinge between the two. Part of your job is to report from the bottom-up and part of is it to report from the top-down. If you’re only doing top-down, you’re going to miss important things.

Q: Do you think media outlets might be afraid of pursuing certain stories, for fear that they might alienate advertisers?

I hope that’s not true. There have been some examples where newspapers have been shown to be tailoring their editorial line, either to suppress stuff or to boost stuff, because of advertisers. But I hope that’s not the rule, because that would be destructive. As journalists, the only thing we have going for us is trust. If anyone ever suspected that we were selling our trust to the highest bidder, then you would destroy the point of whatever news organization you work for.

Q: The Guardian is a unique outlet, in that it brought another news organization, a very powerful news organization, to account. Why is that? 

If media companies behave badly and criminally, they should expect to be covered, just the same as banks. Media hasn’t got any immunity from coverage. There was a very powerful media organization that on the kin
dest interpretation was out of control. It seemed like a perfectly legitimate story to go after. It proved to be a very lonely and hard story to go after. It took us about seven years.

Q: Most editors would have probably told Nick Davies, who led The Guardian’s coverage of News of the World from the beginning, to let it go after a while. Why did you give him seven years to pursue this story?

It was obviously a very good story. He would come in every once in a while and tell me who he was talking to, and I believed him. Sometimes with important stories you almost have to go beyond the point that your readers themselves are bored with it, and sometimes the journalists themselves are bored with it. Stories have a timescale of their own. Knowing what I knew about the story, I thought it would all explode very messily in the end, as it did. So we just had to give Nick the backing and time for doing it.

Q: How strong was the pressure on you to drop the story?

They were a very aggressive company to deal with from the start and tried to hit back in a number of ways. It was an uncomfortable story to do. But after a period they had bigger problems than The Guardian: the lawyers, the courts, the police. The Guardian was a small part in their battle for survival. But initially I think they were very angry at The Guardian and behaved very aggressively towards us.

Q: Was the pressure constant, or did they see that the story was not gaining traction and let off until it exploded?

There were periods when they thought they weathered it, periods when they would dismiss the story, and then the police would dismiss the story. There was one ridiculous day when the police said they were going to reopen inquiries into the story, then came out later that day saying we’ve opened the inquiries and there’s nothing to look for. The shortest inquiry in police history.

When police behaved like that, News International could say: “Look, the police have cleared us, can we go home and forget about this?” Then you’d have a lull, and Nick would have to find the next bit of evidence. The more they felt threatened by Nick, the more aggressive they would get towards us.

In the end, one of the critical things deciding the story was that the New York Times did an audit of The Guardian’s reporting, and when they came out and said, actually, The Guardian has this entirely right, I think that was difficult to ignore for British public officials. 

Q: Why didn’t the British press follow up on that story? Why did it take an American newspaper like the New York Times to animate it?

I suspect there was a kind of herd mentality.  We now know one other newspaper group was up to very similar things, so you could imagine that some journalists were maybe feeling nervous about this and didn’t want to look under the stones. There was definitely a feeling that dog should not eat dog and that we shouldn’t wash dirty linens in public. Most of the British press didn’t look at this in the same way they would have done had this been a car company, or a bank, or a pharmaceutical company. They would have gone after this story very aggressively, and they didn’t.

Q: Because it was one of their own?

That’s my speculation. I don’t know, but I suspect that was a factor. I think that the media is not treated in the same way that other walks of life are, except possibly the BBC, which receives a lot of scrutiny. The press sometimes gets a free pass, and you can understand why. The British press can be very aggressive, and you can see why people wouldn’t want to make enemies of it. The level of scrutiny that the press would apply to its own failures is minimal.

Q: What has the scandal taught you about the role media plays when it comes to the issue of political corruption?

I think sections of the British media still have a useful watchdog role. You can argue about whether they find politicians an easier target than businesspeople, and that may be true—politics in a way is an easier game, whereas the number of people who can read a balance sheet properly is more limited—but they still do valuable work. I wouldn’t want to portray the British press as total toadies.

But for the reasons we’ve discussed already, the default position when money is scarce, time is scarce, and resources are scarce is to do the top-down “this is what they are telling us.”

Q: The scandal also revealed journalists who were actively colluding, not just struggling with a lack of time or resources.

Well, during the Leveson Inquiry people came along and said there was a culture of fear in newsrooms, and there’s also a culture of insecurity. Newsrooms can be intimidating places. When you don’t want to lose your job, because nobody likes losing their job, then people are not going to be brave in speaking out or act as ethically as they should do.

Q: News International controlled 40 percent of the British newspaper market during the scandal and in the years before then. Do you think the largely concentrated nature of the British media market contributed to the unethical conduct of News of the World and similar outlets?

I think it’s unhealthy. It is unhealthy for someone to control that much. But that’s an easy thing to say, and working out how exactly one would break that up, and what constitutes a monopoly or an unhealthy share of the market, no one is very keen to do that. The Leveson report, which was supposed to look at the concentration of the market, I think it [the concentration issue] was sort of put in the “too difficult” box.

Q: Had News International not controlled a significant share of the market, do you think they would have behaved in the same way? Or does market power contribute to bad behavior?

Newspapers are a particular being with power over politicians, which is not true of a biscuit factory. If you have that much of a share of the market with the political power that goes with that, I think that probably leads to bad forms of behavior.

Q: Is it possible that this amount of power made journalists and other media outlets afraid?

I think people read the News of the World every week, and it regularly set out to destroy people’s lives. That’s what it did.  And I think a natural reaction is to think “I would not want to be on the front page of News of the World.” And when it turned out that the way they were getting these stories was criminal, and that those weren’t journalists but criminals hired to subcontract the work, then fear is a perfectl
y rational response. Why would you want to upset a company like that?

Q:How did The Guardian, a newspaper with a fraction of News of the World’s circulation and power, manage to pursue this story? Did you not fear the possible consequences?

It came about because Nick Davies, who was a brilliant reporter, became very interested in media and the power they wielded. Nick likes to spend months looking at a project, and he came back with this particular bone between his teeth. It’s an interesting challenge to other editors: if you were brought this story, would you tell your reporter not to do it because it was a bit embarrassing to the industry or would you say do it? In my mind, there was never any question. I thought “This is going to make life extremely uncomfortable, there are easier people to take on.” But always, as an editor, you are there to back your reporters as long as they’re doing good work, and if you can’t, you should make way for somebody else who does.

Q: Did The Guardian’s ownership structure, the fact that it has no proprietor, make it easier for you to pursue this story?

The fact that The Guardian has no owner means that we are not really part of the club, the proprietor’s club. We were never part of a group like that. We’re trust-owned, and the trust is there to protect that kind of difficult journalism. We were fortunate enough to have a trust that would have tolerated losses, if it meant that we could try negotiate our way through the revolution that’s going on in the industry and still do proper journalism.

Q: The Guardian worked on the News of the World story for years, through dozens of pieces published by Nick Davies, which must have been a very expensive endeavor. For most of this time, the story gained little traction. Did you have any doubts about the value of it all?

There were times during those seven years when it all went quiet, and you wondered what on earth we could do to wake people up, so it would have been easy to get disheartened. But as I said, we’d have frequent conversations with Nick. I always had a sense of forward momentum in backing his judgment.

Q: What was more disheartening, the silence or the violence of the response when the response came?

I didn’t find the violence disheartening. It was frightening sometimes, and tiresome, but not disheartening. The disheartening bit was when the police would come out and the regulator would come out, and they all would say, “There’s nothing to see here, move on.”

Q: How do you explain that?

Well, I think the simplest thing is that this was a very powerful company. I can’t think of a more plausible explanation than these were bad people to upset, and so they didn’t.

Q: Do you think the scandal and its aftermath changed the culture of the British newspaper industry?

I would be amazed if reporters are now behaving in this criminal way. Even the ones that were acquitted had to go through a terrible way, as the story became broader and broader. I would think any reporter now would think very, very hard before engaging in criminal acts to get a story, so I think Fleet Street has been cleaned up.

Q: The Guardian also played a major role in uncovering the HSBC tax avoidance scandal. What was the response to that story?

It was huge. That was another story where the bank initially said, “We’re not going to talk to you, it’s all wrong,” and within a short period of time they came out with their hands up and said, “We apologize.” The fact that it was an international partnership, where 20 newspapers reported simultaneously, made it a very difficult story for the bank to refute or deny.

Q: A number of The Guardian’s biggest stories in recent years—the Snowden leaks, the HSBC files—were the result of cooperation with other newspapers and organizations like the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). Do you see this kind of collaborations as a potential path forward for newspapers going after multinational targets?

Collaboration helps because you’re pooling expertise. It helps you to be efficient in terms of money. It can help because you can piggyback on someone else’s legal system. In the Snowden story, we could publish in the UK longer by transferring our reporting to the US, because that meant we could rely on their First Amendment protections. There are lots of examples in which the fierce rivalry that used to exist between news organizations can be put aside.

Q: In cases like the HSBC files, which involve large multinational firms operating in many countries and across many legal systems, is it necessary for journalists to cooperate across national borders?

I think there are a number of issues where covering them in a global way is the only way to do justice to the story. We did a big thing on tax avoidance which was so complex: the schemes all these companies are using are deliberately obscure and engineered by a small group of accountants. To do a story like that and not be sued, and get it right and understand the movements of money around the world—how they were diverging these different systems to get that—was very complex. I would have welcomed more involvement by people who can help us.

Q: That’s a big change in the way journalism works.

I don’t think that that’s going to be the norm. Newspapers will still be competing, but we live in a much more networked world now. We didn’t lose anything by reaching out, we all got the credit in the end. I didn’t see where the downside was.

People are slow to realize that the world is changing, that The Guardian has more in common with a paper like Le Monde or El País or the New York Times or Süddeutsche Zeitung than it does with the Daily Telegraph. I think in the world today there are all kinds of stories—the environment would be one, immigration would be one, economics would be one—where you can’t understand these stories on a national level; they don’t make sense.

Q: One of the last things The Guardian did during your time as editor-in-chief was launch an advocacy campaign for divestment from fossil fuels. Do you think media outlets should take a stand on issues they care about, like climate change, and actively advocate for reform?

I don’t want to overemphasize, but I think there are some circumstances where it’s impossible to be for climate change or for inequality. So I think there
are some issues where I would feel vastly liberated and say, “Let’s not sit on the fence on this one, let’s do something.” This is so important, that it would be a far bigger crime as a journalist not to inform the public and then look back in 20 years and think I should have done more.

Q: Are there issues beyond climate change that merit this approach?

Tax avoidance and evasion is a big issue. It’s eroding the abilities of countries, including developing countries, to provide proper public services. It’s very destructive to local companies, and very destructive to media companies. 

Q: Can this kind of journalism be sustainable, business-wise? The Guardian is not a profitable endeavor…

It’s not just not profitable. It’s loss-making.

Q: How long can a model like this sustain itself?

If I can universalize it, all papers that look like The Guardian are struggling to find an economic model. The model that existed for 200 years has been disrupted. It’s going to take time and investment to find a new model. Given how fast things are changing, the obvious thing to do is to cut costs, and we all are, but at the same time you don’t want to endanger the very thing that makes a newspaper a serious newspaper. It’s not an easy situation for anyone trying to manage it.

Cost-cutting is one of the reasons the media misses stories. It’s a vicious cycle. You need to cut costs, but cutting costs harms journalistic production. It’s very, very difficult to solve. If you just cut costs, or if you cut costs too fast, if you cut the wrong costs, you can put the newspaper into a spiral of decline. But some cost-cutting is inevitable, and some investment is also inevitable. You can’t transition into a completely different medium and way of working without investing.

If you just cut your costs and did not invest…there are lots of companies who have done that and are looking very sick or dead now.

Q: There are some media outlets today that are profitable, but most of them don’t pursue the kind of rigorous reporting The Guardian is doing. Is there a place for newspapers like The Guardian, and what is that place?

Newspapers like The Guardian are completely vital. You need strong news organizations that can stand outside any form of power in order to scrutinize its holders and defend the journalism. The institutional weight that stands behind journalism, and the ethical systems of professional training, all of these things are what makes a great newspaper, and society needs them. Imagine a society without reliable and variable sources of news. There are places in the world that look like that, and we know what they look like.

I don’t like the narrative that says we’re all corrupt. There are bad newspapers. However flawed we are, you’ll miss us when we’re gone. What we do is necessary and is not easily replicable by people who are doing interesting things but haven’t yet faced the expense of doing the kind of reporting that papers like The Guardian are doing.