Former Guardian Chief Editor: We're Beginning To Glimpse What A World Without Journalism Is Like
16 July, 2017

In the face of fake news, financial difficulties and mounting political pressure, the media world is changing rapidly. Hromadske discusses the challenges of modern journalism with Alan Rusbridger, a member of the Committee to Protect Journalists' Board of Directors and former editor-in-chief of The Guardian.

Under Alan Rusbridger's leadership, The Guardian and other international papers ran high-profile coverage on topics such as Wikileaks and whistleblower Edward Snowden. Reflecting on these stories several years later, he maintains that publishing them was in the public interest. For him, this is journalism's primary role: "You have to be prepared to defend those public interests," he says. "What are we defending if we are not defending that basic freedom?"

The current difficulties journalism is facing are demonstrating the dangers of "a world without facts." However, Rusbridger maintains that it's up to the media to regain public trust and make sure it isn't taken for granted. In his words, "If we are doing stuff that is important and that matters, then we will have the support of the people."

To discuss the current state and future prospects of journalism, Hromadske sits down with Alan Rusbridger, a member of the Committee to Protect Journalists' Board of Directors and former editor in chief of The Guardian.

There is some feeling and sentiment in some of the public that journalists devote too much time in the media to things like, for instance the tweets of Donald Trump wrestling the CNN. There's sentiment that we are overstating this threat to us, that we're asking for special consideration.

Alan Rusbridger: I think we're beginning to glimpse what a world without journalism is like and that's for two reasons. One is the economic predicament of the press and one is the political control of the press. And it's frightening. I think people see what a world without facts is like and when you can't tell what's true and what's not true. So I think people are more appreciative now of what journalism can do, but they're also very suspicious and trustful and mistrustful of it.

So I think journalism has to keep reminding people why it can be trusted, what it can do, why it's needed. Because there's a ton of information out there that's not being produced by journalism and some of it's very good, and some of it isn't. And we have to keep making the case as for what we do and why we deserve people's trust.

Generally what could be the mistakes of modern times that the media could avoid? Being a bit lost, I would argue, in this environment of disinformation, fake news, social media, platforms being developed, etc.

Alan Rusbridger: There's a radical revolutionary change in the way that information is circulating now. I think of it as the difference between a vertical world in which journalists pass the information down to people to a horizontal world in which there's an ocean of information that is changing opinions, influencing things. And some of that is bad, as you said, some of that is fake, some of it's true.

But it's very very powerful. I think the worst thing that journalists can do is to cling to the old fashion mode and say we want to go back to that vertical world where we owned the information and we gave it to you. You realize that we are hopelessly out of touch with the way that information is now changing. And that means we have to earn trust by being more honest and transparent about our sources, it means we have to change the tone of voice. We have to have more of a conversation with the public rather than lecturing them. We have to reassess what journalism is doing. I'm very hopeful, but I'm only hopeful if journalists can wake up and realize that journalism is changing faster and more radically than I think they're willing to admit.

I also want to make the point about the public interest and it can’t be for the state to define what the public interest is. It’s really important for journalists to remember that, because I’ve heard that since being in Ukraine, if you’re not “patriotic” then there’s a problem with your journalism. It’s not up to journalists to be patriotic in their journalism. They can be patriotic as a person, as a citizen, but I am independent of the state, and, at a time of war, or conflict it’s almost more important to remember that. You have a duty as a journalist which is different to your role as a citizen.

You said that it is not up to the state to decide what is in the public interest, yet the argument that I hear is that it’s not up to the journalists to decide, who are you to decide what is in the public interest, we would rather trust somebody more credible. Why do you think journalists decide?

Alan Rusbridger: If you believe in journalism, and if you believe that there has to be a fourth estate – someone who stands outside of the church, the law, religion, government, commerce – if you need those people in society, then you have to allow them freedom and sometimes they will misuse that freedom, sometimes they will be irresponsible, that’s what freedom is.

But, all the other alternatives are worse. If you’re saying that the state must have power over journalists, that never ends well, so the journalists have to be allowed to exercise their individual discretion, but of course, we should then hold journalists to very high standards. To earn that degree of trust and responsibility, you actually have to show that you are worthy of it.

You mentioned that The Guardian ran the Wikileaks and the Snowden stories in a responsible way, but the situation is longer than that one piece, you followed the story. Still, sometimes it is the responsibility of the media which gives birth to these huge phenomena. To follow up on that, do you have any thoughts on what happened to the Wikileaks leader and what role they are playing now, and also the pretty dubious situation with Edward Snowden, what with him being in Russia?

Alan Rusbridger: Wikileaks and Snowden are very different animals. They are very different. I honestly don’t think Edward Snowden ever wanted to be in Russia, I don’t think that was his life plan. I don’t think he saw himself spending the rest of his life in Russia and I think he has been quite critical of the Russians.

Generally as journalists, you have to set aside the source, you look at the material and you say: what is this material telling us. The source may have many different motives good and bad and I think generally, you try and push the source out of the mind and you look at the documents and you say: well, what are these documents? Is there a public interest in these documents? And you have to be prepared to defend those public interests.

As I said, when we did the Snowden story, I was asked to go to the parliament and the first question they asked me was: Do you love your country? How can you be a journalist publishing this, and at the same time love your country? And my answer was: The thing I love about my country is that it’s free, that journalists can behave like this. That’s what George Orwell was trying to write about in 1984. We have to remember these lessons, otherwise what are we defending if we are not defending that basic freedom.

I would like to talk a bit more about the financial part of today’s media. One of the biggest issues today is that independent journalism, and even good journalism, doesn’t really have enough funds. How do you see this future?

Alan Rusbridger: I don’t know what the definitive answer for everybody is. There are going to be some news organisations that have paywalls, that’s going to work for them, there are some where that’s not going to work. It’s going to vary from country to country, upmarket, downmarket, the advertising market is going to work for some, not for others. I think there are going to be numerous different models.

The Guardian is currently trying a membership model, where you don’t force people to pay, you ask them to pay. There are foundation models which are pretty successful is some places. Advertising at the moment is mainly going to Google and Facebook, but Google and Facebook are in some regulatory trouble. I think the important thing is not, at this stage of the revolution, to say that it doesn’t work, let’s regulate it or let’s shut it down, you have to give it some time, but it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

I think the foundation model is not the worst model. And a public broadcaster is not the worst model. Arguably, the best organisation in the world is the BBC. It employs 7000 or 8000 journalists and they live all around the world. It does incredibly high quality journalism and it’s funded by the taxpayer, not directly but through a license fee. Sometimes the best journalism is not provided by the market, but by a form of public subsidy. I think we have to really concentrate as journalists, do our best work that we can, and if the support for that comes from foundations, that’s not the worst thing. I think that the journalism that matters to people will survive. I think that the journalism that was simply intent on building an audience in order to deliver to advertisers will not survive because I don’t think that advertisers are going to be there to pay for that journalism. I think that’s one of the things that going to disappear with the vertical world. But if you’re doing stuff that matters, then I think that people will value that.

Speaking generally about what CPJ is doing, and the global answer. Journalists feel insecure because, although there were always issues with politicians and governments, there weren’t many deliberate attacks on the media. Your press jacked would help you in a conflict. And now, the exact reason you would feel threatened is because you are from the press, and the press would be blamed for that. Authoritarian leaders would blame the press a lot, but now it is everywhere. Do you see a way we can answer that?

Alan Rusbridger: If we are doing stuff that is important and that matters, then we will have the support of the people. That is really important. When we were doing the Snowden story, I had a very strong sense that people wanted us to do that story. Some people didn’t, but sufficient people did. We have to keep rethinking what journalism is, why what we’re doing matters and we have to be true to that. I have to say, since coming to Ukraine, I have met some really inspiring journalists, people who are formidably resilient and determined in a young country, who do realise the importance of what they’re doing. And if I could bottle that and take it back to London and show that to some jaded, old journalists who are chasing the ratings because of advertising, I think that would be a wonderful thing. So don’t lose sight of what you’re doing here in this country. There are some very important lessons that the rest of the world could learn from you.

/Interview by Nataliya Gumenyuk

/Text by Eilish Hart