“One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world.”
“Comment is free, but facts are sacred.”
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in his acceptance speech for the 1971 Nobel Prize for Literature, declared the first. He was not primarily a journalist: he was a novelist, a dissident whose writings exposed the horrors of the Soviet “gulag archipelago.” The second was written by CP Scott, the legendary editor of The Guardian who revolutionised the paper over a 50-year tenure from 1872.
We live in the “post-truth” world, in which, increasingly, even prominent journalists can be in danger; Solzhenitsyn would recognise these patterns. Scott, equally, would recognise the work of the journalist, which is little altered since his time; the methods, however, and the trust afforded to the journalist even before he first picks up his pen, are much changed.
I spend over an hour with Alan Rusbridger, sitting in his spacious office in Oxford’s Lady Margaret Hall. A copy of his most recent book, Breaking News, sits on the coffee table, near one of the many black Moleskine notebooks which have accompanied him through his professional life; on the floor nearby is the latest work by Ben Macintyre, the Times columnist and historian of wartime intelligence. Macintyre’s book, naturally, covers the past: he can work at leisurely pace as he ferrets after facts in dusty SAS archives. Rusbridger, the editor-in-chief of The Guardian until 2016 (when he stepped down after more than 20 years), has been accustomed to a faster job, a life in which one’s subjects can haul you up for questioning or come into your office, and in which one’s facts are constantly breaking into public sight. That’s one meaning of the title of his book, of course. The other is more ominous: “the news”, the system by which those facts come into view, is quite literally breaking.
Rusbridger himself is tall, somewhat gangly, and he sits at angles, as though his long limbs can’t quite all fold together; his greying hair is large and tousled, and he runs first one hand and then the other through it absentmindedly as he speaks. His spectacles give him an appearance rather of a half-asleep owl, an impression heightened by his imperturbability and the way in which he smiles, as though half his mind is elsewhere.
His manner of conducting himself is almost that of the quintessential journalist. Descriptions of his character by other profilers and colleagues paint a portrait of a man born for his role: he is “unflappable”; “polished”; “extremely calm”; “[deceptively] tough”.
He didn’t, however, always see himself as a journalist; nor did his early introduction to the profession come about as a result of the principles which, later developed, would see him defy the Cabinet Office and the White House in publishing the Snowden files. Instead, he says, he was attracted to journalism by the variety of it: “I liked that you went in in the morning not knowing if you’d be doing a murder trial or a parish council or a flower show or a car crash.” (He says he has a “slightly butterfly mind”). He liked the fact that journalists “didn’t take themselves too seriously, but they were good company”; he liked “the community of a newspaper”, and the comradery present at even a small paper like the Cambridge Evening News (his first post, after interning with them while at Cambridge), which “needed, I’m guessing, a hundred and thirty people to get it out, and you all had your allotted function, and somehow it all came together, and a paper appeared at the end of it.”
I ask him whether, at that point, he had ambitions of working for the public good in this; in a 2011 lecture, he says that he had read Orwell’s The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters at fifteen and been inspired. Now, he pauses briefly, then says: “I don’t think I did at that point, no. Those things weren’t really questioned, oddly […] I mean, a newspaper was such a sort of fixed bit of society—everyone knew what a newspaper was, what it did, what its role was. You didn’t have to make a great case for journalism because the case was made, as it were. It was like turning the taps and expecting water to come out of them: there was the local paper, and it had its function in society”.
Now, of course, very little about the journalist’s role is so taken for granted. A late-2018 YouGov poll found that only two per cent of Britons trust journalists “a great deal”. Phone-hacking (brought to light by The Guardian’s bulldog-like Nick Davies—it was Rusbridger that gave him the freedom to investigate at length); Brexit; and the rise of fake news-fuelled populism have all contributed to the decline of trust in previously-accepted reporting institutions. Rusbridger observes that “a lot of journalists can’t quite come to terms” with this shift. He notes that, while it was previously enough “just to say ‘well, I own the printing press, here is the paper, and you’re going to have to trust me, because I’m a journalist’”, people don’t now “trust that kind of information, like they don’t trust all kinds of institutional things, or expert things, any longer, rightly or wrongly.”
The onus is therefore, he says, upon the news media itself to “demonstrate why you (the public) should trust me. Basic things like, ‘I will show you my evidence. I will link, I will show you the document I am referring to, so that you don’t have to take my word for it but you can go back and…’ All those sorts of basic things that people do on the internet, and which journalists are quite slow to do.” He quotes the CUNY professor Jeff Jarvis—“Do what you do best, and link to the rest”—railing against the inefficiency of the “pack mentality of journalists who determine what the news is”, sending “ten thousand journalists [to] the Democratic National Convention” to produce ten thousand versions of the same event when instead a few could cover that while the rest link to it and report on other, less examined, topics with more rigorous detail.
Under Rusbridger The Guardian adopted this approach, leading in innovation here as elsewhere. In its online daily Politics Live feature, Andrew Sparrow—“an incredible journalist”—“comes in, opens up at about nine o’clock in the morning, and the first thing he does is to say, ‘Good story in The Telegraph today, good story in the FT, page five story in The Times, here’s the highlight of the Today programme. And now I’m going to do what I’m interested in.’” This, Rusbridger notes, allows him to focus: “That seems to me to be a really useful thing, in news generally. You don’t always need to write your version of a story, because you can concentrate on what you think is important.” It becomes difficult, he concedes, when Trump, and his constant stream of information, is introduced into the equation: “He’s president of the United States: you can’t ignore his tweets, and they are in a sense a news story”. He continues to insist, however, that “you don’t have to do everything yourself nowadays”. Pooling resources and reports gives newspapers, which are increasingly forced to scale down their operations, the latitude to conduct a “consortia of investigative journalism” with fewer distractions, and is happening now on the “Paradise” and Panama Papers investigations.
Investigative journalism, Rusbridger argues, is “the most important form of journalism.” The purpose of journalism (“if you want to boil it, pare it all down, you say, well, in the end, what matters”) is “to establish facts”: “you do need facts in a society. Society can’t progress unless you can agree, unless people from all sides can say, ‘well, here are the facts; here are the facts on climate change, here are the facts on…’” What this requires is conversation and, foremost, constructive debate. This is, Rusbridger argues, “basically how the British press has worked, over the centuries: you have people who attack a problem, or attack an issue, from completely different ideological points of view, and that war of, um, interrogation from completely different points of view, when you don’t agree what the basis is, is a good way of grinding out the truth.”
The American press, he notes, tends to be the opposite: a typical American editor would say that “I have no ideology; I am going to do my best to be fair to all sides, and by sourcing my story well, and by dealing responsibility in information and data, I can do something that will do justice, which will be as truthful as possible.” “In some ways,” he says, “I quite admire it… [But] I think probably having both systems running side by side is the best answer. So not just the passionless attempt to be impartial, but the warring of ideologies as well. But if you just had the warring of ideologies, then I think you can degenerate into information chaos, where people are using the facts that suit them.” Which is, of course, what we have now.
In this climate, he says, journalists have “quite a responsibility” to attempt to shape the public agenda productively, but he notes that “how you influence public opinion” is also important. The Guardian is managed by the Scott Trust (named after CP Scott), with the intention of being guaranteed independence to “remain faithful to its liberal tradition”. Unlike many papers, whose proprietors have an active interest in managing their lines, The Guardian’s staff (a “collegiate” group who “met every day” to decide what was important and how to do it) is therefore free to choose their priorities. For Rusbridger, one of these was the effort against anthropogenic climate change: the “Keep It In The Ground” campaign, begun in 2015 to protest fracking plans, was long-mounted, persistent, and largely successful. This was a campaign intended to enlighten, in order to influence: “I do think that actually creating an informed public is kind of essential. That’s the best form of influence.”
“The best journalism,” says he, “is the journalism that is most helpful to people in explaining the things that are happening to them, in a way that is as truthful and as accurate as possible.” For Rusbridger, one of those “things” is undoubtedly climate change, but he recognises that this is one of many valuable projects. In Breaking News, he says, he started “musing aloud about news organisations that are essentially social enterprises”, unafraid not to make a profit so long as they achieve their mission. The news media has a constant balance to strike between sharing what is important, and what is profitable; The Guardian, with the Scott Trust, is more free from this decision-making process than most, but it remains uncomfortably present. Rusbridger accepts this but, by avoiding paywalls on The Guardian’s website while also eschewing clickbait, has responded to the knowledge rather differently to other editors, out of interests both commercial and public-minded. “There will [always] be [newspapers] that have celebrities flaunting their curves on beaches, which in the end doesn’t matter at all, and people may read [it], but they don’t care about it. And there may be a commercial model for that or there may not be, but in a sense that doesn’t matter, none of that matters… If the Daily Mail sidebar of shame disappears tomorrow, the world will not be a poorer place.”
What matters, as CP Scott said over a century ago, are facts. They are sacred. If The Guardian disappeared tomorrow, the world, regardless of one’s political affiliation, would be recognizably a poorer place. Truth is most often brought to light through debate, and The Guardian cannot be said to be unafraid of debate. The first half of Scott’s quote, ”Comment is free”, is the title given to Rusbridger innovative scheme to expand the panel of Guardian opinion columnists, bringing in a wide variety of voices and embracing diversity across every axis: a more open, multilateral approach to journalism. His vision of the media may not ultimately prove the most profitable, but it is surely the most valuable to society.
“One word of truth,” as Solzhenitsyn declared, “shall outweigh the whole world.” It appears to be a maxim that the owlish Rusbridger, the Fleet Street legend unafraid of costly innovation or government fury, has also adopted.