We live in a revolutionary era where technology enables everyone to publish, and this calls for a redefined role for newspapers, says Alan Rusbridger, Editor of The Guardian. In an interview, he covered a wide range of subjects, ranging from reader engagement and core values of journalism, to free speech, defamation, the rise of mobile devices and the Wikileaks phenomenon.
You have been speaking about mutualisation of the newspaper, and you explained how it makes sense to involve readers, many of whom have expertise in subjects. But traditionally, were we not listening to readers, have not newspapers been doing their job as sensitive institutions in society? What has changed now?
I think it is going further. It is technology. Because the readers now have the ability to publish and link up. And I think in all this we have to make a judgment about whether essentially our role stays the stays the same. You are right to say that the best newspapers have listened to their readers and drawn upon their expertise. But the realm of newspapers is shrinking and all this energy is being created elsewhere and I think it is a real life or death position for newspapers as to whether they essentially ignore all that or whether you have to redefine the role of the newspapers to encourage it to come inside with what they are doing.
The example that I gave the other day of the Huffington Post, the American newspapers thought when the Huffington Post started, thought it was a bit silly, that it was Ariana Huffington on a kind of ego trip, and very soon, the Huffington Post was getting more hits than many American newspapers. And that is where the centre of the debate went because lots of people could take part. Whereas the papers were still saying we will publish our six pieces a day.
You got one model which was going like that, becoming ever more popular and the other model staying flat. So you have the decision to make. You can say, that is not what were are going to do, or you can say that is something new and important here which we have to look at. At the moment I am more interested in the something important here.
I may be going a little too far in what I am saying. Essentially it comes down to this period that we are living through, which I think is a real revolution. And it is your best judgment whether newspapers could afford to stand apart from this revolution or want to be part of it.
You mentioned in your speech at the WAN-IFRA India conference in Jaipur about using social media like Twitter to involve readers. But how do you guard against spin?
That is where our judgment comes. In all of this I am not underplaying the expertise of journalists or what we do. So I think we use Twitter like we use any other source. We should not take Twitter to be representative of the public at large. This is an interesting, extra dimension to information. We will use it as a source, it is an imperfect source like all other sources, but a very useful source and a very useful journalistic tool.
Does mutualisation and reader participation require a mature democracy to work? Our experience with the Right to Information Act shows people have come to grief after using the law.
I have to qualify everything that I am saying, it should not appear to be arrogant in telling other people how to work. I sat through a very interesting session in Jaipur where a number of editors were confident about the role of traditional media. But I think, there are two things, one is this issue of identities, there is this burning debate of whether people should be allowed to be anonymous. You could say that some forms of new media, which thrive on anonymity or pseudonymity are ways of getting around repressive states or governments or organisations, because you can say things under protection of anonymity. Now that is good and bad, it has dangers. And the most repressive states like China are learning how to get around that. There is also something about places like Twitter, where there is kind of safety in numbers, so you get people swarming all over a subject. And that is somehow a more protective space than one whistleblower or person standing up.
Are newspapers exceptional? The Guardian has its own identity. In today’s world, how do you carve out your identity?
One of the obvious things that people keep saying, at least in the developed world, is this business about commoditised news. That is one element. If you are thinking, and this is related to money, along old models, that we can charge for what we do, then you have to work out what it is that you do that no one else is doing. I use the example of a plane crashing in Holland. Always in the past, we would have sent a journalist to the site. Actually, you are not adding much to what is not available, or widely known. I think in this new world, you have to make very stark decisions about what you are going to do, and what you are not going to do. This phrase commoditised news, which is news that is everywhere and is always going to be freely available, I don’t think people will pay for. But that is a large part of what we do. So we ought not to spend our efforts doing that, we ought to spend our efforts on what we alone can do. So investigative reporting becomes more important, informed commentary and analysis becomes important, finding out things which are difficult to find out, and which require, again, the skills that we have becomes more important. Expert analysis helping you to understand the significance of things, and we ought to use the information that is out there now, and very widely available, and become aggregators, and analysers of the information. We ought to build on the brands that we have, while we have them. Great titles like The Hindu and The Guardian, which still stand for something and are a kind of viewpoint or set of values and I think it is important that we use that brand, and that community of readers who understand and want to be a part of that community. But I think it means concentrating more on what we alone can do.
In the UK, over the last 20 years, because the advertising is there, there was a huge explosion of feature journalism, about food, about fashion, about lifestyle. It was lovely to view, it made our papers more interesting. But in the end, it may be that that is not the thing that we do best, other people can do that as well. In the end, we are driven to think, there is probably an old fashioned answer. We are talking about The Guardian. As the pressure on costs counted, you have to look around the whole media universe. Don’t just think about newspapers, because you look outside newspapers, and actually people are doing a lot of the things that we alone used to do and are doing that perfectly well. To what extent, when a newspaper hits a browser, should we carry on as if nothing has changed. We still do everything because that’s what we used to do. So some of the things that you used to find in the newspaper, you don’t.
In a way, that sounds like a contradiction – a niche mainstream newspaper.
When we launched The Guardian on the web in 1998, we did go for niches. We thought there were some things that we do particularly well and that we were going to concentrate [on them].
That was undoubtedly right. The papers that did less well were the papers that said we will do all the things we do and we will put it all out there. I think you should start concentrating on the things you think are most important and what your readers most want you to do.
So what does this mean in the context of The Guardian?
Politics. International coverage, because not many people are going to be doing that. Economics. Technology. The Environment, Culture.
So it is pretty much what makes up the main body of the newspaper as opposed to its supplements?
A year ago we decided the environment was the biggest story of our lives. So we have six reporters doing the environment – one in China, one in America and four in the U.K. And then we built a network of environmental sites. We aggregated and became part of a network, with about 20 or 30 sites. A huge amount of editing and resources goes into the environment. That’s like saying, almost regardless of revenue, its going to be such an important subject. And that as a newspaper, this is what we ought to care about. If you are going to do the environment with one correspondent, you are not going to make yourself distinct.
You said somewhere let’s not focus on business models on the Internet but focus on what we do best – or what we can do. Is this because there are simply no good business models at the moment?
What I am really saying is, ‘What do you want at the start of your thinking to be?’ If what you want is revenue now, that will lead you in one direction. If you say, let’s think about the journalism because it’s the journalism that’s changing most rapidly, that may be a wholly different direction.
It’s such a profound revolution we are going through, it is unlikely that any of us get the answers right now. If you take a major decision – like we are going to come off Google, because it’s taking our money, or that we are going to put a big wall around our newspapers – it’s driven by business concerns. That we want money back now. That we want people to pay for us.
That may be the wrong answer journalistically. Journalists working with some newspapers with paywalls are not very happy. Because very few people are reading what they are doing and their influence goes down. At the same time, you only get a modest increase in revenue.
So, what’s more important in the long term is the larger audience, and the influence. In which case, the ultimate business model will lie there. If we stop thinking what does this [a business model] mean for journalism, then we are sunk in the long run.
If you believe there is a revolution going everywhere else in information and you take a decision early on to cut yourself off from that, then it’s difficult to see how you can experiment in future. My suspicion is that in the next 10 years, the most extraordinary things will happen in terms of information, how we find it, how we search for it, how we present it. And I want to be as open as possible to all that.
At some point of course, you have to start taking hard-nosed business decisions. But a lot of these things are questions of timing.
You have spoken about the growing role of mobiles. Can you elaborate?
Again, if you talk outside newspapers, there is a real explosion in consumption of information, whether it is mobile phones or iPads. There is going to be a lot more devices like iPads coming to market in the next few years. It is one of the things that goes just like that. I interviewed Eric Schmidt about three months ago. He was unequivocal that mobile is going to be where it is. We just had our head of technology spend a month in California and he came back with the same message. Stop the web. You don't need to do any more development on the web, just put all your effort into mobile. So, again, it is wrong for newspapers to imagine that what applies to everyone else does not apply to us. There is an urgent message there, that we ought to be developing journalistic ideas that fit to mobile.
There is the question of revenues...
Mobile is where most people think the revenues are much easier to get. Because the web had 20 years of being free, it is hard to imagine that you are going to get much money out of that. The mechanism to pay through mobiles is already there and people are already used to it. The charging mechanisms are there and quite easy.
Incredibly basic things on mobiles, like the location device on mobiles. What does that mean for journalism. In terms of sending news and distributing and the possibilities for complete individualisation. We are just beginning to think about that.
How does all this need for speed, for user-generated content, how does that square up with old-fashioned journalistic values?
There are several answers. One answer is that the most accurate journalists are usually the ones that work in news agencies. There is no tension between speed and accuracy. There shouldn't be. There is a new form of journalism which is more iterative and tentative than the old form. If you get it out of your head that all the time we are always saying all the time this is the truth and nothing but the truth and a more tentative frame. This is what I am interested in, you have to help me with this, this is what I know, what do you know, then you get into a continuum, as opposed to a story that stops at a particular time. You have a more fluid way of telling stories. A third answer is, you continue writing, and by implication we don't want to just do this. There is a great value to investigations and in analyses. I am not coming out with one answer. I am just saying if you ignore the speed bit and the fluidity bit and just say all we do is long form journalism, then that is probably not good enough.
You recently wrote an article highlighting how plaintiff-friendly Britain’s defamations laws are. Expressions such as ‘libel tourism’ have been coined to describe the phenomenon of people preferring to file cases in Britain rather than in their own countries. How much of an effect does this have on suppressing the functioning of the media? Would you prefer an American-like legal system when it comes to defamation instead?
I think there are problems with the American system, which essentially concentrates on whether you are a public figure or not. It’s better than the system we’ve got, but it has got problems of its own. It particularly has problems when you deal with the privacy bit of the argument as well. So if you are saying it is open season to write anything about politicians, that’s problematic.
You have to introduce a public interest test somewhere. Is the information in the public interest? Is it of public importance? Make that the test. If it is, then you want some kind of Sullivan-type protection. If the importance of the subject is high and you can show that you have behaved responsibly as a journalist, that you will have some protection even if you have got some things wrong. So, it’s a slightly different approach from the American approach.
There is a bill in the early stages of Parliament…
No, it’s actually a defamation bill. Privacy is being treated completely separately. At the moment, the big controversy in Britain is that newspapers are complaining that the courts are developing a privacy law on their own, and that Parliament has never debated this, and that this is happening by the back door.
But some MPs have spoken in favour of a privacy law.
Lots of people, especially politicians, are quite sympathetic to a privacy law. But no one has actually attempted to introduce one.
The way the law being developed on defamation and privacy are different. The defamation bill is being developed by Parliament, which if it goes through, I think will be an improvement.
Parliament doesn’t want to consider privacy. So it is being developed in courts, partly as a result of the European human rights Act [European Convention on Human Rights]. Article 8 says there is a right to privacy and you can go to court and say, ‘he wants to write about my personal life, you’ve got to stop it.’ At the moment, there are quite a lot of cases where the judges tend to say, ‘yes that is private and not in the public interest.’
There have been cases of prior restraint on publication…
Well in the last few months, there have been quite a few injunctions stopping tabloids from writing whether about footballers or wealthy people. The newspapers are saying but these are offences against morality and if they are going to behave immorally, then the courts shouldn’t be protecting them.
What’s happening in the last few weeks is that newspapers – mainly tabloid newspapers because by and large broadsheet newspapers do not write about people’s private lives – have begun to say it’s not good enough to let the judges make this law on their own. That if we are going to have a privacy law, then for heaven’s sake let us discuss it openly in Parliament.
The most visible case in the media sphere is that of Wikileaks, in which your paper played an important part. Do you think it will be done again? Would taking on the Establishment on such a massive scale lead to a crackdown?
This man Julian Assange received all this information from a source, and one of our reporters noticed a small paragraph about this and he tracked him (Assange) down and reached an agreement with him that he was going to publish all this material on Afghanistan anyway, and that there was a role for the press here to contextualise it. We spent a month going through it line by line and we published about 15 stories on the back of it. What Assange did was to just publish the whole lot. We did with the New York Times and Der Spiegel. I think it has implications for security, the State organisations and the military have to ask themselves whether it is possible to keep anything secret in an era when anything could be copied on to a USB stick. It begs questions of organisations like Wikileaks, which are whistleblower organisations, I think if they were to do it again, I think they would have thought more carefully about whether they should have redacted some of that. It shows the difference between the value of the press. We were able to bring to bear with people who had lot of experience in Afghanistan, with so much information, hundreds of thousands of documents, we can help make sense of this. In a sense, while being a very modern story about how information is so porous and leaks, and technology is so amazingly new, in the end it also proves the value of newspapers that we were able to take readers into what the essential point was. There may be more to come, but I don't want to say too much about that.
Can the Establishment place filters to prevent such information from going around the world?
I can give two different answers. This organisation Wikileaks itself. The Establishment has found it very difficult to deal with Wikileaks. That is because Assange is a very clever man, he has a kind of hacker mentality. He has built this very dispersed system whereby it seems virtually impossible for states or lawyers to clamp down on the information. This is not to say it can never be done, as I said earlier, the Chinese government is very good at it and it is willing to sell its technology to others. With the Afghan war logs, the Establishment including the White House, the Pentagon and the British government acted in a mature way and said there was no point in trying to get the newspapers, and the newspapers had acted responsibly. They looked at what we had done, presented it very moderately and explained the significance. They would rather have the newspapers doing that than this anarchist out there, unable to control at all. I would not like to be complacent about it, because if it all happened again, I am not saying that the governments will all behave exactly the same way.
There is this thesis, that neo-liberal economics, as it spreads and gives people material prosperity, also leads to a deficit of some freedoms such as freedom of speech. What is your comment?
I think it is worrying. There are all kinds of trends in this direction. In America and the UK, it has been about security and terrorism, since 9/11 the public have really been asked to accept a trade-off, in which they give up a lot of freedoms in return for security. The concentration has not so much been so much yet on clampdowns down on free speech, though they have passed the enabling legislation to do that. The PATRIOT Act in America is potentially very threatening to journalists. The prevention of terrorism and Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act are very potent pieces of legislation which would enable the State to inquire into sources. In the west, the potential for repression is there but it has not been used very much yet. But there are the examples of Singapore and other places of the Far East where it has been used. There is the example of China, where The Guardian's website was closed down. They have created the potential, quite frightening, to monitor and censor people which I understand they are now offering to other governments. You can see governments like Russia and Saudi Arabia who say they are very interested in those tools.
How can newspapers insulate themselves against market pressures and revenues from advertising ? Is there a particular model that you would advocate?
You have to be robust in your relationship with advertisers. There was a great phrase, in Francis Williams book in the 1950s. He studied the press and wrote that it was advertising that set the press free, originally. Up to that point governments were paying for newspapers and taking advertising liberated the press. It would be dangerous now if we became so reliant on advertisers that we began to lose the freedom that it had given us. It is very important that in our quest for economic stability, that we don't start entering into relationships with advertisers which would compromise us. The answer is always transparency. If you can do things and be completely transparent about what you are doing and why you are doing it, then readers can make their own decisions about whether you are being compromised.
When you talk of transparency, is it about differentiating editorial from advertising?
It is differentiating, but also, if you are getting into paid editorial, private treaties, it is important that the reader knows what is going on. If you want to have sponsored supplements, or paid news, it is a deception on the reader unless you announce somewhere in the newspaper that this is what you are getting. Otherwise it undermines the independence of what we do. The moment you do that, the value of what we do is destroyed. In other words, this is another one of those short-term decisions. Which is to say, do you want money now, or is it more important that we keep the integrity of what we do, because that is the only thing we have to sell in the long term.
Does The Guardian's trust model have a lesson for others?
It has been a very good model for The Guardian. Ten years ago I was invited to go to America a lot and asked to talk about The Guardian's trust model. I used to say it is a fantastic thing, it began by the owners giving away the paper. At that point people would switch off, because that was never going to happen. But the value of media properties in the west has declined to the point where some owners would be prepared to give away the newspaper or take a modest amount for the sale of it. It could then be nestled into a kind of trust with the money. If you are going to do it, you need to do it when the newspaper still has some value and revenues. The Guardian found revenues outside newspapers. It is the difference between the New York Times, which put a lot of money into the Boston Globe, which was the wrong thing to do, because it is just another newspaper which then needs support. They would have been better off putting up the money into a car park business or a hotel. And then saying here is the New York Times which is going to be run like a trust, and we will invest all this money and transfer the profits into the newspaper. That is what we have done at The Guardian. It is especially valuable at a time when as in the west the newspapers are struggling to be profitable. During this revolution that I keep talking about, it is likely that some kind of subsidy model is going to be what we need. It could be a public subsidy like the BBC, or a private subsidy from an individual like Rupert Murdoch, or it can be a company that can be a trust like The Guardian or it could be a company like Pearson which has used its money from its publishing business or the Washington Post which has money from an educational business. There are lots of different models, but it is prudent to expect that at some point in the future – my guess is that Indian newspapers will face this too – there will be a need for subsidy.
Finally, what are your thoughts on core values for journalism?
The worth we have always associated with journalism, like integrity, trust and ethical standards, verification, fairness, finding things out, all these are going to be values in the future. Being the fourth estate, being separate from the other bits of government and commerce is vital. All those values are there. I think there is another bit which has entered the picture. Which is, the public itself. If we establish the right relationship with our readers, we can create something which enhances our journalism and enables us to go on doing things that we need to. There is never going to be any less need for what we do. I am not denigrating the value of journalism. I am saying there is great need for what we do, but let us be alert to how to do this better by harnessing the technology and the abilities of people to help us do it.
Click here to read the abridged version of this interview that was published in the print edition of The Hindu.