Journalists are struggling to find their place following a “massive shift of power” away from newspapers and into the hands of the smartphone-carrying public, according to former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger.
Speaking at a Guardian Live event last night marking the launch of his new book, Breaking News: The Remaking Of Journalism And Why It Matters Now, Rusbridger said prior to the digital revolution newspapers “almost handed down news”.
“Now 4bn people can talk to each other and everything is moving on a horizontal plane,” he said, pointing to this “gigantic revolution” as the “biggest issue” facing journalism and society more broadly.
He said: “There’s a massive shift of power and I think lots of journalists, quite understandably, can’t understand how to insert themselves into it.
“We are ten minutes into this revolution and people want a final word, but there is no final word and this book doesn’t give one.”
Rusbridger, who stepped down as Guardian editor in 2015 after 20 years in the role, said that while it was “easy to be condescending” about the likes of Facebook and Twitter, “in some ways they are ahead of us” in the news industry.
“It’s going to take years, decades, before this new democracy of information sorts itself out but I just think at this stage it doesn’t help to say it’s all gone wrong or it’s all wonderful – it’s more complicated than that,” he told the audience at Kings Place, London.
He added that newspapers were no longer up against each other, but against Facebook and Google.
Rusbridger resigned as chairman of the Scott’s Trust, the owners of Guardian Media Group, in 2016 following pressure from his successor as editor, Kath Viner, and GMG chief executive David Pemsell.
He said in his new vocation as an academic, based at Oxford University, he and “some very clever people” occasionally got together to “gnaw on the bone” of the regulation of tech giants such as Facebook and Google – even inviting the former for discussions.
“The problem is obvious – it’s one of scale,” he said.
“Can you imagine how it would work in terms of regulation… or how a company could possibly pre-moderate or eve post-moderate a billion pieces of content… for me it’s impossible.
“When I met Facebook my sense of them – and God bless Carole Cadwalladr for holding them to account, and clearly this is a company that has grown so fast – I get the sense that it’s a company that’s now quite scared and wants to do the right thing.
“But [it] still wants to find the right technical answers because it doesn’t think human regulators could possibly deal with the problem – and I think we need to give them time.”
But, he went on: “I wish [the tech giants] would take more responsibility.
“I wish they would talk to journalists more about sorting truth from untruth. I think they are powerful and arrogant and unsociable in their responsibilities towards stories.”
Rusbridger warned that if journalism was to survive in an era where news publishers are losing money, selling fewer papers and battling for digital ad revenue with the likes of Facebook, then “journalism has to be better”.
He added: “There is so much awful rubbish out there.”
He said there “has to be a Plan B” when it comes to a sustainable model for journalism.
“As journalists what we do is in the public interest and I think that’s the only rational case that we can make – and if it turns out the market won’t pay for that then what’s plan B?”
“There will be constant new models” to make journalism sustainable, he said. “Everything is going to reinvent itself every six months and no one has any idea where the story is going to end.”
He reiterated the Guardian’s stance on not putting up a paywall around its online content, relying instead on donations from members to sustain it.
Rusbridger said a paywall “puts your information into a gated community of truth and thereby leave the playing field open to anybody who wants to squirt any kind of trash onto it – that leads to a very polarised society”.
He said: “The act of putting something behind a paywall has consequences.
“I’m delighted that the Guardian keeps it open and that the readers put their hands in their pockets not only to access the information themselves but so that the world art large can have access to the Guardian’s fabulous journalism and read it.”
He added: “The Guardian is unique because it hasn’t had a proprietor since 1932 and there’s a real sense that the readers own the paper.
“We did flirt with the idea of mutualising the Guardian and turning it into a mutual company in a real significant sense in which the readers did own it. I think there’s a passion with Guardian readers that makes that membership work.
“I don’t think it would work at the Daily Mail – that’s not a cheap shot.”
Rusbridger seemed to mirror some of the proposals made by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in his speech about the media last month, by saying newspapers could turn themselves into “foundations or social enterprises”.
Rusbridger said of Corbyn’s proposed “big ideas” for the media that he was “very good on concentration of papers’ ownership and the BBC” but failed to “look at the problems that the current media face”.
On concerns around trust in news organisations that have surfaced with the rise of so-called “fake news”, Rusbridger said that “we have to think hard about how we are going to win back that trust”.
Rusbridger was critical of Leave-supporting press coverage of Brexit.
“The British press said this is a really easy decision and this is what we think and we aren’t going to tell you much about the other side of it,” he said.
“Is that really what journalism is? I do criticise the [Daily] Mail because the Mail was [obsessive] about getting us out of Europe and suppressed most of the arguments that are now bubbling up and raging in their complexity.”
He described the Daily Mail as the “panzer division of the Brexiteers” and said Remainer Geordie Greig’s appointment as the paper’s new editor was “potentially very significant”.
“It’s going to be interesting to watch Geordie turn that tank around because I can’t see he will want to keep that paper [supporting Brexit],” he said.
Greig began his new role at the newspaper this week, having left as editor of the Mail on Sunday in summer. Tomorrow’s Daily Mail is understood to be the first to print under his editorship.
Said Rusbridger: “I think the Mail on Sunday was a very decent, civilised paper… I think Greig brought that Remainer alternative to the Daily Mail. I went back and read of his editorials on Brexit and a lot of them could have come from the Guardian.”
On the phone hacking scandal, uncovered by the Guardian’s Nick Davies – who joined the newspaper on the same day as Rusbridger – the former editor said he would have “terrifying conversations about what is happening” with Davies, who was being fed by sources within what was then News International (now News UK).
“If you have got a brilliant reporter who is doing incredible work in the public interest and as an editor you aren’t prepared to back it, you shouldn’t be doing your job,” he said.
As a result of the coverage, Rupert Murdoch closed down the News of the World Sunday newspaper and famously appeared before MPs.
“It was the most dramatic two weeks of my life,” said Rusbridger. “I couldn’t believe that Murdoch closed the News of the World. I think it was a panicked move that he regretted later. It was a period of huge drama.”
He said during that period he had private conversations with senior editorial staff from rival newspapers “where threats were made” over the phone hacking coverage.
“They didn’t like being covered,” he said. “They thought it was bad form. It was a belligerent industry over the last ten years and I think there was a resentment that the Guardian didn’t play by the rules.”
But it was the leaked US military files on state surveillance leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden that was “easily the toughest” story he ran in his two decades as Guardian editor.
“We all realised we were going to have to be as good as any of us could be at any time in our careers to do it,” he said. “In a way it was a horribly tough and worrying story to do, but I think we did it well.”
The Guardian is now on track to break even financially next April. When Rusbridger was editor it was facing a financial crisis that saw it sell off car magazine Autotrader.
“These were make-or-break moments,” he revealed. “It was a really scary revolution and there were some horrible moments in it in which it was not at all clear which way to turn.”
He said of the decision to go from a broadsheet to a Berliner paper format in 2005, that the Guardian could not have gone tabloid because it had “so much advertising” that it would have run to 220 pages.
“At the time it seemed like a life or death decision,” said Rusbridger.
Picture: Reuters/Luke MacGregor