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Alan Rusbridger - interview

At the end of May, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger is stepping down after twenty years in the job. He interrupted his packing to talk to Ray Snoddy about the highs and lows, the Guardian’s digital trajectory and his abiding passion for journalism.

By Ray Snoddy

Before publishing The Guardian’s explosive Wikileaks and Snowden revelations, the out-going Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger sought a second opinion.

On each occasion, the respected figure, “incredibly wise and a good egg,” from a different political world was asked to come into the editor’s office and spend two hours alone with the material.

“When I come back, just tell me what do you think the public interest is here, and both times he said you have got to publish,” says Rusbridger.

The wise second opinion came from conservative commentator and former editor of The Times, Sir Simon Jenkins.

“It’s an indication of how much I would agonise over these things,” says Rusbridger who admits looking into his shaving mirror at the time and wondering whether he would end up in prison.

“Potentially, if the government wanted to play hardball, as some of them wanted to - if they wanted to throw the book at us - they could have done,” the Guardian editor accepts.

The office overlooking the Regent’s Canal where the quiet drama took place is slowly being packed up. Half the boxes in the corner are boxes that never got unpacked in the first place when The Guardian moved into its new Kings Cross headquarters five years ago.

The rest are being assembled for his departure at the end of this month after twenty years in the editor’s chair.

Cumulatively, he believes, the string of Guardian stories on everything from tax and torture to rendition and phone-hacking and on to Wikileaks and Snowden, adds up to a paper that does what journalism should do and what journalism used to be like.

Right to publish?

It is Wikileaks and Snowden, though, which have caused the greatest controversy and brought the most awards – including the UK newspaper industry’s first Pulitzer prize.

Snowden has, however, been denounced by Sir Max Hastings in the Daily Mail as “an anarchist and a traitor,” and according to the Mail, “those who endorse him are just as dangerous”.

“GCHQ says it totally respects the way The Guardian published this. They say we were incredibly responsible. The only person who doesn’t is Max Hastings and the Daily Mail,” says Rusbridger, who has subsequently been to lunch at both MI5 and MI6 without any sign of animosity though obviously they would have preferred the newspaper hadn’t published.

Stewart Baker, former chief counsel of the National Security Agency in the US, has told The Guardian editor, “we blame Snowden, we don’t blame you”.

Rusbridger adds: “We published a tiny amount of what we got and I think we did it incredibly responsibly; except for one story, we consulted more than 100 times with government.”

The Guardian editor wonders what would have happened if Snowden had rung Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail with the story. Would he have refused to look at the material?

“He’s too much of a journalist to behave like that,” Rusbridger predicts.

If the liberal Guardian and Washington Post had not published, with many safeguards, the likelihood, he believes, is that Snowden would simply have dumped the material on the internet.

If the huge and difficult stories are Rusbridger’s prime legacy at The Guardian, during his tenure there has also been the push into digital, the determination to have an open platform without paywalls, the drive into the US market, and more recently, the attempt to turn loyal readers into members helping to support the journalism of The Guardian and Observer financially.

New revenue streams

You can now sign up for Guardian membership for free, and get access to Guardian events. A partner donates £135 a year and gets discounted tickets, while a patron contributes £540 a year.

The membership scheme was chosen in preference to a more conventional loyalty scheme after research showed it would be a “fantastically powerful proposition” because of the intense loyalty of Guardian readers to the brand – more cause than brand.

The aim is to hold many hundreds of events a year, in conjunction with other organisations such as Birkbeck College, from 2016 in the enormous converted Midland Goods Shed, across the road from the Guardian offices.

“If the number of people sign up that we think will sign up, we will make in excess of £10 million a year profit,” predicts Rusbridger who denies it sounds a bit like shaking a collection tin.

The mix of funds supporting The Guardian has changed in recent years and the organisation already accepts £2 million to £3 million a year from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help fund, under international director Tony Danker, coverage of sustainable development goals in the Third World - coverage that would otherwise not be commercially viable.

Outgoing Guardian Media Group (GMG) chief executive Andrew Miller believes that membership and growth in the American market will be the most important new streams of revenue for the company in future.

Apart from the 20-year stint as editor, the main reason the 61-year-old Rusbridger is leaving now, is that in the summer, Dame Liz Forgan is giving up chairing the Scott Trust, the body that ultimately controls The Guardian and Observer, after eleven years.

Rusbridger will succeed her.

Open platform

Unsurprisingly, the Guardian editor believes that the decision to remain an open platform funded mainly by advertising rather than erecting subscription walls as The Times and The Sunday Times have done, was the right one.

“Honestly, would you rather be read by a tiny number of people or by an enormous number of people and be talked about and be discussed and, of course, it washes into who wants to talk to us,” says Rusbridger.

The Guardian’s open route delivers around six million readers a day – 120 million a month. Total paid sales for The Times is around 537,000 with 54 per cent coming from print and online subscriptions.

No direct comparisons are possible but Rusbridger estimates that The Times is probably losing around the same as The Guardian – in The Guardian’s case an underlying loss of £21.5 million a year.

As he leaves, he will be handing on old dilemmas to the paper’s new editor, the first woman editor in the paper’s 194-year history - Katharine Viner.

Will The Guardian be wholly digital in ten years?

“I don’t know. At the moment, the rate of attrition for all of us is something like seven to ten per cent a year. Ten years of seven to ten per cent a year is quite scary,” Rusbridger acknowledges.

At some point, a computer in the basement may say it’s not worth publishing daily anymore and then you move to weekend or three days a week publishing.

“Instinct tells you the future is going to be digital, so we had better understand and be ready for that. Overwhelmingly the cash comes from papers at the moment so we would be crazy not to do papers,” explains Rusbridger whose tousled hair is starting to show the first streaks of grey.

Funding both digital and paper editions at the same time will remain expensive.

Future of journalism

As he prepares to leave the journalistic front line, it is the future of journalism that most preoccupies him.

“Increasingly, I feel that journalism is all that we’ve got when you look at the things that are supposed to be looking after our interests. Paul Dacre and I would agree on that – journalism is incredibly important,” Rusbridger argues.

Sometimes, journalism takes editors in unexpected directions.

Nick Davies wanted to do what might be a last big investigation into the media and Iraq. Two months later he came back with the phone-hacking story.

“I blanched slightly because I thought, ‘oh shit’. If your reporters bring in stories you believe in and are good then what do you do? You either shit or get off the pot,” Rusbridger explains.

The Guardian editor knew it was all going to be very uncomfortable but decided he had to do it.

“With Nick and phone-hacking, I didn’t think ‘terrific’, here’s an AK47; I can declare war on Fleet Street. I don’t like Fleet Street fractured and a lot of the consequences of all of that. You just follow the story if it takes you there,” he says.

Apart from chairing the Scott Trust, Rusbridger, who wrote Play It Again about his attempts as an amateur pianist to master Chopin’s challenging Ballade No 1, will become Principal of Oxford University’s Lady Margaret Hall.

He will also be writing more – for anyone who asks him.

“I have a half-formed idea of something in my mind about journalism and what journalism can do – about journalism in general as it becomes more beleaguered and threatened and the economic model becomes harder,” says Rusbridger who got a standard rejection letter the first time he applied for a reporting job at The Guardian.

He waited a while and applied again.

“I think we have to work harder to explain what it (journalism) is and why it matters and that what it does matters,” he adds.

The out-going editor is optimistic about the future of The Guardian, not least because the GMG is expected to raise around £800 million from the sale, for ethical and financial reasons, of its investments in fossil fuels.

More generally, he is concerned that the pool of people doing really tough investigative journalism in the UK is not expanding and many are of a certain age.

“I think there are lots of reasons to be excited but also lots of reasons to be a bit gloomy,” the Guardian editor confides.

“When I go to talk to journalism students, I mean it when I say, journalism is there to be reinvented, that there are incredibly exciting things about being a journalist today - but the economic bit is still terribly uncertain,” concludes Alan Rusbridger.