Who broke the news?

Alan Rus­bridger, former editor-in-chief of the Guardian, looks back at two decades of chal­lenge and dis­rup­tion

The Guardian Weekly - - Eyewitnessed -

By early 2017 the world had wo­ken up to a prob­lem that, with a mix­ture of im­po­tence, in­com­pre­hen­sion and dread, jour­nal­ists had seen com­ing for some time. News, the thing that helped peo­ple un­der­stand their world, that oiled the wheels of so­ci­ety, that pol­li­nated com­mu­ni­ties, that kept the pow­er­ful hon­est – news was bro­ken.

The prob­lem had many dif­fer­ent names and di­ag­noses. Some thought we were drown­ing in too much news; others feared we were in dan­ger of be­com­ing news­less. Some be­lieved we had too much free news; others, that paid-for news was leav­ing be­hind it a long car­a­van of ig­no­rance.

On this most peo­ple could agree: we were now up to our necks in a seething, ever churn­ing ocean of in­for­ma­tion, some of it true, much of it wrong. There was too much false news, not enough re­li­able news. There might soon be en­tire com­mu­ni­ties with­out news, or with­out news they could trust.

How did we get here? And how could we get back to where we once be­longed?

For 20 years I edited a news­pa­per in the throes of this tu­mul­tuous rev­o­lu­tion. The paper I took over in 1995 was com­posed of words printed on newsprint in­volv­ing tech­nolo­gies that had changed lit­tle since Vic­to­rian times. It was, in many ways, a ver­ti­cally ar­ranged world. We – the or­gans of in­for­ma­tion – owned print­ing presses and, with them, the exclusive power to hand down the news we had gath­ered. The read­ers handed up the money – and so did ad­ver­tis­ers, who had few other ways of reach­ing our au­di­ence. But to­day ad­ver­tis­ers can of­ten reach con­sumers much more ef­fec­tively through other chan­nels. Peo­ple are much more re­luc­tant to part with money for news. And, how­ever you mea­sure it, there is wide­spread scep­ti­cism, con­fu­sion and mis­trust about main­stream jour­nal­ism.

A few years af­ter I be­came editor of the Guardian, I was in­vited to give an af­ter-din­ner speech at the Thirty Club – a pri­vate gath­er­ing of big com­mer­cial cheeses in the ad­ver­tis­ing and me­dia worlds. It was March 2003 – three years be­fore the launch of Twit­ter and the cre­ation of the Face­book “news feed”, be­fore the col­lapse of the eco­nomic model that had un­der­pinned jour­nal­ism for a cen­tury.

The sub­ject of my speech was trust – and the truly abysmal rat­ings news­pa­pers had in that depart­ment. De­pend­ing on the poll and the year, we were lucky if 13%-18% of the pop­u­la­tion trusted news­pa­pers.

As I stood up to speak, I was very con­scious of the con­tin­gent from News In­ter­na­tional across the table. Les Hin­ton, the ami­able if faintly men­ac­ing ex­ec­u­tive chair­man of Rupert Mur­doch’s news­pa­per group, was sit­ting right op­po­site me, flanked by Re­bekah Brooks, editor of the Sun, and Andy Coul­son, editor of the News of the World. I tried to avoid catch­ing my col­leagues’ eyes as I noted that the tabloids sold most, but were trusted least.

I likened Bri­tish jour­nal­ists to fans of Mill­wall foot­ball club, who fa­mously chant “No one likes us, we don’t care.” I knew what Coul­son and Brooks were think­ing: we’re in for a pi­ous ser­mon from some­one who can barely make a profit and whose sales are em­bar­rass­ingly small. I could hear the ri­tual jibe from Piers Mor­gan, then editor of the Mir­ror, ev­ery time he saw me: “I sell more copies in Corn­wall than you do in the en­tire coun­try.”

I waf­fled on more about trust; how we’d lost it; how to earn it back; why it would mat­ter so much more in the dig­i­tal world. It was, even if true, wor­thy stuff. Af­ter­wards, the three Mur­doch col­leagues were very friendly. They sug­gested we go on to a club; we ended up drink­ing in Soho House till the early hours. The cham­pagne’s on them. The speech is not men­tioned. The even­ing is fun. Brooks and Coul­son are good com­pany. Hin­ton is full of seen-itall bon­homie. Deep down, we’re all hacks to­gether.

Cut to 11 years later: Coul­son was in jail, Hin­ton had re­signed and Brooks had suf­fered the or­deal of a nerve-shred­ding trial at the Old Bai­ley – all be­cause of re­port­ing in the Guardian. That night in Soho House now feels like a lost world of Fleet Street in­no­cence. A funny word – “in­no­cence” – to use about Fleet Street. But we were cer­tainly all in­no­cent of what was to come – in vir­tu­ally ev­ery way pos­si­ble.

In 1976, when I be­gan my ca­reer as a jour­nal­ist, the com­mon route into the busi­ness was be­ing thrown into the news­room of a lo­cal paper to learn on the job. A week af­ter fin­ish­ing my fi­nals, I swapped my univer­sity col­lege – founded in 1428 – for the pro­saic 1960s of­fices of the Cam­bridge Even­ing News, a mile to the east. There were not many grad­u­ates in the 20-strong re­port­ing room of the CEN, a paper then sell­ing just fewer than 50,000 copies a day. Univer­sity types were – rightly – viewed with sus­pi­cion as ar­ro­gant in­ter­lop­ers who would trade the ex­pe­ri­ence we gained in the prov­inces to se­cure a bet­ter-paid job in Fleet Street.

The paper was owned by one Lord Iliffe of Yat­ten­don, a largely ab­sent fig­ure who owned a 9,000acre es­tate 100 miles away in Berk­shire. More im­por­tant to me was Ful­ton Gillespie, the chief re­porter, known as Jock – a growl­ing, sil­ver-haired Glaswe­gian with dark glasses and the stub of a cigar per­ma­nently lodged be­tween bearded lips.

Jock saw it as his duty to school us in hard knocks. We would be­gin the day with the calls – a round trip to the po­lice, am­bu­lance and fire ser­vices. As we set off in the of­fice Mini, he would de­liver one of a small reper­toire of hom­i­lies about our craft. “If you write for dukes, only dukes will un­der­stand, but if you write for the dust­man, both will un­der­stand. Keep it short, keep it sim­ple, write it in lan­guage you would use if you were telling your mum or dad.”

He ex­plained that po­lice work in­volved keep­ing one foot on the pave­ment and one in the gut­ter. You got their re­spect by kick­ing them in the balls at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals, be­cause, in the long run, they needed us more than we needed them. That, he em­pha­sised, was a good rule ap­pli­ca­ble to all those in au­thor­ity. It had been ham­mered into him by the old hacks on the Falkirk Her­ald, and it would al­ways be true. He re­peated this of­ten in case I had failed to grasp it: they needed us more than we needed them. We owned the print­ing presses; they didn’t. End of.

Around the same time, I learned a more per­sonal les­son in the ways and ob­ses­sions of the press. While I was a young re­porter on the CEN, I fell in love. The re­la­tion­ship lasted just un­der two years. I was a cub re­porter, she was a univer­sity lec­turer. No­bod­ies. The re­la­tion­ship caused some hap­pi­ness, and some un­hap­pi­ness to a few peo­ple – lit­er­ally, no more than half a dozen ei­ther way. End of story. Well, al­most – her late fa­ther had, some years ear­lier, been on the telly. So you could, at a stretch, make a con­sum­able tale out of it: “Daugh­ter of quite fa­mous man has af­fair.”

One Fri­day night, there was a knock on the door. A re­porter and pho­tog­ra­pher from the Sun­day Mir­ror wanted to tell the “story of our love”, as he put it, to the 4 mil­lion

read­ers who then bought the news­pa­per ev­ery week. The re­porter, a man called Richard, was charm­ing, but when we po­litely de­clined the op­por­tu­nity to in­vite him in, Richard’s tone changed. “We can do this nice or we can do it nasty,” he said abruptly, and then ex­plained what nice and nasty looked like. Nice was for us to sit down on the sofa and tell the world about our love, and be por­trayed in a sym­pa­thetic way. Nasty meant they would start knock­ing on the doors of neigh­bours and con­tact­ing our rel­a­tives to put to­gether a story that would be al­to­gether less heart­warm­ing.

It was a good pitch. All the same, we felt this was, well, pri­vate. We were liv­ing to­gether openly, and made no at­tempt to hide our re­la­tion­ship from friends or fam­ily. But we had no wish to tell the whole world. So we said no.

Richard and his pho­tog­ra­pher sat out­side the house for another 24 hours. From time to time he would lean on the door­bell to test whether we had changed our minds. A week later, the pair reap­peared to try again. Even­tu­ally we asked them in for a cup of tea, and I sug­gested I might ring Richard’s news editor to ex­plain that we wouldn’t be talk­ing. That seemed to do the trick. The story – nice or nasty – never saw the light of day.

My life at that point had been learn­ing to re­port coun­cils, courts, freak weather and flower shows. That was what I un­der­stood jour­nal­ism to be – a record of pub­lic events of vary­ing de­grees of sig­nif­i­cance. The ring on the door­bell was my first, sharp re­al­i­sa­tion that jour­nal­ism meant many dif­fer­ent things to many dif­fer­ent peo­ple. And there were many dif­fer­ent busi­ness mod­els for “jour­nal­ism”.

Ijoined the Guardian in 1979, on the same day as Nick Davies, who went on to be­come one of the most fear­less and pro­lific in­ves­tiga­tive re­porters of his gen­er­a­tion. Our paths in­ter­sected for 35 years – his as a re­porter, mine as an editor. When he came to see me in 2005 to pro­pose that he would close his ca­reer by writ­ing one last big series about power – specif­i­cally, the unchecked power of the press – I knew it would lead some­where dif­fi­cult. Nick was a heat-seek­ing mis­sile. If he spent the next year dig­ging, you could guar­an­tee he would come up with some­thing ex­tra­or­di­nary. He al­ways did.

The germ of the idea had come from the Iraq war and the press’s role in aid­ing and abet­ting a con­flict based on what now we would call fake news. But the elders of Fleet Street did not ap­pre­ci­ate the dili­gent at­ten­tion of in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism when it was turned upon them. On the Guardian we had long pub­lished a Mon­day me­dia sec­tion – and, lat­terly, a me­dia web­site. Over time, I was threat­ened by not quite ev­ery pub­lisher or editor in Lon­don, but a good many of them.

Editor 1: “I’ll al­ways re­tal­i­ate. We should be stick­ing to­gether, not writ­ing about each other.”

Editor 2: “My cir­cu­la­tion is three times yours. You write about me, I’ll write about you. In the end you’ll stop.”

Editor 3: “I hate writ­ing about the me­dia, but I make an ex­cep­tion for the Guardian.”

Pub­lisher 1: “We’ve both got ink wells, Alan. Remember that.”

Pub­lisher 2: “I’ll re­lease the hounds of hell on you. You have to stop writ­ing about us.”

Some tried for bi­lat­eral deals: “You don’t write about us, we won’t write about you.” In gen­eral, they were as good as their word. If the Guardian up­set a ri­val editor or pub­lisher, you could guar­an­tee a form of retri­bu­tion within days. It could be a snide di­ary para­graph or a threat to dig up dirt on Guardian em­ploy­ees’ pri­vate lives – in­clud­ing mine. It could be a hatchet job about “trou­bles” at the paper. Some­times these sto­ries had a grain of truth, at other times they were sim­ply in­vented. At first I was shocked that even broad­sheet ri­vals would know­ingly run un­true sto­ries about us in “re­venge”. Af­ter a while I un­der­stood that we were all sup­posed to see this as the great game.

I had no idea what Nick would dis­cover, but nor did it feel right that the Fleet Street elders should get their wish that their jour­nal­ism should be a cov­er­age-free zone. If jour­nal­ism is a force of im­mense in­flu­ence – and I think it is, and should be – then it surely de­serves scru­tiny.

In­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism of this sort is very slow, ex­pen­sive, and some­times yields very lit­tle di­rect re­turn. No man­age­ment con­sul­tant on earth would con­clude that it rep­re­sents a sen­si­ble in­vest­ment of time or re­sources: a news­room run strictly on met­rics could never jus­tify it. Big in­ves­ti­ga­tions (Water­gate, for ex­am­ple) of­ten work via the in­cre­men­tal dis­clo­sures of some­times not very head­line­grab­bing ma­te­rial. The read­er­ship for each of the smaller nu­mer­ous sto­ries along the way would be barely mea­sur­able. The great editor Harold Evans used to say that an in­ves­ti­ga­tion only re­ally be­gan to count once the read­ers – and even the jour­nal­ists – were bored with it.

So how to jus­tify ob­ses­sive re­port­ing that has no ap­par­ent fi­nan­cial ra­tio­nale, and may even be of lit­tle in­ter­est to the read­ers? The an­swer to this ques­tion is cen­tral to the idea of a news­pa­per. If jour­nal­ism is, in some sense, a pub­lic ser­vice, then an editor has to un­der­stand the ethos of pub­lic ser­vice – some­thing that is of value to a so­ci­ety with­out nec­es­sar­ily mak­ing a di­rect fi­nan­cial re­turn. This means think­ing of this kind of jour­nal­ism in the same way you might think of a po­lice, am­bu­lance or fire ser­vice. You would, as a cit­i­zen, ex­pect such ser­vices to be run ef­fi­ciently, but you would not ex­pect them to have to jus­tify them­selves on grounds of profit.

There is ac­tu­ally a fi­nan­cial ben­e­fit to in­ves­ti­ga­tions, but it is a long-term one. Read­ers, on some level, want their news­pa­pers to be brave, se­ri­ous, cam­paign­ing and dogged. They like cor­rup­tion to be ex­posed, over­ween­ing power to be chal­lenged, and se­ri­ous scan­dals to be un­earthed. It re­minds them what jour­nal­ism is for. They ad­mire it. They are even will­ing to pay for it.

A news­pa­per that con­sis­tently breaks in­ves­tiga­tive sto­ries will (with apolo­gies to those who hate the word) build a brand. The Harold Evans Sun­day Times was cer­tainly a “brand”. To this day, it is re­garded as one of the high-wa­ter marks of chal­leng­ing 20th-cen­tury jour­nal­ism. Brands have value. A paper that stands for noth­ing will soon lose its sheen, and then its point, and then its read­ers. But that’s not al­ways an im­me­di­ately win­ning ar­gu­ment if the fi­nan­cials are look­ing tense and you have im­pa­tient in­vestors.

Davies’s quest to ex­plore the power of the press had re­sulted in a fiercely foren­sic book, Flat Earth News, which chron­i­cled how many news­rooms, ob­sessed with traf­fic and with ever-de­clin­ing bud­gets, had started prac­tis­ing what he termed “chur­nal­ism”. The word stuck, be­cause so many ed­i­to­rial staff labour­ing un­der the pres­sures of shrink­ing re­sources and ev­er­faster out­put recog­nised the truth of it. But Nick’s in­quiries, it turned out, were only just be­gin­ning. He came to see me in March 2009 to tell me about a shock­ing new story. We would later re­fer to this as the “heart-at­tack con­ver­sa­tion”.

A News of the World re­porter, Clive Goodman, had been jailed in 2007, along with the pri­vate eye who had helped him, for in­ter­cept­ing the voice­mail of three peo­ple who worked at Buck­ing­ham Palace. The editor, Andy Coul­son, had re­signed – but he was now the com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor for the Con­ser­va­tive party, and would soon be on his way to Down­ing Street when David Cameron be­came prime min­is­ter in 2010. The of­fi­cial line from News In­ter­na­tional was that Goodman had been a rot­ten ap­ple: his phone-hack­ing was a one-off.

Davies told me this story was not true. He had

A paper that stands for noth­ing will soon lose its sheen, and then its point, and then its read­ers

been con­tacted by a source who told him the idea that Goodman was the only per­son to hack phones was a joke. Loads of re­porters were at it: it was how the News of the World had won so many awards. Hack­ing phones was the sys­tem, not an aber­ra­tion.

The po­lice knew this at the time, but had done noth­ing about it. But now one of the other vic­tims of hack­ing – Gor­don Tay­lor, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Pro­fes­sional Foot­ballers’ As­so­ci­a­tion – was su­ing, and was try­ing to find out who had known what, and when they knew it.

How many vic­tims were we talk­ing about? Nick had met a se­nior fig­ure at Scot­land Yard. The an­swer: thou­sands. So, not just one rot­ten ap­ple then.

The News of the World, rat­tled by this new le­gal ac­tion, had of­fered to pay Tay­lor an enor­mous sum – £400,000 ($520,000) plus £300,000 costs – to drop the ac­tion. To­gether with the pay­ments to Tay­lor’s col­leagues, News In­ter­na­tional was of­fer­ing to pay no less than £1m to make the ac­tions go away.

Nick had been told that hack­ing vic­tims in­cluded the deputy prime min­is­ter, John Prescott. Dozens of News of the World re­porters and ex­ec­u­tives were im­pli­cated. Nick had ac­cess to emails show­ing that tran­scripts of 35 voice mes­sages had been dis­cussed by named re­porters and edi­tors. The “rogue re­porter” de­fence was shot to pieces.

Ac­cord­ing to Nick’s sources, the deal had been ap­proved by James Mur­doch, son of Rupert and chair of News In­ter­na­tional. The si­lence money had been paid, and the court doc­u­ments sealed. If Nick was right, Mur­doch’s most se­nior UK ex­ec­u­tive had agreed to a mil­lion-pound cover-up of crim­i­nal be­hav­iour in his own com­pany.

This was an in­cen­di­ary story. The Mur­doch op­er­a­tion, taken as a whole, was ruth­less. If we merely wounded the com­pany, it would close in for the kill. We al­ready knew that the po­lice, for rea­sons best known to them­selves, would not want to get in­volved. We would not have many friends in pol­i­tics or the rest of the press. We would be on our own.

Our story ran mid-af­ter­noon on Wed­nes­day 8 July 2009. It de­tailed the con­spir­acy to cover up crim­i­nal be­hav­iour. It im­pli­cated the Con­serva- tive leader’s spokesman. It ac­cused Mur­doch’s ex­ec­u­tives of mis­lead­ing par­lia­ment. It pointed a fin­ger of blame at the press reg­u­la­tor, and it asked why the po­lice had turned a blind eye.

Fleet Street showed only mild in­ter­est in the story. News In­ter­na­tional had re­leased an of­fi­cial three-page state­ment rub­bish­ing our work and ex­on­er­at­ing them­selves. The com­pany’s PR op­er­a­tion had been working over­time in West­min­ster. All the al­le­ga­tions were, they said, false. Re­bekah Brooks wrote to the chair­man of the select com­mit­tee say­ing we had de­lib­er­ately mis­led the Bri­tish pub­lic. The Times took a piece from another former Scot­land Yard of­fi­cer (now em­ployed by Mur­doch) pour­ing cold wa­ter on the Guardian story. It was reprinted in the sis­ter paper, the News of the World, un­der a full-page ed­i­to­rial at­tack­ing us.

It was a les­son in how the Mur­doch or­gan­i­sa­tion fought back. A se­nior ex­ec­u­tive on the Sun later promised to use the pages of the Sun­day Times to show that I was the “big­gest fuck­ing hyp­ocrite in the world”. It was as if the fam­ily of ti­tles were in­ter­change­able in be­ing used to tar­get any­one with the temer­ity to take on the or­gan­i­sa­tion. The en­tire Mur­doch UK news­pa­per or­gan­i­sa­tion ap­peared to have been mo­bilised to call the truth fake; and to pro­mote fake news as the truth.

Over the next two years, our re­port­ing was grad­u­ally and painfully vin­di­cated. On 15 July 2011, Brooks re­signed from News In­ter­na­tional. Two days af­ter that, she was ar­rested. She was even­tu­ally ac­quit­ted, but Mur­doch’s ap­pear­ance be­fore MPs – “the most hum­ble day of my life” – showed an or­gan­i­sa­tion in moral and or­gan­i­sa­tional tur­moil.

Those two years it had taken to fight off the Mur­doch press’s fury and prove that Nick had been right were lonely ones. You live in a democ­racy, you as­sume that there are nu­mer­ous checks and bal­ances to pre­vent pow­er­ful peo­ple from do­ing crooked things. For the first time in my adult life, I doubted this was true in Bri­tain.

We had pre­sented strong ev­i­dence of a crim­i­nal con­spir­acy at one of the most pow­er­ful me­dia com­pa­nies in the world – and no one wanted to know. Not the po­lice. Not the reg­u­la­tor. Not – ini­tially, at least – par­lia­ment. And not the Bri­tish press.

The Bri­tish gate­keep­ers even­tu­ally found them­selves on trial – or, at least, sub­jected to the un­for­giv­ing glare of a ju­di­cial in­quiry – with the Leve­son in­quiry into the cul­ture, prac­tice and ethics of the Bri­tish press, the gov­ern­ment’s re­sponse to Nick Davies’s re­port­ing, which opened on 14 Novem­ber 2011.

The two-part in­quiry had been set up by the prime min­is­ter, David Cameron, in the wake of the phone-hack­ing rev­e­la­tions. Un­til this point, the Bri­tish press fi­nanced its own self-reg­u­la­tory body, the Press Com­plaints Com­mis­sion. The Bri­tish press had de­fended this or­gan­i­sa­tion as tough and rig­or­ous – right up to July 2011, when the elders had ad­mit­ted it was pretty tooth­less af­ter all, and should be re­placed by some­thing tougher and more rig­or­ous.

But there was a case to an­swer. Unchecked crim­i­nal­ity within news­rooms was a moral catas­tro­phe for Bri­tish jour­nal­ism and its role in our democ­racy. It was our En­ron, our Volkswagen, our Deepwater, our sub-prime cri­sis. It was de­press­ing to watch some col­leagues re­treat into the bunker and use their own bully-pages to close down de­bate by sav­aging any­one who of­fered even con­struc­tive help in re­build­ing trust in the press. I loathed the threats and abuse di­rected at any­one who dared to dis­agree.

The ini­tial re­sponse to Leve­son was, in fact, mea­sured. There seemed, if any­thing, a sense of re­lief that we had es­caped rel­a­tively lightly. But some of the af­ter­math was badly han­dled all round, and it did not take long for Fleet Street to cir­cle the wag­ons – bit­terly re­ject­ing even the bestin­ten­tioned at­tempts to craft the most cred­i­ble form of in­de­pen­dent reg­u­la­tion.

The drip­ping con­tempt for “the lib­eral elite” or their sup­posed no­tion of “pub­lic in­ter­est” was the bit­ter stuff of deeper cul­ture wars. But Leve­son and its fall­out clar­i­fied how much con­fu­sion – or, more ac­cu­rately, straight dis­agree­ment – now ex­isted about the na­ture and pur­pose of what we did. It was be­com­ing more and more ev­i­dent that there was no neat agree­ment on what jour­nal­ism in the pub­lic in­ter­est looked like. The Daily Mail em­ployed many out­stand­ing re­porters, but the re­lent­less, bruis­ing, some­times bru­tal­is­ing ed­i­to­rial ethos of that paper had lit­tle in com­mon with the BBC or the Fi­nan­cial Times, any more than Fox News had much in com­mon with the New York Times or Wash­ing­ton Post. Even among the so-called le­gacy me­dia or­gan­i­sa­tions, there was a yawn­ing di­ver­gence in at­ti­tudes to what jour­nal­ism should or could be. Scarcely a week passed with­out a with­er­ing at­tack from the Mail on the BBC’s ed­i­to­rial ethos or stan­dards. Pe­ri­od­i­cally, the Mail editor would cas­ti­gate the Guardian, Chan­nel 4 or the FT – ei­ther per­son­ally, anony­mously or through will­ing sur­ro­gates. There was never a flicker of irony or hu­mil­ity in the eyes of the most com­plained­about news­pa­per (1,214 PCC com­plaints in 2013) bel­low­ing con­tempt

at the most trusted news or­gan­i­sa­tions in the coun­try (the FT had just seven PCC com­plaints in 2013).

The elders’ fury at Leve­son was dressed up in in­vo­ca­tions of Cob­bett or Swift. But there seemed lit­tle that Leve­son him­self was then propos­ing – as op­posed to the botched sub­se­quent wran­gling – that would in­hibit ro­bust com­men­tary or in­ves­ti­ga­tion into mat­ters of gen­uine pub­lic sig­nif­i­cance. What, then, did they fear? The real fury – also ap­par­ent in de­nun­ci­a­tions of the Euro­pean court’s juris­dic­tion con­cern­ing pri­vacy – was re­served for judges who stood in the way of the lu­cra­tive pur­suit of sex scan­dals.

The tabloids have a busi­ness model that, in part, in­volves in­tru­sion into the pri­vacy of peo­ple in the pub­lic eye. In com­par­i­son to some other busi­ness mod­els, it’s not a bad one. The pub­lic’s ap­petite for scan­dal sub­sidises the cov­er­age of pol­i­tics. Take away the sleaze and the sex and you can kiss good­bye to reportage of West­min­ster – that’s how they ar­gue it.

But it was hard not to won­der at all the puffed-up out­rage. Was the Sun ed­i­to­rial team it­self more free of “filthy laun­dry” or “sleazy an­tics” than any other news­room? Jour­nal­ists – and even some pro­pri­etors – were not known for lead­ing saintly lives, any more than foot­ballers.

Did it mat­ter? The Sun and Mail can surely have their eco­nomic im­per­a­tive and ethics; the New York Times and FT can have theirs. Fox News and the BBC: it’s all “jour­nal­ism”. We can rub along in peace­ful co­ex­is­tence. That’s how it used to work, in a kinder age be­fore news­pa­pers be­gan us­ing the tech­niques of the se­cret po­lice to spy on their tar­gets.

But now jour­nal­ism is fac­ing an ex­is­ten­tial eco­nomic threat in the form of a tu­mul­tuous re­cal­i­bra­tion of our place in the world. And on both sides of an in­creas­ingly scratchy de­bate about me­dia, pol­i­tics and democ­racy, there is a hes­i­tancy about whether there is still a com­mon idea of what jour­nal­ism is, and why it mat­ters.

On 3 De­cem­ber 2013, I was led into a parliamentary com­mit­tee room in West­min­ster to jus­tify jour­nal­ism. It was not a trial, but it felt like one. Wait­ing in the very next room were two of the most se­nior po­lice of­fi­cers in the coun­try, who were in­ves­ti­gat­ing whether I should be pros­e­cuted. Some Con­ser­va­tive mem­bers of the com­mit­tee were de­ter­mined to force ad­mis­sions out of me and would, I felt sure, quite like to see me in jail.

The Home Af­fairs com­mit­tee was no­tion­ally look­ing into counter-ter­ror­ism. But to­day they wanted to know about Ed­ward Snow­den, the former US Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency (NSA) op­er­a­tive who had given the Guardian and others a very large num­ber of top-se­cret NSA and GCHQ doc­u­ments re­veal­ing the ex­tent of state sur­veil­lance ac­tiv­i­ties. Such a leak had never hap­pened be­fore.

The head of MI6, the ur­bane former diplo­mat Sir John Sawers, had told MPs that Bri­tain’s ad­ver­saries were “rub­bing their hands with glee. Al-Qaida is lap­ping it up.” He had smoothly de­liv­ered the next day’s head­lines.

The Bri­tish press, in con­trast to the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of jour­nal­ists in vir­tu­ally ev­ery other coun­try, had not ex­actly bent over back­wards to sup­port the Guardian in pub­lish­ing the Snow­den rev­e­la­tions. Some had been openly hos­tile. A former broad­sheet editor had writ­ten that news­pa­pers had no right to de­ter­mine the pub­lic in­ter­est when it came to se­cu­rity. An Econ­o­mist writer had sug­gested that he would have marched Snow­den to the po­lice if he had brought him the story. Once again, the Bri­tish press could not agree what the pub­lic in­ter­est looked like.

The MPs ar­ranged in front of me in a horse­shoe did not, on the whole, look friendly. I was on my own. The com­mit­tee chair, the maverick Labour MP Keith Vaz, opened the ques­tions. He came from a Goan fam­ily and had set­tled in Eng­land at the age of six af­ter a pe­riod in Aden. We had not been go­ing for long when he lobbed what felt like a fizzing grenade in my di­rec­tion. “You and I were both born out­side this coun­try,” he said. “But I love this coun­try. Do you love this coun­try?”

For a split sec­ond I was speech­less. I re­cov­ered to say that my pa­tri­o­tism was rooted in the idea of a Bri­tain that al­lowed a free press that could re­port on such mat­ters. There were coun­tries where the se­cu­rity ser­vices told edi­tors what they could or couldn’t write. They weren’t democ­ra­cies. I was proud to live in a coun­try that didn’t be­have like that.

If jour­nal­ists can­not agree on a com­mon idea of the pub­lic in­ter­est – of the pub­lic ser­vice we claim to be pro­vid­ing – then it com­pli­cates the de­fence of what we do. And in an age of hor­i­zon­tal free mass me­dia, it is even more im­por­tant for us to be able to de­fine and de­clare our val­ues, our pur­pose – and our in­de­pen­dence. Which in­cludes in­de­pen­dence from the state.

But five years af­ter the Snow­den rev­e­la­tions, it is now ap­par­ent that states them­selves are strug­gling with the dig­i­tal dis­rup­tion that first tore through the es­tab­lished me­dia and has now re­shaped pol­i­tics. The dig­i­tal giants have not only un­leashed in­for­ma­tion chaos – they have, in the blink of an eye, be­come ar­guably the most pow­er­ful or­gan­i­sa­tions the world has ever seen.

The word “pub­lic” is, to some in the 21st cen­tury, a dif­fi­cult one. We value pub­lic ser­vices, pub­lic spa­ces and pub­lic goods – but we some­times strug­gle to know how to dis­cuss them, cre­ate them, run them, fund them, reg­u­late them, sup­port them or mea­sure them. We speak of pub­lic ben­e­fits and “the pub­lic in­ter­est” with­out ever sat­is­fac­to­rily defin­ing them. In the UK, we trea­sure a pub­lic health ser­vice – but not to the point of fi­nanc­ing it suf­fi­ciently. We trust a pub­lic ser­vice broad­caster above all pri­vate news providers – but reg­u­larly revile it.

The ul­ti­mate de­fence of jour­nal­ism is that it re­mains a pub­lic good. But how do we mea­sure, or value, such a pub­lic good at a time when, in the words of the po­lit­i­cal philoso­pher Michael San­del, “mar­kets – and market val­ues – have come to gov­ern our lives as never be­fore … Mar­kets leave their mark. Some­times, market val­ues crowd out non-market val­ues worth car­ing about.”

A decade ago, talk­ing this way about news would have been dis­missed as the bleat­ing of lib­er­als – the de­spised “sub­si­dariat” who weren’t com­mer­cial enough to pro­duce de­cent jour­nal­ism that the pub­lic wanted to read. (As James Mur­doch in­fa­mously claimed in 2009: “The only re­li­able durable and per­pet­ual guar­an­tor of in­de­pen­dence is profit.”) But now, faced with the over­whelm­ing scale, pop­u­lar­ity and sheer turbo-charged com­mer­cial power of the Sil­i­con Valley ti­tans, there is now an out­cry across the me­dia against the havoc that free mar­kets have in­flicted on the tra­di­tional press.

Af­ter two decades of dis­rup­tion, it may be pos­si­ble that none of the old con­ven­tional busi­ness mod­els can still sup­port se­ri­ous news in the pub­lic in­ter­est. But the chal­lenge has never been so ur­gent: we need the es­sen­tial work of jour­nal­ism – the call­ing that should, at its high­est, sep­a­rate lies from the truth.

This is an edited ex­tract from Breaking News: The Re­mak­ing of Jour­nal­ism and Why It Mat­ters Now, pub­lished by Canon­gate

The dig­i­tal giants have be­come ar­guably the most pow­er­ful or­gan­i­sa­tions the world has ever seen

Alan David­son/Rex/Shut­ter­stock

From left: Andy Coul­son, Rupert Mur­doch and Les Hin­ton and, inset be­low, Re­bekah Brooks. Op­po­site page: Alan Rus­bridger (right) with Nick Davies (cen­tre) and Pri­vate Eye editor Ian Hislop in 2012


Alan Rus­bridger gives ev­i­dence to the UK par­lia­ment’s Home Af­fairs com­mit­tee in 2013

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