Interview: Alan Rusbridger

Into the brave new digital order

Print edition : August 07, 2015

In The Guardian newsroom in London, Alan Rusbridger announcing that the daily, along with The Washington Post, had won the Pulitzer for its coverage of the NSA revelations, in April 2014. Photo: David Levene

With former editor Peter Preston (right) on the steps of the High Court, London, after victory in libel case.

Interacting with students at Asian College of Journalism in Chennai. Photo: N. Ram

On the last day as Editor, packing up. Photo: David Levene

With Edward Snowden (centre) and reporter Ewen MacAskill in Moscow in July 2014..

In his office, with the Edward Snowden hard drive. Photo: Graeme Robertson

Julian Assange, WikiLeaks founder. An August 2014 photograph. Photo: John Stillwell/AP

In conversation with Alan Rusbridger, former Editor of The Guardian.

THERE WAS once an editor of a leading newspaper in India who declared, rather tongue in cheek, that he had the second most important job in the country; that is, after that of the Prime Minister.

By the same token Alan Rusbridger must have stepped down from one of the most important jobs in the world when he relinquished his post as Editor of The Guardian in June. During his two decades at its helm, he had taken the paper, rated the eighth largest in the United Kingdom, into the biggest online league globally, neck and neck with The New York Times. But the man himself exudes anything but a sense of power, exercised or lost. Quiet, unassuming, mild mannered, almost withdrawn in his bearing, it is passion, a sense of driven purpose, an enduring commitment to the public cause of journalism, and a restlessness about all that is left to be done, that come through forcefully.

There was once a theory, which gained popularity in the 1970s and perhaps since discredited, called The Peter Principle. Every employee in a hierarchy, it stated, tends to rise to his level of incompetence. Editors of newspapers were no doubt the exception, the exception to the exception being those who were, then as now, just their master’s—political or owner master—voice.

Alan Rusbridger’s editorship was as eventful as it was successful. There was the slew of libel suits from the influential and the powerful to contest; there was the makeover of the printed paper from the broadsheet to the European Berliner format; there was the shift online and into Social Web 2.0; there were the stunning WikiLeaks in partnership with the temperamental Julian Assange; the seven-year investigation by Nick Davies (how many editors would have allowed a probe that took anywhere that long?) into phone hacking which led to the humbling of Rupert Murdoch, closure of his News of the World, and the Leveson inquiry into the ethics and practices of the press; the devastating Edward Snowden revelations which came via Glen Greenwald, then working with The Guardian, and which fetched The Guardian the Pulitzer for Public Service. In and through all this, he led from the front.

When someone who has packed all of that and far more into his career asks whether we might consider a teaching stint by him as Visiting Professor at the Asian College of Journalism we were naturally taken aback, very very pleasantly so, and quick to agree lest he had second thoughts. He set himself a punishing schedule of three teaching hours every weekday and plunged into his classes from the word go. As if he had done this all his life. He hadn’t. This was the first time he was, he admits, teaching. But he could as easily be the consummate teacher as the accomplished editor. His classes progress in Socratic mode, through dialogue and discussion. Concepts are systematically deconstructed, accepted journalistic principles are patiently thought through afresh. The accent is on the new—on the new journalist and the new journalism needed to meet the emerging technological, political and cultural challenges. No question or doubt is too simple or trivial to be explained. His faith in the digital future of journalism and his concern about climate change shine through like two powerful rays seeking what lies ahead. There is an element of impatience when it comes to these pet themes. He cannot understand why anyone would continue to lay great store by the world of print journalism. If climate change is one of the biggest unfolding crises of our times, why isn’t it the news headline every day, he asks, or rather challenges, in a voice that is as close to taunting as he can get.

As he prepares to take over as Principal of Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford this October, and as Chair of the Scott Trust, which runs The Guardian, in September next year, he clearly has a lot on his mind that is bound to continue to influence our understanding and our representation of our world. Excerpts from the conversation:

Sashi Kumar: From what I’ve heard from you while you were here, correct me if I’m wrong, I’d characterise your position as follows: The print world is firmly behind us, at least in terms of journalism, and the sooner we embrace the digital world of journalism, the better.

Alan Rusbridger: Well, the print world is obviously still with us, you couldn’t say it’s behind us. And it may be with us for some time yet. It may be with us longer in India than in the U.K. But I just sort of feel, broadly, we know how to do it. We can keep experimenting, but… I think you can think of it in a number of ways. One, the risk of not moving into the digital era, because you think print is fine, is not one I would want to take. Or, you can just think of it as what is best journalistically and I think the digital world is better. In my experience of it, you can be a better journalist in the digital world. Or, you can see it as the danger of being left behind if you didn’t do it. And there’s so much to learn and there will be so much competition in the digital world . So, certainly the more I spent time editing, the more I felt I had to really get inside the digital world. If I’m going to be wrong about all this and if print is going to be here for a few years it’s fine, because we know how to do that.

What you say seems to make sense because in other sectors of the media the digital has really taken off—in cinema, video gaming, and so on. They are all firmly into the digital realm, and analogue is like history now. So, journalism, I suppose, is bound to get there sooner or later. But if we look at the transition you went through in The Guardian itself—putting the paper on the Internet, then moving it into Social Media 2.0 as you call it, and now talking about the digital. Are these the same? Or, do you think journalism has still to come into its own as a digital entity? Are we just at the periphery now? Because most newspapers, particularly in India, do an online edition of print and assume that’s it.

Well, I think that’s the big mistake. It’s not. It’s assuming that digital is just a form of distribution. I think there’s a problem with the word “digital”. It’s now so vague, it’s sort of meaningless. You know, for the students I am teaching at the ACJ, their whole life is digital. They’ve never known anything else. I was also conscious in our discussion with the faculty [he is referring here to an interaction with the ACJ faculty] that there was print and there was digital and how are we going to compare these two things. I was thinking last night that nobody in the new media world is going to worry about what they do with print. It’s only print that is thinking about this comparison. So there will be people who will be completely free from this idea of print. Print is wonderful for some things. But the world we are in now is going to be very, very different, in which every aspect of life, not just media, is affected by digital. And it seems to me it’s inescapable. And so, to try and sort of cling on to this old world and pretend that somehow journalism is going to be exempt from this revolution seems to me not a wise way to think about the future.


If we look at some of the premises of the shift to digital, and if digital were to play out fully in journalism as well, it would be a big departure in the way you narrativise, in the way you tell your story. For instance, would the linear form of story telling be valid any more?

Well, I don’t want to fall in the trap of… a lot of people who come to these things want A or B. You can’t say that linear writing is gone forever because sometimes the most efficient way of telling a story for somebody who’s sitting on a bus is to tell a story; a story is a very effective way of telling it. For another person, you can imagine something more like a tree—you can come in, and you can follow links, and you can see what most interests you about this story and that would be non-linear. Or, you can imagine a blog which lasts all day, which has a sort of temporal plane if we were to follow the subject for a period of time. Or, it may be you didn’t deal with words at all, like I was doing yesterday, you just draw things; or construct something which has filing cards, where the story has a kind of longer tail and you can explore it through different ways of categorising it. So, it’s not that linear story telling will go, but it’s just that it will be one technique amongst many.

But inasmuch as you will be combining multimedia—sound and visual and text—wouldn’t it make a difference to the experiencing of an event or of telling a story? Wouldn’t it be more fragmented, more impressionistic? Would it be a cause-and-effect sequencing? Would the intellectual realm give, or yield? Would there be less of knowledge and more of information? Pixelated information bits and bytes. Is that the brave new digital order?

I think the major challenge facing us is that we can do everything now. There’s no limit to what you can do. And there’s a terrible aspiration to fulfil all of that. So there are some people who want very short bits of information. And then there are other people who want immense depths. And then there is like the thing we had on Edward Snowden, which took months to create but is a kind of rather wonderful mélange of sorts. So all these things are there. The only thing that is constraining us is the skill sets within the organisation, the time that we have, the cost of doing these things. One of the guides to how we will see the future will be through measurements, so we can measure exactly who wants what. That shouldn’t be our only guide, but we have a much more sophisticated view of who is consuming what, when, how, on which platform. And if we are sophisticated about that we will reach a better understanding of all these things that we could do and where we should focus.

This raises another question to which I’ll get in just a moment, but to stay with this same line of discussion, when you do this, is there a chance that the vehicle or platform determines the breadth or depth of a story? For instance, you have been saying repeatedly that it’s going to be the smartphone that’s going to be the most pervasive or dominant form of receiving journalistic communication. And if it’s limited to that screen space, the chances are that the long form of story telling may not lend itself to this. So, it’s likely to be more of what I was mentioning—fragmented information bytes.

Yes, some forms of animation, say, if you want to make Flash work on an iPhone… it depends on whether you use Flash or not in terms of animation. If you’re in Africa you would probably do a completely different form of journalism, which would be a much more brief text-based thing with no pictures because the download times would be huge. I think there’s some evidence that people do actually read quite long articles on smartphones. The challenge is that realistically there are very few news organisations that are going to have the resources to reformat something for print, and then for Kindle and then for iPad, and then for smartphone. And so we never got to a stage where we got a separate mobile journalism desk which uses this size screen [holding up his smartphone]. But maybe in two years’ time if mobile phone feed becomes the predominant form, then maybe we have to have editors who aren’t looking at the big screen because that’s completely different, and where you’re actually editing on the small screen. It could lead us there, but maybe in ways that are surprising.


So should we be despairing about language, about literary quality. As someone said, some literary ability marks a journalist, along with a plausible manner and rat-like cunning. What happens to language? Is there likely to be a newspeak of journalism? Because already we have a different texting language, a coded Twitter language…. It seems that with newer generations this is likely to change. Is there likely to be a golden standard anymore in terms of language? Or, will just bare communication be at a premium?

Again, there is a danger that we will get drawn into something that is faster and faster. When we were first trying to design the newsroom of the future, very late in the day Emily Bell did say I think we’re getting this all wrong. It’s not print versus digital. It’s fast versus slow. We need a fast desk. And I created essentially a slow desk as well. And I also set up a long form journalism thing in the paper. So we can make these choices. We can say we don’t want to go into something that is just very very fast. We can create vehicles for slow writing. But, equally, I think, we have to think very radically about what’s changing. And, as when I was talking to your class and your faculty, I find that I now draw, because I find that drawing is a very efficient way to get points across very quickly. And there are lots of people out there who think that graphic explainers are rather brilliant ways of telling stories. So that may be no words at all.

The other thing, I think, that’s changing is the tone of voice. If you are from a world in which you essentially had a platform and the readers had no sense of dialogue, then you tended to speak more like a lecture. When I watch what younger journalists are doing, there are two or three things. One is, they may be more tentative, because if you are very vitriolic there, you get very vitriolic responses back. And I think some journalists are saying, ‘I’m going to moderate what I do and be more tentative; this, I think, is how the world seems to me, how does it seem to you?’ Other people are being much briefer. So we’re getting a journalist like Simon Jenkins who, as you know, is a great essayist, and we will sometimes say, we only want three hundred words on this Simon, we don’t want twelve hundred words, and we would like it this morning, not this afternoon. And it doesn’t have to be a fully formed thought. It could just be a question. So you could say: this is what strikes me as interesting, what do you think? Asking a question, and then watching a debate happen. That’s another way of doing journalism. So, as it happens, I have created the vehicles that can sort of carry on the long form writing. We treasure that. But, I’m very interested in things that are much more efficient ways of telling a story, that are much more compatible ways of telling a story.

Given the speed that you spoke about and the fact that it’s getting more interactive, more participatory, crowd-sourcing, more user-generated content coming in, you probably have more experts than just one informing a story. And yet, the concern that seems to be emerging in some quarters is that journalism in the new digital realm is likely to be less knowledge and more bytes of information; that knowledge is put on the back burner. Precisely because digital journalism is becoming more and more popular led. There was a time, not too far back, when some of the biggest achievements in science and math and arts were made against the grain of the popular. Is there now a danger of getting into this popular-equals-populist kind of journalistic behaviour?

I don’t see that. I see the opposite. When I joined The Guardian in 1979 there was one science correspondent. He was a very good science correspondent, but that was it, and he wrote one story a day for the whole of science. We created a science network about three years ago; we had by then got two or three people writing about science. And I said to them, are there interesting science writers out there on the web? To which they replied, yes, of course. Are they good writers? Yes. Do they know what they are talking about? Are you joking? These are people with three degrees. So we would have no qualms about publishing them in The Guardian? Absolutely not. So we had 12 of them. We had 12 writers instead of one writer, or three writers. And they’re experts in genetics, physical medicine, biological medicine, artificial intelligence, outer space…. So nobody could look at The Guardian and say, you’re more shallow, more populist. The opposite is obviously true. People are either blind to what’s going on in the digital world, or they don’t understand it, or they’re mourning a lost world…. This is the fault of the word “digital” because if we said these things about print, that print is shallow, or superficial, somebody would say, of course not. Tolstoy is in print. And similarly, if you want to pick the shallow, superficial, silo-ed bits of digital and say that’s what digital is, of course it’s true. But the opposite is also true.

Yes, but when you cite the example of ‘The Guardian’, it may not be really representative of the digital that could run away with the ball. ‘The Guardian’ comes from a strong print stable and has made the transition in a thoughtful manner into the digital space. So there would be a difference between that and, say, a stand-alone digital news site, and there are many mushrooming. One other aspect is the implication of the kind of push and pull technology at play here. In the old journalism there was the concept of getting the big picture. If you look at a newspaper, even if it may be in the analogue mode, it is actually a digital experience. The news is arranged hierarchically. In three minutes I know what is on offer, what is the important news of the day. I can then decide to read in detail what I want to. But you can’t do that in the digital format, or I find it more difficult to do so. It takes you that much more time to even decide what you want to follow. So you’re tempted to search out what interests you and follow just that. So is it like the blind men with the elephant, just exposed to a part of it and assuming it is the whole, or that nothing else or more is necessary?

If there’s no platform which allows you to see the news at a glance then that is our fault as journalists. And there are many ways of doing that. The FT [ Financial Times] sends me an email at night which says here are the things you need to think about. Slate magazine sends me an email in the morning which says here are the important things. There are forms in which I should be able to inform you very quickly about the things that either I think you should know or that you told me you want to know. I may think that I want to know every media story in the morning and the Press Association sends me a thing in the morning and I read that and within a minute I have got a total knowledge of everything that’s been published that morning. So it’s not that I’m narrow. I’ve been exposed to every source. My Twitter feeds are set so that I follow right-wing people as well as left-wing people. So I have deliberately challenged myself in a way that it’s much more open. The average 22-year-old today can, in the space of 10 minutes, read The Telegraph, The Mail, The Guardian. So it’s the opposite of silos. You can have multiple sources, whereas in the past they would have had to spend some money and buy just one paper. It is true, you can create a world for yourself. You can follow just left-wing people on Twitter and just hear the people you are interested in. Or, you can say I don’t want the world to be like that. I want to challenge myself. So I don’t think this is a criticism of digital. It is a criticism either of the way people use digital or of the news media not taking advantage of what digital can do.


On a slightly philosophical note, if you will, since multimedia is implicit in the digital, are we at a juncture where we are probably challenging, and rightly so, the tyranny of the text that has held sway for so many years? As one commentator put it, the written text really flattened our multidimensional faculties. Digital now affords us the opportunity to go back to the fuller, more total experience of communication that comes with using our senses of sight, sound, touch, along with metaphor and imagination when dealing with the written word… all of these. In this new world, is journalism itself as a profession of some distance or distancing likely to become outdated? For instance, we speak of immersive digital technology, where one can perhaps simulate the experience of a Guantanamo detainee, of kinds of torture, or war or climate change. So is this technological possibility, in the virtual digital realm, of ultra-exposure to or experience of all that is around us likely to make journalism as we have understood it obsolete?

I think words are sometimes the most efficient way of telling a story quickly or vividly. Because I don’t sleep well I listen to audio books and at the moment I’m listening to Max Hastings’ book Bomber Command. Last night, I was listening to a chapter on the bombing of Darmstadt, a town in Germany, from the point of view of the people who survived it. And I could barely sleep after that. It was a very bad book to sleep with. It was horrific. And that was just words. And I didn’t need to see a film, or hear screams. It was just awful. So sometimes I’d much rather read a newspaper than watch a TV channel because to watch the BBC news is going to take half an hour and it’s going to take a long time and it’s not very efficient. So words are sometimes the most efficient way of understanding something. If you want to know how to do something and you google it, there’ll be something on YouTube showing you how to do it—even if it is how to put a battery in this phone, or how to do a software, or put up a tent or whatever it is. And quite often that is much better than just words. I find that I draw myself mind maps now when I’m trying to think of, or structure, a problem. I won’t try and write it down in a linear way. I will draw something that starts here and goes there, and I’ve realised that that often helps me see, think through, things that my eyes wouldn’t when I see a long piece of text. And I did the sort of Cambridge degree where I spent three years reading text.

I think the only thing that’s important for journalists at the moment is to be open to all these ideas. And to have confidence in text—the power of words in beautiful story telling will be eternal. There are other things that can be better told in a different form. And it would be disastrous to turn your back to digital and say that is all awful because I love text. Especially for younger generations. It may be true that younger generations will be much more visual and less text based. We can’t tell them that they’re wrong if we want to stay in business.

In print, we have the notion of a style book, right? Depending on the organisation that might change, but generally there is the idea of a style book. There may be a style book for television too. Where would one even begin to look for something as definitive as a style book for journalism on the web or digital journalism?

For me, I thought it’s a privilege to be living at the time when, as it were, the Gutenberg Press was being invented. We think life looks like this. It’s astonishing eventually how it is. And our generation has been given the unbelievable joy and interest and fascination to think: Oh my God, what a wonderful thing this is, what does it mean for this thing we love called journalism. So to be able to take journalism and to be able to be the generation that invents journalism is wonderful. I don’t want to romanticise it because I know that a lot of journalists are being thrown out of work and the economic model is not working and lots of journalists are not working in places where it feels very exciting.

You have been speaking about an open journalistic structure, or framework. For instance, you said you’d like The Guardian to be a site from which you can seek out the best news stories even on the sites of other news organisations. Do you think eventually there will be a very thin line between an information aggregator or search engine like Google and a journalistic site, not perhaps of the optimal variety like The Guardian, but say sundry others? Wouldn’t journalism then resemble a Google Plus kind of information seeking?

Well, Google is algorithms and we’re human. I think that’s still quite a big distinction. Algorithms are better at some things and the human brain is better at others. If all you want is an algorithm, then Google will beat us every time. It’s absolutely, astonishingly brilliant in what it does. But, if I wake up in the morning and I think what do I need to read today, Google’s probably not going to tell me the five things that I need. But Andrews Sparrow, our political correspondent, will say: I’ve read these things. This is interesting for the following reason. So Andrew Sparrow is being useful. And he’ll do the same thing at lunch time and again at six o clock, and that’s the only thing I need to read.

So there is still an element of agenda-setting which is possible, which will continue…

Because Andrew Sparrow is also saying I’ve been a journalist for 40 years; I’ve just watched the Prime Minister’s Question Time; in my view, David Cameron was wonderful today. And so I’m getting Sparrow’s view. And he’s also doing such class reporting that Google isn’t giving me either. So he’s doing a lot which no West Coast company is going to do for me.


The other aspect is that when you’re online you are looking at numbers. You are looking at millions of visitors coming to your site leveraging that to make it a commercially viable proposition. So, the early promise of the Net, the digital, being a democratising force, that will help you disaggregate the mass media concept, is turning out to be false. It is turning out to be more and more mass media in a different form. Is there the danger of journalism falling into the stranglehold of a more acute, virulent form of capitalism, digital capitalism?

Well, I think the advertising model is clearly in flux. And these programmatic forms of selling so that things are being sold by machines is worrying. What The Guardian did was to create a different kind of environment so that The Times is [pointing to the top of a page on a notepad before him] that big, and Google and Yahoo [pointing far higher on the same page] are that big. We are quite big, but tiny [pointing to a spot far lower than the other three]. And it is about how you value that [indicating where he marked position of The Guardian] as against that [ The Times] or that [Google or Yahoo]. But Mail Online is bigger but we are earning more—we’re earning 100 [million pounds], they’re earning only 60 [million]—even though they’re bigger. So it’s not just about size. And I think advertisers are now saying, Okay, Yahoo news is huge but we don’t know who these people [who are their consumers] are; have they got money, or haven’t they? So, I think the advertisers may well segment the audience in ways that translate into different forms of value.

There’s also vertical integration of digital businesses. When Jeff Bezos who owns Amazon takes over ‘The Washington Post’ from the traditional publishers, the Graham family, we have a digital capitalist acquiring a credible news platform, and it compounds the situation and makes it potentially dangerous.

It could be. It could be. That takes us into ownership and pluralism in ownership. From what I know, Bezos so far hasn’t interfered at all. Or the Lebedevs and The Independent. So it can work well or not. Murdoch has done both good and terrible things in journalism.

You mentioned earlier that you have the capability now to monitor reader behaviour. You know who is reading what, the demographics of your readership, and all of that. Which is precisely the kind of problem we had with Google and Yahoo and Microsoft and Facebook, who were getting intelligence about us and sharing it with the intelligence agencies. So doesn’t the business of journalism, too, violate the privacy of the netizen? Isn’t anyone out there who is consuming anything digital exposing himself or herself to such market or intelligence surveillance which compromises privacy?

Yes. Inevitably. That was why Snowden was important. This is going on. We may want to consent to it, or we may not, but at least we know what is going on, and then we can have the discussion. I think informed consent has been the basis of it. There’s obviously a danger if you get so enormous that there won’t be any alternatives. As long as you have got alternatives….

Assume The Guardian without Rusbridger there and the Scott Trust supervising. It could become a Frankenstein’s monster, right?

It is. So if you go on to The Guardian site there is a little video there using drawings and cookies and all that which says when you come to The Guardian this is how we use your data. I would really like to know from the search engines I use, it’s probably buried there in the terms and conditions somewhere, but I would like to know as simply and as frankly what they do with this data and who they would share it with, under what conditions.

You were talking in your ACJ class about the need for everyone to learn encryption in order to protect personal privacy. Assange is another great advocate of wide use of encryption to be safe from prying eyes on the Net. On the other hand, when you have a business on the Net you are willy-nilly encroaching into people’s privacy. There’s no other way to do it.

No. There are gradations. People say, shouldn’t you be as worried of Google as the NSA [National Security Agency]? One difference is that Google can’t lock me up. They could embarrass me; I wouldn’t like Google to share all my searches with anybody. But in the end they can’t deprive me of my liberty. So there have to be special safeguards against the state because the state has immense power over my life which Google doesn’t have.

You are a legacy media moving into a new realm. As against this, there are start-ups with maybe slightly different assumptions about what journalism ought to be, or in their practice of a quasi journalism. Take Buzzfeed, Vice, Vox, Upworthy, or even the Ebay founder Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media, which Glen Greenfield got into. Do these represent a different category of journalism? Are they the new kids on the block who might be redefining journalism? ‘The Guardian’, because it is making this transition, may not go that far.

If you’re going to be just digital, hiring people who are just digital, you’re obviously going to have a head start on everybody else because you didn’t have to be educating people on how to do things. I see my daughter, who is all over different forms of media in lots of different ways, is instantly aware of what is going viral here or there, all of which I could try and find, but she just is so at ease in it. So, if you’re doing a start-up and you hire a bunch of people like that, you are instantly going to be more digital than a paper which is trying to move there. But take two things. Buzzfeed has now realised they can get a giant audience, but it’s not going to be valued very much by advertisers. So they’re trying to retrofit Buzzfeed to be serious. So they just hired Janine from The Guardian because they’re now saying we are never going to make it as a business with cat videos; because that’s just an audience, it has no value. So, paradoxically, they’re trying to get into the journalism business that The Guardian does. The Intercept was interesting with all that Omidyar money, and they had a torrid first year and Glen wrote that we hadn’t realised that running a newsroom and managing something is harder than we thought. All these businesses that are backed by IPO [Initial Public Offering] have got a lot of money to spend up to the point that they float. You can see businesses like Twitter and Buzzfeed now, which is going to IPO within two years, spending money like there’s no tomorrow. The owners will then become rich people and the next generation is going to have to run it as businesses. And nobody has yet come up with the golden bullet of what the economic model is. So these digital-only businesses have had a clean run because frankly print media were so slow to get their boots on. But I think in the future the race is going to even out a bit.

Isn’t brand-building a problem where you have these open gateway-like sites?

Well, it’s not for us. I think if you’re The Times and you build a wall around your content, I mean they just can’t get anybody to come to them. They have these type of slightly desperate Times journalists saying: Please come read my piece. It’s over here, bracket pound. They end up with a tiny audience. I don’t want to say there isn’t business there online, but it’s not there yet.


The wall between advertising and editorial had, we were told, become porous in some media organisations, collapsed in others. You said you have very firm norms in place in ‘The Guardian’ to insulate editorial from marketing. But do you find journalism segueing into what is called content marketing? I read that in ‘The New York Times’, for instance, they have a cell or workshop where their own journalists write up the matter for major clients to be published in the paper. Journalists at the service of the big corporate firms. Do you do anything like this in The Guardian?

We do have a professional unit which is for teachers, media workers, social workers, public service workers, which is our own advertising market. And then there is a department in which they will handle a big client like Unilever. Unilever will say we are interested in women’s health and we would like editorial [pieces] around women’s health. So we wouldn’t write marketing for them, but we would write stories and label them as sponsored content. And Unilever would like to be associated with that content because they are trying to, actually quite admirably, become a different kind of brand that is interested in sustainability. We have a weekly committee that sits and sets up all the rules and adjudicates different examples.

But the big corporations also come on the Net and speak to their audiences directly. For instance, when Nestle suffered an image slur because of their ecological record—they had cleared rain forests in Indonesia to cultivate oil palms—their online counter-offensive was to post some 1,500 pieces of content daily, which drew a Facebook fan following of a staggering 250 million. Or, take the instance of the Mexican grill brand Chipotle using YouTube to position itself as a champion of organic farming and meat livestock raised humanely on small farms. They made these animated video series which became a rage on YouTube, fetching viewership that ranged between 8.5 and 13.5 million. So you do anything different or interesting online and you get hits by the millions. So isn’t this very confusing? What distinguishes a journalistic brand from a corporate brand, or from someone who is defending the indefensible?

All of that is true. It probably is unprecedented. It’s confusing. I remember Jeff Jarvis telling me seven or eight years ago that everything is now media, everything is now media. Everybody is a media company. And, of course, he’s completely right. The supermarket is a media company. The opera house is a media company. Political parties… they are all producing media and they want to get in direct touch with the people and not go through the media. That is, of course, a threat to us because we used to be the only media. But I think the thing that distinguishes journalism from any other kind of communication is total independence. It is not trying to sell me something. It is totally trustworthy. That is a huge thing. The worst mistake we can make would be to try and confuse and weaken our independence. Because then journalism means nothing.

I know nothing about the Indian media. But when I am told that the Indian media are sometimes lowering these lines, it seems to me to be the worst mistake you can make. It could give you short-term money, but it is going to devalue what people think of us as trustworthy media.


You’ve had the unique opportunity of working with both Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, both of whom have redefined journalism in a way. The metanarrative of the whistle-blowers. You can’t blame people for thinking these whistle-blowers are the superjournalists. What familiar journalism does is to parse and redact what they reveal in a manner that is easy for the public to make sense of. What is the relationship between whistle-blowing and journalism? Notionally, many democracies seem to defend and protect whistle-blowing. There is legislation in place to this effect. But the whistle-blower is at the same time under grave and growing threat. Snowden has to live in exile, is called a fugitive. Assange has been holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for so long now. Is there a difference, from the Watergate days, in the relationship between whistle-blowing and journalism?

Well, there are these complicated agents now. Assange was not a whistle-blower. He was a journalist. He was also a publisher. He was an intermediary. He was an impresario. An activist. He had these multiple identities… he changed depending on what threat he was facing….

Manning was the whistle-blower.

Manning was. Manning and Snowden are recognisably like Daniel Ellsberg, people who do something out of a crisis of conscience. But the options are now many more and Snowden could just have released the material himself. He didn’t need to go to journalists. It speaks rather well of journalism that he thought that he needed journalists in order to make sense of these documents which are very complicated. When we worked with Assange, in spite of all these frustrating things about Julian, I was immensely impressed by his technical skills and his ability to work with vast databases. But I think if he just had handled the material himself he would have sunk under it. It was a tiny operation. He is not a journalist in that sense. It needed the weight of three or four major news organisations around the world, later more, to make sense. And as for the Snowden documents, people say, Oh, they gave them to you on a plate. These are very complex things to understand and work out and publish safely. And there was a lot of amazing journalistic skill involved.

So, with Snowden the fact that he did want to use journalists, the journalists added value to this, was important. I kept saying to the intelligence services, if you stop us publishing this story, the next whistle-blower will not go to The Guardian or The New York Times, they will go to Glen Greenwald, or Julian Assange, or they will publish themselves. But if you would rather deal with them come and smash all our computers, if that will stop us. But if you think about it for a moment, you too would rather deal with journalists. There is something rather central about journalism to this story that both the whistle-blowers and the intelligence agency ought to understand.

Is confidentiality of source under very dire challenge now?

Yes, yes. Mobile phones are tracking devices. They are microphones, they are listening devices. They are an unbelievable weapon of intrusion into our lives. And so, if anybody is interested enough to find out that you and I are having this conversation, then if you’ve got your mobile phone in your pocket, it would be a matter of seconds to work out that we were together at this moment. Or, they can follow our metadata, and they can follow our texts and our emails. So we are in a world in which the assurance a journalist gives to a source, that I won’t reveal who you are, is meaningless; in a world where governments say we are not going to respect that in future. With the British government, the implications might be that you just lose your job. If I am going into Pakistan or Russia or China, and the dissidents are going to talk to me, then lives are going to be at risk. So, I do think that Western democracies, in so cavalierly abandoning the protection that journalists offer sources, are setting a terrible example for the rest of the world.

Particularly the United States, which by the First Amendment makes journalistic free speech sacrosanct, in effect undoes that freedom by not protecting whistle-blowing, or news sources and by the example of what they are doing to Snowden.

Sadly, Obama is very unpopular with a lot of journalists by the way that he has treated whistle-blowers. There are seven prosecutions of whistle-blowers under the Espionage Act, which is more than what the Republic of America has used in its entire history before Obama. And there were reporters like James Risen, who was persecuted because he would not reveal his source. The First Amendment is a very good thing. But I would like America to rethink its view of the protection of sources and whistle-blowers.

It seems that the state is well-positioned at this juncture to bear down on journalism because the people are also sceptical about journalism. Journalism itself seems to have become part of the problem. The connect with the public and the trust by the public seem more tenuous now than ever before because it is seen as business, and big business, and as belonging totally to the market, rather than as an agency with a public purpose. Do you think people are as concerned as you or I about what happened to Snowden, what happened to Assange?

No, I don’t think they are concerned enough, no. I think partly journalism is to blame. I know it’s easy to laugh at people like you and me who talk about the public interest, and I’ve been lectured enough by my tabloid colleagues who say you do unpopular journalism, you’ve got no idea what people are interested in. But, nevertheless, if the public interest is not at the centre of what you are doing, and the more you are chasing ratings and money or advertising, then we lose respect from the public. They may buy the paper because it’s interesting, but they’re losing respect for journalism itself. And that’s very dangerous. You know, in countries like Russia and Turkey now, it’s not so much that the government is bearing down on particular journalists, because they realise that looks terrible. So, what they’re doing is to get their friends to buy the papers, and the papers then sack the journalists. The state can then say it has nothing to do with us. So the ownership of papers becomes very important because these people become proxies for the government.

Finally, what do you think is Snowden’s future? You went to Russia as recently as June to meet him. What is your sense of the man? What do you think are the options before him? How do you see this playing out?

Well, he strikes me as robust. I think he’s thought through in advance. He says, well, what I had to do in 2013, I don’t regret it; I sleep easily at night; but, you know, I don’t want to be the whistle-blower guy for the rest of my life; I want to get on with my life; I want to find other things to do. That’s where he is in his head. He would rather not be in Russia, be someplace else. And I think he will go back to America under certain circumstances. The main circumstance is that if they are going to charge him with something that he has the opportunity to say: well, I did that, but this is why I did it, it’s as simple as that…. And if America would charge him with something which had a public interest defence, which I’m sure they won’t, then he’d go back. But I think the problem is that may take quite a long time…. I don’t know. He says, actually the funny thing is I’ve always lived my life online. I am a bit of a geek. So whether I do that in Moscow, Hawaii, doesn’t matter very much.

Thank you very much.

Sashi Kumar is Chairman, Media Development Foundation and Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.

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