National Press Club

Former Guardian editor: Journalism must be better

December 10, 2018 | By Justin Duckham | justinjduckham@gmail.com

National Press Club Journalism Institute President Barbara Cochran introduces Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron (center) and author and former Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger at a Dec. 7 National Press Club luncheon.  Rusbridger, who helped bring to light the revelations of NSA Whistleblower Edward Snowden discussed his book, “Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why it Matters Now.”

National Press Club Journalism Institute President Barbara Cochran introduces Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron (center) and author and former Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger at a Dec. 7 National Press Club luncheon. Rusbridger, who helped bring to light the revelations of NSA Whistleblower Edward Snowden discussed his book, “Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why it Matters Now.”

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

While the modern media landscape is marked by diminishing trust among readers and an uncertain future online, Alan Rusbridger, The Guardian’s former editor-in-chief, told a book luncheon audience at the National Press Club Dec. 7 that journalism needs to rise to the occasion by simply being better.

It’s an endeavor at the heart of Rusbridger’s new book, Breaking the News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why it Matters, which he discussed with Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron. With that in mind, the two news veterans drew from The Guardian’s prominent work in recent years to parse the industry’s major philosophical issues, including the press’ shift away from its role as a gatekeeper.

It’s a change that Rusbridger cast as bittersweet.

“I find much value in social media. I find an awful lot of good stuff, a lot of experts, and I quite like that business of taking stuff out of a very narrow group of people’s hands,” Rusbridger explained. “Part of me is very attracted to that, but at the same time, I’ve spent 40 years as a journalist and do believe in the role of gatekeepers, so I do feel conflicted, but I guess a lot of people do.”

On that subject, Baron pressed Rusbridger on WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange and whistleblower Edward Snowden, both of whom provided the U.K. outlet with government documents during his tenure.

Rusbridger acknowledged the controversy surrounding Assange, including his tendency to dump unredacted documents online and, according to the U.S. intelligence community, serve as a conduit for foreign hackers.

However, Rusbridger said that he would be willing to testify on Assange’s behalf, at least to the extent that the two collaborated.

“We worked with some friction together, because his instinct was always ‘just give it all to the public and let them decide’ and we were saying ‘no, no, no, we’re going to do the traditional things as journalists and we’ll edit and redact and we’ll make this as safe as we can,” Rusbridger said. “From my point of view, the information that we released in The Guardian was as good as we could do and I would defend that and I would defend his role in that.”

When presented with ethical issues surrounding news organizations’ decisions to publish hacked documents from WikiLeaks, including those from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chair John Podesta during the 2016 election, Rusbridger noted that it was a complicated issue, but said that public interest in material presented to the press oftentimes trounces concerns over sources.

As for Snowden, who provided The Guardian with a trove of documents in 2013 detailing the National Security Administration’s mass surveillance, Rusbridger said he viewed him as a hero who appeared to be acting in good faith.

Rusbridger said he was prepared to testify on Snowden's behalf as well.

Beyond serving the public, Rusbridger suggested that such stories can help the media maintain their footing moving forward, both in terms of garnering trust and staying afloat monetarily.

Rusbridger pointed to The Guardian’s national security exposés as well as their dive into 2011’s U.K. phone-hacking scandal, as proof of the need for strong investigative journalism.

“It has to be the bedrock of what we do,” Rusbridger said. “Financial managers of newspapers, nobody envies their job, but they have to understand that this long-term reputational benefit that you get from doing stuff that people admire.”

Rusbridger added that it has a financial value as well, explaining that The Guardian has been able to secure funding from its readers “because they think, actually, this is a newspaper that does what newspapers should do.”