Luke Mintz speaks with former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger about British journalism, government surveillance, and university no-platforming
Traipsing upstairs to Alan Rusbridger’s Oxford study, I struggled to throw off the feeling of meeting a terrifying giant. Appointed Editor-in-Chief of The Guardian in 1995, Rusbridger has lived at the centre of British media for as long as most of the students he now presides over have been alive, and my vivid memories of growing up surrounded by copies of his newspaper certainly made meeting Rusbridger somewhat of a ‘big deal’.
Upon meeting the beast, however, any feelings of trepidation were quickly swept aside.
Rusbridger, aged 61, has been described in The New Statesman as a “quiet evangelist” who “looked like an academic”, and as we made our way over to his sofas I certainly felt as if I was entering a friendly tutorial.
Retiring earlier this year from the helm of Britain’s globally famous Guardian newspaper, Rusbridger has now taken up a new role as principal of Oxford’s Lady Margaret Hall, joining former Observer editor Will Hutton and former Radio 4 Controller Mark Damazer in the rank of journalists who leave the metropolitan bustle behind for the serenity of an Oxford college.
I was keen to know what sort of college chief Rusbridger planned to be. Earlier this year, Somerville’s principal Alice Prochaska reached national headlines with her condemnation of sexist ‘lad culture’ on university campus, and last year Will Hutton, principal of Hertford, played an active role in ensuring all college staff were paid the Living Wage. Was Rusbridger planning to be a campaigning principal?
Was Rusbridger planning to be a campaigning principal?
“I doubt that I’m going to be making any great pronouncements in the short term,” he told me, insisting that the college’s governing body “absolutely don’t want a chief executive coming in” and telling them how to do things. But Rusbridger certainly leaves the option open, telling me that Oxford is full of interesting groups whom he could, under the right circumstances, speak up on behalf of.
Indeed, as our conversation turns to the environment, a Rusbridger public intervention begins to appear likely. Oxford University attracted criticism from environmental activists this year for refusing to fully divest from fossil fuels, and given that Rusbridger has previously pinpointed environmental concerns as the one area he would like to have given more editorial attention, it is unsurprising that he backs fossil fuel divestment.
Divestment, he says, makes sense on a financial as well as an environmental front, although he insists that he is “not charging in on a moral white horse”.
“I would certainly want this college to look at [fossil fuel divestment], and the university as a whole,” he says.
Guardian readers of my age, who gained our political consciousness at some point in the late 2000s, tend to associate Rusbridger’s editorship with two huge revelations.
The first – the 2011 expose of widespread phone hacking at British tabloids – was responsible for sending a number of journalists to prison and shutting down one of Britain’s bestselling newspapers. And it fundamentally changed the character of the British press, Rusbridger tells me.
It fundamentally changed the character of the British press, Rusbridger tells me
“There was a culture of criminal behaviour that was, in the kindest interpretation, out of control. I don’t think that happens now. There is better regulation, [and a] very sharp awareness that the police can and will come in and prosecute. I think [post-2011] you’d have to be mad as a journalist to be breaking the law without any thought of consequences.
“One of the problems was that everybody was frightened of the Murdoch press, and they knew it, and they kind of played on that. They were using the criminal underworld in order to dig out information on people, and people knew that it was going on. That created a world in which everybody went to their parties and nobody wanted to be on the wrong side of them. I think that has changed. That was unhealthy, it was quite dangerous to a democracy.”
“That created a world in which everybody went to their parties and nobody wanted to be on the wrong side of them.”
Though he avoids naming any individuals, it is difficult not to think of the now renowned ‘Chipping Norton’ set when he describes this network, in which senior politicians and journalists rubbed shoulders at wild, allegedly cocaine-fuelled gatherings.
Despite the closure of News of the World and across-the-board falling print circulations, Rusbridger believes that the influence of Britain’s tabloid press is still “considerable”. The stories printed by The Sun, The Daily Mail, and other papers, set the news agenda more widely, with the press’ influence extending far beyond its regular readers. Indeed, discussing this year’s General Election, he believes that “if the overwhelming narrative built up is that this bloke is an idiot, and all reporting is forced into that mould, that has to have an effect.”
Responding to Piers Morgan’s claim, made in an interview with The Oxford Student earlier this year, that The Guardian has far more influence among its own high-end readership than any of the ‘Tory’ papers do, Rusbridger tells me that The Guardian has a “a very loyal readership, […] people who love The Guardian really love The Guardian.”
Since the paper’s recent rapid online expansion, however, aided by its completely free content, it now also has a “very large readership”.
“There are people who are new to The Guardian who are probably less familiar with its traditions, what it represents, where it’s come from.”
Our conversation moves quickly on to another defining moment of Rusbridger’s editorship: the revelations of mass governmental surveillance made by NSA contractor Edward Snowden, in which The Guardian exposed the activities of the NSA and GCHQ, Britain’s top intelligence agency, which included the collection of vast quantities of communications data.
Following a General Election campaign in which issues of privacy, civil liberties, and surveillance barely figured, I was curious to ask Rusbridger why the surveillance revelations seemed to have had such a limited impact upon the British electorate.
“There is a massive deficit in technological understanding,” he tells me, “most people don’t really understand what’s going on. If I was to knock on your door and say I’m a policeman, can I collect all your papers because I want to store them, we’re not going to look at them, but we just want to have them available? You would say no, please don’t come across my front door. Yet that’s what the state has done, something which for 300 years has been regarded as repugnant, but because you can’t see it happening, people maybe don’t believe that it is happening.”
The British public, he believes, has “historically been a bit complacent about this. We gave the world George Orwell, but we don’t believe that could ever happen here.”
“We gave the world George Orwell, but we don’t believe that could ever happen here.”
Speaking shortly before the unveiling of the government’s Investigatory Powers Bill, which will force internet providers to retain the online browsing history of everybody in Britain, Rusbridger’s words seem especially prescient.
Is the government embarked on a crusade against the free press, I ask, thinking particularly of the 2013 incident in which Guardian journalists were pressured by GCHQ officials to destroy hard drives containing classified Snowden information.
“They are careless … literally”, he replies, “they don’t pay enough attention [to the free press]. It seems incredible to me that the government has effectively abolished the confidentiality that exists between journalists and their sources. I don’t think it’s good that a government can’t understand why there should be a sacred relationship there. That carelessness about these kinds of things isn’t good.”
Another conflict between the government and journalists now revolves around the future of the BBC, with Conservative Culture Secretary John Whittingdale waging an alleged “war” on the corporation. Rusbridger avoids giving any strong opinions on this topic, instead insisting that Whittingdale is “not an idiot” and “knows more about this subject than any recent Secretary of State”. Rusbridger is suspending his judgement “till we discover whether this is sabre rattling or the real thing”.
I could not finish my interview with Rusbridger without discussing the one issue that has come to dominate argument on university campuses: freedom of speech. With the government intensifying its student anti-radicalism drive, and student unions across the country no-platforming various speakers for expressing controversial views, I was keen to hear Rusbridger’s view on what has become the ultimate student issue.
Though cautioning that he does not yet “know enough about the practice [of no-platforming] to know who’s being banned”, he describes universities as “bastions of free speech”, opining that “in general, I usually think it’s better to listen to these people. As an editor, I would print pieces from people who were considered beyond the pale. I printed Sin Feinn at a time when they were very unpopular. I even printed Osama bin Laden at one point. We would certainly print the Muslim Brotherhood.”
“As an editor, I would print pieces from people who were considered beyond the pale.”
He believes that no-platforming would only “drive people to the margins”, and generally “unhappy things happen at the margins”.
I ask him specifically about radical feminist writer Julie Bindel, who contributed to The Guardian while Rusbridger was editor, and has been ‘no-platformed’ from various British universities for expressing views deemed transphobic. Indeed, this newspaper was criticised by Oxford’s LGBTQ Society in January of this year for “platforming” Bindel by printing an interview with her – something done by Rusbridger’s paper on an almost weekly basis.
Admitting that he “does not know the origins of [the complaints against Bindel],” Rusbridger says he “would doubt there is anything Julie Bindel thinks that should be beyond the pale of discussion”, and when asked whether he believes that no-platforming policies of student unions are threatening free speech more generally, he simply responds, “I’ll discover”. I’m sure he will.
As our conversation draws to a close, the feeling speaking with an academic in a university tutorial returns. Rusbridger has insisted in the past that he did not take to academics, and only felt like a “duck in water” once he had joined the world of newspaper journalism.
“Writing about Ezra Pound was not my bag,” he told The New Statesman.
As I leave his study, however, and walk through Lady Margaret Hall’s quiet, autumnal grounds, I could not help but think that Alan Rusbridger may well have found his natural habitat.