Alan Rusbridger: If people can't tell what the truth is that's a disaster for democracy

There was an eclectic mixture of speakers at the Crown Hotel in Harrogate as a full house assembled for the latest leg of the spa town's international festivals series.
Alan Rusbridger, the former editor of the Guardian, pictured in Harrogate. Pic: Gary LongbottomAlan Rusbridger, the former editor of the Guardian, pictured in Harrogate. Pic: Gary Longbottom
Alan Rusbridger, the former editor of the Guardian, pictured in Harrogate. Pic: Gary Longbottom

Nobel Prize winning chemist Venki Ramakrishnan told the story of his race to uncover the structure of the ribosome - the machine which decodes DNA - before comedian Natalie Haynes delivered a modern recitation of stories from the Trojan War.

Also appearing was Alan Rusbridger, the former editor of the Guardian newspaper, whose talk about his recently-published book Breaking News looked at the past, present and future of the press and the forces threatening its freedom.

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After two decades at the helm of the newspaper - he retired in 2015 - Mr Rusbridger is undoubtedly qualified to reflect on the challenges facing journalism and its potential to do good in the world.

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Taking in the phone hacking scandal which saw the Prime Minister's director of communications sent to jail, and the disclosure of dynamite classified documents unearthed by Wikileaks, the Guardian has been at the centre of some of the highest-profile episodes involving the media in recent years.

But speaking to The Yorkshire Post in the main hall of the Crown Hotel, the day after his talk, Mr Rusbridger admits that it is only since he stepped down from the paper that he has been able to fully consider the fundamental principles of his craft and the revolution it has been undergoing for the last 15 years.

"It's funny that when you are working as a journalist you take so much for granted, you go in in the morning and you have to have a paper for the next day or a website, you try and clear your head to think about where this is all going but it is really hard," he says.

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"When you stop you find yourself asking very basic questions like the number one question: what is journalism?"

He says the question has become even more pointed in recent times, with sections of the Press publishing furious front pages about MPs failure to deliver Brexit.

"When you see some of the front pages over the last couple of days, you think 'what's that doing, is that a front page that is cross, is it ticking us off, is it trying to make us laugh? Is it trying to achieve a political end?'.

"The only way journalism is going to survive is if it does something that people find incredibly useful and important. If you are doing front pages that are just venting about Brexit you are doing none of those things and the internet does that better.

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"The two most important stories of our times in this country are Brexit and climate change, and I don't think the Press has really distinguished themselves.

"At the same time we are saying how can we survive and make the case that we are really important, we are doing things that don't really add up to what the public needs or trusts.

"Then there are questions about the public interest being served, are we clear what that is? To my mind there is a fantastic public interest in the community being informed accurately about what is going on, we can't have government, law or science unless we have facts, journalism is good at putting facts into the public domain.

"We can see how terrifying is is to live in a country across the Atlantic where two-thirds of people say they can't tell the difference between a good news source and a bad news source, whether things are true or not."

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In a notably London-centric national media, the Guardian is one the few to employ a team of reporters in northern England.

But Mr Rusbridger, who started his career at the local newspaper in Cambridge, admits that "for right and wrong, national life has become much more concentrated on London".

He says: "I fell into this trap myself a bit, thinking everything is happening in London, all the organisations and decision-making bodies are here, so you have to concentrate your firepower and reporters here.

"But I am glad the Guardian had more people in the North than other papers because if you start ignoring or not capturing the debate and lived experience of people in other parts of the country then you lead to people who feel they are being ignored. That leads to dangerous places."

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He says the Guardian, for so long kept afloat by its owners the Scott Trust after years of making losses, will finally make a profit in 2019.

This in part due to a membership scheme where everything it publishes online is free and readers are asked to volunteer cash, a contrast to the subscription model being pursued by many of its former Fleet Street rivals.

"We started having this debate around 2012 and had a lot of Guardian readers into the office.

"We said there are two ways you can help our journalism, one is paying for journalism as a private good, that was the same way it had been done for 200 years, you buy it so the people at the next table can't buy it, and if you discover they can get it for free you'd be very cross.

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"Nobody was keen on the model. So we said what about if it was a public good, you give us the money so that everyone in this room can read it, and then everybody in Harrogate can read it and everyone in the world can read it, and everyone's hand went up."

Mr Rusbridger fears there is a risk of the loss of trust in the media in Donald Trump's United States being repeated here, citing the question of whether Boris Johnson's government is in fact negotiating with the European Union in good faith over Brexit.

"That is an incredibly important question, you can't start talking about elections and no deals and prorogation if it turns out Britain wasn't negotiating, then we are being hoodwinked, these front pages are meaningless," he says.

"Are we being lied to or not, what's the truth? The general reader is really at a loss to know the truth, that is why two-thirds of readers now can't tell a good source from a bad source. Well that is a disaster for the overall health of journalism and democracy. I think it is dangerous."

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