Robin Lustig interviews Alan Rusbridger

Festival review by Bridget Osborne

September 2018

“There’s this thing called the Internet. I think it’s going to be quite big”

Alan Rusbridger was editor in chief of the Guardian from 1995 – 2015, the twenty years during which a revolution happened that is every bit as great as the invention of the printing press 500 years earlier. “It was about 100 years before people got the hang of books” he told a packed audience at the 2018 Chiswick Book Festival: “This revolution is about ten minutes old”.

Alan Rusbridger’s book Breaking News -The Remaking of Journalism And Why It Matters Now describes what it was like trying to run a newspaper at the same time as dealing with huge new internet information companies moving in and hoovering up all the advertising revenue. It was a period in which not only did newspapers have to find other sources of revenue, but during which the whole nature of journalism changed.

The time when journalists were acknowledged authorities, the only people privileged to report on events, with time to consider how they crafted their story before it went to press, was gone. In its place was an era in which news had to be instant, and everyone was producing content, not just journalists. Looking back, he said, his generation had been privileged to have been writing at time when they held such a position of influence unchallenged.

Realisation of the magnitude of the change dawned gradually, he told Robin Lustig. He remembered saying in an editorial meeting “there’s this thing called the internet and I think it’s going to be quite big”. It took the industry a while to get to grips with just how big.

“If Facebook was a country it would be the most populous in the world” he pointed out, yet it is a young country and is still finding its way. Facebook is under pressure not to publish dangerous content, but Rusbridger said we should be patient: “Zuckerberg realises his position is untenable but doesn’t want to be responsible for all the content of his users … We have to help them and be patient … Let’s not ride in with hobnail boots and destroy them”.

“Potentially a very dark time”

This is “potentially a very dark time” he told Robin Lustig, who himself worked for Reuters, the Observer and the BBC, when 50% of people said they couldn’t tell the difference between information that is real and that which is fake. “The Washington Post is keeping tabs on Trump. He’s been caught out on some 5,000 lies to date. He is taking aim at the New York Times which is perhaps the best newspaper in the world … Delegitimising these processes … When people can’t tell what’s true everything works on emotion”.

In this situation he said “the only justification for journalism is that we are performing a public service in the public interest.”

In an age where young people get most of their news from Facebook, (including his very bright students at Lady Margaret Hall, the Oxford college where he is now Principal) we have to start teaching media literacy. “There’s a job of work to be done with young people” he said, enabling them to discern truth from falsehood. “If the world wakes up in time we may be alright”.

Robin Lustig’s own book, an autobiography entitled Is Anything Happening? My Life as a Newsman was published in 2017. You can buy either book from any good bookshop, including Chiswick Waterstones.