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Yesterday’s News

Divorced from politics, an analysis of the media crisis rings hollow

On August 16, 1819, a crowd of at least sixty thousand peaceful demonstrators formed in St. Peter’s Fields in Manchester. The cause for the gathering was the hunger and poverty deepened by the recently passed Corn Laws and severe voting restrictions that prevented the British public from doing anything about it. Entire families took part as a band played and attendees danced; “the march was practised on local moors in the weeks before the meeting to ensure that everybody could arrive in an organised manner,” writes researcher Ruth Mather.

Chief magistrate and landowner William Hulton, however, saw a revolutionary insurrection, rather than a nonviolent protest. He ordered the Manchester Yeomanry to arrest a number of the protest’s top-billed speakers, and they proceeded to launch a cavalry charge into the crowd, killing between ten and twenty people and wounding hundreds. In the aftermath of what became quickly known as the Peterloo Massacre, the British government passed a number of laws targeting the rights of protesters, intending to quash the rising demand for universal suffrage.

Of course, these efforts to silence critics had the effect, as such efforts often do, of only manufacturing further critics. Two years after the massacre, a liberal-minded cotton baron named John Edward Taylor who had supported the protesters founded the Manchester Guardian, a newspaper intended to stoke and inform the surge in civic interest that Peterloo had inspired. A prospectus for the paper released in the weeks before its first issue promised that it would “zealously enforce the principles of civil and religious Liberty . . . it will warmly advocate the cause of Reform . . . and support, without reference to the party from which they emanate, whatever measures may . . . tend to promote the moral advantage, or the political welfare, of the Community.”

Breaking News is a passionate, if myopic, argument on behalf of civic-minded news media.

Just shy of two hundred years later, the Manchester Guardian and its liberal mission are still around. Rechristened the Guardian in 1959 and now headquartered in London, the newspaper is one of the English speaking world’s oldest surviving civic journalistic enterprises. In the last decade alone it broke major stories like the Snowden leak, the Murdoch phone hacking scandal, and Facebook’s partnership with Cambridge Analytica. The drama of the Guardian’s transition from Britain’s fourth most-read broadsheet to global news powerhouse is the primary subject of a new book, Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now, by former Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger. One of the most celebrated “newsmen” of his generation, Rusbridger is a rough British analogue of the Dean Baquets and Marty Barons who have become quasi-celebrities in the Trump era. Breaking News is both Rusbridger’s account of his twenty-year tenure at the helm of the Guardian and a passionate, if myopic, argument on behalf of civic-minded news media.

Clocking in at just under four hundred pages, much of which is concerned with lengthy discussions of print circulation rates and the revolutionary potential of comment sections, it’s not a thrilling read. But it is valuable, both for the long stretches of illuminating detail about the depravity of Britain’s upper-crust media class it contains, and, critically, what it reveals about the shortcomings of a liberal press whose conception of news media’s crisis is largely disconnected from any theory of political economy.

Born in Northern Rhodesia in what is now Zambia in 1953, Rusbridger began his own career in journalism through the old-fashioned way: he graduated from OxBridge (Magdalene College, Cambridge) and then worked for a few years at a local paper, the Cambridge Evening News, before leaving for the Guardian in London, where, minus brief detours to the Observer and the short-lived London Daily News in the late 1980s, he wrote and reported until his appointment to the top job in 1995.

The story of Rusbridger’s assumption of the editorship of the Guardian is a fairly typical account of what it was like to run a newspaper when daily print news still made fat profits or could at least casually limp onward year-to-year. Though Rupert Murdoch’s news empire had initiated a race-to-the-bottom price war in the mid-1990s, the Guardian was, if not unaffected, at least largely protected because of the unique lower-income, liberal, and more highly educated readership it served and the well-financed nonprofit Scott Trust by which it has been long owned.

But as the Dot Com frenzy was beginning to set in across the Atlantic, the Guardian’s relationship with the internet remained an afterthought. “An eighty-nine-page business plan drawn up in October 1996 made it plain where the priorities lay: print,” Rusbridger writes of that moment. Within a few years, however, Rusbridger successfully convinced the Scott Trust to start taking the internet seriously; 9/11 was a watershed moment, in particular, after which “something about the Guardian audience changed dramatically,” he observes. The Guardian, aided by both its offices’ physical distance from the chaos and a recent multimillion-pound investment in its web servers, was able to keep its website up and running while most other major news websites collapsed from the demand. Its web traffic rose more than 20 percent to fifty-one million page views the following month, and as the high traffic numbers continued, it began to dawn on Rusbridger “that these new readers might be here to stay.”

He describes what follows as a slow integration of print and web journalism processes, a shift toward accommodating a “global” audience, and a changing of investment priorities that would likely ring familiar to most major American newspaper staffers. Though some of Rusbridger’s personal obsessions (the immediacy of reader feedback provided by comment sections, for one) now read as quaint, much of the Guardian’s early and aggressive digital flag-planting comes across as prophetic.

Of course, as Rusbridger frequently points out, invoking the late screenwriter William Goldman, “No one knew anything,” and this digital prophecy could not predict what turned out to be a comparable amount of pain. The Guardian of the 2000s was subject to the same devastating forces affecting most news media, as internet usage rose year-after-year and print advertising budgets dried up. The £50 million large-format printing presses that the Guardian purchased in the mid-2000s were abandoned in 2017, two years after Rusbridger stepped down as editor. The paper has weighed retreating from the central London office tower into which it moved in 2008, and it has plans to lease some of its space to Rolls-Royce. As of January 2018, the Guardian had cut its headcount by four hundred over a two-year period, its own small contribution to the wave of journalists across the United Kingdom who have been put out of work by the closure and consolidation of hundreds of papers across the country.

The state of the news industry in the United Kingdom, as in the United States, is grim. Between 2005 and 2017, nearly 230 newspapers were shut down, and that doesn’t count the 2017 mass sacking at BuzzFeed’s UK bureau or other digital media layoffs from earlier this year. Many of the largest remaining national newspapers are either owned by the Murdochs or serve as the playthings of aristocrat owners who seem perfectly willing to bend journalistic scruples as befits their personal and political preferences. They still produce valuable work, of course, but you get the idea.

British journalists aren’t the only one who’ve suffered badly over the past decade and a half. The whole country continues to absorb the shocks of Tory austerity and neoliberal policy such that, as John Lanchester noted in the London Review of Books, British workers’ earnings growth is at its most stagnant since the Napoleonic era. British mortality rates, in decline for most of the twentieth century, have also risen since 2011, particularly among the poor and in cities further to England’s north. “In the fifth richest country in the world, this is not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one,” the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights wrote in a recent report. But Rusbridger is largely uninterested in this macro portrait of British economy and society. What he sketches instead is a picture of a British media whose soul has been hollowed out by meddling billionaire ownership, and of a corporate and political class increasingly resistant to public scrutiny.

British workers’ earnings growth is at its most stagnant since the Napoleonic era.

A mafia-like code of silence among British media barons gradually came into focus for Rusbridger during his tenure at the Guardian. The best chapter of the book is on this subject, and it concerns the Daily Telegraph and its owners—the Barclays, a pair of reclusive identical twin billionaires perhaps best known for purchasing an island in the English Channel and meddling in the local politics. A traditionally Tory broadsheet respected for its reportage, the Telegraph was one of the last British newspapers to churn out strong print profits. But during the Barclays regime, editorial operations have been firmly under the thumb of its conservative owners and the paper’s advertising department. According to Rusbridger, this applies to both political allies:

In the run-up to the 2015 general election the Telegraph once again proved itself a reliable friend—sending hundreds of thousands of emails on the day of polling to readers, urging them to vote Tory—an act which earned them a £30,000 fine by the UK’s data regulator, the Information Commissioner’s Office.

And to business partners:

To the dismay of the commercial department the culture desk only gave the film [Despicable Me 2] two stars out of a possible five. No one in editorial knew what kind of coverage had been promised to the client . . . “So the next thing that happened was [Telegraph client director] Melanie Danks marched on to the Floor and started shouting at the Head of Culture saying ‘You fucking take orders from us now.’”

The sort of outright payola and Fox News-like conservative political advocacy at the Telegraph was extreme by the measures of the British news industry but went largely undercovered. To Rusbridger, it raised the uncomfortable question of why British media was loath to report on itself. Only the Guardian and the political magazine Private Eye, he notes, really stuck with the story, even as Telegraph executives were called to testify before Parliament. Most other British newspapers, usually a bloodthirsty bunch, averted their gaze. “Journalists love the narrative of the watchdog; we hold power to account,” Rusbridger writes. “But we didn’t much like holding our own power up to the light. And we resented it bitterly if others tried.” Private Eye, for its part, recently noted that the Telegraph, the Daily Mail, and the Murdoch-owned Times have yet to run reviews of Rusbridger’s book: “The irony is that Rubbisher’s has numerous passages about the elders of Fleet Street and their rule that dog must never write about dog. That omerta seems to be working well.” The one exception to that silence is Paul Dacre, the recently departed editor-in-chief of the Daily Mail, who said in an early November speech that Breaking News “manages to combine rather cloying self-glorification and moral superiority with an almost visceral contempt of and disdain for the rest of the press.”

Rusbridger appears to be bound by his own kind of omerta. Careful not to say too much of what he actually thinks, his book lays out a vision of global media and politics that is largely detached from . . . actual politics. Recalling the rise of “fake news” during the 2016 election, Rusbridger furrows his brow at how rotten Americans’ media diet has become. “These were educated and otherwise reasonable people who, ten years ago, would have read a city or state newspaper,” he writes. “They would have agreed the facts, even if they disagreed about their implications. Now even the most basic contours of news were contested.”

This is Rusbridger’s inner newsman speaking, his instinct to prioritize the assembly and availability of facts about the world over what those facts suggest about what must be done. It is the same impulse that leads him to cheerlead the power of the Guardian’s reportage from Tahrir Square without ever mentioning that the Arab Spring, with the tacit approval of the U.S. and UK governments, ended in Egypt with the rise of a military dictatorship by many measures more brutal than the Mubarak regime before it.

Rusbridger encounters the same paradox closer to home. Though Brexit, the dishonest operators of the Leave campaign, and disinformation on social media all come under his rightful and righteous scrutiny, Rusbridger shies away from saying too much about the conditions that brought these forces to bear—beyond pointing to Facebook’s, Google’s, and Craigslist’s cannibalization of news media’s ad and classifieds revenue. Instead, he praises the work of journalist Carole Cadwalladr (whose publication, the Observer, is owned by the Guardian Media Group) for exposing Cambridge Analytica’s and Facebook’s misuse of millions of users’ data and the crooked financing behind much of the Leave campaign. What he never raises is the question of how fact-free Euroskepticism endured on Britain’s right wing for so many decades, alongside the ongoing, seamy pilfering of social welfare on behalf of the country’s wealthiest. Whatever link exists between the United Kingdom’s chasmic inequality, the passage of Brexit, and the collapse of trust in British media, Rusbridger declines to connect the dots.

His own thesis is weakened by a similar analytical shortcoming. Though journalism does not possess inherent powers to alter the currents of politics, it can open up the powerful to close scrutiny—which is why Rusbridger correctly surmises that “the ultimate defence of journalism is that it remains a public good.” But his conception of journalism never seriously considers the larger dilemma posed by private wealth deployed for the public’s benefit at private discretion, which to him appears as mostly an issue of having the wrong owners—he heaps praise on Jeff Bezos for his hands-off management of the Washington Post. When defending the Guardian’s funding partnerships with groups like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, George Soros, and Barclays Bank, Rusbridger credibly claims that the Guardian never compromised on its editorial independence for any of its partners. But he skirts around the central problem: relying on the goodwill of the super-rich or a bank’s marketing spend to create a “public good” that is “public” in its consumption but not its production or ownership. Though the Guardian’s ambitious “membership” subscription program has already signed up over 800,000 people—making up 12 percent of the paper’s overall revenue—this is a testament to the generosity of its readers, not how public the services it offers actually are.

Rusbridger’s book lays out a vision of global media and politics that is largely detached from . . . actual politics.

Ultimately, Rusbridger arrives at a straightforward and hardly disagreeable point: journalism is both more vital and endangered than ever. But he falls short of making a convincing case for the tagline of his book—why it matters now. Absent his “Democracy Dies in Darkness”-style call for press freedoms, he doesn’t offer any ideas about the political work required to build on whatever facts a free press digs up. While moaning about Facebook, Google, billionaires, and their assault on the news business’s bottom line, he ducks how both Thatcherite and New Labour policies designed to marginalize common people have contributed to the creation of, as one recent survey put it, “a nation of news-avoiders”: a public distrustful of politicians and media enablers who promised a better future but delivered an inequitable and, in many cases far worse, present. Rusbridger is unwilling to make the case that Britain’s decades-long political rot goes a long way toward explaining distrust towards an elite-friendly news media. This suggests he suffers from either a lack of imagination or a blindness to the fundamental failures of the liberal-minded ruling class to which, however uncomfortably, he belongs.

At one point in Breaking News, Rusbridger discusses the Guardian’s 2015 campaign on behalf of the Paris Climate Agreement, #keepitintheground, an unusual and explicit advocacy initiative. It was his editorial swan song, a pursuit meant to assuage a Christmas 2014 “regret” about climate coverage that Rusbridger experienced as his tenure at the Guardian drew to a close. In his view, this campaign triumphed; it was part of a broader tide of advocacy that led major American and British investors to agree to divest from fossil fuels, and ultimately the Paris Agreement was ratified.

Two years later, Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris Agreement. Though Theresa May and the United Kingdom are still proud signatories, critics have pointed out that the voluntary emissions cuts agreed to by most nations are unserious benchmarks that are not likely to be met in any case. Meanwhile, a curious reader can visit the Guardian’s still-live campaign page, and find, prominently located, a sixty-second video guide to “why the Paris climate summit will succeed.”