Exclusive: Alan Rusbridger profile by Peter Wilby

The Guardian editor on the newspaper's future - an extended extract.

The Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger is profiled by Peter Wilby, the award-winning media commentator, in this week's New Statesman. In the 6,000-word piece Wilby asks: what is the future of the paper?

Below is a extract of the NS Profile's first 1,000 words. The article can be read in full in this week's New Statesman magazine, available to buy around the country from Thursday 31 May. Single copies of the issue can also be purchased online here.

 

EXTRACT: The quiet evangelist

By Peter Wilby

These are heady days for the Guardian and its editor, Alan Rusbridger. The News of the World, once the highest-circulation Sunday newspaper in the English-speaking world, is dead. Its proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, whose support was so assiduously sought by every prime minister for more than 30 years, is all but defeated, with some of his leading former executives facing criminal charges and his attempt to tighten his grip on the British television market decisively repelled. The entire system of press regulation faces drastic reform. Cabinet ministers and even David Cameron could yet be forced from office.

All of this is the outcome of the Guardian’s dogged pursuit of phone-hacking, an offence that was at first dismissed by police, politicians, most rival newspapers, the industry’s watchdog and even some of the paper’s own journalists as small-scale and trivial. Not since Harold Evans’s 1970s heyday, when the Sunday Times pursued the thalidomide scandal, has a newspaper investigation enjoyed such success and received such plaudits. For Rusbridger, who backed Nick Davies, the reporter who exposed the hacking scandal, it is a triumphant vindication, the crowning achievement of his 17-year career as editor.

Yet there is another side to the Rusbridger story, and to the Guardian’s. The newspaper, its Sunday sister, the Observer, and their digital operations recorded operating losses (before tax and exceptional items) of nearly £37m in the year to April 2011, up from £32.5m the previous year. A still bigger loss is expected to be announced for 2011-2012. Andrew Miller, chief executive of the paper’s parent company, Guar­dian Media Group, warned staff in 2011 that the company “could run out of cash in three to five years” and repeated in February this year that the financial position was “not sustainable”.

Thanks to technological change and a prolonged recession, all newspapers face falling sales, declining revenues and an uncertain future. The Guardian’s position, however, is unusually critical. Its chief source of advertising income – public-sector job vacancies – has collapsed, wiping out an annual £40m in revenue.

The Guardian has no rich proprietor, willing to pour in money until corners are turned and times improve. Nor does it have conventional shareholders, ready to provide capital on promises of future growth. Alone among UK newspapers, it is owned by a trust, set up in 1936, partly to avoid death duties, by the sons of its recently deceased owner and longest-serving editor, C P Scott. The Scott Trust is the Guar­dian’s guardian, charged not only with ensuring that the paper is “conducted in the future on the same lines and in same spirit as heretofore” (in other words, continuing the radical, albeit moderate, editorial approach that dates back to the Guardian’s foundation in Manchester in 1821) but also with securing its financial position “in perpetuity”.

As the Guardian itself has rarely been profitable, it depends on the trust to ensure its survival. For 75 years, by transferring profits from other assets managed by GMG – particularly the Manchester Evening News and the Auto Trader motoring magazines – the trust has kept the Guardian alive, though sometimes only just. In the past seven years, however, the trust and GMG have made a series of decisions that, some critics say, threaten to deprive the Guardian of its lifeline. At a time when the paper most needs sustenance, the trust’s capacity to continue covering its losses is in doubt.

Most editors play little role in company business. Rusbridger, however, sits not only on the board of Guardian News & Media, which runs the Guardian, the Observer and their digital operations, but also on the GMG and Scott Trust boards. He is therefore in an unusually strong position to drive through his ideas and press his case for resources. The Guardian – once described as the only institution accountable to a ghost – allows the editor extraordinary power and freedom. Because the purpose is not to make profit but to protect the paper’s soul, the editor sets the agenda. The trust is criticised in some quarters as a weak vehicle of accoun­tability, because about half of its members are journalists and lawyers who are (or have been) actively associated with the paper. “What Alan wants, Alan gets,” I was told, separately, by one former and one present member of the Scott Trust.

If the hacking investigation is Rusbridger’s finest achievement as Guardian editor, his success in establishing the paper’s online brand must rank a very close second. A self-confessed geek from an early age – he was a teenage photography enthusiast and used a Tandy, an early personal computer, to write his copy in the early 1980s – he recognised sooner than other Fleet Street editors how the worldwide web would transform journalism. The Guardian established a user-friendly website, investing £3m to launch it within two years of Rusbridger’s accession to the editorship in 1995. 

It moved quickly to exploit the possibilities of Web 2.0 (or social media), encouraging readers to engage in dialogue both with journalists and with each other and, eventually, to enhance the core editorial product. In four years out of the five up to 2009, it was declared the world’s best newspaper website in the online equivalent of the Oscars.

Today, the Guardian – still a lowly ninth in the league table of daily UK print circulation, lagging behind the Times and Telegraph – is an international brand, the fifth most read newspaper website in the world. According to unaudited figures, it is now read, in print and online, by 5.3 million people a week, a reach of which C P Scott could only have dreamed.

But again there is another side to the story: the vast majority of those readers do not pay. Although Rusbridger insists that his mind is not closed to charging for online access, his missionary enthusiasm for journalism on the web – some staff compare him to a leader of a religious cult – would make any decision to put up a paywall almost as sensational as the Pope renouncing the Virgin Birth. He says the Guar­dian is now “a digital company” that also publishes a newspaper. He and senior management executives believe that, in the not very distant future, the Guardian and other newspapers may cease, at least on weekdays, to publish in print at all. Yet the printed Guardian and Observer still generate 75 per cent of the revenue and nobody is sure that website advertising and other digital income – which, under GMG’s business plan, must double to £91m by 2016 – can replace them, particularly as a left-liberal brand is an uneasy host to much consumer advertising. Meanwhile, the revenue-generating print circulation continues to shrink, to about 215,000 this year against nearly 400,000 in 2006. As his critics see it, the Guardian’s editor has painted himself and his paper into a corner from which neither may ever emerge.

Rusbridger has some claim (always excepting C P Scott) to be the Guardian’s greatest editor. But will he also be its last? Now acclaimed as a hero, will he turn out to be the Guardian’s nemesis, unable to ensure that it continues “as heretofore”? 

 

Read this article in full in the forthcoming issue of the New Statesman, available on newsstands around the country from Thursday 31 May. You can subscribe here - and domestic and overseas purchasers can also order a single issue.

Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, at his office in Kings Place, London. Photo: Muir Vidler/New Statesman
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Ken Clarke: Theresa May has “no idea” what to do about Brexit

According to the former Chancellor, “nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next”.

Has Ken Clarke lost the greatest political battle of his career? He doesn’t think so. With his shoes off, he pads around his Westminster office in a striped shirt, bottle-green cords and spotty socks. Parliament’s most persistent Europhile seems relaxed. He laughs at the pervasive phrase that has issued from Downing Street since Theresa May became Prime Minister: “Brexit means Brexit.”

“A very simple phrase, but it didn’t mean anything,” he says. His blue eyes, still boyish at 76, twinkle. “It’s a brilliant reply! I thought it was rather witty. It took a day or two before people realised it didn’t actually answer the question.”

A former chancellor of the Exchequer, Clarke has served in three Conservative cabinets. His support for the European Union is well known. He has represented the seat of Rushcliffe in Nottinghamshire for 46 years, and his commitment to the European project has never wavered over the decades. It has survived every Tory civil war and even his three failed attempts to be elected Tory leader, standing on a pro-Europe platform, in 1997, 2001 and 2005.

“My political career looks as though it will coincide with Britain’s membership of the EU,” Clarke says, lowering himself into an armchair that overlooks the Thames. There are model cars perched along the windowsill – a hint of his love of motor racing.

Clarke won’t be based here, in this poky rooftop room in Portcullis House, Westminster, much longer. He has decided to step down at the next election, when he will be nearly 80. “I began by campaigning [in the 1960s] in support of Harold Macmillan’s application to enter [the EU], and I shall retire at the next election, when Britain will be on the point of leaving,” he says grimly.

Clarke supports Theresa May, having worked with her in cabinet for four years. But his allegiance was somewhat undermined when he was recorded describing her as a “bloody difficult woman” during this year’s leadership contest. He is openly critical of her regime, dismissing it as a “government with no policies”.

For a senior politician with a big reputation, Clarke is light-hearted in person – his face is usually scrunched up in merriment beneath his floppy hair. A number of times during our discussion, he says that he is trying to avoid getting “into trouble”. A painting of a stern Churchill and multiple illustrations of Gladstone look down at him from his walls as he proceeds to do just that.

“Nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next on the Brexit front,” he says. He has a warning for his former cabinet colleagues: “Serious uncertainty in your trading and political relationships with the rest of the world is dangerous if you allow it to persist.”

Clarke has seen some of the Tories’ bitterest feuds of the past at first hand, and he is concerned about party unity again. “Whatever is negotiated will be denounced by the ultra-Eurosceptics as a betrayal,” he says. “Theresa May has had the misfortune of taking over at the most impossible time. She faces an appalling problem of trying to get these ‘Three Brexiteers’ [Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox] to agree with each other, and putting together a coherent policy which a united cabinet can present to a waiting Parliament and public. Because nobody has the foggiest notion of what they want us to do.”

Clarke reserves his fiercest anger for these high-profile Brexiteers, lamenting: “People like Johnson and [Michael] Gove gave respectability to [Nigel] Farage’s arguments that immigration was somehow a great peril caused by the EU.”

During the referendum campaign, Clarke made headlines by describing Boris Johnson as “a nicer version of Donald Trump”, but today he seems more concerned about David Cameron. He has harsh words for his friend the former prime minister, calling the pledge to hold the referendum “a catastrophic decision”. “He will go down in history as the man who made the mistake of taking us out of the European Union, by mistake,” he says.

Clarke left the government in Cameron’s 2014 cabinet reshuffle – which came to be known as a “purge” of liberal Conservatives – and swapped his role as a minister without portfolio for life on the back benches. From there, he says, he will vote against the result of the referendum, which he dismisses as a “bizarre protest vote”.

“The idea that I’m suddenly going to change my lifelong opinions about the national interest and regard myself as instructed to vote in parliament on the basis of an opinion poll is laughable,” he growls. “My constituents voted Remain. I trust nobody will seriously suggest that I should vote in favour of leaving the European Union. I think it’s going to do serious damage.”

But No 10 has hinted that MPs won’t be given a say. “I do think parliament sooner or later is going to have to debate this,” Clarke insists. “In the normal way, holding the government to account for any policy the government produces . . . The idea that parliament’s going to have no say in this, and it’s all to be left to ministers, I would regard as appalling.”

Clarke has been characterised as a Tory “wet” since his days as one of the more liberal members of Margaret Thatcher’s government. It is thought that the former prime minister had a soft spot for his robust manner but viewed his left-wing leanings and pro-European passion with suspicion. He is one of parliament’s most enduring One-Nation Conservatives. Yet, with the Brexit vote, it feels as though his centrist strand of Tory politics is disappearing.

“I don’t think that’s extinct,” Clarke says. “The Conservative Party is certainly not doomed to go to the right.”

He does, however, see the rise of populism in the West as a warning. “I don’t want us to go lurching to the right,” he says. “There is a tendency for traditional parties to polarise, and for the right-wing one to go ever more to the right, and the left-wing one to go ever more to the left . . . It would be a catastrophe if that were to happen.”

Clarke’s dream of keeping the UK in Europe may be over, but he won’t be quiet while he feels that his party’s future is under threat. “Don’t get me into too much trouble,” he pleads, widening his eyes in a show of innocence, as he returns to his desk to finish his work. 

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories