Alan Rusbridger. Photo: Getty
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What does Alan Rusbridger’s departure mean for his beloved “digital-first” model?

The Guardian editor-in-chief, who has pioneered the paper’s online growth by making all content available on the internet for free, has announced that he is stepping down. What now?

Though Alan Rusbridger told me in 2012 that he wasn’t thinking about retirement, he stopped some way short of a categorical denial that he was nearing the end of his editorship. So the announcement that the Guardian editor-in-chief will step down next summer is no real surprise. By then, he will be 61 and have completed 20 years in the chair. Last spring, for its articles on the US National Security Agency’s clandestine surveillance activities, based on leaks from Edward Snowden, the Guardian, jointly with the Washington Post, won the Pulitzer Prize, the highest accolade in US journalism. That was an extraordinary honour for a non-American paper and, for Rusbridger, the best possible vindication of his ambition to turn the Guardian into a global brand.

But perhaps the most important thing for the outgoing editor – though, as always, Rusbridger hides his opinions behind a Buddha-like exterior – is that a potential successor who shares his vision is in place. Janine Gibson, launch editor of Guardian US, Rusbridger’s deputy since the summer and editor-in-chief of the company’s digital operations, is quoted by Ladbrokes as the 6-4 favourite to become the next editor. To many insiders, those odds look generous. The only cloud on her horizon is that, driven and ambitious, she has upset many older hands since her return from America with her determination to separate the website from the paper (“decoupling” is the latest buzzword in the industry), making the former the senior partner. Though many critics have been impressed by Gibson’s willingness to listen to their reservations and she is widely liked and respected, Katharine Viner (3-1 second favourite), a former joint deputy editor and now Guardian US editor, would probably win in the charm stakes. She could conceivably top the staff poll but, while influential, that is not binding on the Scott Trust which will make the appointment. And this isn’t the 1970s even on the Guardian: the notion that a proletarian uprising could derail a carefully planned corporate strategy is for the birds. 

Rusbridger’s belief that the Guardian should be a digital company that happens incidentally to publish a newspaper, and that only for the time being, still has its internal critics. So does his view that, as the more disgruntled put it, “we should give away our content free”, charging nothing for access to the website while the papers still lose around £30m annually. And the critics take some encouragement from the news that Rupert Murdoch’s Times and Sunday Times, protected by an online paywall, have just recorded an operating profit for the first time in 13 years – a measly £1.7m but one that is, as Rusbridger’s somewhat acerbic predecessor Peter Preston puts it, “here and now, not years down the line”. The Guardian, however, is not likely to change course now, particularly since most of the UK newspaper industry takes the same approach and regards Murdoch as an ageing, print-obsessed eccentric. Rusbridger, who will become Scott Trust chairman when he vacates the editorship, will no doubt ensure that there is no backsliding from what, in his mind, has become almost an article of faith.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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