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2 December 2020

Alan Rusbridger’s Diary: Robert Fisk, my struggles to sleep and what matters most about journalism

Does Rupert Murdoch tell his editors what to write? Did the late Robert Fisk make things up? Is objectivity better than subjectivity? So many questions...

By Alan Rusbridger

Does Rupert Murdoch tell his editors what to write? Did the late Robert Fisk make things up? Why do newspapers employ climate change deniers as columnists? Is objectivity better than subjectivity? Is “invisible mending” better than honest correction? Is “native advertising” a con on the public? Are metrics out of control? Does it matter that Freddie Starr never ate that hamster? What is a journalist?

So many questions.

In reviewing my last book, Breaking News, Peter Wilby (of this parish) counted 554 question marks in 442 pages – and noted drily that there were many more questions than answers. I suspect he might make the same complaint about my most recent book, News and How to Use It.

To take the first four questions listed above. Murdoch certainly tells some editors what to write; with others, it’s quite a bit more complicated. Robert Fisk was revered by many readers, but I’ve lost count of the number of colleagues who worked with him who have told me that his reporting was, um, “imaginative”. I spent a couple of days looking into one particularly controversial story about Syria in 2018. At the end of that research – and despite 25-plus years of experience of editing other people’s copy – I really couldn’t decide if Fisk’s reporting was well-founded or not. Sorry, Peter.

[see also: Rupert Murdoch saved the British newspaper industry – but at what cost?]

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Climate change? I simply can’t understand why newspapers – at the very time they are in an existential battle to persuade a sceptical public that they are to be trusted (and paid for) – should have continued to ask known climate change deniers to rant on about how the whole thing is a con. It makes no sense to me, so, no, I can’t give an answer.

As for objectivity/subjectivity: after 250-odd years of journalism, its practitioners still argue among themselves which is the better route to the truth. Americans tend to be on one side of the divide, Brits on the other. But if we can’t decide, how on Earth is the reader supposed to?

I believe journalism is, at its best, both necessary and a force for good. But there’s no denying it’s struggling at the moment, both to find economic security and to win trust. So the book is an attempt to explore some random aspects of the profession (or is it a craft? I don’t know) for the benefit of both journalists and audiences.

I wish I had more answers. But sometimes you just have to begin with the right questions.


Fireside stories

It’s odd publishing a book into a vacuum. No bookshops were open last week, and Amazon was struggling with its warehouse (it’s recovered now). We had a small Zoom toast on Thursday evening. But I decided to “launch” the book in the morning with the group of eight young students who make up this year’s Foundation Year at Lady Margaret Hall. This is the fifth cohort of young people from under-represented backgrounds and we currently have around 40 past, or present, such students in college. You can feel the difference.

For the launch, we met in the gazebo I put up in our back garden. The temperature outside was 1°C and there was ice on the roof of the tent, but we lit a firepit and I wore my best thermals. We talked about news for two hours – and it was, I have to say, infinitely more satisfying than a good many white-wine-and-a-nibble book events I’ve been to over the years.


A term like no other

Since October, I’ve met around 200 freshers in the gazebo – much better than encountering them on Zoom and safer than meeting in my office. This term has been like no other, but most of the new undergraduates and graduates seemed pleased to be in Oxford rather than sitting in their bedrooms at home. And there have been positives. I tend to ask each student if there’s anything worrying them about the prospect of Oxford. Nine out of ten reply either “workload” or “making friends”. Anxiety about work is still there – but nearly everyone I met this year said they hadn’t had to worry about friends, since they were all allocated “bubbles”, or households, of between six and ten. Only one student complained that they didn’t really get on with their housemates. The rest seemed to have bonded perfectly happily over meals and walks. And not feeling obliged to go to a nightclub three times in freshers’ week seems to have come to most as a blessed relief.


Battles at bedtime

Quite early into my editing career I lost the ability to sleep very well. A hundred pending emails, writs, rows, deadlines and scoops would scratch their way into my mind in the early hours and refuse to leave. For a long time, I survived on the BBC World Service through an earphone. There was nothing like an impending election in Ulan Bator to displace niggling worries.

But then the World Service changed and became much more feature-driven and, frankly, interesting. So that had to stop.

For a few months recently, I thought I’d found the perfect audiobook in Robert Tombs’s The English and their History, which weighs in at 45 hours and 32 minutes. You might drift off to Magna Carta, snooze lightly through the Peasants’ Revolt and wake up to the Wars of the Roses without much of it touching the sides of the brain.

Alas, after a while even that became too interesting. But now I think I have discovered the perfect literary Mogadon: military history. I’m now hypnotised each night by a rivetingly dull book on the Battle of Stalingrad – obsessed, as the author is, with artillery pieces, the changing thickness of steel on T-34 German tanks and the art of defrosting a Mosin carbine. Or something like that. After two weeks of drowsily not-quite listening to this book, I couldn’t tell you much about the battle that changed the shape of the Second World War. But I’ve never slept better. 

Alan Rusbridger is principal of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. His latest book, “News and How to Use It”, is published by Canongate.

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This article appears in the 02 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Crashed