Concrete spoke to Alan Rusbridger, former Editor-in-Chief of the Guardian, ahead of his lecture at UEA:
“Journalists have got to adapt to this new age, and think quite radically about how people consume news”. That is the advice of Alan Rusbridger: former Editor in Chief of the Guardian, and Principal of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, who visited UEA on 24th February to deliver the John Garrett Memorial lecture. I spoke to Rusbridger ahead of his lecture to discuss politics, 21st century media and the rise of fake news.
Having first joined a news team in his Cambridge holidays in the early 1970s, the news media changed immeasurably during Rusbridger’s time with the reporter’s notebook, before he retired from journalism eighteen months ago.
He told me that “the monopoly that newspapers had has changed…Newspapers came out of an era when very few people had printing presses, and therefore, very few people could distribute information. That’s now changed. We all hold a printing press in our pocket. Politicians, celebrities, even the President of the United States can address billions without the help of a newspaper”.
“What a newspaper was, what a newspaper did for 200 years has fundamentally changed.”
Whilst everybody now has the potential to be a reporter that doesn’t mean that everybody has the potential to be a good reporter. ‘Fake news’ is a term that has dominated the political agenda in the last 12 months: from Brexit claims on the side of red buses, to Donald Trump loudly dismissing any headline that suggests a connection with Russia and stories about Clinton’s apparent corruption filling our Facebook feeds: it’s difficult to discern what the term really means. On the day that Rusbridger delivered his lecture, several of the world’s biggest and most influential news organisations including the BBC and the Guardian found themselves lumbered with the label, having been banned from the White House press briefings.
I asked Alan how this phenomenon has influenced reporting, and how we can be sure to trust what we are reading. He said: “clickbait and fake news: the terms are now being used indiscriminately, but I think of fake news as a reasonably narrow category of stuff, whether it is created deliberately, or the product of careless production.”
During his lecture, he spoke more about the nature of fake news, and how we should try and differentiate what we read. “Fake news for financial gain is disinformation, fake news for political ends is misinformation, fake news like cat videos is just rubbish…We have lost sight of the value of journalism: the fundamental need to know what is true. It’s now no longer easy to see what is true and what is not, and that has great implications for democracy. People are waking up to that now.”
Given the influential role of the media in the democratic process, I asked Alan if it were possible for the media to be too involved in politics. I gave examples of some inflammatory front pages featured in the lead up to the EU referendum, but he defended the right to report, and pointed out that there are always centrist outlets to turn to.
“Journalists have a responsibility when there are plainly difficult decisions with more than one side of the argument, we have to be fair to both sides and say ‘this is a complicated question, here are both sides as we see it’.
“It is when journalism does not acknowledge both sides of an argument that it poses a threat. “Journalism that simplifies it or only gives one side is not really contributing to democracy.
“In the U.K the print press tends to be very partisan, and the TV press more centrist. In America, it is the opposite. Whereas the New York Times tries to be very fair, Fox News is obviously very partisan.”
We need both types of journalism, Rusbridger argued, to analyse the debate. “If in Britain you had Fox News and Fleet Street you wouldn’t be in hope of having a very enlightened debate. The BBC tries to maintain a central position: that’s helpful because you can measure the more argumentative media”, but admits that the name-calling, mudslinging, has altered the public relationship with journalists. “Trust in the media is low. The most powerful person in the world is saying it’s all fake, just trust me, there will be some people who will believe that and say “I don’t trust anybody, they’re all the same”.
But Rusbridger remains optimistic about the role of journalism in democracy. “This also has the counter effect. People are taking New York Times subscriptions in their thousands. People understand that we need journalism more than ever. Imagine what the world would be like with only Trump [to listen to.”
We’re now in an age where people don’t have to be intermediated, if you’re a politician, you can go straight to the public. That’s the great change of the last ten years, anybody can contact anybody else and directly communicate, but at the same time, I think people will realise it’s a form of un-intermediated propaganda. Some people know that Donald Trump doesn’t always tell the truth. Journalism as an independent force is very valuable: to be able to say what’s true and what’s not. An independent measuring tool is very important.”