Breaking News is a fascinating and at times irritating book, succinctly described in its subtitle: “The Remaking Of Journalism And Why It Matters Now.” Alan Rusbridger was editor of the Guardian from 1995 to 2015. When he took over from Peter Preston, the internet was new and newspapers didn’t know what to do about it. Newspapers themselves had changed since Rusbridger got his first job on the Cambridge Evening News in 1976. New technology had eliminated the old means of production, but essentially the model was still the same. A newspaper was a tangible object; its production was financed partly by sales, partly by advertisements. Readers paid only part of the cost of the paper they read.
Then the internet made it possible for newspapers to appear on screen, and people could read them for free. Was it possible to charge them, by erecting a paywall? Argument was fierce. The Guardian didn’t charge readers: “Range before Revenue” was their watchword. Given that so many of its online readers were in the USA and other foreign countries, this made sense. However, it left open the question: how could you make digital journalism profitable? At least half the book deals with arguments about the best way of harnessing digital journalism, and making it pay. Meanwhile interaction with readers might change the nature of reporting. Stories for instance might be written as they happened, amended and added to in real time. Consequently the story written to a publication deadline would have been overtaken by more recent information by the time it appeared in next morning’s printed paper.
Rusbridger was fascinated by the idea that producing a newspaper might become a collaborative act, journalists and readers working together. But he also realised that the understanding of news itself might be changing. This is something we are all now aware of. The internet has made it possible to acquire information and stories very quickly and from anywhere and everywhere. But this has encouraged what we have come to call “fake news.” This of course is not new. (Think of Goebbels; think of Pravda.) News has always been presented selectively. It has often been heavily loaded. The confusion of reporting and comment has always been possible, frequently common. Nevertheless responsible newspapers, magazines, TV and radio programmes employed editors to check facts, query assertions. Now on publishing platforms like Facebook and Twitter, material of questionable veracity or accuracy may be widely transmitted before any questions have been asked. And because the transmission of news and opinion has become a two-way process, Rusbridger finds himself asking, reluctantly perhaps, whether the multitude of social media users are “more interested in dispassionate facts or in promoting versions of the world that support their prejudices.” A bit of both, one might reply, reflecting that even the most high-minded – even the Guardian? – may have prejudices which insensibly distort their understanding of events, and therefore their presentation of the facts. Bias may be unconscious; liars may believe in the truth of their lies: “That was never a penalty ref,” shrieks a Blue; “Penalty clear as can be,” shouts a Red. Fake news is often no more than what you want to believe.
In general Rusbridger is on the side of the angels. That’s to say, I think he is right more often than not, even while I qualify this by saying that his narrative isn’t free of a certain priggishness or self-righteousness long associated with the Guardian. The paper may have become the voice of the liberal metropolitan elite – a worldwide elite indeed; but it retains something of the old Manchester Nonconformist conscience, very evident in Rusbridger’s gripping account of the Guardian-led investigation of the hacking scandal and its publication of the Wikileaks documents and those purloined by Edward Snowden, documents which revealed the extent of supposedly democratic governments’ spying on their own citizens and their contemptuous disregard for both liberties and the law.
This is a fascinating book and, I think, an important one. Journalism will survive in some form or another, but the extent to which it will endure as a professional activity – by which, I mean, the activity by which some men and women earn their living – is uncertain. ■
Breaking News, by Alan Rusbridger, Canongate, 440pp, £20