For building a global media organisation dedicated to responsible journalism in the public interest, undaunted by the challenges of exposing corporate and government malpractices.
Alan Charles Rusbridger is a renowned British journalist and author who has been setting benchmarks in journalism for many years. He was formerly the editor-in-chief of The Guardian and oversaw the integration of the paper and digital operations, making The Guardian the second-largest serious English-speaking newspaper website in the world and one of the most important sources for news on the global environment, development and human rights questions.
During his editorship, The Guardian has fought a number of high-profile battles over libel and press freedom, including cases involving Wikileaks and the News of the World phone hacking scandal. In 2013, Rusbridger played a leading role in publishing the surveillance revelations of US whistleblower Edward Snowden, persisting in this endeavour in the face of fierce government pressure.
Responsible journalism in a digital world
Rusbridger’s career began at the British newspaper Cambridge Evening News, where he trained as a reporter, before joining The Guardian in 1979 as a feature writer and diary columnist. In 1986, he left the paper to become a TV critic for The Observer and the next year he worked as the Washington correspondent of the London Daily News. In 1989, he returned to The Guardian as a feature writer and soon moved from writing to editing. In 1995, he became editor-in-chief.
At a time when a global debate on issues of war and peace, governance and the preservation of our global environment is more badly needed than ever, and with the internet increasingly connecting the world’s citizens, many newspapers are paradoxically reducing their numbers of foreign correspondents. Faced with the same trend of dwindling print sales as his competitors, Rusbridger has decided to not compromise the quality of The Guardian’s reporting on urgent global challenges. It now has more than 30 correspondents in 20 countries. In addition, there are two large regional operations in the US and Australia and networks around Africa, Eastern Europe, Iran and North Korea.
To meet the challenges of a rapidly transforming global media landscape, The Guardian is at the forefront of integrating news content across platforms. While other online publications install paywalls, Rusbridger has insisted on free access to its online version. This has turned The Guardian from the 9th largest paper in the UK to the second largest “serious” (not tabloid) news organisation in the world, after The New York Times, with a total audience of more than 100 million per month. The goal is for the broad readership to make it possible to finance the online version through advertising income.
The Guardian uses networks of selected bloggers to add to the reporting diversity of its journalists. This has enabled it to create the world’s biggest environmental news site. This method is also used for the coverage of culture, science, sport and other topics, “inviting everyone to be a reporter.” Rusbridger describes his goals as building a new model of a trust-based not-for-profit news organisation and fostering the democratisation of information.
Phone Hacking Scandal
The Guardian played a central role in uncovering and publicising the scandal about the now-defunct News of the World and other Murdoch publications engaging in phone hacking, police bribery, and exercising improper influence in the pursuit of stories to publish. This came about through one Guardian reporter working on the story for more than five years.
The scandal raised awareness of the possibilities of new technologies, combined with a news organisation so dominating that it could intimidate Parliament, the police and press regulators by its ability to access private information. The Guardian, under Rusbridger’s leadership, showed that it was possible to stand up to this power, and survive, and the Murdoch press’ plan to gain a similar dominance over TV was stopped.
The Snowden revelations
In 2013, US whistleblower Edward Snowden came to The Guardian with the biggest-ever leak of intelligence documents because he admired the paper’s investigative track record and because it had hired Glenn Greenwald – a former lawyer who wrote an expert blog on national security. Over the next few months, Rusbridger put a team of around a dozen reporters and editors on the story - painstakingly working through complex material in order to produce a series of exclusive stories about the secret activities of the US National Security Agency (NSA) and the UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), which were followed up around the world.
The story was a complicated one to report and edit, given that Snowden had distributed material to four different players across three different continents. It involved coordination across London, Hong Kong, Rio De Janeiro, New York, Berlin, Sydney and Russia. In addition to the reporters and editors, Rusbridger pulled in tech experts, security consultants and lawyers. Throughout, he and his colleagues balanced the need to reveal the true extent of the surveillance and the clear intentions to further extend these illegal practices, with the need to protect legitimate state security concerns. During the period of preparation and publication of the Snowden files, Rusbridger provided unwavering support and leadership to his colleagues, grounded in his conviction that an enormous public interest dimension compelled publication.
The Guardian published the first story on the leaks on Wednesday, June 5, 2013. This first piece, detailing a secret court order issued in April 2013 that compelled Verizon to hand over consumer data to the NSA, was followed, on June 6 by a second story, exposing the PRISM program, and then a third, on June 7 explaining how the British GCHQ gained access to PRISM in order to collect user data from US companies. On June 8, Greenwald and Ewan MacAskill published in The Guardian a report about an internal NSA tool, known as “Boundless Informant,” which recorded, analysed and tracked the data collected by the agency.
The official authorities pushed back – trying to attack The Guardian’s reporting. The police were called in to investigate and – in an unprecedented move – the Cabinet Secretary was involved in discussions about destroying the paper’s source material. According to Rusbridger, “The British state had decreed that there had been ‘enough’ debate around the material leaked in late May by the former NSA contractor Snowden. If The Guardian refused to hand back or destroy the documents, I, as editor of The Guardian, could expect either an injunction or a visit by the police. The state, in any event, was threatening prior restraint of reporting and discussion by the press, no matter its public interest or importance.”
As other copies of the material existed, Rusbridger agreed to destroy The Guardian’s London copies witnessed by two state observers, knowing that the reporting and editing would continue out of New York. He wrote, “At some level, I suspect our interlocutors realised that the game had changed. The technology that so excites the spooks – that gives them an all-seeing eye into billions of lives – is also technology that is virtually impossible to control or contain.”
Honours and other roles
Rusbridger and reporter Nick Davies received the UK’s Media Society Award for their revelations and coverage of the phone-hacking story in The Guardian. Rusbridger was awarded the Goldsmith Career Award for Excellence in Journalism by Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Centre. The Guardian was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2014. In April 2014, The Guardian was named newspaper of the year and won the top digital prize at the British Press Awards. Rusbridger was also awarded the Spanish Ortega y Gasset Award for journalism and the 2014 European Press Prize. In 2012, the Committee to Protect Journalists honoured Rusbridger at the 22nd Annual International Press Freedom Awards. In September 2014, he was made an honorary doctor at the University of Oslo and honoured by City University of New York and Columbia Journalism School.
Rusbridger is a member of the board of The Guardian News and Media, of the main board of The Guardian Media Group and of the Scott Trust, which owns The Guardian and The Observer. Rusbridger was a visiting Fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford, and is Visiting Professor of History at Queen Mary, University of London and at Cardiff University. Between 2004 and 2013 he was Chair of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. Since 2015, he has been the Principal of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.