Newspapers are in crisis—yet they have greater reach than ever before. And nowhere is this truer than at the Guardian, the paper that revealed the phone-hacking scandal. Tim de Lisle follows its triumphs and tribulations and talks to its editor…
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, July/August 2012
IT WAS A bright warm day in March, and one of the world’s leading newspapers was doing something radical: meeting its readers. The Guardian was holding the first festival in its 191-year history, billed as the Guardian Open Weekend. It opened the doors of its offices, at the King’s Place arts centre behind King’s Cross station in London, and offered passes for £30 or £40 a day or £60 for the weekend (one child free with every adult). Around 5,000 readers poured in. Among them was a Baptist minister in his mid-80s who had taken the paper, religiously, for 66 years.
The speakers included painters, politicians, physicists, rock stars, novelists, explorers, actors, footballers and philosophers. There were 188 events, and still the queues were long. You could take a boat trip on the canal, commission a T-shirt from a graffiti artist, eat mackerel and chips “curated” by a local chef, or browse second-hand books on a barge. You could observe the Guardian reader, and see how this semi-mythical figure now comes in two broad types—the over-60s, in linen jackets or sensible cardies, looking like retired teachers or psychotherapists, and the under-35s, in denim or leather, harder to pin a profession on. You could see the Guardian’s editor-in-chief, Alan Rusbridger, chatting to readers, tall and mop-haired with a satchel over his shoulder, simultaneously boyish and avuncular. You could listen to folk bands playing and poets reading from their work, and watch a blank white wall slowly turn into a giant mural, a Bayeux tapestry of vivid vignettes from the weekend captured by a team of illustrators. Among them was a cuddly, felt-tipped version of the artist Grayson Perry, in his transvestite mode, with a speech bubble. “Bite the hand that feeds,” it said, “but not too hard.”
The atmosphere was stimulating and fiercely polite. The Guardian is easy to mock for its sandal-wearing earnestness, its champagne socialism and congenital weakness for typos, but its readers en masse seemed like the kind any editor would be glad to have: curious, questioning, quick to laugh. Seeing the rapport between them and their paper, feeling its pull for the powerful and the talented, enjoying this brand-new festival that felt as if it had been going for years, you could easily have assumed that everything in the Guardian was rosy.
IN MANY WAYS, it is. With its journalism, the Guardian has been having an astonishing run. For 20 years or more, ever since a bold reinvention led by Rusbridger’s predecessor Peter Preston in 1988, it has been the most stylish paper in the hyper-competitive British quality pack, the wittiest and best-designed, the strongest for features, the one most likely to reflect modern life. But it ruled only at what journalists call the soft end. In the 1970s, the age of Woodward and Bernstein, the Guardian’s best-remembered story was an April fool from 1977, which dreamt up the Pacific nation of San Serriffe – beautifully done but disclosing nothing more than its own sardonic wit. In the 1990s, the Guardian began to land some scoops, notably the scandals that brought down two Tory MPs, Jonathan Aitken and Neil Hamilton. But it still wasn’t known for big investigations, the kind of stories that demand courage, persistence and resources. This is where its culture has changed. It ran a sustained investigation into illicit payments by the arms giant BAE—first alleged in 2003, finally admitted in 2010, and now the subject of nine-figure compensation settlements. It did well with the Wikileaks diplomatic cables, and the English riots of 2011 and their causes.
Above all, it has led the way in the News International phone-hacking scandal, a farrago of power, corruption and lies, exposed by Nick Davies and other Guardian reporters. For two years, their investigation was lonely and scoffed at. A police chief urged Rusbridger to drop it; the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who presides over the Metropolitan Police, called it “codswallop”. Then, last July, came the Guardian’s disclosure that the targets included the murdered teenager Milly Dowler. The story erupted across all the media. It has now led to the closure of the News of the World, the humbling of Rupert Murdoch, the fall of his son James, the arrest of his favourite Rebekah Brooks, multiple resignations by senior policemen and media executives, at least 50 more arrests, and six official investigations—three criminal ones, employing 150 police officers; one by a House of Commons select committee, one by the communications regulator Ofcom, and, most theatrically, the Leveson inquiry into the regulation of the media, which has spent months shining a fitful light on the mucky machinations of power. By the end of May, when it emerged that the Conservative-led coalition had allowed a former Murdoch editor to work at 10 Downing Street without the normal security vetting, the trail of dirt led all the way to David Cameron’s desk.
The hacking saga has shown journalism at its worst, invading the privacy of a murdered schoolgirl and her family, but also at its best, exposing a web of illegal activity that the police had missed, and speaking truth to power at a time when Rebekah Brooks, for one, was busy kissing it on both cheeks.
The Guardian’s reporting has not been faultless—it had to retract the claim that News of the World reporters had deleted voicemails on Milly Dowler’s phone, which caused an extra layer of public revulsion. But this will still go down as one of the great investigations. As Watergate is to the Washington Post, and thalidomide to the Sunday Times, so phone-hacking will surely be to the Guardian: a defining moment in its history. In March, Rusbridger went to Harvard to receive the Goldsmith Career Award from the Joan Shorenstein Centre, one of the highest honours in American journalism. He was the first non-American to win it. “V happy to be in Harvard for a career award,” he told his 70,000 Twitter followers. “Like reading nice obit without going to trouble of dying.”
This triumph of old-school reporting has been accompanied by spectacular success in new media. The Guardian has never been a big-selling newspaper: among the 11 national dailies in Britain, it lies 10th, with only the Independent behind it. But on the internet, the Guardian lies second among British newspaper sites (behind the Mail, which cheerfully chases hits by aiming lower than its print sister) and in the top five in the world, rubbing shoulders with the New York Times. Where many newspapers treated the web with suspicion, the Guardian dived in, starting early (1995), experimenting widely, pioneering live-blogging, embracing citizen journalism, mastering slide shows and timelines and interactive graphics. By March 2012 it was putting up 400 pieces of content every 24 hours. Its network of sites had a daily average of 4m browsers, as many as the sites for Britain’s bestselling newspaper (the Sun) and its bestselling broadsheet (the Telegraph) put together. The Guardian’s total traffic, around 67m unique browsers a month, was still rising by 60-70% a year.
A third of those readers are in America, which is an extraordinary achievement for a left-leaning British newspaper with its roots in Manchester. The urge to crack America is a common yearning in British public life, affecting not just rock bands and TV personalities but supermarkets (Tesco, which hasn’t succeeded) and prime ministers (Tony Blair, who has). In the news media, only three British institutions apart from the Mail have made a big impact in America: the BBC, which was already world-famous before it launched BBC America in 1998; The Economist (mothership of this magazine), whose abiding belief in the free market chimes with American values; and now the Guardian, which had no such head start. If, 15 years ago, anyone in British newspapers had predicted that the Guardian would soon find an audience of 20m in America, they would have been laughed out of the pub.
In terms of reach and impact, the Guardian is doing better than ever before. But its success may contain the seeds of its demise. Its print circulation is tumbling. In October 2005, boosted by a change to the medium-sized Berliner format, the average daily circulation was 403,297. By March 2012 it was down to 217,190. Those figures are not quite like-for-like, as the Guardian has sworn off the Viagra of giveaway copies and overseas sales (which tend to be counted less rigorously); but they are still bleak. Saturday sales remain sturdy, at 377,000, but, on a typical weekday, only 178,000 people buy the Guardian, while millions graze on it for nothing on their screens. In the financial year 2009-10, the national newspapers division of Guardian Media Group—which also includes the Observer, Britain’s oldest Sunday paper—lost £37m. The following year, it managed to cut costs by £26m, and still ended up losing £38m. In May, Rusbridger told me he was expecting a similar loss for 2011-12. So, for three years running, the Guardian has been losing £100,000 a day. This is not boom or bust, but both at once: the best of times, and the worst of times.
At the Open Weekend, one event looked at whether journalism was a second-rate form of writing. In the audience of 50 or so was the white-haired figure of Nick Davies, taking a breather from his investigative duties. When the conversation turned to long-form journalism, he spoke up, sounding exasperated. “In 20 years’ time,” he said, “there won’t be any newspapers left to do this. All these millions of hits won’t pay our salaries. The internet is killing journalism.”