Alan Rusbridger: ‘I’m just an ordinary Guardian reader...for now’
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Ahead of an appearance at Lucy Parham’s Celebrity Christmas Gala, the ex-Guardian editor talks about his love of piano, his life since stepping down and one way in which he actually admires Rupert Murdoch.
It’s been said that nothing prepares a prime minister for the sheer drop in tempo of life after politics. I wonder if the same applies to ex-newspaper editors. For Alan Rusbridger at least, leaving the Guardian at the comparatively young age of 61 meant he was in no rush to retire – in fact, since departing in May he has hardly had pause for breath.
“I took the summer off and went to India, where I lectured students in journalism for three weeks, so I did have a bit of a break,” insists the Kentish Town resident. It doesn’t sound like most people’s idea of a holiday, but then this is a man who has followed up 20 years of editorship by deciding to supervise over 800 students as the principal of Lady Margaret Hall at Oxford University. How, you may ask, does he ever relax?
On Sunday December 6, the answer will be on show when Rusbridger appears in Lucy Parham’s Celebrity Christmas Gala. Alongside famous faces such as Edward Fox, Alistair McGowan and Cathy Newman, he will be performing a short piano piece from Schumann’s Album For The Young.
Following on from his 2013 book, Play It Again – which documents the journalist’s year-long challenge to master Chopin’s First Ballade, Op 23, while handling the various scandals of WikiLeaks and phone hacking – it’s yet another example of his reignited passion for playing classical music.
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“Like lots of people I gave piano up when I was about 16 or 17,” says Rusbridger. “You know what it’s like, real life intervenes and you think, ‘Well I don’t have time for that anymore’. I really wrote the book to say that you could make the argument that music’s as important as work. If you work hard, you probably need something that’s going to balance out your life.”
Setting his alarm 15 minutes earlier each morning, the amateur pianist would diligently practice the piece. Did classical music, as is often suggested, sharpen his mind for the day ahead?
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“It certainly felt like that to me; it felt like my brain had been settled a bit and whatever the day could throw at me, I was ready for it. I spoke to neurologists about what was going on inside the brain and they said that any time spent using a completely different part of the brain is definitely valuable as a stress-beating exercise.”
Particularly over the last decade, stress was never far away as Rusbridger navigated a series of groundbreaking investigations, which culminated in the Guardian winning the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in journalism for their reportage on the NSA surveillance scandal.
“In the last four or five years, we did WikiLeaks, phone hacking, Snowden – I’ve only just seen that the police have apologised to women who were in relationships with undercover cops,” he says. “The fact that the best Hollywood producers are thinking of turning them into films just shows what great stories they were.”
With the Guardian in arguably the strongest shape it’s ever been, Rusbridger was happy to leave on a high. Not only had he been the Guardian editor for 20 years, but Dame Liz Forgan, the chair of the Scott Trust – the foundation which funds the paper – was also stepping down. When Rusbridger was suggested as a potential replacement, he saw it as a natural way to stayed involved with the paper while handing over to new editor Katherine Viner.
“I don’t begin there until next September, so I’m reading the paper with interest and enjoyment, but I’m not critiquing it like I might do once I take over the trust,” he remarks. “At the moment, I’m just an ordinary Guardian reader, if you like.”
Still, when a story like the Paris attacks breaks, does he find his mind back in the editor’s chair? “You do, you hear the news – it was late on that Friday night – and you think, ‘Gosh, I could imagine everyone pouring back in to the office and working on it’.
“You get a slight twinge of envy because it’s always amazing working on those big, breaking, rolling stories. But by and large I’m very happy for someone else to be doing it because it’s also extraordinarily hard work and very stressful.”
The fact that an overwhelming majority of Guardian readers would have read such a story online reveals perhaps the most significant contribution of Rusbridger’s tenure. At the start of this year, the paper’s website reached a record 120 million users per month, while their millions of followers on sites such as Twitter and Facebook means they are also leading the way for journalism on social media.
So does this finally hint at a sustainable future for journalism? “I don’t think any of us – whether we’ve got pay walls or no pay walls, whether we’re British or American – can turn around and say, ‘Good news, we’ve cracked it’. Taking the short view and saying, ‘We’ve got to make a profit this year’ is not necessarily the most sensible way to approach it. You might have to say, ‘Well we’re going to lose money for some time, but we’re building a business for the future.’
“The trust is not looking for 20 per cent returns. In that sense, we’re in a way more like Murdoch, because he’s stomached large losses on the Times and the Sunday Times for a while, but good for him because he’s building a business for the future.”
He continues: “You can see the Buzzfeeds of this world are sort of rowing back and trying to be more like the Guardian now. They realised that there’s not any money in clickbait in the end; you can build an enormous audience, but whether advertisers want to be seen there is an open question. They’re investing money in the things we’ve done for years, like investigative reporting, so I hope we got the balance right in saying, ‘We’ll do the stuff that matters’.”
Alan Rusbridger appears in Word/Play – Celebrity Christmas Gala: Lucy Parham & Friends on Sunday. Tickets are £14.50. Visit kingsplace.co.uk