Alan Rusbridger's new book, Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now, is a thoughtful, if somewhat prolix, analysis of the tectonic changes that the internet is effecting on journalism. But its real message – and how insidiously it drips through the pages – is that virtually every national newspaper in Britain is scurrilous, corrupt and amoral with one iridescent exception. Yes, you’ve guessed it: the Guardian.
Now Alan is a very gifted journalist with huge achievements to his name – achievements, incidentally that he’s not reluctant to dwell on. So how sad that the defining tone of this tome is sanctimony and self-justification. Unedifyingly, it manages to combine rather cloying self-glorification and moral superiority with an almost visceral contempt of and disdain for the rest of the press.
A somewhat chilling lack of self-awareness fuses with a hyper-sensitivity to the flaws of others. Indeed, its sine qua non is that only Alan and the Guardian are capable of producing what he calls “worthwhile” journalism.
This book contains some of the most unpleasant ad hominem attacks on individuals that I have ever read in a work about Fleet Street. In it, the red tops have a business model based on invading people’s privacy and are beyond redemption. He manages a sliver of begrudging respect for the Daily Mail's journalism, but the paper itself – and I – are beyond the pale.
Inevitably, Rupert Murdoch is the devil incarnate. But what a pity that the book can’t summon the generosity to admit that the Times today is an excellent, highly respected, profitable serious paper. More pertinently, its subscription package seems to have cracked the internet conundrum – something the Guardian has so conspicuously failed to do. But then the book is a masterclass in the art of sly omissions.
This memoir’s greater omission is that it ignores one of the most fascinating media stories of the past few years: how a dramatic putsch by an utterly demoralised staff deposed an incoming Scott Trust chairman after the once-profitable Guardian had been reduced to an economic basket case, by vanity, hubris and eye-watering financial misjudgement.
That chairman, of course, was Alan but in his book he is eerily silent on all this. Nor does he begin to explain why, at the very time when, to use his own words, “printed newspapers were on a perilous slide to eventual oblivion”, the Guardian took the economically insane decision to move into lavish state-of-the-art offices – complete with specially designed bespoke desks – and to buy expensive new presses when a diminishing newspaper industry was awash with cheap, spare, rentable, printing capacity.
Was the reason for the latter, perhaps, that the Guardian, piqued at the Independent stealing a march on it by becoming Britain’s so called first quality tabloid, had to go one better with the slightly larger size Berliner?
And, as its balance sheets dripped with red ink, was it perhaps hubris that persuaded Guardian Online, with no plausible business or journalistic model, to expand so recklessly and expensively into America, a country already awash with great liberal papers and media outlets?
The result of this madness quickly became all too apparent. Hundreds of millions of pounds down the plug hole. Countless brilliant journalists made redundant. And those Berliner presses? Ignominiously ditched after a few years as the paper was forced to reduce its size in order to rent cheaper printing.
So there you are. What a cautionary saga! And what a flesh and blood rendition of the belief – so endemic at the BBC and in much of the British public sector – that money grows on trees. And this cuts to the quick of the dangers of a subsidariat that is out of touch with the real world and its financial exigencies.
How can a newspaper, that has shown such profligacy, be editorially objective about the financial activities of the City or the State, or the NHS or local authorities? How, when it has been so financially feckless itself, can it call for ever more state spending or question a government’s need to balance the nation’s books?
These are serious questions. It’s the country’s worst kept secret that the Guardian is the in-house newspaper of the BBC, that subsidised behemoth. If the Corporation, Britain’s main news provider and its thousands of journalists – far more than employed by Fleet Street – hold the same financially irresponsible views as its in-house crib sheet, then Britain has a huge problem if it is ever going to return to economic solvency. No, this sad tragi-comedy should be a text book case for journalism schools on how not to do things.
This is an abridged version of Paul Dacre's address to the Society of Editor's annual lecture