Alan Rusbridger, the former editor-in-chief of the Guardian, has accused Fleet Street of behaving like a private club with a bunker mentality, during both the phone-hacking scandal and following threats to civil liberties.
In a wide-ranging speech at the Society of Editors’ annual conference on Sunday night, Rusbridger also took aim at the government’s response to the phone-hacking scandal when he called the resulting royal charter on press regulation a “piece of medieval flummery”.
In charge when the Guardian ran award-winning reports based on revelations unearthed by Edward Snowden as well as phone hacking, Rusbridger reserved some of his harshest words for the use of surveillance powers to discover journalistic sources, describing this as the greatest scandal of all.
He criticised the lack of interest or debate in the issue of surveillance – which led US congress to rewrite the rules over what could be tracked and tech companies to increase security.
“The general reaction in this country’s media – but not, it must be said, elsewhere, nor I think, among large swaths of the British people – was a shrug,” he said of the Snowden revelations. “One distinguished former editor wrote that if the security services said a journalist shouldn’t publish something, who was he to argue? Had it really come to that?”
He suggested that the behaviour of newspapers that sided with the security services was a consequence of a lack of confidence in their own ability to do the right thing.
“The immense confidence that Fleet Street once exuded has worn thin. We’ve started – occasionally – behaving as though the whole world is ganging up on us and it’s not fair. We’re in the bunker.”
Now principal of Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford and, as of next year, chair of the Scott Trust, the ultimate owner of the Guardian, Rusbridger talked about the response of the press to its own “massive ethical disaster”.
“Fleet Street … did, and does, sometimes feel like a club, with its own rules and articles of belief.
“And I know some of you think the Guardian stepped out of the club when it exposed criminal behaviour in our business. If so, there are parts of the club rules that, even after 40 years, I have failed to understand.”
On the royal charter, agreed in a late-night deal to the disgust of the industry in October 2013, he said: “Exemplary damages felt like something MPs wanted, but no one else.” Such damages are due to come into force in November for newspapers, including all national ones, which have refused to sign up to a charter-compliant regulator. Although most newspapers have signed up to Ipso, the industry-funded regulator, the Guardian, the FT and the Independent have not.
Other press behaviour criticised by Rusbridger included paying public officials for stories and its treatment of the BBC.