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Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

News and How To Use It by Alan Rusbridger

This book is described as an A-Z guide on how ‘to stay informed in the era of fake news’ and has been written by the Guardian’s former Editor-in-Chief who currently edits Prospect Magazine.

Alan Rusbridger held the Guardian editor’s tiller for twenty years between 1995 and 2015.

He is something of a polymath.

Between the Guardian and Prospect he was Principal of Lady Margaret Hall in the University of Oxford, chair of the University’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in 2016, and was appointed one of the first members of the Oversight Board created by Facebook.

He plays the classical piano and wrote Play It Again: Why Amateurs Should Attempt the Impossible in 2012 and has written three children’s books, as well as being the co-author with Ronan Bennett of the BBC drama, Fields of Gold.

It is important that iconic and influential newspaper editors write books that evaluate their life and times and their contribution to journalism.

Rusbridger began this with his 2018 publication Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now.

In News: And How to Use It, he has gone further in providing tools, clues and rules on how to navigate the tectonic environment of editing a national/international title when print and readership is changing into online and cyberspace.

I have often thought that editing the Guardian as Alan Rusbridger did in a twenty year period spanning the 20th and 21st centuries could be likened to captaining the Titanic and preventing its disastrous collision with an iceberg and sinking.

This is because he ran a ship which ensured the lookouts did have binoculars that were not locked away somewhere, there were enough lifeboats on board for all passengers and crew, he did not decide to sail an ocean-going liner through an iceberg at full speed to win a transatlantic crossing record, and the Marconi radio telegraph service was open for business everywhere 24 hours a day.

How does the metaphor configure to the Guardian narrative? We should add on the imagined idea the White Star line was having to compete with airlines offering a rival passenger service between Croydon Airport and New York.

Rusbridger managed and directed some of the worst storms, genuinely at hurricane force, in journalism history.

A large part of his industry had literally gone crazy in the matter of ethics and law-breaking. He backed his reporters who challenged and exposed the phone-hacking- even when the messy business of getting everything accurate and right in journalism is an uncertain phenomenon.

He could not fully attenuate the blow-back in terms of a Leveson Inquiry report he did not agree with, privacy laws that ended ‘kiss’n tell’, ‘ruining people’s lives’ in the tabloid sector and have unfortunately led to Bloomberg v ZXC virtual gagging of the media on identifying crime suspects before charge.

Even worse was Operation Elveden, the decision by News International and Trinity Mirror to betray their sources to the Metropolitan Police which led to criminal prosecutions of journalists and public officials paid for information.

He ramped up all the cylinders of the Guardian Media Trust’s gearing to invest in and transform a national print broadsheet publication into a global multimedia online platform that rivals the BBC and New York Times.

He was calm and determined with the Edward Snowden story, even when the Secret State was smashing Guardian hard disks in the basement.

In the face of accusations that he lacked patriotism and he was breaking terror laws when grilled by MPs in Parliament, he replied ‘Yes, we are patriots and one of the things we are patriotic about is the nature of a democracy and the nature of a free press…freedom to write and report is one of the things I love about this country.’

His performance was more in the style of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata than Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

In tone, style and content, the politicians will be remembered as blustering and pompous. Rusbridger looked puzzled, surprised and thoughtful.

What is so appealing and delightful about his book is that it is really a brilliant compendium of short essays on the key issues and conundrums of contemporary journalism.

There is always much to debate with Alan Rusbridger and plenty to disagree with.

For example, if you were ever a fan, friend and happy colleague of the late Christopher Booker you will find that Rusbridger has penned a two-page denunciation concluding with: ‘Journalism positions itself as a safe harbour in a world of information chaos; a defence against fake news. It is hard to reconcile this self-image with the lionising of a figure who regularly peddled fakery and ignorance.’

Rusbridger is definitely one of the proverbial Bishops of the Guardian, but it is my belief he has every right to pontificate. His experience, knowledge and wisdom run very deep. Throughout the 316 pages there is informative, entertaining and thought-provoking writing. ‘G’ has entries on Gatekeepers, ‘Gotcha’ and Grenfell.

This is an eclectic and sobering sequence of analysis about journalism responsibility.

It is discursive and educational for the practising professional and journalism trainee and student. I hope he has the chance to write a further edition sometime in the future.

News and How to Use It: What to believe in a fake news world by Alan Rusbridger was published by Canongate in 2020 with the hardback having an RRP of £18.99.