Still in holiday mode but, unable to stop, we came across a quote via the editor’s blog of Press Gazette lifted from a story in The Independent, that was an extract of a piece in GQ magazine.
On the off-chance that there are readers out there (difficult to believe, I know, but just indulge me) who don’t read any of those publications, let me explain: it’s an interview by Piers Morgan with Alan Rusbridger.
They were supposed to be discussing the Guardian editor’s new book, but never got round to it. It’s actually old stuff, which I hadn’t noticed on first reading, but it was all new to me. Nevertheless, it makes interesting reading – not least the passing mention that Mr Rusbridger trousered ₤520,000 for his labours in one year.
What appears below (with permission, of course) is, as I say, an extract. If you want the full version, you’ll need to wait for Mr. Morgan’s next book, in April next year.
Anyway, we’ll be back next week, having extended our break on account of festa time here on Ranters Island. The village (Helvetica) is en fete all week, culminating in a riot of fireworks to commemorate the feastday dedicated to our patron saint, San Serif.
Meanwhile, we can still accept copy…
What happened when the Guardian editor met Piers Morgan
As the Editor of ‘The Guardian’, Alan Rusbridger presides over an institution that prides itself on occupying the ethical high ground. But how would he stand up to scrutiny when ‘GQ’ magazine sent Piers Morgan along to grill him?
I’ve always thought that editing The Guardian must be a right old moral maze. Journalists at the paper love to see themselves as ethically, morally and intellectually superior to tabloid hacks. Yet there’s nothing that those liberal sandal-wearers like more than to lift all the juicy details of a sex scandal broken in the “gutter press” – while pretending to be outraged at the same time, obviously.
And Guardian hacks would think nothing of exposing some errant politician’s personal peccadilloes – and then going home and doing exactly the same thing themselves. The paper’s editor, Alan Rusbridger, is the prime exponent of this art form. He spent a decade filling his boots with salacious material from papers I edited while pronouncing regularly about how disgusting it all was.
He also unleashed his reporting hounds to harass me from time to time, while insisting that he was not a public figure and therefore should be spared the investigative rod of scrutiny himself at all times. And yet we became good friends, dining occasionally at champagne-socialist bastions such as the Ivy, where he would crack open the Montrachet and lobster, and bemoan the excess of modern public life.
Despite his perpetual rank hypocrisy, I am very fond of Rusbridger and his paper. The Guardian plays an important role in our society, and acts as an effective foil to right-wing papers such as the Daily Mail.
But I’ve yearned to sit down one day with him and confront him about his contradictory demons. I finally got the chance when I was invited to the great man’s office in Farringdon Road, London, ostensibly to discuss his new children’s book, The Smelliest Day at the Zoo.
Unfortunately, we never got around to that in the one-and-a-half hours that we locked horns. What we did discuss was sex, drugs, scandal and morality; which, I hope you will agree, is a damned sight more interesting.
It was a lively, edgy, confrontational and deliciously enjoyable encounter. And I was right. Editing The Guardian is indeed a right old moral maze.
Piers Morgan: How are you feeling, Alan? You seem to have lost about half your body-weight since I last saw you.
Alan Rusbridger: I’ve been on a Weight Watchers diet. You know what these jobs are like. You don’t exercise, you eat and drink too much… so I had got a bit porky.
PM: How porky?
AR: I was a trouser-size 38.
PM: That is porky. So, how are you feeling now?
AR: Well, if you stop and think what two stones is, and realise you were lugging two stones of lard up and downstairs, then obviously you feel a lot better.
PM: But did you keep on drinking throughout the diet?
AR: Oh yes. I couldn’t have done it if I had to give up alcohol.
PM: And has the diet improved your sex life?
AR: I, er…
PM: Come on, Alan. It’s a legitimate question.
AR: It’s not. I’ll pass on that one.
PM: Are you putting the heat on larger members of your staff now, urging them to drop the flab?
AR: Well, there are, in fact, very few fatties who work on The Guardian.
PM: Is that a deliberate policy?
AR: Yes. We are very sizeist.
PM: How is your new Berliner-sized paper actually doing?
AR: It is doing, more or less, what we expected.
PM: That’s what I used to say when things went badly.
AR: Do you want to see charts?
PM: No. I always used to bamboozle my critics with charts. How did you sell last week, then [December 2006]?
AR: About 386,000.
PM: And what were you selling before the Berliner redesign?
AR: We were down in the 360s, 370s. The one mistake we made was to take out 10,000 bulks, which made the figures look worse than they were.
PM: But you did that to make the relaunch look better than it was.
AR: No, we did that at the time of the relaunch.
PM: I thought you did it a couple of months before the relaunch.
AR: Er, well, we took them out a few months before and didn’t put them back for the relaunch.
PM: So I was right. You did it deliberately. It’s an old trick.
AR: We did. But we didn’t shove them back in; that’s the point.
PM: It’s not my point.
AR: We were too honest.
AR: Monday-to-Friday sales are a struggle for everybody. The thing that props up circulation is DVDs, wall-charts, posters etc. People like charts: they sell 15-20,000 extra copies a day.
PM: Do you assume that editing is a job for life?
AR: No, I assume that all careers must come to an end at some point.
PM: But Guardian editors, tend to have the professional lives of several elephants. What would it take to be fired?
AR: When you’re appointed, the only thing you are told is to edit the paper “as heretofore”.
PM: That seems suitably incomprehensible for The Guardian.
AR: I think it means that The Guardian is a liberal, progressive, intelligent, internationalist paper which operates to certain ethical standards. And that’s what I have to do. So if you betray that edict by backing UKIP in an election, for example, you would have to leave.
PM: I’m talking more about personal conduct. I read an interview in which you said that what mattered most between a paper and its staff and the readers was trust. Do you think you have to be as trustworthy privately as you are professionally?
AR: I think you have to be trustworthy in your professional life.
PM: Not personal life?
AR: [Silence for 10 seconds] I like to make a distinction between professional and private in everything we write about.
PM: But when David Blunkett admitted in his diaries that he couldn’t concentrate on the Iraq war dossier debate in Cabinet because he was in emotional turmoil over his affair, isn’t that where private and professional gets a little blurred?
AR: If that impacted on his life…
PM: A private or public matter?
AR: I wouldn’t, er… [pauses] go looking for this kind of thing.
PM: Really? Isn’t it a matter of public interest if the Home Secretary admits he couldn’t focus on a dossier that sanctions war because of the turmoil surrounding his affair?
AR: Well, I wouldn’t go looking into it, if that answers you.
PM: No, that wasn’t my question. I asked if it was a public matter or not. It strikes me that by his own admission, therefore, his private life is directly impacting on his public work.
AR: If that’s his own judgement…
PM: But The Guardian serialised his own book with that very admission. It doesn’t mean you read it, granted…
AR: It was 900 pages. I didn’t read it all.
PM: It amuses me when you “serious” editors claim you don’t do private-life stuff, because you do. You wait for the tabloids to do the work and then pile in, repeating the juicy bits while condemning the tabloid intrusion. If you feel that strongly about it, why repeat the original invasive material? Did you cover the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott’s dalliance with [his secretary] Tracey Temple?
AR: We did in the end, yes.
PM: Why “in the end”?
AR: There isn’t a pat answer to that. There are very few of my broadsheet editor colleagues who, if someone came to them and said, “I’ve been shagging the Secretary of State for, er – I’m trying to think of a department that doesn’t exist – er, pensions and culture, are you interested?”, would say “yes”. None of us do that kind of stuff as original journalism. But, once stories are out, then if your job is to report what is going on in society at large then there comes a point when you can’t ignore them.
PM: I find that a totally fatuous argument. Either you believe that Prezza’s affair is in the public interest, or you don’t. If you think that the affair itself is not a public matter, the braver thing to do is not to report it all. The Independent used to have a policy of never reporting on the Royal Family, and I thought that was admirable and that it lacked the total hypocrisy of your position.
AR: It was brave, but in the end they looked stupid and stopped.
PM: If I gave you concrete evidence Charles and Camilla were splitting up, would you publish it?
AR: Yes, because that is about the relationship between future monarch and wife, the future King and Queen.
PM: And if I told you that Charles was leaving Camilla because he was having an affair with Victoria Beckham, would you publish that part of the story?
AR: Well, again, because marriage in monarchy is more part of the job, then it is more relevant; rather than the fictional minister I discussed earlier.
PM: Isn’t being Deputy Prime Minister a fairly important job?
AR: Yes, but the broad distinction that editors in my end of the market make is that what politicians do in private, consensually, is up to them.
PM: Literally, anything?
If it’s legal, yes.
PM: So if I showed you evidence of David Cameron snorting cocaine, you would publish that because it’s illegal, right?
AR: Yes, but I wouldn’t spend a lot of time going looking for it. I think illegal behaviour by a possible future prime minister is in the public interest.
PM: Don’t you think that Cameron should have been honest on whether he’d broken the law?
AR: I’d have been happier if he’d come out one way or another. But we all knew what he was saying by refusing to answer it.
PM: Did we?
AR: Didn’t we?
PM: Would you answer that question? Are you a public figure?
AR: Not really, no. I am accountable to the Scott Trust [owner of the Guardian Media Group], and I make The Guardian’s journalism more publicly accountable than any other editor in this country.
PM: I only ask, because I remember The Guardian treating me as a public figure when I encountered various scrapes as an editor. Do you think that your own life would stand up to much ethical scrutiny?
AR: In terms of the journalism?
PM: No, I mean privately. Do you consider that infidelity is always a private matter for public figures, for instance?
AR: I think what people do legally and consensually is private.
PM: If I asked you if you had ever taken illegal drugs, would you feel compelled to answer?
AR: No, I’d say to you to mind your own business.
PM: What’s your current salary?
AR: It’s, er, about £350,000.
PM: What bonus did you receive last year?
AR: About £170,000, which was a way of addressing my pension.
PM: That means that you earned £520,000 last year alone. That’s more than the editor of The Sun by a long way.
AR: I’ll talk to you off the record about this, but not on the record.
PM: Why? In The Guardian, you never stop banging on about fat cats. Do you think that your readers would be pleased to hear that you earned £520,000 last year? Are you worth it?
AR: That’s for others to say.
PM: Wouldn’t it be more Guardian-like, more socialist, to take a bit less and spread the pot around a bit? We have this quaint idea that you guys are into that “all men are equal” nonsense, but you’re not really, are you? You seem a lot more “equal” than others on your paper.
AR: Er… [silence].
PM: Do you ever get awkward moments when your bonus gets published? Do you wince and think, “Oh dear, Polly Toynbee’s not going to like this one.”
AR: Er… [silence].
PM: Or is Polly raking in so much herself that she wouldn’t mind?
AR: Er… [silence].
PM: Are you embarrassed by it?
AR: No. I didn’t ask for the money. And I do declare it, too.
PM: But if you earned £520,000 last year, then that must make you a multimillionaire.
AR: You say I’m a millionaire?
PM: You must be – unless you’re giving it all away to charity…
PM: What’s your house worth?
AR: I don’t want to talk about these aspects of my life.
PM: You think it’s all private?
AR: I do really, yes.
PM: Did you think that about Peter Mandelson’s house? I mean, you broke that story.
AR: I, er… it was a story about an elected politician.
PM: And you’re not as accountable. You just reserve the right to expose his private life.
AR: We all make distinctions about this kind of thing. The line between private and public is a fine one, and you’ve taken up most of the interview with it.
PM: Well, only because you seem so embarrassed and confused about it.
AR: I’m not embarrassed about it. But nor do I feel I have to talk about it.
PM: Do you like money?
AR: I remember JK Galbraith saying to me once: “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor, and rich is better.” You can have an easier life if you have money.
PM: I heard you bought a grand piano for £50,000.
AR: £30,000 – the most extravagant thing I’ve ever bought.
PM: Are you any good at it?
AR: I can play quite well, I suppose. I rarely inflict it on anyone else, though.
PM: Is it true you play naked?
AR: No. I usually play fully clothed in the mornings.
PM: What about your cars? Are you still driving that ridiculous G-Wiz thing around?
AR: Yes, and I love it.
PM: But I also read that you use taxis to ferry your stuff to and from work, which sort of negates the green effort, doesn’t it?
AR: That story was a bit confused. I used to cycle to work sometimes, and if I was too tired at the end of the day then I would fold up the bike and get a cab home, yes. But about a year ago I was nearly killed in a nasty accident on my bike so I gave up cycling and bought the G-Wiz.
PM: Any other cars?
AR: A company Volvo estate.
PM: A big gas-guzzler.
PM: Bit of a culture clash with your G-Wiz, then?
AR: Let me think about that. The problem is that I also have a big dog, and it doesn’t fit into the G-Wiz.
PM: I’m sure the environment will understand. Any others?
AR: My wife has a Corsa.
PM: Quite an expansive…
PM: Yes, fleet.
AR: But I’ve got children as well.
PM: They’re privately educated?
AR: Er… [pause].
PM: Is that a valid question?
AR: I don’t… think so… no.
PM: And you went to Cranleigh, a top public school.
AR: I did, yes.
PM: Do you feel uncomfortable answering that question?
AR: It falls into the category of something I don’t feel embarrassed about, but you get on to a slippery slope about what else you talk about, don’t you?
PM: It’s not really about your private life though, is it? It’s just a fact. And I assume by your reluctance to answer the question that they are privately educated.
AR: [Pause] Again, I am trying to make a distinction between…
PM: You often run stories about Labour politicians sending their kids to private schools, and you are quite censorious about it. Are you worried that it makes you look a hypocrite again?
AR: No. I think there are boundaries. It goes back to this question of whether editors are public figures or not.
PM: And you don’t think they are?
AR: Well, again, I’ve tried to draw a distinction between making my journalism accountable, but I have never tried to go around talking about my private life and therefore making myself into a public figure.
PM: You were originally a gossip columnist on The Guardian. Did you never write about anyone’s private life?
AR: I can’t remember writing about someone’s private life.
PM: You were, though, the author of A Concise History of the Sex Manual, 1886-1986. So – you’re clearly interested in this genre?
AR: Go and read it.
PM: I’d love to, it sounds great.
AR: It was OK. It was a book where I looked back over 100 years of people writing about sex.
PM: Will you be doing a sequel?
AR: I haven’t really got time. The problem was that nobody could decide if it was a historical, sociological or medical book.
PM: Or just a shagging book. Back to education: do you think that Labour politicians should send their kids to state schools?
AR: I suppose, as a rule of thumb, yes, they should, if that is the doctrine of their party.
PM: Was Blair wrong about how he educated his kids, then?
AR: I didn’t get worked up on it.
PM: What has been your proudest moment as editor?
AR: Seeing Jonathan Aitken’s [libel] case against us collapse was heart-pounding stuff. It was the greatest rabbit that George Carman [QC] ever pulled out of a hat. And came just as Aitken was about to stick his wife and daughter into the dock, so it couldn’t have been a more dramatic moment.
PM: What’s your biggest scoop?
AR: I’d say Mandelson’s house, and the Aitken story.
PM: What about your failures?
AR: Can I dwell on my successes first? Building the Guardian Unlimited website has been one of the best things I’ve been involved with. And relaunching the paper in its Berliner shape.
PM: Give me a one-line reaction to the following: Paul Dacre [the Daily Mail editor] .
AR: Brilliant, driven, technically flawless, politically misguided.
PM: And morally?
AR: I don’t know anything about his morals.
PM: If you were offered photos of Dacre snorting coke with hookers, would you publish the story?
PM: It’s usually illegal, yes.
AR: If he admitted it, then that would be fairly irresistible, yes.
PM: And if it was just the hookers, and not the coke?
AR: I don’t think I’d…
PM: If it was a hooker that he had picked up off the street. In other words, illegally?
AR: That wouldn’t be so good.
PM: What do you think of the Daily Mail’s journalism?
AR: Er… well, it can be cruel. And sometimes a bit aggressive.
PM: And The Independent?
AR: I think that Simon Kelner is incredibly talented. He works on very slender budgets, and I’m never sure if it is that which drives his type of journalism. The emphasis on views, not news, means that the reporting is rather thin, and it loses impact on the front page the more you do that.
PM: And do you accept that he has been successful?
AR: I think they have stabilised the circulation, so yes.
PM: Richard Desmond?
AR: Journalistically, not a terribly inspiring story.
PM: Should someone with his background be allowed to own a national newspaper?
AR: It’s a free market, so yes, they should. I’m more wary of people like Rupert Murdoch owning too many papers.
PM: Is Murdoch a public figure?
AR: [Long pause] I would say that, on the graduation scale, he is probably less than a publicly elected figure but…
PM: But more, say, than the England football manager?
PM: You’ve edited The Guardian for more than a decade now. Any plans to try something else?
PM: What about a politician?
PM: Is that because you then become a public figure?
AR: No. I’m just not interested enough in that political way of thinking, and being whipped.
PM: I don’t think being whipped is automatic. Would the scrutiny worry you?
AR: No, but I do think you forgo a certain freedom of thought as an MP.
PM: How much is a pint of milk?
AR: About 30p. Is that right?
PM: No idea. Loaf of bread?
AR: Er… around 70p?
PM: Bag of sugar?
AR: I don’t buy bags of sugar.
PM: Skinny latte from Starbucks?
PM: I thought you’d know that one. What would you miss most if you suddenly got fired?
AR: The honest answer is that, in this building, you’ve got 400 incredibly clever people…
PM: Well, they’re not all incredibly clever, are they…?
AR: No [laughs]. But you know what I mean. I would miss working with them.
PM: One final thought. If Paul Dacre was to publish a picture of you, in the Daily Mail, snorting coke with hookers, then would you get sacked?
AR: I don’t know.
PM: Would you resign?
AR: If I was caught snorting cocaine with a couple of hookers?
AR: I imagine in that case I would probably have to consider my position, yes…