The Philip Geddes Lecture, 2 March
Every journalist dreams of having a scoop. But Alan Rusbridger, Editor of the Guardian, had to swallow hard before taking the risk of publishing vast tracts of formerly classified material made available to the newspaper through Julian Assange’s outfit Wikileaks. Mr Rusbridger acted out the whole drama of this enterprise for his audience at the Philip Geddes memorial lecture in the Examination Schools on 2 March, as he illustrated his talk with numerous pictures of hacks past and present, clips from Hollywood movies and mock-ups of Guardian front pages.
Yet the Wikileaks revelations – to which the paper enjoyed a UK exclusive – were just one aspect of what Mr Rusbridger described as an extraordinary year for the Guardian. It was the Guardian which lifted the lid on the murky goings on by sections of Rupert Murdoch’s empire, despite being strongly warned to keep well clear. This in turn led to the Leveson Inquiry, which has revealed the scandalous extent to which some politicians – at the highest level – were prepared to compromise their integrity to cosy up to the Sun and other Murdoch organs. Relations between the media and the police have been shown often to be equally corrupt.
Most shocking of all were the revelations of the extent of phone hacking by journalists at the now defunct News of the World, in particular. At the time of the Geddes lecture, Mr Rusbridger estimated that around 5,000 people had had their phones hacked. This claim was much derided in many quarters, but we now know that the true figure was probably even higher. This issue really outraged the nation when it was revealed that News of the World journalists had hacked into the voicemail of murdered schoolgirl Millie Dowler. The satirical magazine Private Eye often refers to reporters as “reptiles”, but in this case the analogy is an insult to amphibians.
The converse to the media’s disgrace is the bravery of the Guardian in pursuing the hacking story, even after visits to its offices from the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and Commander Yates of the Yard (the latter now out of the force, but working as a policing advisor to the government of Bahrain). As Alan Rusbridger told us, the fact that no other publication seemed prepared to touch the story with a bargepole gave him sleepless nights. He hardly looks the part of a fearless campaigner; indeed, he got the biggest laugh of the evening when he relayed a friend’s description of him as “resembling Harry Potter’s lonely uncle”.
The appearance belies the man within. He gave a stunning performance, striking a nice balance between startling revelation and humour. He may be Editor of a journal that many see as the conscience of the British Left, but Mr Rusbridger is also a magnificent story-teller. His account of the unveiling of the Murdoch scandals was the stuff of television drama. But his final message was sober and in some ways prosaic. The events of the preceding 12 months had highlighted the shortcomings not only of important sectors of the British media but also of the self-regulatory body, the Press Complaints Commission. A new body “with teeth” is needed, he argued. It might be called something like the Press and Media Standards Commission, he suggested. But more important than the name is what it would do. And the very first thing it ought to do, he declared, was to review the fickle phrase “in the public interest”.
Jonathan Fryer (St Edmund Hall, 1969)