A Moron's Guide to Alan Rusbridger

An in-depth look at the man who runs <i>the Guardian</i> and has made enemies of the British government.

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Aug 22 2013, 12:10pm

Today was Alan Rusbridger's last day as editor-in-chief of The Guardian. If you don't know who Alan Rusbridger is, here's a cheat sheet we put together a little while back.

Alan Rusbridger is known by most people as an owlish man who likes defining the middle class and running the Guardian. But this week he's found himself becoming "the story". After David Cameron supposedly okayed the arrest of David Miranda, Rusbridger revealed that he had supervised the destruction of files relating to his Snowden-NSA state privacy invasion scoops on government orders.

With his stock currently high enough to be fighting the PM on two fronts, perhaps it's time to look in-depth at the man who has helmed his 'paper for 17 years. What's Alan's personality like? Does he enjoy long walks in the country, romantic dinners in restaurants, socialising with friends and kicking back on the sofa with a DVD, like the rest of us? Or is he some mad invert who likes none of those things? And what exactly is he going to do about improving the quality of recent Pass Notes?

Here's a moron's guide to Alan Rusbridger.

Name: Alan Charles Rusbridger
Born: December 29, 1953
Roles: Editor of the Guardian, Washington editor of London Daily News, children's author, TV drama writer, defender of state transparency, lover of free information.
Notable achievements: Pioneering being a "famous" newspaper editor who isn't hated by everyone.

HE WAS BORN IN NORTHERN RHODESIA
Hey. Someone had to be.

HE HAS BEEN AROUND FOREVER
The lifespan of the last two Guardian editors was 20 years each. That means Rusbridger is only the third guy in the chair since Anthony Eden's stint as Prime Minister ended in 1957. His 17-year span may seem long to you or I, but Guardian editors are the coelacanths of journalism. Whoever's up next will be probably be defining the post-print media landscape right into the 2030s. Or, just as likely, they'll be immortalised as the last-ever Guardian editor.

HE WAS ONCE A YOUNG CLIVE JAMES
Nowadays, no one thinks of Rusbridger as a writer at all, and certainly not as a rising star who was once seen as the natural successor to Clive James and Julian Barnes. But that's what he was. The Observer TV column that James turned into a national institution was handed over to his mate Julian, who in turn passed the baton of thinking up wisecracks about Esther Rantzen's blouses to Rusbridger. But Al wasn't as successful as his forerunners, and shuffled on after he was offered a job reporting in Washington DC.

HE SUCCEEDS BY CUNNING ZEN
To paraphrase just a little; Rusbridger has been described as 'the Buddha of the news conference'. When you're pitching stories at him, he's unblinking, neutral, a stone obelisk staring back at you. He's not a man who pounds his fist on the table and demands some tits in it whatever it damn well costs, like a Kelvin McKenzie or Larry Lamb might. His style is not to give anything away.

When John Major first rose blindingly quickly through Thatcher's cabinet, observers pointed to the way in which, because he was so polite and courteous, two people with opposite views could have a conversation with him, and both would end up believing that he'd agreed with them. It was effective in the short-term, but often disastrous in the long-term. Rusbridger's vibe is similar. Conversationally, he is famous for his long pauses. He manages by creating consensus in general, but secretly stabbing you in the balls as-and-when it's necessary. He has a ruthless side.

HE HAS A BROW THAT IS IN THE MIDDLE
Once upon a time, the Guardian lived up more fully to its ancient reputation as a snoot's paradise: educating and elevating its sandal-eating, muesli-wearing demographic with weighty articles on weighty things that happened in Biafra or the TUC. Often written-off as a lightweight, Rusbridger was the Militant Tendency of the middlebrows. He had a feel for the popular, and he wasn't afraid to follow it. He was the first guy to do "consumer journalism" in the Guardian – where should I go on holiday? What should I wear while I'm consuming that holiday? What insurance policy should I buy to protect what I'm wearing while I'm holidaying? The sort of stuff that seems pretty standard today, but in the context of what the paper was back then? Well, needless to say, haters hated.

HE IS THE FIRST OPENLY POST-POLITICAL GUARDIAN EDITOR
Like Polly Toynbee, Diane Abbott, and too many names to mention, Rusbridger nailed his left-wing credentials to the mast by sending his kids to private school, possibly after confusing the words "socialist" and "socialite". He had a better excuse than most, though – namely that he's never visibly given much of a crap about politics anyway.

Richard Gott, a former Guardian features editor, remembers the young Alan as politically unmoved. "He went to New Zealand when it was in the throes of Rogernomics [Reaganite policies introduced by Roger Douglas, a Labour finance minister]. He rang up and said there was a Gay Pride march on. That was his level of interest in things."

But then again, he was the man the age produced. Around the time Rusbridger was becoming editor, in 1995, the old left-rightism was already melting away into a soft lava lamp of Blair-Clinton Third Ways. Rusbridger, with his perfectly ovoid head unsullied by dogma, was well positioned to slip into a philosophy that history was creating: left, right – so long as we're all getting richer, what does it matter? Thus, his ideology was that design items should get more rounded, and that we should all eat vegetables with Italian names. And it was the perfect ideology. These days his philosophy is that we should be able to google recipes for Italian vegetables without the government spying on us. Again, it is the perfect ideology for our time and as such he is becoming the hero of international anti-government internet liberals.

HE ISN'T ONE TO BE LEFT BEHIND BY HISTORY
After the Independent on Saturday started doing an inside supplement, he was given the task of doing a reply version for the Guardian. This led to him captaining the team that launched G2. He invented Pass Notes (or at least borrowed it from a dead 'paper) and it was he who decided that the Guardian should have its clean-break "Berliner" redesign in 2004. He was so committed to this idea that he spent as much as £100 million buying two new presses to make it happen. One of them, however, has never been used, because everyone reads the Guardian online now. And that's just fine, because as a man who was on his way up when The Internet was still written in title case, A-Ruzzer understood that it was a big deal. Amazingly, this actually separated him from a lot of his contemporaries.

HE IS ONE CONFLICTED-LIBERAL SONOFABITCH
Rusbridger's relationship with his own stacks of cash is amusing. This is a guy who, on £395,010 per year, got paid way less than the Daily Mail's Paul Dacre (£1.75m) did last year, and slightly less than the editor of the Sun (£400,000) but still more than the average person who, for instance, probably can't afford to splash £25k on a piano. Nothing wrong with that, though. Fair do's, bro. Whatever. You've earned that back by inventing Pass Notes alone.

Except that Rusbridger himself seems ridden with neuroses about his wealth. At one point he drove a Volvo Estate. He also had a G-Wizz – one of those little Indian eco-cars that go 30mph on nothing but electricity and prana. Occasionally we've been allowed to witness the comedy of seeing his head crack under the cognitive dissonance of trying to explain it all away, as in this grindingly awkward GQ interview, which is a great showroom for some of Rusbridger's famous lengthy pauses. When you're coming off second best to Piers Morgan, it's probably time to reconsider your strategy.

HE IS A GEEK
Unlike Paul Dacre, who probably has Twitter read to him by a white-gloved servant while he dines on salted gulls' eggs, Rusbridger is a fully paid-up member of the technophile race who are our new planetary overlords. He BBMs his iPhone to put more Google in his Google and drive it to the Google. And he likes it.

This is partly why the Guardian has kicked the nuts off its broadsheet rivals in terms of being a go-to web read. He was one of the people tasked with founding what was then Guardian Unlimited back in 1995, when all there was on the internet was the Hampster Dance. He saw the potential. He argued for funding and turned it into something you wanted to go to. That first-mover advantage has seldom waned and the Guardian now attracts somewhere in the region of 80 million unique users per month, making them the number nine news source in the world. In 2012, the Mail Online leapfrogged that to become the number one news source in the world but overall the Guardian still makes more money from digital – about £45 million.

REASON THE INTERNET IS BEST #178: IT TURNS OUT NEWSPAPERS ARE EXPENSIVE TO RUN
Every week the Guardian spends at King's Place, the 'paper is losing a million quid. That's right. To contextualise: imagine a rather nice London house in a decent borough being swallowed up every single week. After one year a whole block of Kentish Town has gone. After another, you've bitten off most of Newington Green.

HE GO PIA-PIA-PIANO
The clever man wrote a big book. It's one of those "personal quest" memoirs that are very voguish. The "Story Of One Ordinary Man Trying To Cope With His Father's Death By Climbing Kilimanjaro With A Fridge And How He Learned That Really All His Battles Were With The Man Within" school of publishing. It concerns his attempt to learn a really difficult piano piece late in life. Basically, it's an extended episode of Faking It with literary jokes and a bit of backstory about what it's like to be a 21st century editor, having coffee with Julian Assange, phoning up Gaddafi's son and lazing by Tuscan swimming pools.

In it, Alan recounts how he stopped playing the piano as a teenager and took it up again late in life. Naturally, there's a dash of the path-not-taken mid-lifes to it. Who knows, maybe if Alan hadn't joined the Cambridge Evening News when he left university, he'd be the new Liszt right now – tearing up and down the concert halls of Europe, a different gal every night, blasting out bars of white hot Romanticism like the Yngwie Malmstein of the classical world. It's difficult for him to reconcile his thwarted dreams with his life as Owlish Alan, Fleet Street furniture. But he has managed. By writing a book about it. Just call him the Nick Hornby of the piano. (Don't.).

HE IS NO LONGER THE BEST AT PLAYING HIMSELF
Alan appeared as the Guardian editor in a Bourne film, but Peter Capaldi was chosen ahead of him for the WikiLeaks movie The Fifth Estate. Which must be crushing.

HE'S A BADASS
Iain Duncan Smith once warned: do not underestimate the determination of the quiet man. And though IDS was wildly wrong about himself, if he'd been talking about Alan – a man who describes himself as looking like "Harry Potter's lonely uncle" – he'd have been right. I mean, the guy has the scalp of the News of the World hanging in his office. And that wasn't the first big battle that Rusbridger had fought and won.

He began his career by having a cabinet minister – Jonathan Aitken – sent to jail for perjury after his libel case against the 'paper collapsed. He continued by busting 90s punchline Neil Hamilton for accepting brown envelopes and stinging corporate blue whales like Trafigura and BAE Systems. These days he's not so much going after whales but small galaxies, like the NSA. As a man who, as a cub reporter, once ran an expose on the head of his own orchestra, Al has proven himself both determined and determinedly unsentimental in his pursuit of a great story. Even if that means, as he announced this week, getting some big magnets and a hammer and punching the living daylights out of a MacBook in order to "destroy" NSA data and prevent it being handed back to the British government.

For such a modest man, he has a flair not only for standing-up to those in power, but for doing so with a sense of theatre. He gets the news bit done, but he's not above adding a mischievous sense of event to it. The destruction was only brought to light this week but the event itself dates back to the 20th of July. Rusbridger had filed it away, kept his powder dry, waiting for the optimum moment to throw a fresh revelation into the mix. In the face of that sort of fierce strategic self-control, Cameron, May, GCHQ and all the rest should continue to be justifiably nervous.

Illustration by Victoria Sin.

Follow Gavin and Victoria on Twitter: @hurtgavinhaynes / @sinforvictory

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