The Ben Bradlee of Phone Hacking

'Guardian' editor Alan Rusbridger wouldn't let investigation die

Rupert Murdoch has met his match.

For years now, the News Corp. head has seemed bulletproof, or at least Teflon-coated; scandal has seemingly slid right off him. But suddenly the ongoing furor over phone hacking in the U.K. has put his media empire in real peril. His News of the World has been closed down. His $12 billion deal to take over all of British Sky Broadcasting has been scrapped. Some of his closest associates—even his son James—are at serious risk. And none of that would have happened were it not for the fierce, dogged persistence of Alan Rusbridger and The Guardian, the newspaper he runs.

Rusbridger has been at The Guardian for decades; he's been editor since 1995. And he's had plenty of success in that time. (Rusbridger and The Guardian have, for instance, played a pivotal role in the Wikileaks saga.) But none of it compares to this. By the time the dust settles, the paper may well have brought down, virtually single-handedly, not just a media giant but an entire government. But this moment in the sun for Rusbridger and The Guardian comes at a time when the paper itself is facing an uncertain future. A trust that has kept the paper alive is drying up, the parent company's losses totaled $53 million last year alone, and layoffs are imminent. But as his recent coup shows, though the walls may sometimes be crumbling around him, Rusbridger is committed to forging ahead, to pursuing major investigations even when no one else is paying attention.

“I had lots of conversations with people who appeared not to want to listen to what we were saying, including the future Prime Minister [David Cameron],” Rusbridger said. “That went for the police, that went for the MPs, it went for the regulator, and it went for other journalists. So we said, 'If we’re going to do this, we’re going to have to do it alone.'”

Like many of his employees, Rusbridger is practically a lifelong Guardian man. He joined the paper as a reporter in 1979 and has been there ever since. “Alan has spent almost all of his professional life at The Guardian, and has been editor for 16 years,” New York Times executive editor Bill Keller observed in an email to Adweek, “which means it is Alan's Guardian in a sense that few other papers are creatures of their editor.”

That's true. But if you had to pick a man for this role from Central Casting, you almost certainly wouldn't pick Rusbridger. Ben Bradlee, The Washington Post editor who ran that other legendary investigation once upon a time, was a man who looked the part—the kind of man who, his own reporters once said, would "grind his cigarettes out in a demitasse cup during a formal dinner party." Rusbridger, 57, is different—he looks more like Harry Potter's lonely uncle than the kind of man capable of bringing down Rupert Murdoch.

But he was willing to stick with the phone hacking scandal even when it seemed like no one outside The Guardian cared at all. All told, the paper has been on this story for five years now. Though it looks like a wise investment in retrospect, those were five years during which Rusbridger was sacrificing not only money but the time and efforts of some of his best reporters for a story that could very well have gone nowhere.

“As an organization, you have to have the patience to let a story unfold at its own pace,” Rusbridger says. “Investigations are not over in a day. You have to build incrementally, story by story, fact by fact. You have to have the patience to stick with a story even if it’s taking a very long time and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.”

Beyond patience, Rusbridger has an almost religious commitment to progressive, investigative reporting. (Last year, he left the Editors’ Code of Practice Committee when the Press Complaints Commission's investigation into phone hacking at News of the World proved to be, in his words, “worse than pointless.”) Despite the “low-level anxiety” that he admits comes with standing up to a media baron like Murdoch, he says he had no doubts about the story’s eventual success.

“The moment we knew about the James Murdoch hush money payment in July 2009," he said, "and people then started piling in with their own civil actions, we thought, ‘Even if other journalists are not going to take this very seriously, initially, the process of the law will unravel this case.' So I always knew it was going to unravel entirely; it was just a case of what the time scale was.”

It was a risky move because time is not on The Guardian's side right now. The Scott Trust, which has funded the paper since 1936, is running out. Last year, anticipating that the fund will go dry “in three to five years,” The Guardian announced that it was adopting a “digital-first strategy.” The plan calls for digital revenues to nearly double by 2016, from £47 million to £91 million. It also calls for a dramatic reduction in staff.

“We’ve been very frank about the money worries we have, which aren’t life-threatening, but make us a bit anxious because of all the things that we see happening to all newspapers,” Rusbridger said. “But it’s a very solid organization, with more than £1 billion of reserves, or value, behind it. So there’s no threat to it; it’s just we have to be realistic about the speed at which we change.”

Keller characterizes The Guardian’s position more harshly. “Print circulation is declining,” he said. “You have seen, no doubt, that they are headed for 'significant' layoffs, from a staff that is not all that big to begin with. And their hopes of compensating with online revenue are still just that, hopes.”

Of course, that statement would describe almost every newspaper these days, including Keller's own. And part of Rusbridger's strategy for the future involves going after Keller's readers. For years, Rusbridger has been working to launch a U.S. edition. “We see it as essential, in that the American audience is much bigger than the British audience,” he said. “There are millions of Americans that like what we do, so it’d be crazy not to try and understand better what they like about us, and what we can supply them with to make them like us even more.” Already, one-third of The Guardian's audience is in the U.S. Rusbridger believes he can grow that number, and in doing so, secure his paper's future.

“I think as time goes on, The Guardian will look more and more unusual as a model for a news organization, in the sense that it can decide what its priorities are, which may be very different from other people’s,” he said. “We are staying focused on [investigative reporting]—that makes us look more and more unusual, because fewer and fewer people are doing that.”