Hereditas Historiae

Website hosted by Irène Diependaal to foster some historical knowledge necessary to understand our present times

The Guardian - 18 November 2017

A mission for journalism in a time of crisis

In a turbulent era, the media must define its values and principles, writes Guardian editor-in-chief Katherine Viner    

By Katherine Viner


‘No former period, in the history of our Country, has been marked by the agitation of questions of a more important character than those which are now claiming the attention of the public.” So began the announcement, nearly 200 years ago, of a brand-new newspaper to be published in Manchester, England, which proclaimed that “the spirited discussion of political questions” and “the accurate detail of facts” were “particularly important at this juncture”.

Now we are living through another extraordinary period in history: one defined by dazzling political shocks and the disruptive impact of new technologies in every part of our lives. The public sphere has changed more radically in the past two decades than in the previous two centuries – and news organisations, including this one, have worked hard to adjust.

But the turbulence of our time may demand that we do more than adapt. The circumstances in which we report, produce, distribute and obtain the news have changed so dramatically that this moment requires nothing less than a serious consideration of what we do and why we do it.

The Scott Trust, which owns the Guardian, stated a very clear purpose when it was established in 1936: “to secure the financial and editorial independence of the Guardian in perpetuity and to safeguard the journalistic freedom and liberal values of the Guardian free from commercial or political interference.” As an editor, it’s hard to imagine a finer mission for a proprietor: our sole shareholder is committed only to our journalistic freedom and longterm survival.

But if the mission of the Scott Trust is to ensure that Guardian journalism will exist for ever, it is still left to us to define what the mission of that journalism will be. What is the meaning and purpose of our work? What role do we play in society?

After working at the Guardian for two decades, I feel I know instinctively why it exists. Most of our journalists and our readers do, too – it’s something to do with holding power to account, and upholding liberal values. We know what defines a Guardian story, what feels like a Guardian perspective, what makes something “very Guardian” (for better and for worse).

In my own work as editor of the Guardian in Australia, and then as the editor of the Guardian in the US, I tried to conceptualise the Guardian with a different accent – to identify the essential qualities of Guardian journalism and bring them to new audiences. Now, as the editor-in-chief of the Guardian and the Observer, I believe our time requires something deeper. It is more urgent than ever to ask: who are we, fundamentally?

The answer to this question is in our past, our present and our future. I want to lead a Guardian that relates to the world in a way that reflects our history, engages deeply with this disorientating global moment, and is sustainable forever.


The history of the Guardian begins on 16 August 1819, when John Edward Taylor, a 28-year-old English journalist, attended an enormous demonstration for parliamentary reform in Manchester. In St Peter’s Field, a popular radical speaker, Henry Hunt, addressed a crowd estimated to contain 60,000 people – more than half the population of the Manchester area at the time, dressed in their Sunday best and packed in so tightly that their hats were said to be touching.

At the time, the mood in the country was insurrectionary. The French revolution, three decades earlier, had spread throughout the world the seismic idea that ordinary people could face down the powerful and win – a revelation for the masses and a fright for those in power. After Britain’s victory at Waterloo and the end of the Napoleonic wars, the country was mired in economic depression and high unemployment, while the Corn Laws, which kept the price of grain artificially high, brought mass hunger. There were protests and riots throughout the country, from handloom weavers trashing newly invented factory machinery to anti-slavery campaigners boycotting sugar.

There was also a growing campaign for the vote: the big, densely populated city of Manchester had no member of parliament – while Old Sarum, a prosperous hamlet in southern England, with just one voter, had two MPs to represent him. The city’s businessmen were demanding an overhaul of this rotten system – and working men (and, for the first time, women) wanted their own chance to vote.

The combination of economic depression, political repression and the politicisation of workers with economic need was combustible. As the essayist William Hazlitt wrote one year earlier, “nothing that was established was to be tolerated … the world was to be turned topsy-turvy.”


The Peterloo massacre of 1819. Photograph: Courtesy of Manchester Libraries, Information and Archives

As most of Manchester gathered in St Peter’s Field on 16 August, the city’s magistrates, intimidated by the size of the crowd and their demands, ordered armed cavalry to charge into the crowd – to break up the meeting and arrest Hunt and other speakers on the podium. The troops stormed through the people, hacking with their sabres and “cutting at everyone they could reach”. Eleven people were killed on the day, seven men and four women, and many hundreds were injured. It became known as the Peterloo massacre or the Battle of Peterloo, and its impact was huge: the historian AJP Taylor said that Peterloo “began the breakup of the old order in England”.

John Edward Taylor was in the crowd that day, reporting for a weekly paper, the Manchester Gazette. When a reporter for the daily Times of London was arrested, Taylor was concerned that the people of the capital might not get an accurate report of the massacre – he correctly feared that without the account of a journalist on the scene, Londoners would instead get only the official version of events, which would protect the magistrates who had caused the bloodshed.

So Taylor rushed a report on to the night coach to London, got it into the Times, and thus turned a Manchester demonstration into a national scandal. Taylor exposed the facts, without hysteria. By reporting what he had witnessed, he told the stories of the powerless, and held the powerful to account.

But Taylor did not stop there. After the massacre, he spent months reporting on the fate of the wounded, documenting the injuries of more than 400 survivors.

Taylor’s relentless effort to tell the full story of Peterloo strengthened his own reformist political views – and he became determined to agitate for fair representation in parliament. He decided to start his own newspaper, the Manchester Guardian, with the financial backing of other middle-class radicals (10 put up £100 each, and an 11th contributed £50). The first edition was published on 5 May 1821, devoted to enlightenment values, liberty, reform and justice. It was launched with great confidence and optimism, by a man who believed that, “in spite of Peterloo and police spies, reason was great and would prevail”.

The Manchester Guardian was founded in a mood of great hope, and faith in ordinary people. The manifesto that Taylor produced before the paper’s launch speaks powerfully of the “great diffusion of Education” that was taking place, and “the greatly increased interest which political subjects excite, and the immense extension of the circle within which they are discussed. It is of the utmost importance that this increased interest should be turned to beneficial account”.

It is a powerful document, and one whose ideals still shape the Guardian – a celebration of more people getting educated, of more people engaging in politics, from different walks of life, from poorer communities. And it is a document that articulates a sense of responsibility to the public – that the Manchester Guardian could engage with the people who were starting to become involved in politics, giving them the information they need to take action. It is a wholly uncynical and unsnobbish document. It is on people’s side.

In the decades following Taylor’s death in 1844, the Manchester Guardian began to drift from the political ideals that had inspired its founding. It was highly profitable, but in becoming so it got too close to the Manchester cotton merchants who paid for the advertising that supported the paper. It even sided with the slave-owning south in the American civil war. […]

This period of complacency for the Guardian was dramatically ended by the appointment as editor of CP Scott, who transformed the paper and helped establish the political commitments that have been so important to its identity ever since.

Scott was made editor in 1872, at the age of 25. He was a radical Liberal and party activist who cared greatly about social justice and pacifism. Scott faced two big ideological challenges during the 57 years of his editorship; and his response to both helped form the Guardian as it is today. […]

The prospectus published in advance of the first edition of the Manchester Guardian in 1821. Photograph: University of Manchester Library

As Scott orientated the paper towards a more radical position – away from laissez-faire liberalism to what was known as “New Liberalism”, concerned with social justice and welfare – he set the Guardian on the progressive path it has maintained, with a few missteps, ever since. […]

Many of these core values were laid out by Scott on the 100th birthday of the Guardian, with his justly celebrated centenary essay of 1921. It was here that Scott introduced the famous phrase “comment is free, but facts are sacred”, and decreed that “the voice of opponents no less than that of friends has a right to be heard”. It was here that he laid out the values of the Guardian: honesty, cleanness [integrity], courage, fairness, a sense of duty to the reader and a sense of duty to the community.

CP Scott’s essay, like John Edward Taylor’s foundational prospectus, is both powerful and hopeful; as Scott writes, “the newspaper has a moral as well as a material existence”.

Our moral conviction, as exemplified by Taylor and codified by Scott, rests on a faith that people long to understand the world they’re in, and to create a better one. We believe in the value of the public sphere; that there is such a thing as the public interest, and the common good; that we are all of equal worth; that the world should be free and fair. […]

These values, beliefs and ideas are well-established and enduring. They do not, by themselves, tell us how to meet the moral urgency of this new era. The world we knew has been pulled out of shape, and we must ask what it means to uphold these values now – as journalists and as citizens – and how they will inform our journalism and purpose.  

Almost 200 years have passed since the public meeting that sparked Peterloo. But the past three decades – since the invention of the world wide web in 1989 – have transformed our idea of the public in ways that John Edward Taylor and CP Scott could not have imagined.

This technological revolution was exciting and inspiring. After 600 years of the Gutenberg era, when mass communication was dominated by established and hierarchical sources of information, the web felt like a breath of fresh air: open, creative, egalitarian. As its creator, Tim Berners-Lee,  put it, “this is for everyone”. At first, it felt like the beginning of a thrilling new era of hyper-connectivity, with all the world’s knowledge at our fingertips and every person empowered to participate – as if the internet was one big town square where all our problems could be solved and everyone helped each other. […]

But it has become clear that the utopian mood of the early 2000s did not anticipate all that technology would enable. Our digital town squares have become mobbef with bullies, misogynists and racists, who have brought a new kind of hysteria to public debate. Our movements and feelings are constantly monitored, because surveillance is the business model of the digital age. Facebook  has become the richest and most powerful publisher in history by replacing editors with algorithms – shattering the public square into millions of personalised news feeds, shifting entire societies away from the open terrain of genuine debate and argument, while they make billions from our valued attention.

This shift presents big challenges for liberal democracy. But it presents particular problems for journalism.

The transition from print to digital did not initially change the basic business model for many news organisations – that is, selling advertisements to fund the journalism delivered to readers. For a time, it seemed that the potentially vast scale of an online audience might compensate for the decline in print readers and advertisers. But this business model is currently collapsing, as Facebook and Google swallow digital advertising; as a result, the digital journalism produced by many news organisations has become less and less meaningful.

Publishers that are funded by algorithmic ads are locked in a race to the bottom in pursuit of any audience they can find – desperately binge-publishing without checking facts, pushing out the most shrill and most extreme stories to boost clicks. But even this huge scale can no longer secure enough revenue.

On some sites, journalists who learned in training that “news is something that someone, somewhere doesn’t want published” churn out 10 commodified stories a day without making a phone call. “Where once we had propaganda, press releases, journalism, and advertising,” the academic Emily Bell has written,  “we now have ‘content’.” Readers are overwhelmed: bewildered by the quantity of “news” they see every day, nagged by intrusive pop-up ads, confused by what is real and what is fake, and confronted with an experience that is neither useful nor enjoyable.

Many people get most of their news from Facebook, which means that information arrives in one big stream – which may contain fact-based independent journalism from transparent sources alongside invented stories from a click farm, or content funded by malevolent actors to influence an election. […]

Trust in all kinds of established institutions – including the media – is at an historic low. This is not a blip, and it should not be a surprise, when so many institutions have failed the people who trusted them and responded to criticism with contempt. As a result, people feel outraged but powerless – nothing they do seems to stop these things happening, and nobody seems to be listening to their stories.

This has created a crisis for public life, and particularly for the press, which risks becoming wholly part of the same establishment that the public no longer trusts. At a moment when people are losing faith in their ability to participate in politics and make themselves heard, the media can play a critical role in reversing that sense of alienation. […]

To do this well, journalists must work to earn the trust of those they aim to serve. And we must make ourselves more representative of the societies we aim to represent. Members of the media are increasingly drawn from the same, privileged sector of society: this problem has actually worsened in recent decades. According to the government’s 2012 report on social mobility in the UK, while most professions are still “dominated by a social elite”, journalism lags behind medicine, politics and even law in opening its doors to people from less well-off backgrounds. “Indeed,” the report concludes, “journalism has had a greater shift towards social exclusivity than any other profession.” […]

If journalists become distant from other people’s lives, they miss the story, and people don’t trust them. The Guardian  is not at all exempt from these challenges, and our staff is not diverse enough. Because of our history, values and purpose, we are committed to addressing these issues – but there is still a long way to go.

Meanwhile, those in power have exploited distrust of the media to actively undermine the role of journalism in the public interest in a democracy – from Donald Trump calling the “fake news” media “the enemy of the American people” to a British cabinet member suggesting that broadcasters should be “patriotic” in their Brexit reporting. All over the world – in Turkey, Russia, Poland, Egypt, China, Hungary, Malta and many other countries – powerful interests are on the march against free speech. Journalists are undermined, attacked, even murdered.

In these disorientating times, championing the public interest – which has always been at the heart of the Guardian’s mission – has become an urgent necessity. People are understandably anxious in the face of crises that are global, national, local and personal. At the global level, these crises are overwhelming: climate change, the refugee crisis, the rise of a powerful super-rich who bestride the global economy. It is easy to feel that humanity is facing a great shift, about which we were not consulted. Overwhelming technological, environmental, political and social change has precipitated what the philosopher Timothy Morton memorably describes as “a traumatic loss of co-ordinates” for all of us.

These global upheavals have plainly destabilised national politics, producing the shocks and surprises of the past two years: the unexpected result of the Brexit referendum,  which leaves Britain facing a deeply uncertain future; the stunning election of Donald Trump; the collapse of support for traditional parties across Europe, and the unexpected rise of Emmanuel Macron. These events confounded the experts and the insiders who confidently declared them impossible. In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn appeared to have torn up the rolebook that had governed electoral politics for two decades – finding a surge of support in the June snap election, particularly with young people, by promoting socialist ideas that had long been dismissed. Bernie Sanders tapped into a similar mood in the US Democratic primary.

Skyrocketing inequality between the rich and poor has bred resentment at the political and economic establishment. In October it was revealed that the world’s super-rich now hold the greatest concentration of wealth for 120 years – many of them taking elaborate steps to avoid tax in the process, as the Paradise Papers showed.

What is becoming clear is that the way things have been run is unsustainable. We are at a turning point in which, in writer Naomi Klein’s words, “the spell of neoliberalism has been broken, crushed under the weight of lived experience and a mountain of evidence”. (Klein defines neoliberalism as “shorthand for an economic project that vilifies the public sphere”.) Perhaps the markets don’t have all the answers after all. The Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf, who says that many had not understood how “radical the implications” of worsening inequality would be, suggests that the political backlash to globalisaton could possibly produce a “fundamental transformation of the world – at least as significant as the one that brought about the first world war and the Russian revolution.” […]

Our lives are increasingly atomised, but you can see the pleasure that comes from communal or civic participation. People long to help each other, to be together, to share experiences, to be part of a community, to influence the powers that control their lives. But in everyday life, such togetherness is hard to achieve: workplaces in the era of the gig economy no longer offer a solid place to gather; religion has declined; technology means that we often communicate via screens rather than face-to-face.

This is a dangerous moment: these are fertile grounds for authoritarianism and fascistic movements, and it’s no surprise that people feel anxious and confused. The desire to belong can just as easily find a home in dark places; new ways of participating can just as easily be used to foster hate.

But it is the presence of all these crises that recalls AJP Taylor’s remark that Peterloo “began the breakup of the old order” – and I cannot help wondering if this is another such moment. After the fever of Peterloo, amid mass demands for the vote, the Manchester Guardian caught the mood of the people, and found a way to respond – not to deny what was happening or minimise it, but to acknowledge it, contextualise it, analyse it, try to understand it, to “turn it to beneficial account”. […]

The urgent question now, then, is how the Guardian should do that today.  

One response to this crisis is despair and escapism: to bury our heads in our phones, or watch some dystopian TV. Another is to declare that the whole system is broken, and everything must be torn down – a view whose popularity may partly explain our recent political tremors.

But despair is just another form of denial. People long to feel hopeful again – and young people, especially, yearn to feel the hope that previous generations once had.

Hope does not mean naively denying reality, as Rebecca Solnit explains in her inspiring book Hope in the Dark. “Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists,” Solnit writes. It’s a belief that actions have meaning and that what we do matters. “Authentic hope,” she says, “requires clarity and imagination.”

Hope, above all, is a faith in our capacity to act together to make change. To do this, we need to be bold. “Not everything that is faced can be changed,” James Baldwin wrote in 1962. “But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” We need to accept the limits of the old kind of power, and work out what the new kinds will be. We need to be engaged with the world, uncynical, unsnobbish, on people’s side: just like the 1821 manifesto that established the Guardian. […]

If people long to understand the world, then news organisations must provide them with clarity: facts they can trust, information that they need, reported and written and edited with care and precision.

If people long to create a better world, then we must use our platform to nurture imagination – hopeful ideas, fresh alternatives, belief that the way things are isn’t the way things need to be. We cannot merely criticise the status quo; we must also explore the new ideas that might displace it. We must build hope.

To do this, the Guardian will embrace as wide a range of progressive perspectives as possible. We will support policies and ideas, but we will not give uncritical backing to parties or individuals. We will also engage with and publish voices from the right. In an age of tumultuous change, nobody has a monopoly on good ideas.

But our guiding focus, especially in countries such as Britain, the US and Australia, will be to challenge the economic assumptions of the past three decades, which have extended market values such as competition and self-interest far beyond their natural sphere and seized the public realm. We will explore other principles and avenues through which to organise society for the common good.

In doing this, we want nuance and knowledge, surprises and context and history, because power and influence might not reside where they used to; as identities change, the political assumptions of the recent past should not dictate our perspective on the present. We should be guided by curiosity, not certainty. We like experts, but that’s not enough; we must also ask why more people don’t..

This kind of journalism, which champions the public interest, requires a deep understanding of the changes taking place, so we will continually find the best ways to listen to people, even – perhaps especially – those who don’t read us. This is why it is essential that we have a staff that is representative of the society to which we all belong. We need to ensure our journalists will find and hear different stories, have different instincts, gain different insights, make different connections, give voice to the silenced, cover areas and topics that are neglected – in other words, make our journalism better.

We do this by taking people seriously and treating our subjects, sources and readers with respect. Our relationship with our readers is not transactional: it is about sharing a sense of purpose and a commitment to understand and illuminate our times.

Supporting the Guardian - via subscriptions, contributions or membership – is only one way to participate in our mission. We are inviting our readers to be part of a community, whether that means reading and listening to and watching and sharing our work, or responding to it, or by sending us anonymous information or participating in a reporting project. We will also collaborate with news organisations – and others – who are doing work in the public interest. […]

We will give people the facts, because they want and need information they can trust, and we will stick to the facts. We will find things out, reveal new information and challenge the powerful. This is the foundation of what we do. As trust in the media declines in a combustible political moment, people around the world come to the Guardian in greater numbers than ever before, because they know us to be rigorous and fair. If we once emphasised the revolutionary idea that “comment is free”, today our priority is to ensure that “facts are sacred”. Our ownership structure means we are entirely independent and free from political and commercial influence. Only our values will determine the stories we choose to cover – relentlessly and courageously.

We will ask the questions that people are asking, and the questions that no one is asking. Honest reporters approach every situation with humility: they find the people who don’t get listened to and really listen to them. They get to know a place. We will get out of the big cities and the big institutions, and stay with stories for the long-term. Our commentary must also be based in facts, but we will keep a clear distinction between news and opinion. […]

This is a challenge: a challenge for us at the Guardian to grab these principles, develop them and use them in all we do; a challenge to Guardian readers, to engage with us, support us if you believe in us, participate, advocate; and a challenge to all media organisations, to find ways to face this moment.

In the two-and-a-half years since I became editor-in-chief, we have experienced a huge number of political and social shocks, a dramatic undermining of the business model for serious journalism, and what many believe is an unprecedented level of disruption to our planet, our nation states, our communities, ourselves. It is a searching time to be an editor, a journalist and a citizen – but also a privilege to be grappling with these questions, with a possibility of helping to turn this era into something better, to turn this moment to “beneficial account”, as our founding manifesto proclaimed. And to do what has been the mission of the Guardian since 1821: to use clarity and imagination to build hope.’


Postscript by Irène Diependaal, written for Hereditas Historiae

Katharine Viner is editor-in-chief of Guardian News & Media.

She joined the Guardian as a writer in 1997 and has since undertaken numerous roles, including editor of Weekend magazine, features editor and Saturday editor. She was appointed deputy editor of the Guardian in 2008; launched the award-winning Guardian Australia in 2013; and was most recently editor-in-chief of Guardian US.

Katharine Viner gave the 2013 A.N. Smith lecture in journalism at the University of Melbourne, "The Rise of the Reader", discussing journalism in the age of the open web, and a speech on "Truth and Reality in a Hyper-Connected World" as part of the Oxford University Women of Achievement Lecture Series in May 2016.