In a turbulent era, the media must define its values and principles, writes Guardian editor-in-chief Katharine Viner
‘No former period, in the history of our Country, has been marked by the unrest 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 crossroad “.
Now we are living through another extraordinary period in history: one defined by amazing political shocks and the disruptive impact of new technologies in every part of our lives. The populace 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, create, 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 run? 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 tale, what feels like a Guardian perspective, what constructs something” very Guardian”( for better and for worse ).
In my own run 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 necessitates something deeper. It is more urgent than ever to ask: who are now we, basically?
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 such a way that reflects our history, engages profoundly with this disorientating global moment, and is sustainable for ever.
The history of the Guardian begins on 16 August 1819, when John Edward Taylor, a 28 -year-old English journalist, attended an enormous demo 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 notion 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 maintained the price of grain artificially high, brought mass thirst. There were protests and riots throughout the country, from handloom weavers trashing freshly fabricated mill 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 simply one voter, had two MPs to represent him. The city's businessmen were demanding an overhaul of this rotten system- and running men( and, for the first time, females) 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 .”
Taylor's relentless effort to tell the full narrative 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 revolutionaries( 10 put up PS100 each, and an 11 th contributed PS50 ). The first edition was published on 5 May 1821, devoted to enlightenment values, autonomy, 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 predominate “.
The Manchester Guardian was founded in a mood of great hope, and religion in ordinary people. The manifesto that Taylor rendered 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 gala of more people get educated, of more people engaging in politics, from different strolls of life, from poorer communities. And it is a document that articulates a sense of being responsible to the public- that the Manchester Guardian could engage with the people who were starting to become involved in politics, dedicating 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 this is why 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: the paper demanded that the Manchester cotton workers to whom starved in the street because they refused to touch cotton picked by American slaves should be forced back into work.( Abraham Lincoln wrote to the” working humen of Manchester” in 1863 to thank them for their” sublime Christian bravery, which has not been outdone in any age or in different countries “.)
This period of complacency for the Guardian was dramatically aimed 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 stimulated editor in 1872, at the age of 25. He was a revolutionary 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 first was the question of Irish Home Rule: on the most contentious issue of the time, which split the Liberal party in the 1880 s, Scott campaigned for self-government in Ireland- commemorate the moment, in agreement with the historian David Ayerst, when the Guardian most clearly became” a newspaper of the Left “. At the end of the 19 th century, Scott took the Guardian to an even more controversial anti-colonial posture. During the second Boer war, from 1899 to 1902, Britain was rampantly jingoistic; anyone who opposed the war was cast as a traitor. The Guardian stand against it and ran a campaign for peace, while the brilliant Guardian reporter Emily Hobhouse exposed the concentration camp for the Boers run by the British.
Many of these core values were laid out by Scott on the 100 th 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 adversaries no less than that of friends has a right listen to this “. It was here that he laid out the values of the Guardian: integrity, cleanness[ integrity ], fortitude, 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 training materials existence “.
Our moral sentence, 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 inspiring notions have always been at the heart of the Guardian at its best- whether the paper is called the Manchester Guardian or the Guardian, the name it adopted in 1959- and they are enshrined in our independent ownership structure, in which the Guardian is owned exclusively by the Scott Trust. Any money built is necessary spent on journalism.( The Observer, of course, has its own distinct and honest history and perspective- and as part of the same company, we are close siblings, but not twins .)
These values, notions and ideas are well-established and enduring. They do not, by themselves, tell us how to gratify the moral importance 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 triggered Peterloo. But the past three decades- since the invention of the world wide web in 1989- have transformed our notion 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 characterized 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 epoch 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.