When you see Alan Rusbridger in person, there’s almost an expectation that he will be 10 feet tall and able to breathe fire. After everything he and his media outlet, the Guardian, have been through in the past few years, it seems like a reasonable expectation. WikiLeaks. The UK phone hacking scandal. Snowden.
The impression I got after hearing him speak Wednesday night at the New York Public Library is that he’s humble, witty and committed to protecting the future of reporters and the free press. Wherever they might hail from.
As if life as editor of the Guardian wasn’t enough to stay busy, in 2010 he also made an ambitious plan to take up the piano again. He set out to learn, in one year, Chopin’s Ballade No.1. The one-movement piece is considered by the world’s best pianists to be among the toughest ever composed.
Rusbridger spent 20 minutes a day, for one year, to achieve the task. The result was his book, “Play It Again.”
“The book is partly about having a crazy life,” Rusbridger said. His interview with New York Public Library’s Paul Holdengraber was part of an annual “who’s who” series that includes authors, intellectuals, and influential social figures.
Rusbridger said the additional task in an already incredibly busy life actually helped prepare him for each day’s events.
“I made it almost religious that I would find the time,” he said. “In times of great stress it helped a lot. It feels as though that 20 minutes prepares you.”
As an amateur pianist, though, the professional journalist in him eventually ended up taking the driver’s seat. In 2010, he talked with a neurologist to see if his then-56-year-old brain was too old handle the task. He sat down with professional pianists whose skills were far superior to his. That part of his quest brought him to Condoleezza Rice’s doorstep. Rice is an accomplished pianist.
He said of that encounter that he was impressed that she “was quite busy being involved in a lot of wars, but kept up with the piano.”
Rusbridger’s adventures in starting to play the piano again after quitting earlier in life brought him another interesting insight. He glimpsed the massive gap between the worlds of the professional and the amateur.
“I realized on a microscopic level that this is what pianists face,” he said.
Regardless of what one thinks about Rusbridger’s role in WikiLeaks, the UK phone hacking scandal, Chopin and Snowden, his apparent dedication to what he calls the “fourth estate” is admirable. Especially when it comes to the hard, sometimes lonely work, of reporters.
“You could strip away everything from the newsroom, but leave the reporters,” he said.
Before the event, Rusbridger had been given some surprise inspiration by his host. They took a close look at the Pentagon Papers. He called it “moving” to read materials that are such an important part of the history of American journalism.
Then there are the parallels to his own recent work.
Though Rusbridger thinks the leaked Snowden papers are just as important as the Pentagon Papers, he has no illusions about sources who reveal state secrets.
“There are no perfect sources,” he said. “Archbishops don’t leak documents typically.”
He still finds the debate that comes out of such disclosures to be highly valuable, but extensive jail time can put a chill on exercising First Amendment rights.
“That sends a pretty strong signal as to what you think about whistle blowers,” he said.
Despite the U.S. government’s reaction to leaked documents, Rusbridger still finds American soil a more welcoming theater for the free press than the UK. It’s partly for that reason that the Guardian has “found shelter” in working with The New York Times and has put more focus on reporting from the U.S, Rusbridger said.
He believes the Guardian has an inherent U.S. audience that wants to read global news and reports. With all of their foreign bureaus still open and one-third of their readers in the U.S., they are well-positioned to provide that.
“People understand that their lives are unintelligible just in national terms.”
Yet in light of the freedom of the Internet and the debates over how much should be published and who is qualified to publish it, there are more questions than answers.
“We’re just right at the beginning of it,” he said.
Based on Russbridger’s willingness to learn Chopin’s Ballad No. 1, tackling unknown challenges that lay ahead shouldn’t prove too much of a problem.