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 Katharine 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, its 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 its 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 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 demonstration for parliamentary reform in Manchester. In St Peters 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 Britains 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 citys 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 Peters Field on 16 August, the citys 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.

Quick Guide

What was the Peterloo massacre?

What was the Peterloo massacre?

On 16 August 1819, a crowd of more than 50,000 gathered at St Peter’s Fields outside Manchester to demand the reform of parliamentary representation.

Magistrates ordered the Manchester Yeomanry to disperse the demonstration and the sabre-wielding cavalry charged the crowd. At least 15 people diedand up to 700 were injured.

LabelledPeterloo as an ironic nod to the battle of Waterloo, which had occurred four years earlier, the massacre sparked an outcry that was a key contributing factor in the establishment of the ManchesterGuardian.

John Edward Taylor,aradical Quaker cotton merchant whodid unpaid journalism for the Manchester Gazette, was at St Peter’s Field on the day of the slaughter.

When the reporter from the London Times was arrested, Taylor and a friend sent an account of the killings to the paper to make sure the truthwasnt smothered by the official version. This was published along with an angry editorial based onthereporting.

Peterlooandits aftermath confirmed to Taylor that reformers in Manchester needed their own voice. Two years later, and with the financial backing of11supporters, a prospectus for a new paper, the Manchester Guardian, was issued, stating: It will zealously enforce the principles of civilandreligious Liberty It will warmly advocate the cause of Reform. The first edition of the paper was published on 5 May 1821.

Photograph: Rischgitz/Hulton Archive

Taylors 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 papers 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 peoples side.

In the decades following Taylors 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: the paper demanded that the Manchester cotton workers who starved in the streets because they refused to touch cotton picked by American slaves should be forced back into work. (Abraham Lincoln wrote to the working men of Manchester in 1863 to thank them for their sublime Christian heroism, which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country.)

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 first was the question of Irish Home Rule: on the most contentious issue of the time, which split the Liberal party in the 1880s, Scott campaigned for self-government in Ireland marking the moment, according to the historian David Ayerst, when the Guardian most clearly became a paper of the Left. At the end of the 19th century, Scott took the Guardian to an even more controversial anti-colonial position. 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 stood against it and ran a campaign for peace, while the brilliant Guardian reporter Emily Hobhouse exposed the concentration camps for the Boers run by the British.

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

The papers stance was so controversial that it lost advertisers and one-seventh of its sales. One rival paper, confident that the Guardian was on the verge of collapse, sent a brass band to stand outside our offices in Cross Street, Manchester to play Handels mournful Dead March from Saul.

Scotts courageous position nearly did kill the Guardian. But in standing up to the prevailing political mood of the day, Scott turned the newspaper into the dominant expression of radical thinking among educated men and women, as Ayerst wrote. Clearly this was a paper that could not be bought.

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.

One of those missteps came in 1948. Surprising as it may seem today, the Manchester Guardian disparaged the foundation of Britains National Health Service. While supporting the changes as a great step forward, the Guardian feared that the state providing welfare risks an increase in the proportion of the less gifted. Three years later, the paper went further and backed the Conservatives at the 1951 general election. (Historians believe that these decisions came about because the editor at the time, AP Wadsworth, loathed Nye Bevan, the passionate Labour politician behind the welfare state.)

Making sense of a political moment when youre in the midst of it is difficult even if you avoid commercial and personal conflicts, it can still be hard to see it and understand it. A news organisation might often get things wrong it needs some core values and principles to stick to in order to try to get it right.

Quick Guide

A Guardian timeline


– In April, aprospectusannounces a new paper for Manchester. A month later, on 5 May 1821,John Edward Taylor publishes the first Manchester Guardian as a newspaper in the liberal interest.


Charles Prestwich Scott, a liberal thinker with strong principles, becomes editor of the Guardian – a post he holds for 57 years.


– CP Scott buys the Guardian, becoming both owner and editor.


– CP Scott writes a leading article to mark the centenary of the paper that becomes recognised around the world as the blueprint for independent journalism and includes the lineComment is free, but facts are sacred.


– CP Scott retires as editor in favour of his son Ted.


– CP Scotts death in January is followed swiftly by that of his younger son; Ted Scott is killed in a tragic boating accident in April.William Percival Crozieris appointed as editor.


– Ownership of the Manchester Guardian is transferred to the Scott Trust to protect the paper, its independence and the journalistic principles of CP Scott.


– Following WP Croziers death, Alfred Powell Wadsworth becomes editor.


Alastair Hetherington becomes editor following Wadsworths death.


– On 24 August the newspaperchanges its titlefrom the Manchester Guardian to the Guardian, to reflect the growing importance of national and international affairs in the newspaper.


– The editors office and major editorial departments relocate from Manchester to London.


– Peter Preston is appointed editor.


The Guardian has a radical redesign, splitting the newspaper into two sections and introducing a new masthead.


– Alan Rusbridger becomes editor.


– Guardian Unlimited (GU) network of websites is launched.


– The mid-sized Berliner format newspaper launched. It is the UK’s first full-colour national newspaper.


– A new digital operation,Guardian US, is launched in New York as a hub for Guardian readers in the US.


– The Guardian launches Australian digital edition, Guardian Australia.


– Katharine Viner is appointed Guardian editor-in-chief.

Photograph: The Guardian

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 Scotts essay, like John Edward Taylors 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 theyre 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 ideas 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 solely by the Scott Trust. Any money made must be spent on journalism. (The Observer, of course, has its own distinct and honourable history and perspective and as part of the same company, we are close siblings, but not twins.)

This is the mission that has motivated so many of the great moments in Guardian history, from our independent reporting of the Spanish civil war to the dramatic Edward Snowden revelations; from taking an anti-colonial position in the Suez crisis to standing up to Rupert Murdoch, the police and politicians in the phone-hacking scandal; from sending Jonathan Aitken to jail to the Panama and Paradise Papers.

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 worlds 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.