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.