Q & A: The Guardian’s Ewen MacAskill

The UK paper's Washington bureau chief on politics, transparency, and the journalistic power of soccer

One of the interesting developments stemming from the growth of Web news and the splintering of traditional audiences has been the way the Guardian, Britain’s leading liberal newspaper, has cultivated a readership in the United States. As the Guardian’s bureau chief in Washington, D.C., Ewen MacAskill has lately been writing about the health care debate, Sonia Sotomayor’s Supreme Court nomination, and the estate of Michael Jackson.

On Friday, MacAskill took a little time away from the beat to chat with CJR assistant editor Greg Marx. This is an edited transcript.

Greg Marx: You’re the Guardian’s bureau chief in D.C. Can you talk a little bit about how you came to that job and what your responsibilities are?

Ewen MacAskill: I’ve been with the Guardian for sixteen years. The first four of that I was doing British domestic politics, and then for seven years I was diplomatic editor. Basically, I was a roving foreign correspondent. I did the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iraq, and a whole host of other stories. So when there was a vacancy in Washington about three years ago, the editors thought the combination of politics and foreign affairs made me a suitable candidate for a job, and that’s how I landed it.

GM: Had the U.S. in particular been a topic of interest to you previously?

EM: One of the best things that ever happened to me in journalism was winning the Washington Post Laurence Stern fellowship in 1986. Every year The Washington Post takes a British journalist for three or four months, and they’re expected to do stories the same as every other reporter. It was great for me—the Post let me travel all over the States and I did a whole range of stories, and I got to work in an environment with U.S. journalists. A lot of British foreign correspondents come to the States and they’re outsiders. It was great to be in a newsroom and be friends with American reporters and see how they operated. It was a big influence on me, gave me a real boost of confidence at the time. I’ve still got lots of friends from the Post as a result

GM: So coming back twenty years later, were there real changes in either the political or the journalistic landscape that made an impression on you?

EM: There’s been a big change in the environment in D.C. from those years. In ’86, big chunks of the center of town were a wasteland, a no-go area. It had never really recovered from the riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King. Coming back two and a half years ago, though, it was great. The center of the city had been transformed. It’s just a much nicer place to live now.

Journalistically, as well, it was fantastic coming back. It was almost perfect timing—I came back in time to cover the best U.S. election of my lifetime. It was just a fantastic two years during the run-up to the primaries, the primaries themselves, and the start of Obama’s presidency. It’s just been fantastic.

GM: My impression is that the Guardian is becoming a more widely read news source among Americans, particularly among liberal-leaning Americans. Do you have any thoughts on why that might be, and whether it has anything to do with the traditional differences between American and British media?

EM: Our readership on the Web is something like twenty-five to thirty million, and I would estimate about a third of those are from America, with the rest from either Britain and Europe or Asia and the Middle East. We think it dates back, partly, to our coverage of the second intifada. The Guardian traditionally has good coverage of the Arab world, and we’re particularly strong on giving the Palestinian side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—the American papers did, as well, but not to the degree that we did. So I think readers started coming to us because they thought we were more balanced, or we gave more attention to the Palestinian side.

And after 9/11, a lot of American readers came to us because they were curious about how Europeans saw the attack. And then there was another flood of American readers in the run-up to the war in Iraq, where papers like The New York Times were perhaps not critical enough. The Guardian on its editorial side was opposed to the war in Iraq, but we also subjected to intense scrutiny everything that came out—you know, Colin Powell, and his famous presentation of so-called evidence at the Security Council. All those statements we took under the microscope and analyzed to the nth degree in a way that lots of American media didn’t. So I think it’s those three factors—and there’s a further factor, as you suggested, that the Guardian is one of the leading liberal voices in the world, so if you’re a liberal in America, you might be curious about what the Guardian is saying.

And I’d add a further factor—I think lots of Americans come to the Guardian, too, for its soccer coverage. Soccer’s growing in America, and the Guardian’s soccer Web site is an easy and informative read. And fun, as well.

GM: How do you conceive of what your audience needs to know, and wants to know, when you’ve got readers coming from so many different places? Also, on the site you’ve got a page called Guardian America and also a U.S. page under the World section. How are decisions made about how to present information on those two pages?

EM: It’s a good question, and it’s not one that we’ve resolved yet. I would have been here, anyway. My job is a traditional one, which is mainly to tell readers in Europe what’s happening in America. My job is explaining America to a European audience. But in the Guardian team in Washington we also have lots of Americans, and they’re writing and editing the Web site you’ve just been talking about, Guardian America and the U.S. page. Their priority is not just explaining America to Europe; they’re trying to produce a Web site that’s of interest to Americans, as well. So it’s sort of a complicated, multifaceted thing.

It may be that some Americans are curious to see what Brits and Europeans are saying about America; it may be they come to us for our coverage of the Middle East or football; and it may be they come to us for some American news. But we can’t compete with The New York Times, The Washington Post, or the Los Angeles Times in coverage of U.S. news. We don’t have the resources or the huge teams. So I think people come to us for different reasons.

As I said at the outset, we haven’t quite reconciled the role of Guardian America, and how you do this double act of explaining America to the rest of the world—and at the same time come up with stuff that’s going to interest an American audience.

GM: How many reporters do you have in your D.C. bureau?

EM: We’ve got four reporters in D.C., and about ten more people [in other roles]—editors, a commentator… somebody dedicated to audio-visual. And we’ve got three in New York, one in Los Angeles, and then we’ve got some administrative people, as well.

GM: How much of your editorial goal is to break stories, and how much is more, for whomever your audience is, to capture a sense of what’s going on in the country and present a certain perspective?

EM: Ideally, we want to break news—and occasionally we do—but we don’t have the resources, really, to compete on those terms against the long-established American newspapers. So a lot of what we do is go out on the roads and speak to people and do sort of thematic pieces rather than hard news pieces. That’s exclusive to the Guardian. During the election we tried to break some stories—and, again we did occasionally—but a lot of what we do is reactive, just following what the news of the day is.

GM: Can you give an example of a story you broke during the election?

EM: After the election, I did a story saying that Hillary Clinton had been offered the job of Secretary of State and had accepted it. For about a week or two afterwards there was some doubt about whether this had actually happened, and then it was confirmed. But these are rarities; it’s not often we get the exclusives. We don’t have the same level of access to the White House, the State Department, or the Pentagon as, say, The New York Times or the Post.

GM: Are there times when you feel that being from the UK gives you a different perspective on politics here that’s valuable? Do you ever feel you can bring a perspective that’s a little bit askew from the way other people are looking at a story?

EM: I think coming from outside does give you a different perspective. Covering politics in Britain tends to be more antagonistic. There’s a residue of respect at the White House for the president and the presidential press spokesman, maybe because the president is the head of state in America. In Britain, there isn’t that same sort of respect for the prime minister or his press secretary, and it tends to be a very adversarial, antagonistic relationship. We would never dream of standing up when the prime minister walks into a press conference, and I always find it slightly strange that American journalists stand up when Obama or Bush walks into the room. And the relationship between journalists and Robert Gibbs is quite chummy: there’s a lot of banter back and forward. At some of the press meetings in the lobby at the House of Commons and at Downing Street, the journalists are much harder on the press spokesman than they are at the White House, I think.

GM: Do you have a preference between the two models?

EM: There are a lot of benefits to the U.S. system. I’ve got a White House press pass; I can go to the Pentagon whenever I want, and I can go to the State Department. At one level, there’s a degree of transparency that’s not available in Britain. In the American system, the government tendency is to release information, and it’s easy for journalists to request it and be given it under freedom of information laws. The instinct of government officials in America is to give you information rather than hold it.

One of the good things about the British system, on the other hand, is that it’s more adversarial. But at the same time, the instinct of the British civil servant—one developed over hundreds of years—is to withhold information, rather than volunteer it, and not hand it over unless absolutely necessary. So, in some ways, the American system is more transparent, but because of the more adversarial system in Britain, sometimes more stories come out there. It’s a contradiction: the American system is more transparent, but in spite of that, an awful lot goes on behind the scenes that we never get to hear about.

And to reply to the other half of your question from before: there are some issues that Guardian reporters are interested in because we come from a liberal newspaper, things that we take up that aren’t given the same prominence in a lot of the American mainstream media. We devote a lot of space, for example, to environmental issues. I know The New York Times and the Post and others do too, but we concentrate hard on that.

GM: The tradition in the U.S. is at least formally, or officially, to enforce separation between the politics of the editorial page and the perspective of the news pages. As someone who works on the news side, are you still comfortable saying that a liberal perspective influences your decisions editorially?

EM: We follow the same rules—that you’re not supposed to editorialize in news stories—but we’re allowed to write in a looser style than most of the American papers. This is my personal view, but to some extent, objectivity—this idea that somehow you’ve been fair just because you report one side, and then the other—is a false god. I think the important thing is to be fair, to honestly reflect the views from people involved in any story. But there’s a difference between fairness and objectivity. In British papers there is just slightly more editorializing than you would be allowed in, say, The New York Times, the Post, or the Los Angeles Times.

GM: The big domestic policy debate in the U.S. at the moment is about health care, and the British health care system has become one of the talking points in the American debate. How does a story like that go over in the UK, when an aspect of British governance becomes a political football in the U.S.?

EM: Just this week it’s become a huge story. A couple months ago, when Obama first indicated he was going to push ahead with health reform, there was interest in the UK, because the image they have in Britain is that American health provision is chaotic, and there’s an idea that people who are uninsured are left sort of lying outside the hospital, rather than being treated.

But it’s only in the last few weeks that it’s taken off as a huge story and people have become defensive—they don’t like the way that conservative groups in the U.S. have been claiming that the health system in Britain is terrible, and that there are huge queues of people waiting to be treated, and that medicine and health provision is withheld from elderly patients or people who are judged to be too far gone to be worth treating. Lots of people in Britain have taken umbrage at this.

And it’s interesting that not only papers like the Guardian, but papers on the right, like the Daily Telegraph—not natural supporters of the National Health Service—have come to its defense, just because it’s been attacked in America. So it’s become a big story in the UK, and I think it will continue to be for weeks to come.

GM: In general, how much attention do you feel your UK readers pay to American domestic policy debates, even when Britain is not being invoked?

EM: There’s always been a fascination in Britain with America, maybe because we all speak the same language, maybe because American television programs are shown in the UK, maybe because of American cinema. But we give an inordinate amount of coverage to America, even parts of Europe, never mind Asia, the Middle East, or Africa. There’s hardly a day that we don’t carry at least one story from America, and usually it’s two, three, or even half a dozen—maybe a cultural story, maybe a political story, maybe a shooting someplace, maybe a backgrounder. There’s an endless appetite on the news desk in London for stories from America.

It may also be because Washington is Rome—America’s the only superpower, and the decisions that are made here influence everybody. So there’s always going to be a fascination with who the president is, and who’s advising him, and the decisions that he makes.

GM: Let’s talk again about building an audience. The Guardian’s site feels “Webbier” than many other newspaper sites, even sites that are pretty good, in some cases. Can you talk about the strategies that the Guardian has employed to present its content on the Web and build an audience there?

EM: A decision was made years ago by the editor to invest millions in the development of a Web site, and that’s been ongoing. We have hired as a consultant the former editor at The Washington Post’s Web site, Jim Brady, and he’s looking at present into how we can develop the Web in America. For the Guardian Web site as a whole, for the last few years we’ve been trying to integrate Web and print, and that integration is now complete. So I now write for the Web, I write for the paper—I write a story and sometimes it goes straight up on the Web, sometimes it’s in the paper as well. We’ve ceased to make any distinction.

Correction: This story originally included a statement by Greg Marx that Michael Tomasky is the editor of Guardian America, and a link to a page on the Guardian site from which that information was taken. In fact, that is no longer the case. Tomasky is now a columnist and American editor-at-large for the Guardian, having become the editor of Democracy earlier this year. An article on his new role can be found here.

Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.