Media Confidential

Legendary US editor Marty Baron on Donald Trump, Edward Snowden and Jeff Bezos

Alan and Lionel talk to Marty Baron, perhaps the most distinguished and garlanded editor in America since Watergate

October 05, 2023
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Collison of Power, Marty Baron’s new book about his time at the Washington Post, which won ten Pulitzer Prizes under his leadership. He discusses standing up to then-president Donald Trump and the transformative impact of the Post’s new owner Jeff Bezos, while Marty and Alan compare notes about publishing the Edward Snowden story under high pressure from their respective governments and intelligence services. 

Media Confidential also considers the chaos at GB News, after Laurence Fox’s on-air comments about Ava Evans, and whether Ofcom can reel it in.

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Below is a full transcript of the episode. Please check against delivery:

Alan Rusbridger: Hello and welcome to Media Confidential, the new weekly podcast from Prospect Magazine that takes you inside the hugely important and fascinating world of media. I’m Alan Rusbridger.

Lionel Barber: And I’m Lionel Barber. Today on Media Confidential, we talk to a legendary US newspaper editor.

Rusbridger: Yes, Marty Baron has a new book about his time at the Washington Post where he had a new proprietor, Amazon billionaire, Jeff Bezos, was agonising about publishing the Edward Snowden revelations against the wishes of US intelligence and had to deal with a certain Donald Trump at the White House.

Marty Baron: And every time he criticised Post about some story, he would poke me with his elbow, I was sitting on his left side, and he would just keep poking me. It was really annoying, but what are you going to do when you’re sitting next to the President of the United States?

Rusbridger: We’ll also consider the chaos at GB News, with Laurence Fox and Dan Wootton amongst those suspended, after Fox asked Wootton live on air, what, “Self-respecting man would climb in to bed...” I have to say this is the polite version, “... with Ava Evans,” a political reporter with whom he disagreed.

Barber: On Media Confidential, we bring you expert analysis from inside the industry and talk to the movers and shakers in global media, plenty of whom we’ve encountered during our many years in senior editorial positions.

Rusbridger: So, listen and follow us wherever you get your podcasts to ensure you never miss an episode. And don’t forget that we’re on Twitter/X, which like most people you only call Twitter and not X and find us there @mediaconfpod.

Barber: Hello and great to be back. Alan, what’s been in your inbox?

Rusbridger: Well, I’m still brooding over a really gruesome clip from the Tory Party conference of a woman who used to be, incredibly enough, Home Secretary Priti Patel, bigging up GB News and saying how essential it was when we had the whole of the press, and the mainstream media, and the BBC, anti-Brexit, anti-Tory, blah, blah, blah. And I was wondering if she’s actually ever read a newspaper in this country.

Barber: Yeah, it’s extraordinary. In a funny way, there’s a link to my favourite story, it’s broken overnight, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, that’s the third most powerful person in the US government, Kevin McCarthy, a Republican, has been ousted by the far-right faction in the Republican Party. And I thought to myself, actually this is a kind of foretaste of what we’re seeing at the Conservative Party conference, where the far-right is also in ascendancy with Priti Patel dancing with Nigel Farage. So what’s over in America often comes over here.

Rusbridger: I think there’s a link there to GB News, which we’ll talk about before we get to Marty Baron and the Washington Post. Because let’s talk about the fallout from that extraordinary moment where Laurence Fox was talking with Dan Wootton about the political reporter Ava Evans.

Ava Evans: Half of the comments are very lovely and supportive and then the other side are very threatening.

Speaker 5: Isn’t the truth that you’ve encouraged, you’ve paid him to be himself. And far from being an aberration, his words this week were clearly in keeping with his character.

Angelos Frangopoulos: No, I disagree. Laurence Fox does sail close to the wind, but that was way past the limits of acceptance. We are about free speech, but it’s about being done in a respectful and proper way and that was not the way that that conversation played out.

Laurence Fox: If I was going to be sensible and I could replay it, I would say any self-respecting man in 2023 would probably be well advised to avoid a woman who possessed that worldview, because she would probably cause him nothing but harm. But what I did say was, “I wouldn’t shag that,” and all that sort of stuff, which is not right. It’s demeaning to her, to Ava, so I’m sorry.

Barber: Reaction there from Ava Evans on ITV, GB News boss Angelos Frangopoulos on the BBC’s Today programme and Laurence Fox in a video he posted to X after previously saying he stood by his comments. For the record, Dan Wootton apologised, saying he should have intervened.

Rusbridger: Both of them have been suspended. I think there are now 12 Ofcom investigations into the channel, I have to say very belatedly. And another presenter, Calvin Robinson, was also suspended. Here’s a channel that is, I think, fighting for its life in some senses and is portraying itself as the home of free speech, but it seems to forget that there are rules around broadcasting in this country. If you want to be a broadcaster and you want to be regulated by Ofcom, then there are rules about accuracy and impartiality and so forth, which GB News has just driven a coach and horses through, and it’s been embarrassing to watch.

It’s been embarrassing to see people like Priti Patel claim this as the saviour of media in this country. I think it’s also embarrassing for Ofcom because they’ve been very slow to react. Ofcom was really damaged by the site of Boris Johnson trying to impose his own choice, the former editor of the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre. And I just thought, “Well, a regulator is either independent or it’s not independent. It can’t be half independent, and the moment you’ve got the Prime minister trying to handpick the chair, you’ve got problems.” How does it strike you?

 Barber: Well, I do remember receiving a call from a headhunter when I was in New York, asking whether I’d like to put myself forward as the Chairman of Ofcom. And knowing that Paul Dacre was actually the prime minister’s top candidate, I asked the head-hunter, “On a scale of one to 10, what chance do you think I have of getting this job? One or two, or maybe zero?” I think that was the end of the conversation. But the serious point here, Alan, is that there are rules, there is a law, there is something called due impartiality, and this has been eroding over a period of time, but GB News has taken it much, much further. And the question is twofold, I think. One, are we going to head in the same direction as America where there is no attempt at balance at all or impartiality. And two, and you’ve said this is, the key role of the... we have a regulator, it’s called Ofcom. 10 years ago, when I was running these stories, it was seen as one of the most powerful regulators in the country. Certainly not true today.

Rusbridger: Your experience paralleled somebody I spoke to, and I think this actually is a form of corruption, if you’ve got the prime minister letting it be known who he wants to be in charge of the regulator, and who he wants to be in charge of the BBC. You remember, he wanted Charles Moore, the former editor of the Daily Telegraph, to be in charge of the BBC, a man who was actually convicted in court of not paying his license fee. Talk about game keepers and poachers. The moment that became known, serious people didn’t put their hat into the ring because they thought, “Why would I apply for a job that’s been stitched up?” And that was just part of that period of corruption during the Johnson era, for which we’re still paying the price.

Barber: Well again, I agree. There’s a thing called patronage, but actually what we saw under the Johnson government was cronyism, with a capital C.

Rusbridger: We now have our main guest today, who’s perhaps the most distinguished and garlanded editor in America since Watergate. He edited no fewer than three titles, the Miami Herald, the Boston Globe and the Washington Post. His work exposing child sex abuse in the Catholic Church was celebrated in a 2015 film Spotlight in which he was played by Liev Schreiber.

Barber: He’s Marty Baron who stepped down from editing the Washington Post just over two years ago. Now he’s written a book titled Collision of Power, a story that charts his relationship with the man who bought the paper, the billionaire Jeff Bezos of Amaon, as well as the 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump.

Rusbridger: The paper won 10 Pulitzer Prizes under Marty’s leadership, and together with Bezos, he’s helped return the paper to profitability. And yet his book is also frank about his tense relationship with his own staff, about identity politics, the limits of objectivity, and the perils of social media.

Barber: Marty, you open your book with a dramatic story of having dinner at the White House, in the Blue Room, with President Trump. You’re there with the new owner of the Washington Post, Jeff Bezos, of Amazon fame, Fred Ryan, the publisher’s there, and my old friend, sadly departed now, Fred Hyatt head of the editorial page. Tell us a bit about that dinner. What were your first impressions and why did it go downhill thereafter?

Baron: Well, first of all, I didn’t want to be there. I thought that Trump would interpret that meeting as Bezos actually influencing our coverage, and having control over it. So, I was very concerned about it. But the publisher, Fred Ryan told me that... He assured me that he had told them that this wasn’t going to influence coverage, and also indicated that Bezos wasn’t involved in coverage, but he felt it was important for us to have that meeting. Look, Trump was superficially charming. He was gracious and all of that, and Melania was there, and Jared was there, and everybody greeted us, but I think it was the surface charm.

It was clear, from the beginning, that he had all sorts of grievances that he wanted to get off his chest. He used the entire dinner to do that, talked pretty much the entire time. The rest of us hardly said a thing. I said almost nothing, and every time he criticised The Post about some story, he would poke me with his elbow. I was sitting on his left side, and he would just keep poking me. It was really annoying, but what are you going to do when you’re sitting next to the President of the United States?

Barber: Well, I remember when I interviewed him in the Oval Office, actually just a couple of months before, it was a little like talking to Tony Soprano on the Potomac.

Baron: Well, he does use that kind of language. There’s always a threat implicit in his conversations, and on top of that, he just dominates the conversation. He doesn’t actually listen, he just talks. So he was talking almost the entire time.

Barber: Marty, you said later, and you had it even stuck up in the newsroom, that the Washington Post was not at war with President Trump, you were at work. But at times, reading the book, it really does feel like a war zone.

Baron: It did in fact feel like a war zone, mainly because he was at war with us and his allies were at war with us, and his supporters were threatening us, threatening reporters, threatening me. There was this constant pressure, and he was trying to put pressure on Bezos, endeavouring to sabotage his primary business, which of course is Amazon, arguing that its postal rates should be increased. First he said doubled, then he said tripled, then he said quadrupled. Obviously making these numbers up right on the spot. And then he intervened in a giant $10 billion cloud computing contract, that Amazon was bidding for and was perceived as the lead bidder for, and at least initially, it did not go to Amazon. So it did seem like a war zone, but I didn’t see our role as being at war with him. He certainly saw his role as being at war with us.

Rusbridger: Marty, did you come under pressure from the newsroom, because there must have been people within your organisation who felt that normal rules had to be suspended? This was not a normal situation, and just to go on as there were, was wrong.

Baron: It wasn’t articulated to me directly that, oh, we need to change our rules here. But I think what I saw was that a lot of people were turning to social media to express themselves, in the ways that they had not done before, that were not customary for a news organisation like the Washington Post. Of course, there are many different types of news organisations. There are many different types of journalism, but at the Post that was not considered to be appropriate. In fact, we had guidelines against it. That was not the identity that we wanted for ourselves. I think people were reacting as if they were at war with him, and I think a lot of those social media postings sent a signal that I, as the executive editor of the Post, did not want to send.

Rusbridger: 2But for instance, you came under pressure to call him out on his lies and maybe even to use the word liar.

Baron: We did. We did call him out on his lies. It took us a while to use the word, lie, because we weren’t really accustomed to doing that. We were very cautious and we wanted to make sure that he knew that what he was saying was false, and with Trump, you don’t always really know. Sometimes he’s just being delusional and sometimes he’s just making it up on the spot, not even thinking through whether it’s true or false. He doesn’t care whether it’s true or false, and other times he was clearly lying. We were able to document that he knew that what he was saying was false. And of course, we had this systematic effort with the fact-checker at the Post, that documented over 30,000 lies on his part or falsehoods on his part, and we were very committed to doing that. And of course, that irked him 

Rusbridger: Marty, that’s a lot of lies, but he’s still the front-runner for the Republican nomination for President. Do you think he’s going to come back in the White House?

Baron: Well, I don’t want to predict. I’m not a pundit, but he has a very good chance. Look, when he ran in 2016, I told people that he had a 40 to 50 per cent chance, when a lot of people were writing him off. And my feeling then was, look, it’s a very divided country, Hillary Clinton is a very poor candidate, a weak candidate, barely defeated Bernie Sanders who was a socialist. The same is true today. We’re even more divided country, and I think we see that the prosecutions of Trump in the United States have only increased his popularity among the base of the Republican Party.

So, I think it’ll be a very, very close race. It’ll come down, as usual, to a relative handful of states, and the margin of victory in each state will be relatively narrow. That is the nature of politics in the United States. I don’t think that his overall support generally is going to go up. Who’s going to come out to vote? Will Trump supporters come out in droves? Or will Biden’s? Or will neither, or both? And what will the difference be? And I think a lot will depend on turnout.

Rusbridger: Marty, you hadn’t been editor very long when suddenly you learned that your publisher was changing. The Post was changing hands and you learned that you were going to be working for Jeff Bezos. What were your anxieties? You must’ve had a lot of anxieties about that particular name suddenly being pitched fork into your life.

Baron: Yeah, well, I didn’t go to the Post expecting it to be sold. The name of the parent company was The Washington Post Company, and it had been owned by the same family for 80 years, and I certainly didn’t expect that it would be sold to one of the richest people in the world. So yes, there was anxiety because, one is, I had no idea what he would intend to do with the Post. Second, he had contracts with the federal government intelligence agencies. We had just come out of reporting on the NSA documents, the Edward Snowden leaks. Of course, the Guardian, which you were leading at the time, was publishing that as well. And we were in fierce competition over that story, but we were the two news organisations that were leading that coverage. And of course those were the most sensitive documents in the US government, so I had no idea how we would react to a story of that sort, but I was also hopeful because the Post really wasn’t going anywhere except down.

We were continually laying people off. In my first year, we had to lay off over 30 people, or reduce staff by 30 people. We were going into a budget season where we were probably going to have to do another 50 or more, and it looked like we were going to have to do that every single year in perpetuity. Nobody had any great ideas about how to turn things around, and so I was hopeful that Bezos would, for a variety of reasons. One is, that he does like to grow.

I didn’t envision him as a person who was going to manage decline. Secondly, he came in with a real knowledge of technology, which was really important to us. And importantly, and often forgotten, is that he really understands consumer behaviour. Amazon is, above all, a consumer company and our industry is one that depends very much on consumer behaviour, and understand of consumer, and establishing an important relationship with them. I thought he could bring a lot to the party. Of course, I didn’t know whether I would be able to stay at the party because a lot of times new owners or new publishers look for their own editors, so I had no idea whether I would be kept on, and I thought there was a reasonable possibility that I wouldn’t.

Rusbridger: You felt, early on, that he didn’t understand some things about journalism, like the roles of editors. But in the big picture, he came out with your backing. You admired him.

Baron: Yeah, the Post turned around. He set a new strategy for us, of not being just a regional news organisation that happened to be in Washington but being a national and even international news organisation. He saw the opportunity there. He invested in the initiatives that we needed in order to make that happen. He had a long-term perspective. For the first time in my life, I heard an owner or publisher talking about what we will be in 20 years. I’d never heard that before. It was always next quarter, next year, at best.

So, hearing about 20 years was really remarkable. And on top of that, and importantly, he gave us our freedom journalistically. He did not interfere in our coverage at all, whether it was about his company, about himself, about his personal life or anything like that. He never got involved in that. I really appreciated that and I think that showed a lot of integrity, especially given that he was coming under such intense pressure from the President of the United States, who was arguably the most powerful person in the world, and who could do things that would really damage Amazon, which is the primary source of Bezos’s wealth.

Barber: More Marty Baron to come in a few minutes time, but certainly fascinating so far.

Rusbridger: Of course, the Washington Post, you and I both remember this, Lionel, we were both in Washington when the great Ben Bradlee was editing the Washington Post. You worked at the Washington Post under Bradley. When Bradley left, the paper took a lurch to being a local paper, really. It lost its nerve. It had become a big beast in American media, and then I think Bezos really gave it its confidence back.

Barber: Yeah, it went through a bad period, didn’t it? Interestingly, in the late 90s, there was a very strong editor, Len Downie, little doer, certainly none of the swagger of Ben Bradlee, but they kind of missed the internet moment. And interestingly, a couple of journalists from the Washington Post split away and created a new website called Politico, which has actually become a rather substantial news organisation, now with operations in Europe and in the States. I think the other point is that, as you say, the Post was a truly national paper, but it became a local paper, and the reason is that Don Graham, of the Graham family, was terribly keen that it didn’t lose its roots. He wanted the coverage of Virginia and Maryland, and the international outlook was the Post’s stake in the International Herald Tribune, which it enjoyed with the New York Times and the LA Times. But the New York Times then bought the Post out and it lost its international outlet, and I think that had a big impact.

Rusbridger: You mentioned Len Downie and this, for non-American listeners, is the astonishing difference between an American editor and British editor. You’ll remember Downie writing in his autobiography. Len Downie was the executive editor of the Washington Post. He looked after the news pages and Len Downie never in his life voted, or certainly never when he was editor, he never voted because he didn’t want a political thought to enter into his head. He never wanted to ask himself which side of the political fight he was on. It was that pure and that little anecdote about Downie, I know, always astonishes British journalists. I think that degree of objectivity and purism is unthinkable in a British context.

Barber: I found what Marty Baron had to say about Donald Trump fascinating, because the degree of intimidation, the constant bullying. I never saw that when I interviewed, with two colleagues, Donald Trump in the White House, in the spring of 2017, just ahead of his first meeting with the Chinese leader. He was sort of trying to be nice, trying to be reasonable and charming, but there was definitely a little bit of thuggery there. I remember saying, “Thank you for seeing us, Mr President and thank you for subscribing to the Financial Times.” And he said, “That’s okay. You lost, I won.”

So that was pretty clear about that. And the problem of course was, when we went away, I said to my colleagues, “Look, we’ve got to give this guy a decent hearing. He’s the president, but at least one colleague was saying, “The guy is... Narcissism off the charts. He’s a danger to the Republic. He’s crazy.” And look at the chaos that we saw in the White House. So there was a little bit of struggle, which I think I identified with Marty there, where you’re telling reporters we need to just give some other side of the story.

Rusbridger: I remember a Guardian reporter, Ewen MacAskill, one of the straightest reporters I know, asking him a question, and Trump stopped the whole press conference and turned on and he said, “You’re a nasty man.” I won’t try to do his accent, “You’re a nasty man.”

We have more of our interview with Marty Baron in a moment, when he talks about a newsroom in Pasha revolt, and also about deciding to publish the Edwards Snowden revelations. I know a little bit about that, against the wishes of US Intelligence.

Rusbridger: Marty, I had the privilege, back in the summer of 1985, to spend almost four months in the newsroom at the Washington Post, as a member of the national staff. And I can still remember walking into that newsroom. It’s the set of All the President’s Men, and in fact, some of the characters, including Bob Woodward were around. They even took me out to lunch, I remember, although I think I had to pay, but I’m just fascinated. You come in, you’re a veteran editor, you’ve been the Boston Globe editor, award-winning, Miami Herald, you had time at the New York Times, as well as a senior editor. What do you do when you have to come in the footsteps of someone like, the fabled, Ben Bradley of the Washington Post? How did you create the Baron Washington Post?

Baron: People asked me at the beginning whether I was intimidated by Ben Bradlee having been the editor. And I said, what was true, which is, I wasn’t intimidated by it. I was inspired by it, but I also didn’t try to replicate him. I can’t be him. I’m not him. I have a completely different personality. What I tried to do was focus on the work. It was a real concern at the Post, at the time, that we would never be able to compete with the New York Times, because they already had so many more people than we did, two to three times what we did. And I said, “Look, they can be the US Army and we’ll be special forces. We can still win the war. We need to pick our shots. We need to be really good at certain things. Let’s figure out what those are, and then let’s come up with some real important stories.” And so that’s what I did, and started to talk to people about that. We embarked, almost immediately, on a big project about guns. And then, well, by chance, Bart Gellman walks into our newsroom and brings us the Snowden documents, and we decided to pursue that story.

Rusbridger: I was fascinated to read your account of the Snowden affair, which completely mirrored my own, and I found it the most complex story, ethically, legally, morally, technologically, in terms of the relationship with government. And I think you found the same, Marty.

Baron: I did, I did. Every news organisation wants a good story and there’s no question that it was a good story, but we really... I had to think about the bigger implications. And while I did agree to move ahead on the story after listening to what it was about and talking with staff, talking with Bart, when I went home that evening, I was thinking even more about it. I had actually printed out the Espionage Act of 1917, because there could have been huge consequences for the Post in terms of fines and penalties and prison and all of that, and so I really wanted to think that through. And I had been in Boston during 9/11. That happened about six weeks after I arrived in Boston. Two of those planes came out of Boston. The father of one of our staff members was killed on in one of those planes that... Those two planes are the ones that crashed into the World Trade Centre Tower.

So there was a sensitivity to the dangers of terrorism, and I didn’t want to facilitate that. On the other hand, I really wanted to think through, what are the implications for the privacy of American citizens and citizens elsewhere in the world. There were huge implications of what the intelligence apparatus in the US was doing. It was highly intrusive. There was a surveillance network that was breathtakingly broad and deep, and this all had happened without any public debate. And I was quite concerned that they could be even more extensive in the future, if we didn’t do our jobs, if we didn’t tell people what was happening, which I felt, at that point, we had an obligation to do that.

Rusbridger: You and I both had the same experience of intelligence and government officials telling us that we were going to have blood on our hands if we publish this material. I’d love to hear from you, how you rationalised the fact that you decided nevertheless to press ahead, because I’m sure you had the same experience of meeting or reading criticisms from people who say, “Well, it is quite arrogant of a news organisation to believe that they know better than the security services about the material that they’re making public.”

Baron: And it was a new subject for me. As I mentioned in the book, I hadn’t dealt with these kinds of issues before, because I had been the editor at regional publications in the United States, and we weren’t in the habit of covering national security matters, but we did have people on the staff who did have deep experience in that, and we were concerned. We tried to be careful about that. We certainly were going to run everything that we thought about publishing by the intelligence agencies, so that they could alert us to any particular risk for intelligence agents or locations, facilities that would be used for intelligence purposes, things of that sort. But I’ve always been really concerned about the power of government. That’s something that I’ve thought about over the course of my life and my career. And I think the power of government is really immense, and if it gets abused, there are real dangers for the public, particularly in a society which aspires to be a democracy.

Information is power, and when the government has an enormous amount of information on its citizens, that’s a huge risk. And ultimately, in the system that we have here in the United States, it was really up to us to make that call. I alerted my publisher. I alerted our owner. That was pre-Bezos, by the way, so it was Katharine Weymouth as the publisher and Don Graham as the principal owner. And they said, they trusted me, and they trusted Bart Gellman, and they trusted the staff, and so we went ahead and published.

Rusbridger: I’ve always wanted to ask you this question because the very first decision that, I guess, you and I both had to make, was whether to send somebody to go and meet Snowden in Hong Kong. I sent someone and you didn’t send Bart Gellman. Was there a particular reason for that?

Baron: Yeah, there were, there were warnings that if we did go there, that there would be greater risk for us as an institution and for him as an individual, about seeming to facilitate his activities. And also, we didn’t trust that if wherever we met him, whether the Chinese government itself would be able to actually listen in on those conversations, and we were very concerned about that.

Barber: Marty, I want to come back to what Alan was referring to earlier, about the politics, or at least the role of the editor as leader of the newsroom. And in more recent years, quite apart from the reporting on President Trump, you came under a lot of pressure from your own reporters to pursue the road of advocacy, rather than straight reporting. When it came to subjects, both of the #MeToo movement and also Black Lives Matter. I think you’re painfully honest about this. Were there at times when you think you lost the newsroom?

Baron: Well, I think there was a moment where I lost a good portion of the newsroom. I think there were a good portion of people who, they wanted the freedom to express themselves on social media, to share their feelings, their reactions. They reacted not well, to my efforts to enforce our policies, and so there was actually quite an uprising. There was a petition signed by about 400 people on the staff. Some people expressed regrets later at signing it. They felt they had come under pressure from the union to sign it. But in any event, at the time, there were hundreds of people who were opposed to my enforcement of the rules, and I think a lot of the people who leaned more in my direction felt that they didn’t want to speak up about it. They didn’t want to find themselves in conflict with their colleagues. So yeah, I did feel that there was a growing chasm between myself and many people on the staff, and I was dismayed at that.

Barber: For what it’s worth, Marty, I did have some glitches, myself, towards the end of my term, 14 years as editor at the Financial Times, not what I thought was going to be a problem because it was one I was addressing on gender balance in the newsroom, nor was it about #MeToo, where we did actually ground-breaking work on both in the Weinstein case in Hollywood and one or two corporate stories involving the #MeToo movement. But more on the question of diversity and racial diversity, and I have to say, Marty, it’s a very uncomfortable experience when you think the reporters are with you and you sense you’ve lost them.

Baron: Yeah, I expected to essentially to have Trump do battle with me, but I wasn’t really expecting people on the staff to do battle with me. And it’s a lot harder, and a lot less comfortable, and really difficult to deal with, and it was one of the reasons why I decided, well, it’s time to go. Maybe we can’t resolve these differences. I did believe in our standards, and I felt the guidelines would be meaningless unless we actually enforced them, and it would be a lie to the public to say that we have these standards and not to insist that they be followed. So I felt it was my obligation to enforce them, and I also felt that a lot of this commentary on social media was doing damage to our reputation. It so obviously and consistently did, but I didn’t want to fight with people all the time, and I certainly didn’t want to defend what behaviour that I thought was indefensible. I was heading into... When I retired, I was 66, so I decided I’ll move on and maybe somebody else can deal with this better than I can.

Barber: And in terms of standards, I think it’d be useful just to hear from you, what were the standards required on reporting of MeToo allegations of sexual harassment?

Baron: Yeah, the overall guidelines on that, and those weren’t written, those were ones that we had developed over time. One of the key standards was that we had to have at least one survivor or victim go on the record. It was generally a woman with her account. Not all of them had to, but we needed to have at least one, or we needed to have other documentary evidence. So that could be a legal settlement, it could be a non-disclosure agreement, it could be something in a lawsuit. It could be letters that you could see exchanged, emails, things like that, or we also needed to have supporting evidence. As I said, that could be documents, it could be that individual spoke to a friend or a family member, and they could confirm that, roughly at the time, they were told about this incident. But a key factor was, is there at least one person who will go on the record with these allegations?

Rusbridger: Marty, 2023, you’re stepping back by, I think any accounts, your editorship was a huge success. The New York Times is thriving, the Wall Street Journal is solvent and doing well, but we know there’s a sort of desert where local newspapers used to be. Are you feeling any glimmers of hope about the landscape for local news?

Baron: I think there are some signs of hope, and I don’t think we should despair. Look, let’s go back a little bit. People were predicting the New York Times was going to declare bankruptcy, not that long ago. People forget about that. They said that Buzzfeed and Huffington Post were going to surpass the New York Times. The New York Times had to get a rescue package from Carlos Slim, a billionaire in Mexico. The Post was, when I got there, people were talking about it essentially sliding into oblivion and becoming irrelevant with no hope for a turnaround. Even the management was really despairing about turning it around.

So I think it’s important that we not despair. I do see some evidence of successes here in the United States among local and regional news organisations. My former newspaper, The Boston Globe, seems to be doing reasonably well. The paper in Dallas, paper in San Francisco and Minneapolis. There are also some non-profits, a lot of non-profits, that are emerging and I think they’re beginning to figure out how to do things. The Texas Tribune in Austin has always been considered the standout success. It’s had some layoffs lately, but it still remains a success by comparison with lots of others. There’s a non-profit in California called CalMatters that seems to be doing pretty well, and there are several others as well. So I think we can look at those and say, “Those are good models for us.”

Rusbridger: Do you think Donald Trump, in the end, did a favour for the American press, in the sense that people realised what it was like to live in a world where nobody could know what the facts were?

Baron: Oh, gosh. I’m not sure, I would call it a favour. Would I have chosen to have somebody be so mendacious that people can’t distinguish between fact and fiction, and where he works day in and day out to blur the distinction, or to make it seem as if real falsehoods are actual facts? I would choose not to go that route, frankly. But, I do think that he reminded people that they can’t take the press for granted, that there’s a real important role for the independent press. It’s why we had so much support among the public, with why people bought subscriptions to us and the New York Times and others, is because they were worried that no one would really hold him accountable, that Congress wouldn’t hold him accountable, that the courts wouldn’t hold him accountable, other institutions would not hold him accountable. And they saw the press, an independent press, as perhaps the only remaining institution that would hold him accountable. And when they looked at the press in the United States, they looked primarily at the New York Times and the Washington Post.

So were we the beneficiary of that in terms of subscriptions? Yes. Is that how I would like things to happen? It would not be my first choice for how things should happen, but I do think the American public needed a reminder of the role of the independent press. I worry that now, we can see subscriptions tapering off, they have at The Washington Post considerably. People start to take the press for granted again. I think we have to do whatever we can to remind people that if we’re not here, we may not have a democracy. There’s never been a democracy without a free press, and there’s never been a free press without a democracy. And so the American public has to be on guard, that it maintain the institutions that support the institutions, that ensure that we have a democracy over the long run.

Barber: So, Alan, I thought Marty’s comments on the Snowden affair were really interesting, and you and the Guardian took a lead role in that, and got a Pulitzer Prize as a result.

Rusbridger: Yes. Reading his book, I completely identified, we were in parallel zones, feeling exactly the same levels of anxiety and stress about what was, I think for both of us, the most difficult story of our lifetimes. In one sense, he had the easier deal. I know he went home and read the Espionage Act. I went to see a QC in London to talk about the Espionage Act, and we of course had our own Official Secrets Act. But here’s how it was easier for him, that there was in fact no prospect, since the Pentagon Papers case in 1972, that the American government would ever, ever try and injunct him or march into his newsroom. Whereas I had the cabinet secretary saying that if we didn’t stop publishing, then there would be consequences. And I asked him, was that going to be the police coming in, injunction? It was pretty clear they were going to injunct us, and you remember we had this bizarre episode where we had to smash up all our equipment in the basement, having told the cabinet secretary-

 Barber: Sir Jeremy Heywood at the time.

Rusbridger: …Jeremy Heywood, that we already had the material in America, and so all we did was to transfer our reporting and editing from New York. In that sense, the First Amendment, which protects free speech, is just much more powerful shield for editors than in this country.

Barber: We were following rather than leading, on the Snowden story at the Financial Times. But I must say, listening to Marty about managing the newsroom in the age of the culture wars, was something that certainly resonated with me. And I’m sympathetic to the idea that one really needs to try to hold on to reporting standards and that reporters are not advocates. They’re not in the advocacy game. It’s really quite difficult when individual journalists consider themselves, “brands” and go tweeting their views on every matter, not just what they had for breakfast, but also what they think of Priti Patel, what they think of the government, what they think of America. And it was really quite difficult, as an editor, policing this and maintaining standards. We did have a code at the FT. I thought it was a pretty good one, but you really had to be quite vigilant, and I think Marty, obviously, he lost the newsroom and by his own admission.

Rusbridger: He lost the newsroom, but what a great editor he was. I remember there was a point where Trump had the presidency, the Republicans had the house, they had the Senate. Trump was busy rearranging the Supreme Court, so he had the Supreme Court and the institutions that one had always learned were the checks and balances in the American system, were tumbling one by one. And in the end, it came down to the press, and there was the Washington Post, there was New York Times, The New Yorker, a handful of titles and broadcasters, Fox News had gone and the weight on the shoulders of those editors, and they did it. But it wasn’t a given that they were going to do it because there was a fragility in the economic model of all media, that we know so much about, but in the end, it was a happy story because actually the American public rallied to defend. I think the New York Times ended up with 6 million subscribers. The more Trump attacked it, the more the New York Times flourished.

Barber: Yeah, it was the Trump bump. It’s an interesting question to look at the Washington Post’s numbers by Marty’s, again, his admission, and he was a great editor. He was a tough editor. He was ornery, but those numbers have gone down since Trump left. So I think that the jury’s slightly out on the Post at the moment.

What else has been on your cultural radar, Alan?

Rusbridger: I went see Pygmalion at the Old Vic last night. I thought it was a sparkling production, but the play, gosh, it’s aged. All the themes of class and feminism just feel so dated, and they really struggled to try and bring it up to date. But it is got a towering performance by Bertie Carvel, who you, I’m sure, saw playing Rupert Murdoch in Ink. And it’s almost worth seeing just for Carvel as Henry Higgins.

Barber: Even if it’s dated, George Bernard Shaw’s comments about Wagner’s music have not dated... better than it sounds.

Rusbridger: He’s... fantastic music critic. And of course, if you want to listen to our episode about Rupert Murdoch, that was the subject of last week’s podcast. What have you been up to?

Barber: Well, I’m excited that my interview with Andrew Bailey, the governor of the Bank of England, is finally out, and you can read [the] full transcript online, long interview and profile. And as we mentioned last week, it’s all been a little bit top secret because Andrew Bailey rarely does give interviews, and the market listens to every word he says, and you can’t actually publish any of the comments in a, so-called, quiet period, when they’re making a deliberation about interest rates. So, anyway, here it is. It’s out there in full.

Rusbridger: He’s had quite a rough ride in the press, Andrew Bailey, and I think probably one of the reasons that he agreed to speak to Prospect, apart from obviously the fact that it was you who was going to talk to him, is that he knew that the interview would be fair and nuanced. We could give him space. It’s a perfect for one of Prospect’s long reads because it really allowed you, Lionel, to get behind the headlines and go in depth on the Bank of England and the state of the economy.

Barber: Well, I think I was applying due impartiality and not just following the popular view of Andrew Bailey, the slightly leaden-footed, miscommunicator, and was way behind the curve on interest rates, actually. So it is a much more nuanced analysis of a man who’s leading one of the institutions that really matters in the British society and government.

Rusbridger: And not an easy time.

Barber: You can also hear the interview on the latest episode of the Prospect Podcast. We covered the challenges that Bailey has faced in the Post so far, including around that, now infamous, mini budget, when Liz Truss was briefly Prime minister.

Andrew Bailey: Our intervention was a very limited, temporary intervention to ensure financial stability. That was our job. We don’t have another job. That was our job. We’d ended quantitative easing, and here we were buying bonds again, buying gilts again. And we sat through several nights, sitting in this room with a whiteboard, trying to work out what are we going to do, knowing that we had a very tight deadline. And one of the considerations was, how can we do something and not make it look as if we’re doing more QE, because that’s clearly running contrary to what we’re seeking to do on monetary policy, but we had to communicate it very clearly.

So that was obviously pressing in my mind, that it had to be temporary and we had to make it clear. And if you look at that week, I was in... Because in Washington, all that way, that famous week in Washington.

Barber: You were, yeah.

Bailey: We made some changes to the scheme and increased the scope of what we bought to include in index-linked gilts. And the industry came back and said, “Look, in terms of getting us to the finish line, that’s the game changer.” It wasn’t a complete, frankly, punt in the dark at that point...

Barber: Time. No, I don’t think it was, but I think it was a wake-up call to a lot of people.

Bailey: But it was a wake-up call, because it was a wake-up call to say, “Look, please do not assume that we’re just going to be there after the end of the week, actually.”

Barber: So you’ve been a Bank of England lifer. Have you ever gone through a period like that where the government that actually produces unfunded tax cuts, cuts out the independent assessment? It was kind of totally irresponsible.

Bailey: No, it was an unusual period.

Barber: That’s Bank of England Governor, Andrew Bailey, talking to me on the Prospect Podcast.

Rusbridger: And you can also read it in Prospect, where you can get rigorously fact-checked analysis, ideas and perspectives on the big topics the world is grappling with. It’s the UK’s leading monthly current affairs magazine, and you can read it in app, online and print.

Barber: Now, at some point, we should do an episode answering listener questions about how media works, how to keep it in check, perhaps about the high-profile people we’ve rubbed up against, or anything really, Alan. Is there an email address for people who want to ask us anything?

Rusbridger: Absolutely. Questions please to We’ll collate them over a number of weeks and answer some of them in future episodes.

Barber: Thank you for listening to Media Confidential, brought to you by Prospect Magazine and Fresh Air. The producer is Danny Garlick.