Times change but the Guardian’s values don’t: 200 years, and we’ve only just begun

Katharine Viner
·29 min read

I remember the day, in late March 2020, when I first worried that we might not be able to publish a newspaper, for what would have been only the second time in the Guardian’s history. I had driven into the office – no one was taking the train any more. Classed as an essential worker, I was permitted to travel, but the streets were utterly silent, with every school, cafe and shop closed.

I sat down with colleagues, spaced apart by yellow tape, to work out whether we could gather enough people to produce a print edition. We could publish the digital Guardian from anywhere, but to publish the newspaper, we needed a small number of people in the office. A handful of colleagues volunteered, but I wondered how we would be able to keep everything going. People were anxious for their families and friends and themselves – and frightened, too, for what kind of world we were entering, and what we would be left with.

So, as the editor-in-chief, I did what I have often done in difficult times, and looked to the history of the Guardian. How did they get the paper out during the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed 228,000 people in Britain and more than 50 million worldwide? What was it like for journalists on the Manchester Guardian? Did many staff fall ill or even die from the virus that the paper itself warned was “very fatal”?

The second wave of the flu pandemic, in autumn 1918, hit Manchester hard: all schools were closed, mortuaries were full and doctors announced they could not attend to everyone. The lives of our journalists were surely affected – unusually, the 1918 flu was more deadly for people between the ages of 20 and 40. And yet there is nothing in the history books about the pandemic’s impact on the Guardian as an institution or the individuals who made it. Not a word.

This absence does not surprise Laura Spinney, whose brilliant 2017 book about the 1918 pandemic, Pale Rider, was an essential text in the early months of 2020 as we watched our world transformed by a new coronavirus. She recalls that when she started her research, there were more than 80,000 books about the first world war, but only around 400 about the 1918 flu, which took more lives than the war. “People didn’t know how to think about it,” Spinney writes. “They still don’t.”

The Covid-19 pandemic will certainly not be so invisible to future generations. Ours is “the first worldwide digitally witnessed pandemic”, writes Astrid Erll, an academic who studies historical memory, “a test case for the making of global memory”. The question is what shape that memory will take. Already there is a sense of trauma slipping from our collective recollection. Many people died quickly and could not be buried properly. (Remember the images of Ismail Mohamed Abdulwahab, a 13-year-old from Brixton, buried without his family present?) There are one-year-olds who have hardly met anyone but their parents, and a generation of children trapped at home for a large proportion of their lives.

Covid’s impact is likely to be vast and enduring. Spinney writes that the 1918 flu pandemic “resculpted human populations more radically than anything since the Black Death”. But as historians have observed, the aftereffect of a global shock depends on the prevailing mood of the times. Positive changes do not automatically emerge from periods of crisis; you have to fight for them. Thomas Piketty says that “the nature of the impact depends on the theories people hold about history, society, the balance of power … It always takes major social and political mobilisation to move societies in the direction of equality.”

The Guardian is not the only newspaper to declare that it has a higher purpose than transmitting the day’s events in order to make a profit. But it might be unique in having held on to that sense of purpose for two centuries.

“A newspaper has two sides to it,” as former editor CP Scott wrote in his essay commemorating our first 100 years. “It is a business, like any other … But it is much more than a business; it is an institution; it reflects and it influences the life of a whole community … It has, therefore, a moral as well as a material existence.” This conviction was present from the start: the prospectus that announced the Guardian’s founding in 1821, in response to the Peterloo massacre, asked how the “great diffusion of Education” in the country, which had excited a “greatly increased interest” in politics, could be “turned to beneficial account”.

We are a long way from Peterloo and the 1918 flu. But once again, events have sparked the intense interest of readers, who are asking how we can emerge from this crisis with something better. The first question for the Guardian’s third century is what role we can play in shaping the memory of this catastrophe. How our reporting – in words, pictures, video and audio – will have an impact on the struggle to make sense of the pandemic and the new world it shapes, how our commentary and analysis illuminates the decisions that led us here, and how the past has determined the possibilities for the present. In Arundhati Roy’s electrifying long read about India’s Covid nightmare, she shows how the meek acceptance of earlier travesties paved the way for this political catastrophe. “Grenfell was a rehearsal for Covid,” says Naomi Klein, “just as Covid is a rehearsal for climate breakdown, if we don’t radically change course.” If the pandemic is “an opening”, in Rebecca Solnit’s words, making “room for change that wasn’t there beforehand”, how can the Guardian help create a better kind of world than the one we had before?

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There cannot be a person alive who has not been touched by the events of the past year, but this pandemic is simultaneously universal and infinitely particular. There is no one common experience we have all shared, even as it is happening at the same time to all of us. How do we reckon with these abrupt and enormous shifts in our lives and routines? How do we process this trauma without any shared ritual? How do we relate to the deaths of people we do not know? How do we reckon with the fact that the pandemic is not simply a tragedy but also a scene of gross political negligence and outrageous profiteering? How do we understand what the pandemic is doing to society, the way it is accelerating inequality and hitting the most vulnerable hardest, at a time when our empathy has been dulled by lockdown and taxed by fear?

These are challenges for everyone. But they are particularly urgent for journalists, who must chronicle these events in all their shock and immediacy, while trying to connect our audiences to the events in a human way. Reporting on Covid has given us fresh ideas and new energy for covering some of the biggest stories of our time, such as the climate crisis, which shares some of these same qualities – universal, yet affecting different people in different ways; global, and yet not easily located in specific places and times. How do we report a disaster that is happening everywhere all at once, and inspire our audience to understand its gravity without thinking it’s too big and too scary to comprehend? The Covid crisis has given us some fresh ideas about how to do that.

In 1918, influenza travelled much faster than information: there was no radio or TV news, nor even any newsreels. Newspapers were essentially the only means of communicating with the public. The papers “played a critical role in shaping compliance – or the failure of it”, writes Spinney. “Their attitude, like that of doctors and the authorities, was paternalistic.” Death figures were not reported, and throughout the world newspapers mostly hid the true scale of the pandemic, believing people would be too frightened if they really understood. So even though newspapers were the only way to hear what was going on, they mostly didn’t convey it.

Guardian 200 series links

At first glance, this sort of paternalism might seem like a relic of the past, a long way from the no-holds-barred sensationalism of today’s papers. But at the height of the first coronavirus wave in early 2020, there were parts of the UK media – most of them staunchly supportive of Boris Johnson’s Conservative government – that were straining to put a positive spin on the grim news all around us. As we at the Guardian tried to put a human face on the growing death toll, to expose the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on communities of colour, and to understand what was happening in care homes, many other papers were calling for foreign holidays to resume and promising a vaccine by the end of summer. (Remember that at a time when more than 10,000 people had died, the government still refused to reveal who sat on the Sage committee, let alone publish its minutes, until the Guardian put it under pressure.) Although the coverage elsewhere got stronger as the pandemic grew too bad to sanitise, there has been a sense that the media should “bat for the home side”, pushing the government’s view that Britain was “world-beating”, in spite of the catastrophic figures for deaths and hospitalisations.

Of course, the pandemic has given rise to a lot of outstanding journalism, including innovative uses of data, allowing audiences to track the spread of the disease in useful and revealing ways, and new methods of reporting that afford empathy and humanity to victims who would have once remained hidden. There has been some dazzling reporting from science and health specialists, who have given the average reader an understanding of the virus that few doctors possessed in 1918. And investigative reporting has been so important, revealing cronyism, muddle and why some governments were so woefully unprepared.

In modern journalism, there has never been a story like this: both microscopic and global, affecting the entire world all at once, and supercharged by lightspeed information flow and global connectivity. Audiences have been hungry for news in every digital format, and the Guardian is not alone in seeing intense reader interest. But this raises a new worry. In 1918, there was too little information; in 2021, might we have too much? During Britain’s deadly second wave in the winter of 2020-21, which killed many more people than the first, Spinney found people to be “bored and dissociated and even less able to register what’s been going on in hospitals. I worry that the deluge of information is a major part of our fatigue.” A century ago, even an obsessive reader of the news ran out of papers to read each day. Now there are no limits on space, and we can publish around the clock. The challenge for 21st-century journalism is how to judge what is meaningful and what is merely noise – how to publish quality journalism that speaks to the urgency of the moment but is always worth your time.

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Moments of crisis tend to raise the question of what the role of journalism should be. The need for reliable information is a reminder of why journalism is necessary – but also a reminder that simply recording what has happened is not enough. In fact, this is what has always distinguished the Guardian throughout its history: its purpose.

The Manchester Guardian (as the Guardian was called until 1959) was founded in 1821 in a mood of great hope – to capitalise on a demand for representation that followed the “earthquake” of Peterloo. Right from the beginning, the Guardian was not just about the news of the day, but about how people can use information to make the world a better place – the facts, but not only the facts. This is what we mean when we say that our purpose is to provide hope through clarity and imagination.

Related: CP Scott's centenary essay

CP Scott’s essay on journalism was written in 1921, and it is striking just how enduring the mission that it laid out has proved to be. Scott was editor of the Guardian for 57 years, and he made it what it is today. Scott listed the values of the Guardian as “honesty, cleanness [integrity], courage, fairness, a sense of duty to the reader and the community”, and emphasised that the Guardian must be editorially led, and the journalists free from commercial or political interference. He set the terms for pluralism, so crucial to a news organisation without a proprietor: “The voice of opponents no less than of friends has a right to be heard. It is well to be frank; it is even better to be fair”. He stressed the primacy of fact with the line “comment is free, but facts are sacred”.

The Scott Trust – the ownership model put in place by CP’s son John in 1936, a few years after Scott’s death – codifies Scott’s essay and underpins the Guardian today: the idea that it has a “moral as well as a material existence”, and all that entails, is guaranteed by the trust in perpetuity. It is no wonder that the Scott Trust ownership model has been adopted by other journalistic organisations working in the public interest around the world. (The Scott Trust also owns the Observer, and protects its independence, but the Observer has a very different and even longer history – founded in 1791, it is the world’s oldest Sunday newspaper.)

As the Guardian enters its third century, nothing must change our mission, but the digital revolution might change how we interpret that mission for the modern age. We are now in a more levelled world, where journalists are no longer so separate from their audience. Yes, we do the work and pound the streets and dig around for documents, but we no longer deliver our journalism from “on high” to an uninitiated audience. To be successful today – to get the stories that really matter to readers, and to convey the information they need in ways they want – journalists must be part of the social fabric of the world they report on. The Guardian is a community of journalists and readers, all of us equal citizens of that community.

It is inevitable that the Gutenberg-era Guardian was a one-way street, an ivory tower, since a mutually engaged conversation with a reader in real time was beyond imagination. Scott might have been shocked by such a possibility – he might have been shocked that there was a woman sitting in his editor’s chair, too – but ultimately I think he would have embraced both innovations. Privileged as he was, he was resolutely part of his community – “the men of Manchester knew he loved their unlovely town” wrote historian David Ayerst after Scott’s death. He believed powerfully in a “sense of duty to the reader and the community” , and would surely have enjoyed the interaction and accessibility enabled by the web. (And his beard would surely have been a massive social media hit.)

If the mission that defined the Guardian’s first century was the idea that everyone deserves knowledge and facts that they can use, then our second was defined by the vision of Scott’s essay: of a newspaper built on facts and guided by its values, a newspaper with a moral as well as a material existence.

What is the mission for the Guardian’s next century? We are still guided by the principles that shaped our first 200 years, with two crucial additions: we must always be a part of the community we represent, and we must remember that that community is now a global one, confronting crises on a global scale.

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What is striking about reading the various histories of the Guardian today is how distant they feel from the historic events the paper was reporting on. They tend to focus on the ideological struggles, and sometimes the financial ones, that helped define the Guardian, but there is little focus on how world events had an impact on the journalists who lived through them.

A clear exception to this was the second world war – perhaps because it was still relatively fresh in the memory when Ayerst began to write his 1971 history of the Manchester Guardian. He asks, of the Guardian’s editor at the time, WP Crozier, “What was Crozier’s duty in face of Hitler’s Germany? It was a question he put to himself less in terms of journalism than responsible citizenship.” Crozier, who became editor in 1932, “considered it no less than his duty personally and persistently to expose the Nazis”, a cause he took to passionately. This involved withdrawing a correspondent from Berlin in 1933 for his own safety and throwing the paper wholeheartedly behind the view expressed by the correspondent FA Voigt – “it is a war and a particularly ferocious one, a war against everything the Guardian has ever stood for”.

The Guardian, said Ayerst, “saw what was coming”. Once the war began, there was, in 1940, a visceral fear that Hitler might invade Britain – and that the Guardian, as a paper of the left, would be particularly vulnerable. Crozier made a plan to publish the Guardian in exile, with the help of the Baltimore Sun. He knew that he would personally be in danger, so made a plan to borrow a boat to escape the country (although he doubted his poor health could survive the cold). Senior managers even cashed in a wad of the Scott Trust’s money, bought an expensive emerald necklace from the Hatton Garden jewellery quarter in London, and took turns hiding it under their shirts until the risk of invasion was over.

The Guardian was more prescient about the Nazi threat than some of the rest of the press, but being anti-Nazi was nevertheless a mainstream view. Crozier had lunch with the prime minister, Winston Churchill, no fewer than 16 times during the war. What made the paper’s reputation as a liberal voice was its courage when standing against the prevailing public mood. During the second Boer war of 1899-1902, when Britain was in a jingoistic frenzy, the Guardian ran a campaign for peace, and reports by Emily Hobhouse exposed British concentration camps. Advertising and sales collapsed; famously, a rival paper sent a brass band to play a funeral anthem outside the Manchester offices. But the Guardian survived, and demonstrated beyond any doubt that it stood up for its principles, proving it was “a paper that could not be bought”. During the Suez crisis of 1956, the Guardian’s editorial, again standing almost alone, called the Anglo-French ultimatum “an act of folly without justification”. That line became famous: “Once again,” Ayerst notes, Guardian journalists “were ashamed of the government, but not of the paper.”

The Guardian’s mission is one that allows – and even encourages – its editor to make decisions in the public interest; to challenge the powerful, whatever the consequences. There is no politically motivated proprietor to tell you otherwise, no shareholders demanding commercially minded coverage in order to get a dividend. The public interest is rarely popular with the powerful. The biggest Guardian stories of the past few decades – the Edward Snowden revelations, the phone-hacking scandal, the Panama and Paradise papers, the Windrush scandal – were fiercely disputed and fought by powerful interests, bringing unfriendly contacts from the police, government ministers, and intelligence agencies. Even last year’s scoop revealing Dominic Cummings had broken lockdown – which “gripped the public in a way we’ve never seen before”, as one pollster later wrote – was subject to vociferous pushback from minister after minister.

Our duty to serve the public interest has not changed, but our “public” is no longer the liberals of Manchester, or even the people of the UK – it is now local and national and international, British and European, American and Australian, and everywhere else that our readers and supporters live. Since 2016, alongside our subscriptions, the Guardian has been generously supported by contributions from readers, who pay voluntarily so that our journalism can be a public good, free to all. (Our readers now contribute far more revenue than our advertisers.)

Making payment voluntary, in an era where many organisations were putting up expensive paywalls, was a controversial decision at the time, portrayed as desperate begging. The belief was that people would never pay for what they could get for free. But in a world filled with political demagogues and algorithmically enhanced junk news, Guardian readers understood the value of keeping trusted, reliable information and progressive perspectives freely available around the world. They saw how this would matter in a democracy.

What defines this community is not geography, or even reading or supporting the Guardian; it is a community of those who share our hope for the future, who know that the way things are now is not the way they have to be, and who want to see this pandemic “turned to beneficial account”, to make a different world from the suffering and solidarity that we have all experienced in this difficult year.

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What will come after this crisis? And what role can the Guardian play in fighting to ensure that we do not settle for some diminished version of what passed for normal before? As Naomi Klein said last year during one of the first Guardian live public events to happen over Zoom: “There are so many ways we can think about responding to this crisis that do not accept this idea that we have to return to the pre-Covid status quo, only worse, only with more surveillance, more screens and less human contact.” The pandemic has not only changed our ideas about what is necessary, or what is possible; it has changed the way we think about ourselves as humans and our relationships with those around us, with work, and with nature.

This crisis has not changed the values that have guided the Guardian for 200 years. What it has produced is a new conviction that making connections really matters – not only with each other, but ones that help us understand how the world works. The pandemic showed everyone how interconnected we all are, and yet how separate – atomised, and yet all fighting the same virus.

Our reporting is not about telling our readers what they should think, or broadcasting “the Truth” from Guardian Towers. It is about connecting, empathising, listening. It’s about hearing what people are telling us, not what we expect them to say. The disruption to every aspect of our lives has produced a new appreciation of human connection, of what we missed without touch, without contact; a new softness, a new slowness, a chance for creativity and community. As Klein says, “when you slow down, you can feel things. When you’re in the constant rat race, it doesn’t leave much time for empathy.”

It’s about making the connections between the dinner delivered to your door and where that food came from and the life of the courier who brought it to you. It’s about making the connections between the politicians who presided over pogroms then and pandemics now, as Arundhati Roy has done. It’s about not just blaming Donald Trump for the US’s catastrophic Covid statistics, as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor says: “The early wave of disproportionate black deaths was hastened by Trumpian malfeasance, but the deaths to come are the predictable outcome of decades of disinvestment and institutional neglect.” It’s about understanding the connections that turbo-charged capitalism has tried to make us forget as it has invaded every area of our lives.

We will dig out the truth, as the powerful try to get away with things under cover of the pandemic

Empathy is a necessity. Many people are bereaved and grieving, feeling invisible in their loss. Many people are suffering, and some of them have been for a long time. We all, surely, understand that challenges to mental health can happen to anyone, that it can be hard to stay steady when the world is falling apart.

Getting close to our readers means building the kind of trust that whistleblowers and victims need. It means community-based journalism, making contact with readers everywhere, from Hong Kong protesters to NHS doctors. It means embedding ourselves in an area, as we have with our Made in Britain video series. It means a more diverse group of journalists, helping to redefine what constitutes “news”. It means being open to different points of view, to accepting that we might not agree on everything. It means restoring a better balance – between humans and technology, between the super-rich and everyone else, between society and the environment.

We will find ways, as we are doing already, to get out and speak to people, to get away from our screens and understand what life is like for others. We will dig out the truth, as the powerful try to get away with things under cover of the pandemic. We will understand how we’re all connected, and try to make a difference. The post-Covid journalism that I am seeking will be more urgent, more essential. It must be rooted in real conversations, fact-based reporting, information you can trust, and it must have the imagination to understand other people’s lives and other people’s points of view. It must also be aware of the pleasures, diversions and enjoyment of life. Wit is often just as important as gravity.

It may seem hard to imagine things changing for the better when so many people are desperate just to go back to normal. But the tranquility of plane-free skies, the crescendo of birdsong, that sustenance so many of us have felt from nature, the solidarity we felt during collective clapping or singing – that was real, and that was special. Astrid Erll points out that there is much evidence that events from late adolescence are remembered best, and so that generation, just entering adulthood now, will remember these urgent times even more acutely. We have all learned that terrible things can happen on a truly global scale. We’ve all seen what can be achieved if we work together, united in a collective effort. Can we now work together to vaccinate the world, then stop an environmental catastrophe?

Related: ‘Stuff of legends’: editors around world salute the Guardian on 200 years

The pandemic has also highlighted some of the obstacles that might hinder that collective spirit. When the pandemic struck England, you were far more likely to die if you came from a deprived area. As epidemiologist Michael Marmot wrote, “enduring social and economic inequalities mean that the health of the public was threatened before the pandemic and during it, and will be after it”. Meanwhile the 10 richest men on earth saw their wealth increase by £400bn during the pandemic – enough to pay for vaccines for all, according to Oxfam – while ordinary employees’ wages have stagnated for more than a decade. Will we stand for this? Or is it a chance to demand fair taxation, a new impetus for the social state, to build a fairer society?

The unequal impact of Covid along racial lines has also highlighted the extent to which “the social determinants of health” are affected by structural racism. Covid has had a much greater impact on people of colour in Britain and the US. Meanwhile domestic violence surged in lockdown as women were trapped at home with violent men. The killing of Sarah Everard, a young woman walking home along a busy road in London in the evening, was met with a torrent of protest – a feeling that enough was enough. The Black Lives Matter protests took place in this moment too, in cities, towns and villages around the world, because, in Klein’s words, “what was bad before the disaster has been downgraded to unbearable”.

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All Guardian staff know that their work is not done to generate profits for others, or to buy influence. We are all here for a reason, and that is the biggest unifier. We all work for an organisation, as laid out by CP Scott, that “is a public service, not an instrument of private profit or power”. Our mission is based on a moral conviction: that people long to understand the world they are in, and to create a better one. To use our clarity and imagination to build hope.

There are not many companies, in any business, that last for two centuries, and it says something about the role the Guardian plays in the world that it has got this far. I think it’s because we know who we are: we have roots, we have principles, we have philosophy, we have values. When I was appointed editor-in-chief in 2015, I was given one instruction: to carry on the Guardian “on the same lines and in the same spirit as heretofore”, which is assumed to mean that “fidelity to principle is to be put before profit”. There is so much power in that – something we must never forget. I am grateful to the 11 editors who served with such distinction in the decades before me; to 200 years’ worth of Guardian staff, from star reporters to stable boys, ad execs to copytakers, columnists to cleaners; to my current colleagues, a brilliant, energetic, resilient team who have shown in the past year exactly what they’re made of; and to our readers, who’ve stuck with us in good times and bad, in times when the Guardian’s politics were in the ascendancy and the times when they were needed more than ever, who know that there’s nothing quite like the Guardian, anywhere in the world. Thank you. Times change. Technologies change. Principles don’t. Two hundred years, and we’ve only just begun.

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Values, ideals and new ideas

In 2017, we pinpointed five principles that would underpin Guardian journalism in this tumultuous period. Here is how we will build on these principles through our incipient anniversary year.

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1 We will develop ideas that help improve the world, not just critique it

Our mission is to provide facts that help readers understand the world – but also new ideas to spark hope that change is possible.

In 1921, CP Scott commissioned John Maynard Keynes to curate a series of essays on the economic revival of postwar Europe. They appeared as 12 monthly supplements under the title Reconstruction in Europe, with contributions from leading economists, politicians and Nobel laureates, as well as 13 pieces by Keynes himself.

At a time when so many of our readers are thinking about how the post-Covid world should be organised – about how we can use this moment to make progress – we will launch a new series of long reads this summer, called Reconstruction 2021, featuring many of the world’s great contemporary thinkers, to imagine a better post-Covid world.

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2 We will collaborate with readers, and others, to have greater impact

Our readers fund the Guardian to a greater degree than ever before, and as journalists we experience the world with our readers as equal citizens. Our relationship with them is not transactional – it is about sharing a sense of purpose and a commitment to understand and illuminate our times.

Many of our best journalistic projects have readers at their heart – from the sources who told us that Dominic Cummings had broken the government’s own lockdown rules, to our international reader callouts on subjects as varied as Hong Kong, George Floyd and the NHS, to our amazing Made in Britain series, which shows what can happen when we collaborate with local communities, embed ourselves there, and even turn the camera or our publishing tools over to others to allow voices to be heard.

Inspired by the great journalism our readers have collaborated with us on, we will launch a new Guardian community hub to expand and bring together all our reader-driven projects.

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3 We will diversify, to have richer reporting from a representative newsroom

The media as a whole must be far more diverse if we are to really understand what is happening in the world, to be fully representative of society, and to get better stories.

At the Guardian we have been working to recruit and promote talented journalists of colour, and using Guardian journalism to give real weight to the issues that affect people of colour across every aspect of our reporting.

In 2021 we will create a new senior editorial position to embed diversity from the top, and will commit to new targets on diversity, with the aim of making rapid improvements in terms of representation and to bring about cultural change.

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4 We will be meaningful in all of our work

We commit to producing meaningful journalism for our readers in new ways, building on our recent successes with podcasts, live journalism and newsletters. Since the pandemic, our features coverage has focused more deeply than ever on human stories, such as in the devastating Lost to the virus series. We have told the stories of inspirational people fighting for racial justice, with our Black lives series, and in our How to live now series we have offered expert advice, responding to readers’ needs in a rapidly changing world. We will continue to respond to readers’ needs, recognising that our shared understanding of the world is ever evolving. And we will launch a new features series, The Outspoken, focusing on unsung people who are trying to change the world for the better.

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5 We will report fairly on people as well as power, and find things out

Our primary duty is reporting, finding out the truth, standing up to the powerful. It is also about reporting on the lives of ordinary people and how they are affected by decisions made by those in power.

We will continue to dig deep with time-consuming investigations that have real impact, to report on and with communities whose voices don’t get heard, and to tell human stories that expose wider political, social and cultural issues. We have expanded our team reporting on science, health and the environment, and we will continue to invest in our network of international reporters.