by Media Lens
PART 1 - IN THEORY
Hectoring And Censoring - And Climate Catastrophe
Last week, Guardian News & Media (GNM) published ‘Living Our Values’, an independently audited account of the company’s annual performance on sustainability issues. GNM, which encompasses the Guardian, the Observer and guardian.co.uk, claims to have strong environmental ambitions. Its ongoing mission: to seek out and “explore subjects like climate change, environmental degradation and social inequality” in ever greater depth.
The Guardian’s ultimate aim is to be nothing less than "the world's leading liberal voice". (Siobhain Butterworth, ‘Open door. The readers' editor on... the Guardian's green and global mission,’ November 17, 2008)
An awkward point for the Guardian, mentioned by the audit, is that their environmental performance has been strongly criticised by one of their own columnists, George Monbiot. Last year, after a gentle nudge from Media Lens, Monbiot asked the Guardian and other newspapers to reject adverts for products and services that are particularly damaging to the climate: ads for gas guzzling cars and flights. He pointed out that, by accepting these ads, his editors "make the destruction of the biosphere seem socially acceptable”. (Monbiot, ‘The editorials urge us to cut emissions, but the ads tell a very different story,’ The Guardian, August 14, 2007)
In the same column, Monbiot described most of the negative responses he received to his proposal as “inadequate”.
The Guardian’s latest audit comments on the controversy:
"Our role is neither to hector our readers nor to censor on their behalf. Our editorial coverage informs and influences their choices."
And yet the Guardian has consistently supported the ban of other destructive advertising. An April 1997 leader applauded one of New Labour’s key promises:
“Now Britain is on the verge of making a much belated further step in health promotion: a ban on tobacco advertising... Any industry whose product kills 300 of its own customers every day will have one over-riding concern: recruiting another 300 more consumers a day to ensure its survival...” (Leader, ‘Dealing with the killing weeds - Tobacco promotion should be banned as well as advertising,’ The Guardian, April 18, 1997)
In 2005, the World Health Organization estimated that global warming was already contributing to more than 150,000 deaths each year - 410 deaths every day. The toll could double by 2030. (Juliet Eilperin, ‘Climate Shift Tied To 150,000 Fatalities,’ Washington Post, November 17, 2005)
In its reply to Monbiot’s calls for an advertising ban, the Guardian wrote:
“We would rather encourage advertisers... to become more sustainable. We have just appointed a commercial sustainability manager who will be considering ways to achieve this...” (Monbiot, op. cit)
But as the same editors noted of the tobacco industry in the 1997 leader cited above: “The various voluntary restrictions on advertising and promotion have been shown to be a sham.” Attempts to encourage fossil-fuel advertisers to become more sustainable have also resulted in sham and deception on a grand scale.
Guardian leaders since 1997 have been happy “to hector... and censor” on tobacco advertising, for example in a 2002 editorial entitled, ‘A healthy ban on adverts: Motor sport should be included as well’:
“It is not too late for ministers to take a stronger line against motor sport, which has been given an exemption until 2006. It is not that difficult for sports to attract alternative sponsors.” (Leading article, ‘A healthy ban on adverts: Motor sport should be included as well,’ The Guardian, August 23, 2002)
The Guardian editors take a cheap shot in their latest audit when they emphasise that they found more objections to ads for fashion brands that use low cost labour than to ads for cars and budget airlines (11% of Guardian readers and 10% of website users).
Why would readers feel strongly about the need to ban ads for high-emission transport when the subject has almost never been discussed by the media? The public needs access to serious discussion of the issues before it can reach an informed opinion. This is something media like the Guardian have never provided.
Ironically, Alan Rusbridger, editor in chief of the Guardian and Observer, states in the audit:
“One of the roles of the media is to boil down intensely complex subjects and make them comprehensible. If these issues are not aired and placed on the public agenda and debated with facts that are reliable, then it lets everyone off the hook.” (Alan Rusbridger, quoted, in Guardian News & Media, Jo Confino and Emma Wright, editors, ‘Living our values. Sustainability report,’ November 17, 2008)
The Guardian has certainly let itself off the hook. Discussion of the media’s heavy reliance on advertising, and its corrosive impact on news coverage, is dangerous territory where journalists dare not venture.
Instead, Rusbridger baldly asserts: "As long as the journalism is free and we allow George Monbiot to criticise us, and we feel free to criticise the people who advertise - that is more important than advertising."
The problem is that Rusbridger literally does mean George Monbiot. He is the only Guardian journalist who has seriously addressed the issue, and he is the only one likely to be able to do so in future. A lone voice is manageable; the Guardian would have a serious problem if several journalists on the paper began criticising major advertisers, who might well decide to switch to more supportive media platforms. This is a grave threat when advertising provides around 75 per cent of the Guardian’s revenue. (Peter Preston, ‘War, What Is It Good For?,’ The Observer, October 7, 2001)
The Guardian’s ‘Living Our Values’ (LOV) audit is, we are told, “up front about the contradictions between editorial and advertising.” The curious wording suggests that the famous “firewall” protecting editorial from advertising is not quite as all-consuming as we are led to believe.
Ownership by the Scott Trust puts the Guardian “in a privileged position,” the report continues. The newspaper has to be "profit-seeking, efficient and cost-effective," of course, but it is "values-driven, not profit-driven". The words are reassuring - and contradicted when the report reveals the underlying reality:
“The reason GNM is able to fulfil its core purpose [providing “liberal journalism”] is because of the financial support of its parent company Guardian Media Group (GMG). Over the past five years alone, GMG has invested £207m in GNM, part of which has gone into new all-colour presses and the development of our global website.
“GMG is able to do this by running a portfolio of profit-maximising businesses in areas such as radio, regional papers, property and second-hand car sales.” (LOV, p. 20)
The Guardian, then, is heavily dependent on “profit-maximising” businesses not normally associated with sustainability or “values-driven” performance.
Asked by the Scott Trust to restate the Guardian’s “values for the online era”, Alan Rusbridger declaims: “the trust exists to preserve the Guardian and its journalistic traditions in perpetuity... our journalists' main relationships are with our colleagues and with readers, viewers or listeners.”
In the real world, numerous studies have exposed the close relationship between journalists, advertisers and bias. In 1978, Columbia Journalism Review published one researcher’s telling discovery:
“In magazines that accept cigarette advertising, I was unable to find a single article, in seven years of publication, that could have given readers any clear notion of the nature and extent of the medical and social havoc being wreaked by the cigarette smoking habit... advertising revenue can indeed silence the editors of American magazines.” (R.C. Smith, Columbia Journalism Review, 1978, January. See)
Rusbridger also omitted to mention the journalists embedded with the military, with the political establishment, with corporate interests - producing material that is inevitably compromised by the need to carefully nurture influential news sources. Readers may recall, for example, the front-page Pentagon propaganda targeting Iran under Simon Tisdall’s byline last May. (Media Alert, ‘Pentagon Propaganda Occupies The Guardian’s Front Page,’ May 24, 2007)
“There should be a high premium on transparency, collaboration and discussion. At the same time we should allow plurality of opinion ... the papers should promote minority views as well as mainstream argument and should encourage dissent.” (LOV, p. 11)
Some dissent, though, is not welcome. Since the Guardian’s cynical smearing of Noam Chomsky in October 2005, Rusbridger has flatly refused to engage with us or our readers - in the last three years he has not replied to a single one of our emails. Recently, in response to an article on media fakery on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website, we posted a comment about the Guardian’s own fakery in its treatment of Chomsky. The Guardian moderators deleted our comments and several others.
When we challenged the Guardian’s censorship, we were told our relevant remarks were off topic and had led to discussion that was “problematic.” (See media alert, ‘Intellectual Cleansing - Part 3’). When we offered to publish a critical piece about the Guardian and the Scott Trust on Comment Is Free, we were asked by editor Georgina Henry: “But why would I be interested in commissioning piece about the Guardian and the Scott Trust from you?” (Email, August 22, 2007)
And yet Rusbridger says in the audit:
“We should behave fairly and allow our opponents a voice.”
Admirable sentiments of this kind are sprinkled throughout:
“Social justice has always been at the heart of our journalism.” (LOV, p. 5)
The report makes no mention of the fact that members of the Guardian Media Group Board and/or the Scott Trust have links with the corporate media, New Labour, Cadbury Schweppes, KPMG Corporate Finance, the chemicals company Hickson International Plc, Fenner Plc, the investment management company Rathbone Brothers Plc, global investment company Lehman Brothers, global financial services firm Morgan Stanley, the Bank of England...
Are we really to believe that a newspaper embedded in these establishment and corporate networks, and dependent on advertisers for 75 per cent of its revenues, can provide uncompromised coverage of a world dominated, and exploited, by these same powerful interests?
The Guardian claims to “desire to build trust in the media by becoming increasingly transparent about the decisions we reach and the way we implement them in both our editorial and commercial operations.” (LOV, p. 3)
A good place to start would be for GNM to tell us exactly how much money it takes from oil giants, car companies, airlines and other businesses heavily dependent on fossil-fuel consumption.
When we emailed George Monbiot for his response to the Guardian’s latest comments on advertising, he did not reply. Monbiot is a decent, well-intentioned person - we have great respect for him - but he is caught between the rock of honest dissent and the hard place of corporate priorities. A partial explanation for his silence is perhaps found on page 7 of LOV, where the Guardian unveils a plan:
“Expanding the role of George Monbiot, one of the most respected columnists writing about sustainability, to create video interviews with major figures.”
This is further evidence, if any were needed, that Monbiot continues to be used as a fig leaf to cover the Guardian’s failure to challenge power. Given the “profit-maximising” goals of the Guardian’s parent company, and the establishment figureheads of the Scott Trust, how could it be any other way?
The concession of an expanded role for Monbiot again recalls a favoured tactic of the tobacco industry. A memo from the company Philip Morris noted:
“... by opening a dialogue followed by a few minor concessions, the industry can be saved from heavy legislation for at least two to three more years.” (Philip Morris, 1976, 'Trust US We’re The Tobacco Industry,' Campaign For Tobacco-Free Kids)
In a recent guest media alert, former Guardian journalist, Jonathan Cook, wrote of dissident writers like Monbiot, Robert Fisk and John Pilger:
“However grateful we should be to these dissident writers, their relegation to the margins of the commentary pages of Britain's ‘leftwing’ media serves a useful purpose for corporate interests. It helps define the ‘character’ of the British media as provocative, pluralistic and free-thinking - when in truth they are anything but. It is a vital component in maintaining the fiction that a professional media is a diverse media.”
Part 2 will follow shortly...
The Media Lens book 'Guardians of Power: The Myth Of The Liberal Media' by David Edwards and David Cromwell (Pluto Books, London) was published in 2006. For details, including reviews, interviews and extracts, please click here:
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