Advertising Makes A Mockery Of Press Freedom

One of the great 'Flat Earth' ideas of our time is the notion that deep dependence on corporate advertising does not compromise the ability of our corporate press to report honestly and accurately. Contrary to common belief, most money is not made on a newspaper's cover price. Instead advertising constitutes fully 75% of the average broadsheet's total revenue.

In a recent Guardian article, Roy Greenslade reports the dramatic and, for the press, devastating collapse in advertising revenues following the terrorist attacks of September 11. Consider the significance of what Greenslade has to say:

"...We can now see the full effects of the British press price war after eight years. General Rupert Murdoch's great crusade to reverse the downward circulations of his papers after the last recession by selling them at drastically low prices now threatens the future of the whole industry. Advertising income has fallen away and, despite Murdoch's optimism, it is difficult to forecast when the trend will reverse. That wouldn't matter as much if his pricing strategy had not ensured that papers have been sold too cheaply for too long.

The net result of his war is that many rival papers, with the notable exception of Associated's Mail titles, have been scared to raise cover prices since 1993. It has meant that most owners, including Murdoch of course, have been disproportionately reliant on ad revenue." (Roy Greenslade, 'Oh no, sales are up...' the Guardian, 15.10.01)

Plausible deniability is one thing, but are we really to believe that these newspapers - "disproportionately reliant on ad revenue" as they are - would +voluntarily+ risk such disastrous falls in revenue by launching devastating and sustained attacks on corporate advertisers, corporate products, corporate activities and corporate philosophies, of the kind that are regularly seen in the non-ad-dependent radical press?

Greenslade, like almost all mainstream commentators, fails to asks some very simple questions about the media-advertising relationship: How likely is it that an ad-dependent press will reveal and consistently emphasise the most destructive aspects of the corporate system, made up of the advertisers on which it depends? How likely is it that such a press will emphasise the adverse health effects associated with products massively promoted in its pages, and on which it depends? What chance that it will seriously analyse the role of corporations in bypassing democracy by seeking to influence domestic and foreign policy? What chance that it will reveal the truth of the symbiotic relationship between corporations, state foreign policy, Third World dictators and profits?

These questions are absurd to editors and journalists, who dismiss the pressure of advertisers out of hand.

Media Lens asked Roger Alton, editor of the Observer, if it would ever occur to him that running certain kinds of stories might lose him major advertising revenue. Alton answered:

" No, if you had a story about ghastly goings on at Ford you wouldn't +dream+ of not running it."

Alton saw no problem and instead applauded the system:

"Commercial considerations are very, very important - any responsible journalist should take account of those. So it's not that all advertisers are bad: in a commercial world, we depend on advertisers as well as revenue to keep going."

Alton seemed to miss the point, so we turned to Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian: Would he ever consider the effect on advertising incomes before printing something? Rusbridger said:

"Um, no, I don't think so. No, I think... I wouldn't have thought so. Sometimes you publish stories and advertisers pick their ball up in a sulk and go away. It does happen, and if you're a decent editor you don't take any notice; and eventually the advertisers either need you more than you need them, or... I don't think it's a sort of huge issue in the mainstream press, at the moment, in a thriving economy. I think it's much more of an issue for magazines that are very, very heavily dependent on a narrow range of advertisers, so I think the fashion press works like that."

We also asked one of Channel 4's newsreaders, Jon Snow, who said:

"Well how do you propose to fund them?... You want to produce a bland, boring, under-financed bloody media, which has no adverts, and which prattles on about events that occurred 30 years ago."

An international memo put out by tobacco company Philip Morris reveals the reality beyond these arguments:

"The media like the money they make from our advertisements and they are an ally that we can and should exploit... We should make a concerted effort in our principal markets to influence the media to write articles or editorials positive to the industry position on the various aspects of the smoking controversy."

In 1993 Mercedes Benz told 30 different magazines that it would withdraw its advertisements from any issue that contained articles critical of Mercedes, German products or Germany.

In a letter to over 100 magazines, Chrysler corporation advised in 1997: "In an effort to avoid potential conflicts, it is required that Chrysler corporation be alerted in advance of any and all editorial content that encompasses sexual, political, social issues or any editorial content that could be construed as provocative or offensive."

The Economist reports how media projects "unsuitable for corporate sponsorship tend to die on the vine," adding that media "have learned to be sympathetic to the most delicate sympathies of corporations".

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR - www.fair.org) reports that in a 2000 Pew Centre for the People & the Press poll of 287 US reporters, editors and news executives, about one-third of respondents, said that news that would "hurt the financial interests" of the media organization or an advertiser goes unreported. Forty-one percent said they themselves have avoided stories, or softened their tone, to benefit their media company's interests. When a 2000 Time magazine series on environmental campaigners, sponsored by Ford Motor Company, failed to mention anti-auto campaigners, Time's international editor admitted that mentioning them would be inappropriate because, after all, "we don't run airline ads next to stories about airline crashes".

Proctor & Gamble, the world's biggest advertiser, explicitly prohibited programmes "which could in any way further the concept of business as cold, ruthless, and lacking all sentiment or spiritual motivation".

In a rare, dissenting article, Richard Ingrams of the Observer indicated the hidden connection between media silence on mobile phone health risks and profits:

"When the newspapers are obviously doing so well out of all this advertising, it is not so surprising that they tend not to give much coverage to the growing evidence that mobile phones are not only anti-social but extremely dangerous." (Richard Ingrams, the Observer, 19.12.99)

Advertising is only one of a range of powerful constraints on free reporting - media entities are themselves profit-seeking corporations, owned by giant parent companies (arms manufacturers, nuclear power construction companies, and the like), and by wealthy moguls with all kinds of fingers in all kinds of business pies. They are vulnerable to attack by powerful corporate front groups and flak machines, and deeply dependent for breaking news on business-friendly state news sources.

Together, these pressures combine to create the media servility that we see all around us. Corporate criminality +is+ exposed, globalisation +is+ challenged, but in such a piecemeal, disembodied and feeble way that it constitutes a massive distortion of reality; one which prevents the public gaining an awareness of the true scale and destructiveness of corporate power.

The 'free press' is a lynchpin of the corporate system. Its role is to maintain the vital illusion of neutrality and objectivity, while promoting an establishment agenda, obscuring the charade that is business-controlled domestic politics, and covering for state-corporate responsibility for massive human rights abuses abroad. We cannot possibly receive an honest picture of the world from the corporate press - not of the problems that face us, their urgency, their cause nor, most importantly, their solutions.

SUGGESTED ACTION

Contact The Guardian and ask one or more of the following questions:

* How likely is it that an ad-dependent press, including The Guardian, will reveal and consistently emphasise the most destructive aspects of the corporate system, made up of the advertisers on which it depends?

* How likely is it that such a press will seriously analyse the role of  corporations in bypassing democracy by seeking to influence domestic and foreign policy?

* How likely is it that such a press will reveal the truth of the symbiotic relationship between corporations, state foreign policy, Third World dictators and profits?

Roy Greenslade, columnist: Roy.Greenslade@guardian.co.uk

Alan Rusbridger, editor: Alan.Rusbridger@guardian.co.uk