28March2017

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Interview With Roger Alton, Editor, The Observer

DE: "There's a radical analysis of the media which says that wealthy owners, parent companies, advertisers, and so on, act as filters that tend to remove facts and ideas that are damaging to powerful corporate and state interests. What do you make of that argument?"

RA: "That powerful owners force editors to filter out stuff?"

DE: "Not that it's a conspiracy, or even a conscious thing, but that there are these pressures through advertisers, parent companies and..."

RA: "I've never experienced it – or not really – and I don't know of anybody who has experienced it. You would be unlikely to find some perfectly hostile story to Sky in the Sun. And you'd be unlikely to find an analysis of Northern & Shell in the Express. You'd probably be unlikely to find a savage attack on the Spectator in the Telegraph. A lot of that is partially also related to shared opinions. If you are a highly Christian, traditional, sort of Little Englander, anti-Europe, you would be unlikely to want to come and work for a paper like this one. I've never, ever experienced any kind of censorship, proprietorial interference or anything like that, apart from in the most microscopic and fleeting way, once, and it wasn't a very big deal in fact, so..."

DE: "What about advertising? Would it ever even occur to you that running certain kinds of stories might lose you major advertisers?"

RA: "Um, I'd have to think quite hard. No, if you had a story about ghastly goings on at Ford you wouldn't +dream+ of not running it."

DE: "Because the New York Times publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, said that he leaned on his editors to present the car industry's position because it 'would affect advertising'."

RA: "He said he had +leaned+ on his editors to present the car industry's position! You'd have to ask him. Don't forget, The New York Times is perhaps the most high-minded – irritatingly so in my view – paper in the world, certainly in the English-speaking world. To admit that it had ever done that... I'd be very sceptical about that quote... When the NYT makes the tiniest error of fact or judgement or something, they go into long inquests on it. When I was working on the Guardian, we ran, I think in the woman's page, a story about some kind of scent, something like that. It was in mid-point, the story, no big deal. It did actually cost something like a quarter of a million pounds of advertising. Funnily enough, had the ad director in charge of that section said to me at the time – because the story doesn't matter, it's a piece of comment - 'This is actually going to lose us £250,000 of advertising', I wouldn't have run the story. I would have said, 'Let's not run the story, because it's not a story, it's not a proper investigation; it's a rant, and it's actually better to have £250,000 of advertising to keep a paper going and healthy, because it does good for democracy, generally speaking' – that is actually a more important principle than some woman having a rant about the scent she doesn't like. 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. And commercial outfits, advertisers, +they+ don't want to think that the editorial product is prejudiced by commercial pressures, because if there is a suggestion that the editorial product is compromised in some way, then the validity of the thing, the product itself, is compromised, and so the value of the advertisement is compromised. Advertisers don't want to be in that. Advertisers want to be in things with high-brand value. So I do think this is... the commercial pressure of advertisers is largely mythical, and also quite possibly no bad thing in a way..."

DE: "When I think about all of these issues – the fact that the media are corporations, they're profit-oriented, they depend on advertisers, they're vulnerable to corporate flak machines, and then there are the wealthy owners and parent companies - I've never seen a systemic analysis in the media in this country, that examines the implications of these facts for democracy, for the freedom of the press. Have you seen anything?"

RA: "No."

DE: "Why's that?"

RA: "Er, because, in this country... I haven't seen one. I mean there might well be one. I mean there's the Glasgow Media Studies Group, they're always researching this sort of thing."

DE: "I mean in the mainstream press, like the Guardian, the Observer and the Independent."

RA: "But what would you...? You'd analyse commercial... proprietorial, commercial pressures on the press as being corporate organisations?"

DE: "The whole range: the profit motivation, advertiser influence, and so on..."

RA: "Well I think that's a +very+ interesting idea. I think it is something that one could look at."

DE: "Isn't it crucial for democracy to have that kind of discussion?"

RA: "You seem to be suggesting there is a tremendous amount of sort of pressure on journalists to sort of conform to some kind of editorial line - not the case."

DE: "I just wonder why it's never been discussed."

(6 second pause)

RA: "Um, well, it's a good... probably... Well I'm sure it has been discussed in academic arenas."

DE: "But I'm saying in the mainstream press. I've never seen it, even though we've got media sections in newspapers and this seems absolutely +fundamental+ to democracy."

RA: "What would the headline on the piece be? I'm trying to get an idea of the piece you think we should do, because if it's good we'll do it..."

DE: "Well, you know, 'Is a corporate press a free press?'"

RA: "Yes, um, 'How free is our press?' I mean, it's an interesting idea. I mean I think you would end up saying it's pretty free. We have the greatest variety of papers of anywhere, in my view, in the English-speaking world."

DE: "I just find it stunning that I've never seen this kind of analysis, and yet if we did have a free press truly committed to freedom, there should be this kind of analysis all the time, because there are obvious conflicts of interest here aren't there?"

RA: "Where?"

DE: "Well, the fact that democracy depends on free access to information, and yet the influence of advertisers, parent companies and the profit motive is never seriously discussed. How can that be?"

(7 second pause)

RA: "But... where would there be a problem? I mean where would there be a problem? The Telegraph, say, has a quite clear political argument. It's a commercial organisation. If it starts getting those things wrong in relationship to its readers, then that becomes a problem for Conrad Black, which he'd have to sort of address. But it's not telling +untruths+, depending on your political point of view. It's telling a version – there's no objective version – it's just a variety of subjective versions."

DE: "Yes, and there are biases in each newspaper, but the fundamental issues of, 'Well it is all a +corporate+ press', surely that should be +central+ to the whole discussion of the media?"

(4 second pause)

RA: "But... I mean commercially they can't survive on their own."

DE: "On their own?"

RA: "Because they cost too much."

DE: "That's right, so they need advertising. So shouldn't we be looking at how that influences what's reported and actually examine whether there is bias?"

RA: "Yes, but I mean that's a very complex and detailed study; it is essentially academic – everything else is anecdotal. If newspapers did that too much they would +bore+ people. And the only way you could discover anything would be anecdotal, from people telling you, 'Well this happened and this happened'."

DE: "There are all kinds of radical writers in this country, and in the States, who have done some quite detailed analyses, and have compared like examples of reporting and suggested that there does seem to be some kind of systemic bias going on."

RA: "Where's that?"

DE: "I'm thinking of people like Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman, and Mark Curtis in this country."

RA: "Systemic bias against what?"

DE: "Against discussing facts and issues that damage powerful corporate interests. A good example is a wonderful article in your paper by Greg Palast. He wrote,
'The October 1970 plot against Chile's President-elect Salvador Allende, using CIA "sub-machine guns and ammo", was the direct result of a plea for action a month earlier by Donald Kendall, chairman of PepsiCo, in two telephone calls to the company's former lawyer, President Richard Nixon.'

He was basically saying this wasn't a cold war phenomenon; it was US corporate interests defending themselves in Chile, because Allende was making them nervous. Now I saw that mentioned in your paper, did you see it mentioned anywhere else?"

RA: "Um, I didn't. No."

DE: "But wasn't that incredibly important, given that US corporations were being implicated in gross human rights violations? Shouldn't that have been right on the front page - he was under house arrest for 18 months in this country?"

RA: "When there is a +suggestion+ of corporate pressure on the press, on the media... which is the plot of a film called 'The Insider', about a Sixty Minutes investigation into Brown and Williamson tobacco company, and they'd lied to a senate hearing about whether nicotine's addictive. The plot of the film is about pressure from Brown and Williamson on CBS, I think, anyway a TV company, and the item doesn't go out. But this is a sufficient rarity for it to warrant a three-hour blockbuster Hollywood movie. It doesn't happen +all+ the time."

DE: "But what about the Pinochet case? How come Greg Palast was almost the only person to discuss that +fundamentally+ important issue?"

RA: "Because he's a +good+ journalist, sure. I mean, you can't ask me about why other papers don't put stuff in. If you ask me about something we haven't put in that's in somewhere else then I can be coherent."

DE: "The reason I ask is that a British historian, Mark Curtis, has said that there is a definite pattern to post-1945 British and US interventions, basically defending profits, installing people like the Shah in Iran, Armas in Guatemala, Somoza in Nicaragua and Suharto in Indonesia, and so on. He says that the fact that these interventions were basically designed to defend profits is almost +never+ discussed in the mainstream press. Isn't that true?"

(3 second pause)

RA: "Well I mean you're right, it's never +discussed+... I mean you'd have to... I think that you're now talking about a much broader question of the way the media works. That's an argument that the media now works at a lesser level of depth than perhaps it should, or it maybe did 25 years ago. I would actually dispute that. The Guardian did a whole section on a thing called 'Dumb', some of which focused around this area."

DE: "But isn't there a problem, though, that we're talking about highly damaging arguments about corporate behaviour, and the only people who really have the ability to report that argument is a corporate press?"

(3 second pause)

RA: "The only people who can report it are a corporate press, and they're not going to do it because they're corporate?"

DE: "I'm not saying it's a conspiracy or conscious, but these are just sort of very uncomfortable issues that people are going to rather not talk about."

(7 second pause)

RA: "Um, yeah, I mean I'd have to sort of sit and think and do a bit of research on this. I mean, I, I'm, I'm, I mean the deeper commercial pressure is actually that a lot of this stuff... there is a problem with good investigative journalism - it is actually whether, sort of, viewers or listeners or readers can take it. You know, +is+ it too much? Is it boring? Like, so Panorama is moved to quarter past ten on a Sunday night and it's losing viewers."

DE: "Do you think readers would find that boring, that US corporations put Pinochet in power?"

RA: "Um, well I mean it's sort of broadly +known+. Certainly when I was growing up, when I was a student, you were pretty much aware that it had happened."

DE: "But I was amazed at how little it was discussed over those 18 months. Last year, there was very little discussed about it."

RA: "And you think that is a result of corporate pressure. I promise you it's not! Well I mean... There's no corporate... All I can talk to you about is sort of corporate pressure as I've experienced it, as far as I know about, and I don't. I'm giving you everything I know. What I would like... I'll tell you what, I've got to go to another meeting fairly soon. Do you want to just email me with anything and I can email you back with a few thoughts?"

David Edwards, January 2001

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