- In Alerts 2009
- Post 15 June 2009
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In a recent blog you rightly insist that: 'Newspapers must stop taking advertising from environmental villains.' (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/ georgemonbiot/2009/jun/05/climate-change-corporatesocialresponsibility)
On July 2, 2007 we wrote to you suggesting a possible first step:
"Could newspapers begin by refusing the worst fossil fuel advertising - SUVs [sports utility vehicles], for example?" (Melting Ice Sheets and Media Contradictions)
In your blog, you call for similar action:
"What I am asking is for the newspapers to refine their view of which advertisements are and are not acceptable. Specifically, I am calling on them in the first instance to drop ads for cars which produce more than 150g of CO2/km, and to drop direct advertising for flights, on the grounds that both these products cause unequivocal and unnecessary harm to the environment."
To even raise this possibility is an achievement in the current corporate media context. But that context is important. In his film, The Corporation, Canadian lawyer Joel Bakan assessed the corporate 'personality' using diagnostic criteria of the World Health Organisation. Bakan's conclusion:
"The operational principles of the corporation give it a highly anti-social 'personality': It is self-interested, inherently amoral, callous and deceitful; it breaches social and legal standards to get its way; it does not suffer from guilt, yet it can mimic the human qualities of empathy, caring and altruism... Concluding this point-by-point analysis, a disturbing diagnosis is delivered: the institutional embodiment of laissez-faire capitalism fully meets the diagnostic criteria of a 'psychopath.'" (http://www.thecorporation.com)
In support of this claim, Bakan quoted a key, 19th century legal ruling by Lord Bowen that applies to this day:
"... charity has no business to sit at boards of directors qua charity. There is, however, a kind of charitable dealing which is for the interest of those who practise it, and to that extent and in that garb (I admit not a very philanthropic garb) charity may sit at the board, but for no other purpose". (Bakan, The Corporation, Constable, 2004, pp.38-39)
"As a psychopathic creature, the corporation can neither recognise nor act upon moral reasons to refrain from harming others. Nothing in its legal makeup limits what it can do to others in pursuit of its selfish ends, and it is compelled to cause harm when the benefits of doing so outweigh the costs." (Ibid., p.60)
So while your analysis does indeed shine in comparison to most corporate commentary, readers should not be jumping for joy for that reason alone - the competition is simply appalling.
John Pilger often reminds us that mainstream journalists "want it both ways." They portray themselves as unconstrained champions of dissent, while seeking to retain the respect, and patronage, of psychopathic media corporations that are bitter enemies of change. Tibetans call this "sewing with a double-pointed needle". Your analysis contains many examples of this kind of tangled needlework. You write, for example:
"Were it not for an industry I detest, I could not be a full-time writer."
Well, one of us, Edwards, writes full-time for Media Lens. He depends solely on donations, small grants and occasional funds earned from articles published in the alternative media (ZNet, for example). Given your high profile, you, too, could surely sustain yourself in this way, if you chose to do so.
You also write that "Were it not for an industry I detest... The Guardian would not be an independent newspaper." Alarm bells inevitably ring when a writer known for his intellectual acuity affects such naivety in relation to his employer. Your comment contains the kind of contradiction you would normally expose for fun. If the Guardian needs advertisers, it is not, as a matter of simple logic, an independent newspaper.
A few lines further on, you write: "Owners interfere far more often and more systematically in the content of papers than advertisers." And anyway, "I have never been asked by the Guardian to tone down my attacks on corporations, nor have I come across any evidence that advertisers can influence editorial decisions on this paper (if anyone has any, I would like to see it)."
So advertisers, like owners, do interfere with newspapers, although not at your newspaper. How convenient! You dramatically challenge the world to send you evidence of advertiser interference at the Guardian: "I would like to see it." You even offer an embarrassing propaganda sop to your editor:
"During our discussion, Rusbridger explained that he never tries to interfere in the advertising department's decisions, and that this department never tries to sway his decisions."
Again, you would ordinarily pour scorn on a corporate boss so blatantly attempting to misdirect the public away from the real issues. The point is that media executives know exactly what advertisers want, and they know exactly what might cause advertising revenues to be deposited elsewhere. This is obvious even to the BBC's Andrew Marr who has commented: "the biggest question is whether advertising limits and reshapes the news agenda. It does, of course. It's hard to make the sums add up when you are kicking the people who write the cheques." (Marr, My Trade, Macmillan, 2004, p.112)
Rusbridger exposed the nonsense of his own comment in a December 2000 interview with us:
"If you ask anybody who works in newspapers, they will quite rightly say, 'Rupert Murdoch', or whoever, 'never tells me what to write', which is beside the point: they don't have to be told what to write." (David Edwards, interview with Rusbridger, December 22, 2000)
The same is true of advertisers - journalists don't need to be told what to write. This is why even the most sardonic of radio DJs will not be heard mocking the adverts that interrupt their chatter. How can this be obvious to Rusbridger (sometimes), and Marr, but not to you, a major figure on the dissident left? It is the problem of the "double-pointed needle," George, is it not?
Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (www.fair.org) have described how giant advertisers BP and Morgan Stanley issued directives demanding that their ads be pulled from any edition of a publication that included potentially "objectionable" content. BP demanded advance notice of any stories that mentioned the company, a competitor of the company or the oil and energy industry in general (http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=2848).
Presumably you find this shocking. But the truth is, as one anonymous editor told Advertising Age, there's "a fairly lengthy list of companies that have instructions like this". In our forthcoming book, Newspeak in the 21st Century, we provide a clear example of how advertising has interfered with content in the Guardian (we've added an excerpt at the end of this email). You asked for examples; we've provided one. What do you intend to do with it?
Your comment about the independence of the Guardian is seriously misleading for other reasons. You write as though the Guardian editors would dearly love to cut their ties to the grubby corporate world. But the fact is that the Guardian +is+ the grubby corporate world. It is part of the $1.35 billion Trader Media Group (TMG) in which the Guardian Media Group (GMG) has a majority stake. TMG owns over 70 weekly publications, including Auto Trader, Bike Trader, Truck Trader and Top Marques. It owns the UK's busiest automotive web site (http://www.autotrader.co.uk), which attracts some 2.3 million unique users per month.
The elite executives who have graced the GMG Board, and/or the Guardian's Scott Trust, link the corporate media, the Labour party, Cadbury Schweppes, Tesco, KPMG Corporate Finance, the chemicals company Hickson International Plc, Fenner Plc, the investment management company Rathbone Brothers Plc, (now bankrupt) global investment company Lehman Brothers, global financial services firm Morgan Stanley and the Bank of England.
The claim that advertising does not interfere with content is relevant in considering your proposed options for action:
"1. Keep receiving income from adverts, sustaining the power and wealth of the corporations that place them.
"2. Rely on the beneficence of rich men and women to sponsor the newspapers, boosting the power of the proprietorial class.
"3. Go to the state."
You mention that while there is no evidence that advertisers influence editorial decisions at the Guardian, you are "concerned about the false picture of the world conveyed by advertisements... They generate behavioural norms, telling us, in effect, that the goods and services which are destroying the biosphere are acceptable, even beneficial". These comments suggest other options.
Why do you (and others at the Guardian) not simply challenge the false picture of the world generated by the advertisers in your newspaper? This avoids the problem, which you deem "inescapable", of running a newspaper without advertising. Why do you not write articles exposing named campaigns by named advertisers that appear in the Guardian, advising readers to beware the insanity of cheap flight offers and obsession with the latest model of car?
"But even the claim that we should leave people to make their own decisions is inconsistent and hypocritical. Where are the ads for pornography in these papers? Where are the ads using violent or sexually explicit images?"
Quite right. But other ads are also missing. Why does the Guardian not slightly increase the number of pages (not a problem online) to allow space for Adbusters' anti-consumer ads to generate "behavioural norms" contradicting corporate advertising? Why does the Guardian not provide space for the "Sites we like" listed on your blog - Spinwatch, Z Communications and SchNEWS - to expose the machinations of corporate advertisers and of the corporate system in general? We hardly need remind you that alternative media have hosted searing critiques of mass consumerism, materialism and unrestrained hedonism from every conceivable angle for decades. Given the utter disaster we're facing, why does the Guardian not simply take these views mainstream? Why is space not provided for these writers to generate alternative "behavioural norms"? Noam Chomsky, for example, has written:
"It is necessary to destroy hope, idealism, solidarity, and concern for the poor and oppressed, to replace these dangerous feelings by self-centred egoism, a pervasive cynicism that holds that all change is for the worse, so that one should simply accept the state capitalist order with its inherent inequities and oppression as the best that can be achieved. In fact, a great international propaganda campaign is underway to convince people - particularly young people - that this not only is what they should feel but that it is what they do feel, and that if somehow they do not adopt this set of values then they are strange relics of a terrible era that has fortunately passed away." (Chomsky, quoted in C.P. Otero, ed., Radical Priorities, Black Rose Books, 1981, pp.19-20)
"If you ask, well, would I like the tyrant to be benevolent, it's clearly the wrong question. If the choice is between a benevolent slave owner and a malicious slave owner, I suppose it's better to have a benevolent slave owner. But the question is, do we want a slave owner? Should the slave owner have the choice of whether to be benevolent or not? Well the same is true of corporations... So an individual CEO, let's say, may really care about the environment. Or about poor children. Since they have such extraordinary resources, they may even devote some of their resources to that without violating their responsibility [to maximise profits], the monstrous responsibility to be totally inhuman. But of course within limits. The institution allows only a certain amount." (Chomsky, The Corporation, 2004)
This kind of analysis is tremendously interesting and important. But it has been marginalised by the corporate media precisely because it is a corporate media. Despite being ignored and smeared by the mainstream (the Guardian very much included), Chomsky is the world's most-read author on international affairs. His work is far more popular and insightful than the guff produced by the Garton Ashes and Freedlands of this world who pack the comments page that hosts your work. Publishing the kind of views expressed by Chomsky, and numerous others, would go a long way towards disarming your advertisers' propaganda.
Let's accept for a moment that you are right when you say "I haven't found an acceptable alternative" to the model of advertiser-supported mass media. So why continue focusing on this "unpleasant but apparently inescapable fact of life"? What does it matter if the Guardian's revenue is unethical when it is such a simple matter to counter corporate propaganda within the paper as it exists, right now? This should be eminently possible if, as you say, there is not "any evidence that advertisers can influence editorial decisions on this paper".
But if even this proposal for hosting antidotal messages is not embraced by you and the Guardian, the question must be asked: Why not? If it's because the Guardian fears the loss of advertising revenue, this makes a mockery of your claim that advertising does not interfere with content. Far more importantly, it leaves you with, not one, but two unpleasant and inescapable facts of life.
First, as you say, the Guardian cannot survive in its present form without advertising. Second, if the Guardian is unwilling to take even simple, achievable steps to counter the problem in the paper, this suggests that your attempts to instigate change are being embraced as token, placatory gestures. This is the old, "double-pointed needle" strategy of wooing green readers while satisfying the needs of corporate business. Technical term: greenwash.
It is conceivable that the Guardian may, ultimately, as you request, drop ads for cars which produce more than 150g of CO2/km, and direct advertising for flights. This would be positive, worth fighting for. But what would these actions really mean in the context of a newspaper and a media system otherwise promoting maximised consumption? How significant would they be if the system remains fundamentally psychopathic?
David Edwards and David Cromwell
Excerpt from NEWSPEAK in the 21st Century, Pluto Press, forthcoming August 2009, pp.11-12:
THE DAY THE GUARDIAN ADS DEPARTMENT WENT APESHIT
All around us, unseen, our media are being continuously cleansed, pore-deep, of important rational reporting and commentary, for the simple, crude reason that they threaten profits. In September 2008, Nick Clayton, a columnist at the Scotsman for twelve years and formerly its technology editor, reported that advertisers were leaving the paper in favour of online media. He wrote: "Whether you're looking for work or a home, the web's the place to go." On being fired for writing this, Clayton commented: "I really don't understand why I've been fired ... I was merely reporting what estate agents had said to me about advertising in newspapers."
This recalls an infamous case from 1988 involving the Guardian, considered Britain's most liberal newspaper. An article by Guardian journalist James Erlichman covered a Greenpeace campaign to name and shame Ford motor company - then by far the country's biggest advertiser - because it lagged behind other car manufacturers in adapting engines to take unleaded petrol. A Greenpeace poster showed exhaust fumes in the shape of a skull and crossbones with the slogan: 'Ford Gives You More.'
Greenpeace tried to publish the poster as an advertisement in The Times, the Guardian and the Independent - all refused. The conclusion to Erlichman's piece contained one of the great bombshells in the history of British journalism:
"Greenpeace booked 20 hoardings for its poster campaign. But then the advertising agency was informed that most of the sites - those owned by Mills & Allen - had been withdrawn.
"Carl Johnson, who is handling the account, said: 'We were told that the posters were offensive, but I am sure someone was afraid of losing a lot of Ford advertising.'
"Mr Johnson attempted to book the 'skull and crossbones' advertisement with The Times, the Guardian and the Independent. 'I have no doubt that they all feared losing Ford's advertising if they accepted ours,' he said." (Erlichman, 'Threat of boycotts "turns firms green",' The Guardian, October 27, 1988)
Erlichman was thus openly suggesting that his own paper, the Guardian, had rejected a Greenpeace advert in order to protect its fossil-fuel advertising revenues. We contacted Steve Elsworth, who organised the Greenpeace campaign. We asked him what he remembered about the fallout from Erlichman's article. Elsworth responded:
"He [Erlichman] told me afterwards that the ads department went apeshit when they saw the story, and that they put pressure on his boss, saying that the Guardian was being used as a propaganda machine for Greenpeace. The clear implication was that they didn't mind paid-for propaganda, but resented doing it for free - and like all the papers, were very aware of, and careful about, the economic clout of car advertising. James did get a lot of heat for the story from senior editorial staff, though I couldn't say who." (Email to Media Lens, June 14, 2005)
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to George Monbiot
Write to Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian
Write to Siobhain Butterworth, readers' editor of the Guardian