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Comment Is Free But Freedom Is Slavery - An Exchange With The Guardian’s Economics Editor

In the dark days before Media Lens existed, and before Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger stopped responding to our emails, he actually granted us the courtesy of a chat by telephone. The interview was notable for its long gaps, its ums and ahs, as Rusbridger responded amiably to our questions about the news propaganda role of the Guardian and the corporate media generally.

When we suggested that it was simply understood by his editors and journalists that they should not be too heavily critical of corporations and the corporate-led system of economic globalisation, the Guardian supremo responded with amusement:

‘But we are [heavily critical] ... Honestly! (laughs)... We write about world debt, the whole Seattle agenda, Larry Elliott's economic analysis - every week he writes about these issues. I don't feel we're being constrained in what we write… I don't think the notion that there's a narrow political consensus on the Guardian is right.’ (Alan Rusbridger, interviewed by David Edwards, December 8, 2000)  

Larry Elliott is the Guardian’s economic editor. As we will see below, Elliott’s perspective is anything but radical.

The Corporation - Callous Disregard For Others

A glaring example was provided in Elliott's reporting of the early, heady days of the New Labour regime:

‘Labour may not be as red as it once was, but it is one hell of a lot greener. One of the beneficial spin-offs of modernisation is that the obsession with growth at all costs has been ditched.’ (Larry Elliott, ‘Labour's moral mission: going from red to green with a pollution solution. Environment has moved centre stage in a new government that sees protecting the world as good business and good politics’, Guardian, May 19, 1997)

The illusions that an obsession with growth at all costs had been ‘ditched’, and that the new government in 1997 had turned ‘green’, should have been short-lived at best. But by 2010, Elliott’s critique of ‘New Labour’ still fell short. Reflecting on his interview with a post-prime ministerial Gordon Brown, Elliott wrote:

‘Brown would probably have been more at home a century or more ago, when politics was about morality, principles and ideas, and politicians were not expected to bare their souls.’ (Larry Elliott, ‘Peace at last: Gordon Brown on life after Downing Street’, Guardian, December 4, 2010)

In the Guardian’s world, ‘morality, principles and ideas’ can survive participation in major war crimes unscathed. On the economy, Elliott does offer occasional critical remarks; for example, pointing to the ‘endless financial innovation [that] destabilised the global economy, while the benefits of growth accrued to a small cadre at the top and not to the rest of the newly flexible labour market. There was growth, but only because policymakers actively connived in the creation of bubbles. Indebtedness masqueraded as wealth.’ (Larry Elliott, ‘In a financial crisis, what counts is what works’, Guardian, 31 May, 2010)

But alongside his constant echoing of officialdom, Elliott’s critiques are a mild form of dissent offering no serious challenge to an inherently unjust system of global capitalism. Instead, in common with most mainstream politics and commentary, Elliott’s journalism is riddled with establishment rhetoric on the ‘need’ to ‘balance’ the economy:

‘Countries such as the US and Britain need to have a period in which the structure of their growth changes: they need to be less dependent on consumption and put a greater emphasis on investment and exports.’

For Elliott, the ‘real issues’ to be faced down are ‘a more balanced global economy and banks that are cut down to a size where they can be managed and regulated effectively’. (Larry Elliott, ‘Green shoots will mean healthy roots’, guardian.co.uk, April 26 2009 14.48 BST)

Radical this is not.

By contrast, in his devastating book and documentary, The Corporation, Canadian law professor Joel Bakan explained how the business entity termed a ‘corporation’ was legally transformed into a ‘person’ possessing its ‘own identity, separate from the flesh and blood people who were its owners and managers’. Bakan found that corporate behaviour closely matched the clinical definition of a psychopath, including: ‘callous disregard for the feelings of other people, the incapacity to maintain human relationships, reckless disregard for the safety of others, deceitfulness (continual lying to deceive for profit), the incapacity to experience guilt, and the failure to conform to social norms and respect for the law.’ (The Corporation, documentary, YouTube)

Bakan quoted businessman Robert Monks, who noted that a corporation ‘tends to be more profitable to the extent it can make other people pay the bills for its impact on society. There’s a terrible word that economists use for this called “externalities”.’

Monks added:

‘The difficulty with the corporate entity is that it has a dynamic that doesn’t take into account the concerns of flesh-and-blood human people who form the world in which it exists,’ so that ‘in our search for wealth and prosperity, we created a thing that’s going to destroy us.’ (Bakan, The Corporation, Constable, 2004, pp. 70-71)

This is the kind of honest, rational perspective that is routinely missing from corporate journalism on the economy. Elliott's work is no different in this important respect.

 

An Exchange With Larry Elliott

On February 2, 2011 we wrote to the Guardian’s economics editor:

Dear Larry Elliott

In your 2007 book, ‘Fantasy Island’, co-written with Dan Atkinson, you made the following astute observation about global warming and the economy:

‘Ministers accept that since the start of the industrial age 250 years ago, there has been a significant increase in global temperatures associated with human activities. Given the weight of scientific evidence, they can hardly do anything else. What they cannot accept, possibly because it is too difficult to do so politically, is that this means that the capitalist model to which pretty much every nation in the world is now committed is bankrupt.’ (p. 199)

You also rightly said that:

‘The fantasy that it can be business as usual on the growth front without boiling the planet is the most dangerous of them all.’ (p. 192)

But then yesterday, you wrote about the ‘good news’ in figures for ‘growth’ that may be a sign of ‘the long-awaited re-balancing of the British economy’. ('The economy's tricky re-balancing act', guardian.co.uk, February 1, 2011, 12.25 GMT)

Why is it that in your day job as economics editor of the Guardian, you continue to propagate a bankrupt model of capitalism – while as a book author you rightly denounce it as ‘bankrupt’ and the most dangerous fantasy of all?

David Cromwell

Elliott replied on the same day:

Dear David,

Many thanks for your email. There are, I think, three possible ways we can go. The first is to stick to business as usual, and assume that the planet can cope with India, China and all the other developing countries consuming as much as we do in the West. There are those who believe this is possible providing we increase productivity and use resources more efficiently. I find that hard to believe. At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who believe that the pressures are so great that the only way forward is to have zero - or perhaps even negative - growth. Even if that is the case, I think it will be impossible to sell politically. Equally, it may be pie-in-the-sky to imagine that the middle way - A Green New Deal - in which we attempt to cut dependency on fossil fuels, invest more heavily in renewables, and use the money from quantitative easing for environmentally-friendly projects - offers an alternative. I'm hopeful that it is possible to have low-intensity green growth, but I'm willing to accept that I might be wrong.

As for the differences between books and newspaper articles, I think there is a difference. As far as the chancellor was concerned, the fact that manufacturing was doing well and the economy showing signs of rebalancing, was good news and I feel obliged to report it that way. It would be a bit rum for me to give every story a ‘green’ slant, saying for example: ‘There was further bad news for Britain's carbon emissions today when a snapshot of industry showed output from factories on the rise’.

But, having said all that, I accept that I could be doing more to change perceptions of what ‘good’ means when it comes to the economy. I have done that on quite a few occasions.

Best wishes

Larry

On February 3, we wrote back:

Dear Larry,

Many thanks for kindly replying. I wasn’t actually asking which possible ways you think the global economy might go, although it’s interesting to read your thoughts.

The question is this: Why is there a gulf between your Guardian journalism on the one side and sustained critical analysis of corporate-led globalisation on the other side, together with the likely consequences of such a ‘bankrupt’ system for climate stability? Serious climate scientists are warning that we could be on the brink of runaway global warming.

I welcome you saying that you ‘could be doing more to change perceptions of what “good” means when it comes to the economy’. The intention is admirable. But on a daily basis, your role and journalistic output as economics editor of the Guardian helps to prop up the discredited status quo. There is too much routine channelling of ‘dangerous fantasies’ and misleading assumptions from establishment figures in the economic pages of the Guardian. Yes, on occasion, you make critical remarks about the economic system (albeit couched in mild terms about the need for ‘rebalancing’). But to what extent are you thereby serving a useful fig-leaf role on the paper as a – rather muted - voice of dissent?

Where is your brave reporting of the inherently biocidal and psychopathic logic of corporate capitalism? Where is your analysis of how the system is structurally locked into generating maximised revenues in minimum time at minimum cost? Where have you explained to your readers that corporations are legally obliged to maximise profits for shareholders, and that it is therefore illegal for corporations to prioritise the welfare of people and planet above private profit? How can this elementary fact of entrenched corporate immorality be so invisible in your reporting and in the Guardian as a whole; indeed, in any responsible discussion of the industrial destruction of global life-support systems?

If you were to pursue these questions openly and thoroughly in your journalism – as surely you should, given the stakes - you wouldn’t last long in your privileged position.

I’d be interested in seeing your thoughts in response to all of the above, please.

Best wishes

David

On February 7, Elliott responded:

Dear David,

I'm not sure there's much to add to my previous email. All sorts of people read the Guardian: free-market capitalists, Keynesians, Marxists, social democrats, liberals, greens. You want me to write for one specific audience - those that believe that ‘corporate capitalism’ is ‘inherently biocidal and psychopathic’. I'm not prepared to do that any more than I am prepared to cater exclusively to the Marxists who think that capitalism is about to be brought down by its own internal contradictions.

I am aware of the dangers of climate change and write about it often. But, I don't share your view. Firstly, there are many different variants of capitalism - German capitalism is different from US capitalism; Swedish capitalism is different from Indian capitalism - and to brand them all as biocidal and psychopathic seems to me a bit one-dimensional. Secondly, I don't accept that all growth is bad. Life was nasty, brutish and short in the days before the start of the industrial age, and I have no particular desire to go back to the times when people were lucky to live until they were 40, died of all sorts of preventable diseases and worked very long hours for little reward. I'm not sure the hundreds of millions of people in China and India who have been lifted out of poverty by growth in the past 20 years would accept that all growth is bad either. Finally, it is easy enough to have a pop at the evils of ‘corporate capitalism’, but a lot tougher to come up with a route map for arriving at an alternative. That's why I was a founder member of the Green New Deal Group.

I am grateful for your interest in the Guardian's economics coverage but I am not sure that I can add to what I have said in my two emails. Most readers only get one reply! if you have any further points to raise, it would probably be better if you addressed them to the editor, Alan Rusbridger, as he ultimately decides whether I stay in my job or no[t].

With very best wishes

Larry

 

Different Variants Of The Same Beast

We were grateful to Larry Elliott for responding at length and in a friendly manner. His thoughtful responses are worth looking at in more detail. Note that Elliott claimed:

‘You want me to write for one specific audience - those that believe that “corporate capitalism” is “inherently biocidal and psychopathic”.’

We were not asking Elliott to ‘write for one specific audience’ at all, a familiar retort from corporate journalists. The question is why he ignores a mountain of well-informed economic analysis and evidence exposing the inherent destructiveness of global capitalism.

We asked Joel Bakan to respond to Elliott’s point about the ‘many different variants of capitalism.’ In reply, Bakan told us that while his book and film focused on the Anglo-U.S. model of the corporation, his analysis was increasingly of worldwide relevance:

‘First, there is a trend towards greater homogeneity in corporate governance across the globe - less variation - as globalization progresses; and second, the homogenization works against the more social forms of capitalism that historically characterized other variants, including those of many continental European countries. Legal reforms at both the pan-European level and at the domestic level of many European countries are pushing in the direction of shareholder (as opposed to other stakeholder) primacy in corporate governance and decision-making. That, of course, is the model typical of Anglo-U.S. law, and it is the model that prompted me to dub the corporation “psychopathic.”’ (Email, February 16, 2011, our emphasis)

He continued:

‘As I argued in The Corporation, it is the requirement of corporate law that managerial decisions must always be in the corporation’s best interests that creates a purely self-interested character in the corporate “person” - one analogous to a human psychopath. As the Anglo-U.S. model of corporate governance becomes more widely-embraced across the globe, the corporation and capitalism themselves become one-dimensional, and in ways that justify the psychopath analogy. I find it surprising that the increasing hegemony of the shareholder-primacy model in corporate governance has not been picked up by mainstream (or alternative) media. It is a huge story. There is some academic writing on it but nothing that I am aware of in the popular media.’

Economist Harry Shutt is author of several books, including The Trouble with Capitalism and Beyond the Profits System. We asked him to comment on our email exchange with Elliott.

Shutt began by noting ‘the particularly desperate conjuncture at which the global economy has now arrived and the increasingly conflicted position of journalists, academics and others who still feel professionally obliged to go on trying to reconcile fantasy with reality - at least in their public pronouncements.’ (Email, February 13, 2011)

Shutt dismissed Elliott’s reference to ‘variants of capitalism’, calling it ‘an obvious smokescreen’, adding: ‘he has ignored your point about the compulsive need for corporations - whatever the “variant” of capitalism - to maximise profit at the expense of all other needs and interests. This can and does lead some of them to be genocidal as well as biocidal.’ (Email, February 15, 2011)

Shutt then described Elliott’s responses as comprising ‘rather familiar and cheap points’. He expanded:

‘e.g. his attempt to suggest that any attack on capitalism is by extension an attack on the benefits of industrialisation and modern technology (as if we could not in any event have had these without capitalism), or the “hundreds of millions of Indians and Chinese who have been lifted out of poverty by growth” without mentioning a) the fact that most of these still live very insecure lives because of the relentless competitive squeeze, b) the comparable numbers in other countries (e.g. Mexico) whose livelihoods have been destroyed by competition from China and c) the even greater number in India, China and elsewhere who have never been touched by this growth and remain sunk in permanent misery.’

In support of this latter point, economist David Harvey has observed that in China there is ‘a rising tide of unrest there as the worldwide economic downturn creating unwelcome and unaccustomed (in China) increases in unemployment (in early 2009 estimated to be close to 20 million unemployed) within a recently proletarianised population.’ (David Harvey, ‘The Enigma of Capital’, Profile Books, 2010, p. 66)

Shutt continued:

‘But surely the most contemptible cop-out of all is the tired refrain about the difficulty of “coming up with a route map” to an alternative system. The obvious riposte is that it might be much easier if only the Guardian or any other organ would allow such alternatives to be discussed. I'm perhaps more keenly aware of this constraint than most given that none of the four books I've written in the past 15 years has received anything resembling a serious review in a mainstream British paper - even though both LE [Larry Elliott] and Dan Atkinson have cited The Trouble with Capitalism on occasions, demonstrating that they're quite well aware of the pointers it gives to a possible alternative model.’ Shutt noted that the Guardian’s economics editor had difficulty in disputing the main charge levelled against him: ‘namely that, however terminally untenable he may know the system to be he cannot say as much in the paper without losing his “privileged position”. Indeed in finally referring you to the editor he effectively concedes the point.’

Shutt added: ‘All this of course just serves to underline the critique of our subtly totalitarian media that you at Media Lens - along with Chomsky and a few others - have been admirably hammering home for years. As you might say, Comment is Free (according to the Guardian), but Freedom is Slavery (Big Brother).’

Shutt ended with a well-aimed challenge to the fig-leaf journalists who, even now, justify participation in the corporate media propaganda system:

‘At what point do journalists like Larry Elliott who know how dire and unsustainable things have become decide they have nothing to lose by speaking out? Or, put another way, why aren't they more worried about the prospects for their families in a world sinking ever more palpably into chaos and anarchy? Perhaps they're just waiting for more people to take to the streets, hoping that they'll be as peaceful as the ones in Cairo.’

 

SUGGESTED ACTION

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: Larry Elliott, Guardian economics editor

Email: larry.elliott@guardian.co.uk

Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor

Email: alan.rusbridger@guardian.co.uk

Twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/arusbridger

Please blind-copy us in on any exchanges or forward them to us later at: editor@medialens.org

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