David Edwards interview with Alan Rusbridger

David Edwards (DE): “There’s a radical analysis of the media which says that wealthy owners, parent companies, advertisers, and the profit orientation of the media, act as filters that tend to remove facts and ideas that are damaging to powerful corporate and state interests. Is that an argument you’re aware of? Is it something you’d agree with?”

Alan Rusbridger (AR): “Say it again.”

DE: “Basically, one radical analysis of the media is that the pressures of advertising, of wealthy owners and parent companies, have an effect similar to filtering, so that facts and ideas that are damaging to powerful advertisers and powerful parent companies, and so on, tend to be filtered from press reporting.”

(7 second pause)

AR: “Um, I’m sure there is a… (6 second pause) that the pressures of ownership on newspapers is, is pretty important, and it works in all kinds of subtle ways – I suppose ‘filter’ is as good a word as any; the whole thing works by a kind of osmosis. 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.”

DE: “That’s right, it’s just understood.”

AR: “It’s understood. I think that does work, and obviously the general interests of most of the people who own newspapers are going to be fairly conventional, pro-business, interests. So, you know, I’m sure that is broadly true, yes.”

DE: “Does this then explain why this analysis hasn’t appeared in the press? Have you ever seen a systemic analysis…?”

AR: “There was an awful lot of that stuff published in the 80s and early 90s.”

DE: “Really?”

AR: “Well I think it was written about so widely that it’s almost standard in any media studies course now.”

DE: “Because I’ve never seen it in the mainstream press myself.”

AR: “It doesn’t get written about a lot in the mainstream press, but I mean, you know, for obvious reasons. But there’s a lot of it in books…”

DE: “Isn’t it astonishing, given the importance of the issue – the pressure of advertisers, wealthy owners and parent companies – shouldn’t that be a fundamental point of discussion where the media is concerned in the mainstream press?”

AR: “Yes, but, I mean, I agree, but you can sort of understand the reasons why, why it doesn’t happen.”

DE: “So it’s not able to be discussed?”

(8-9 second pause)

AR: “Um…”

DE: “I mean could you discuss it if you wanted to?”

AR: “Oh yes. I would say it’s something we do fairly regularly. But then we’ re not owned by a… We’re owned by a trust; we haven’t got a proprietor. So we’re in a sort of unique position of being able to discuss this kind of stuff.”

DE: “Right. But otherwise you think that’s the reason it’s not discussed?”

AR: “Yeah.”

DE: “Aren’t the implications of that absence extraordinary for the idea that we’ve got a free press, then?”

AR: “Um, well, no press in the world is completely free by that definition. But, I mean I think the British press is comparatively free, though it works within a fairly constrained consensus.”

DE: “Yes. In December 1999, Richard Ingrams wrote in the Observer, ‘When the newspapers are obviously doing so well out of all this [mobile phone] 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.’ Do you think that’s true?”

AR: “No. No. I think there have been endless scare stories about mobile phones. I say ‘scare stories’ – endless stories about mobile phones and the dangers, and the problem is that the scientists themselves can’t agree on whether they +are+ dangerous or not. But I think if you did a search of newspaper archives, you’d find an awful lot of stuff on mobile phones.”

DE: “Is it something you’re aware of when you’re discussing a story, or do you think other editors are aware of? If a newspaper pushed the evidence on mobile phone health effects, would they lose advertising as a result, do you think?”

(6 second pause)

AR: “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.”

DE: “So that would be an issue for them?”

AR: “Yeah.”

DE: “Right. This radical analysis talks about broader facts and issues that are damaging to powerful interests. And Greg Palast, again in the Observer last year, 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.’ Now I saw that discussed by Palast in the Observer, but I didn’t see much about it anywhere else. Did you see a lot reported on that?”

AR: “I didn’t, myself.”

DE: “Isn’t that extraordinary, again, given that basically his argument is that US corporations – it wasn’t a Cold War phenomenon – that US corporations put Pinochet in power to protect their interests? He was under house arrest for 18 months. Isn’t it remarkable that it wasn’t discussed? Was it not discussed for the same reasons that an analysis of the press isn’ t discussed?”

AR: “I can’t say whether that’s true or not; I just simply don’t know. My impression is that that whole Allende era, and the end of Allende, has been fairly well trawled over.”

DE: “But not the role of US corporations.”

AR: “Yeah, including that.”

DE: “But you said you didn’t see much on it yourself.”

AR: “Well, not in the last 6 months, but I don’t know how well that was trawled over. I don’t know whether Greg was working from new material that he’d turned up, or whether he was repeating stuff that was well established.”

DE: “Well it’s fairly well established I think, isn’t it?”

AR: “Yeah, in which case I imagine it’s been fairly well reported.”

DE: “Except that, like you, the only place I saw it was in the Observer.”

AR: “Yeah.”

DE: “The British historian Mark Curtis says that if you analyse post-1945 interventions, you find that US and British foreign policy is actually – under a pretext of Cold War anti-communism – they were actually interventions to support Western corporate interests in places like Guatemala, Indonesia, Iran, and so on. Is that an argument you’re aware of?”

AR: “Say it again.”

DE: “That a lot of post-war US and British interventions have been sold to the public as anti-communist interventions, but were in fact in defence of corporate interests in the Third World.”

AR: “Yes, I think that’s been written about a lot as well.”

DE: “Well, Mark Curtis, a historian who has analysed this, says it’s virtually never discussed in the mainstream press, that it just can’t be discussed there.”

AR: “Well I don’t know, I don’t know if you’re a regular reader of the Guardian. We discuss those kinds of things pretty regularly. If you read any columns by John Vidal, or George Monbiot, and the reporting of people like Julian Borger… It’s fairly well trawled over, I think. Again I can only speak for the Guardian, and that may well hold for papers like the Telegraph, who would have a different analysis of the world.”

DE: “So you don’t think it’s subject to the same kind of pressures that a discussion of the free press is subject to? Isn’t it the same problem really?”

AR: “Well, I guess if you’ve got… A paper like the Telegraph has a completely different political analysis of the world. How much you want to put that down to the fact that it’s owned by Conrad Black, or the fact that its readership is basically conservative, so that people are drawn to work for the Telegraph because they buy into a conservative analysis. I don’t know if it’s that, or the fact that Conrad Black owns it and encourages that sort of thing – it’s probably a bit of each.”

DE: “Isn’t there a broader problem, the press has the same basic set of…?”

AR: “Well there’s clearly an imbalance in the press on all kinds of issues. On unilateral disarmament, at one point – you’d have to check the figures – but it was sort of 30 or 40% support for that in the British public as a whole, and not one paper had a unilateral disarmament position. The republican position at the moment in Britain is supported by about 30% of the opinion polls, but not 30% of the press. So there is an imbalance between them on the opinions of the press [sic – people?] and the balance of the politics of the press.”

DE: “What would stop you analysing the pressures on the free press of advertisers and corporate flak machines and so on? What would stop you doing it?”

AR: “I don’t think anything would stop +us+. I think we do.”

DE: “But you said it isn’t done ‘for obvious reasons’ earlier.”

AR: “It’s pretty obvious that the Telegraph is not going to run a heap of pieces about the malign influence of proprietors. So you can see why they feel constrained from discussing that.”

DE: “But you seemed to be suggesting that it applies to the press generally. Doesn’t it apply to the Guardian as well?”

AR: “That we don’t discuss these things?”

DE: “That you’re under pressure not to discuss them as well.”

AR: “No.”

DE: “So why haven’t you discussed them?”

AR: “Well, I think we +do+ (laughs). My feeling is… it’s not news…”

DE: “But you said yourself that you’ve never seen a systemic analysis.”

AR: “No, not in papers owned by newspapers [sic], I haven’t. But I could take you back through ten years of the Guardian and I could find numerous articles on this theme.”

DE: “Really? I’ve never seen it. I’ve seen articles on Murdoch owning too much of the pie and…”

AR: “Roy Greenslade writes about the influence of proprietors. Polly Toynbee – it’s one of her favourite themes; she writes about it a lot. I’ve written about it a lot in leaders. We’ve done a double-page spread today on whether Richard Desmond should be the owner of the Express. We’re always writing about the Daily Mail, the Sunday Times, the Telegraph, the Spectator, the Times.”

DE: “But the thing that I miss, which I see in radical books and radical magazines, is, rather than looking at individual media entities, actually looking at the corporate nature of the press as a whole, which would mean a certain amount of self criticism and self analysis, wouldn’t it?”

AR: “Well, I mean, if you say so. We’re owned by a trust, so we haven’t got a proprietor, and I don’t think we’re subject to the [indistinguishable]. If that was truly a factor behind what we wrote, then I’d be spiking a lot of stuff that’s actually getting in the paper. I mean it just never enters my mind.”

DE: “No, I’m not suggesting it’s a conscious thing. But isn’t it simply understood that if you +really+ were heavily critical of corporations and the whole corporate system…?”

AR: “But we +are+… Honestly! (laughs)… We write about world debt, the whole Seattle agenda, Larry Elliot’s economic analysis – every week he writes about these issues. I don’t feel we’re being constrained in what we write. We’ve got at least two members of the Socialist Workers Party writing regularly for us, so I don’t think the notion that there’s a narrow political consensus on the Guardian is right. But what you’re saying about a lot of papers clearly +is+ right.”

DE: “I’ve been a Guardian reader for probably 15 years, and there were a couple of discussions on press freedom about 5 or 6 years ago, but even those criticised the press for being too cynical, or too sensationalist, but the actual problem of a corporate press in a world dominated by corporations…”

AR: “Perhaps it’s because it’s such a sort of old problem. It’s like female circumcision: how many times can people get round to writing about it? Maybe it’s time to do it again.”

DE: “Yes, and actually look at the performance of the media system in a logical way and ask, well how does it stack up? And especially in the age of globalisation, I mean the power of corporations has increased dramatically; it seems an obvious thing…”

AR: “I will, I will think about it.”