Update: Liberal Herrings Part 1 – The Guardian’s John Vidal Responds on Climate Coverage

On July 4, 2002, Media Lens issued a media alert update titled ‘Climate of Silence‘:

We suggested that Media Lens readers contact Michael McCarthy and John Vidal – the environment editors of The Independent and The Guardian, respectively – to ask why their newspapers provide such minimal and skewed coverage of the likely disastrous impacts of human-induced climate change, the work of climate campaigners, the intense lobbying of politicians by big business, the massive sums of public monies that subsidise the fossil fuel industries, and the inadequacy of the Kyoto Protocol. As far as we are aware, The Independent’s McCarthy has not responded to any emails from Media Lens editors or readers.

On July 4, Media Lens editor David Cromwell received this response from The Guardian’s environment editor, John Vidal:

Dear David,

I think it would be a notion (should you want to play fairly in these exchanges) to send your subscribers the full email that I sent John Smith [name changed to preserve anonymity], one of your subscribers, after he sent me a letter on your suggestion to get people to write to me. I include it below. As I said to him, if you have any specific ideas what we should be doing or how we should be covering global warming, or if you want to come and have a chat, then call me and we’ll talk.

(I have just done a search on our archives and found that since 1985 we have done more than 3,500 articles on global warming – something like 200 a year. As we only publish on about 300 days a year, that’s not far short of 1 a day. That said, some of those could have been just throwaway lines which come up in searches.)

As a valued contributor, I find your comments a bit wild. But I enjoyed your book [Private Planet].

Best wishes


PS John Smith wrote back very sympathetically saying he never read the Guardian and had no idea about our coverage of global warming. But he made some good points about the role of newspapers generally.

John Vidal then enclosed a copy of the email that he’d sent to a Media Lens reader on May 29, 2002:

Dear John Smith,

Sorry not to get back to you before, but I have been away. You and several others linked to the Media Lens website have sent me emails, all asking roughly the same question.

It’s hard to know where to start, and I dont want to be defensive, but i do think that if you’ve read the Guardian over the past 10 years you would know that we have covered climate change pretty well, if not comprehensively. Of all the environment debates, including GM foods, and going back, roads, nuclear, ozone holes etc, it has been the one which we return too most often and take the most seriously.

Paul Brown, our environment correspondedent, takes the lead on writing global warming pieces. He’s written books about it (literally) and, from looking at the archives, he writes on average, one piece a week. They range from straight news reporting of conferences, scientific papers etc, through to feature and investigative pieces.

Paul and I share environment coverage, and I lead on other topics, like food and water, transport, animals and some international issues like the role of companies. and aid/ trade. Obviously, there is a vast range of subjects and concerns about the environment and the global debate spins around a lot. As environment editor I have only contributed 36 pieces in the past two years, but in mitigation I have commissioned tens of thousands of words about the debate for the environment pages.

As well as Paul and I, writers like George Monbiot (columnist) , Tim Radford, (science editor), Madeleine Bunting (leaders), Larry Elliott (economics editor), Ros Coward (columnist), numerous freelances, including Michael Meacher (minister), Jonathon porritt (ex foe), Tony Juniper (Foe), Jeremy Leggett (solar century), Greenepace people, investigative writers like Andy Rowell, groups like the RSPB, industry leaders and others have all had long articles. On top of that our website has heaps of pieces….

It’s not just a commitment to sitting in the office. We have sent people to four continents to report the issues and the all the major global and national conferences. We have had long pieces from the pacific islands, from the Himalayas, Switzerland, Africa, South America and almost everywhere else I can think of. Almost all express concern or fear over what is happening . We’re also trying to make the links between it and other areas. It’s been the subject of some of our modest country diary pieces from all over Britain, in our coverage of floods, famine, travel, disasters, deforestataion, gardening, architecture, the arts. It’s been addressed in energy and budget supplements. I even once recall it in a football column, but they slighhtly missed the point.

We followed the Exxon saga, the rise and fall of the Global Climate coalition, the corruption of Bush and the US administration by the oil companies.

We’ve come at it from different angles, too. I have to say that we have had, over the years, considerable pieces from contrarians and controversialists like Bjorn Lomborg, John Mortimer, Fred Singer, Philip Stott, Dennis Avery and our parliamentary sketchwriter, all of whom insist there is little or no problem. It’s part of the tradition of British journalism to let others have a say. We may not agree with them, but it often helps to have people with totally opposing points of view, or “scientific” analysis, to have a go, too.

In short, I can barely think of an aspect of the debate we have not covered and some of our colleagues think that we are obsessed with it.

If you can think of something we should address, please let me know. Meanwhile you ask a lot of other broader questions, which I won’t answer in such depth just because I’d be here from now till next week. No, we’re not perfect. Yes, we are a mainstream paper, and we do report what politicians say, because they purport to make decisions in our name and so they must be accountable. BUT, in and amongst the acreas of space I know we devote to mainstream politics, we have of all British papers, tried to listen to and reflect the arguments of others.

So, we have had long debates about free trade, privatisation, debt, the rise of the “anti-globalisation’ groups, neo-liberal economics, patenting, etc etc. Our weekly paper translates the whole of Le Monde Diplomatique which leads many of these debates in Europe, I have written (books) about McDonalds, and we have covered Monsanto, Enron, Exxon, Shell, etc for years. We led the debate about Seattle, GM foods, etc….George Monbiot, Naomi Klein, Arundhati Roy, Jeremy Rifkin, Vandana Shiva, are all regular columnists.

You ask, too, why we leave investigations to non government groups. Not true. At any one point we have two or three major investigations on the go, into everything from political contributions to tax-dodging, Saudi torture, water privatisations, etc etc. It costs us about 1m a year just to employ lawyers to make sure we don’t end up in the libel courts and go out of business compeletely. Yes we work sometimes with Greenpeace, Amnesty, Global Witness and others, but this is a good arrangement for us and them.

Yes, we can do more and yes, it’s a struggle. I am sorry if you’re disappointed. If you’re really interested, please come in and have a chat.

Best wishes


By the way, here’s just a potted inventory of some of the global warming/climate change pieces in the past two years from Paul Brown and myself. If you want any of the others shout.

4 May 2002: The Guardian – Page 11 – (416 words)
US dashes hopes for climate deal
By: Paul Brown Environment correspondent

* * *
26 Apr 2002: The Guardian – Page 6 – (579 words)
World’s weather hotter than ever: Temperatures in the south of England will resemble Bordeaux in France by 2080, say scientists, and most of Britain will be snow-free
By: Paul Brown Environment correspondent [Long list cut here]


Media Lens is grateful that John Vidal took the trouble to respond in depth, and we are pleased to include his reply here. Our response follows. (As we will see in Part Two of this alert, we emailed John Vidal directly on 10th July. A month later there has been no further reply from him, though he may well be away and/or have pressing deadlines.)

Dear John,

Many thanks for your polite and friendly reply. It makes a refreshing change from the curt, silent or abusive response that Media Lens generally receives from mainstream journalists!

You write:

“It’s hard to know where to start, and I dont want to be defensive, but i do think that if you’ve read the Guardian over the past 10 years you would know that we have covered climate change pretty well, if not comprehensively.”

Media Lens does not dispute that The Guardian has drawn attention to the mounting scientific evidence of climate change and the warnings of coming catastrophe. But The Guardian has failed to emphasise the true seriousness of the crisis, the extraordinary scale of opposition to tackling the problem, and the fundamental contradiction between state-corporate goals – endless and maximal increasing of profits in the shortest possible time – and action on climate change. The Guardian has also done nothing to draw attention to the pivotal problem that the media organisations responsible for raising awareness of these issues with the public are themselves profit-seeking corporations utterly bonded with the foot-to-the-floor status quo, owned by corporate moguls and/or parent companies, and dependent on them for 75% of their revenues.

An excellent example of The Guardian’s true failure is indicated by your highlighting the fact that you have covered “the rise and fall of the Global Climate coalition [GCC]”.

The GCC has always been what we call a ‘liberal herring’ – a seemingly ‘worthy’ story which, far from challenging power, actually diverts attention away from genuinely important and damaging issues. (The lavish coverage afforded to Camp X-Ray on Cuba is another classic liberal herring, distracting attention from the West’s very real responsibility for the mass death of Afghan civilians).

Focusing on the GCC has given the impression that climate change obstructionism is confined to a handful of goggle-eyed fossil fuel fundamentalists machinating on the margins of respectable corporate society. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Guardian has never, not once, mentioned the true scale of business opposition to even trivial action on climate change. Consider, for example, the following letter sent by The National Association of Manufacturers – representing just about every large corporation in the United States – to George W. Bush in May 2001:

“Dear Mr. President:

On behalf of 14,000 member companies of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) – and the 18 million people who make things in America – thank you for your opposition to the Kyoto Protocol on the grounds that it exempts 80 percent of the world and will cause serious harm to the United States.” (Michael E. Baroody, NAM Executive Vice President, Letter to the President Concerning the Kyoto Protocol, May 16, 2001, http://www.nam.org)

The GCC is small beer indeed beside the vast influence of the NAM. The equally powerful US Chamber of Commerce has mounted near-identical campaigns designed with the express purpose of killing Kyoto. In a letter to the newly elected US president, George W. Bush, the US Chamber wrote:

“Global warming is an important issue that must be addressed – but the Kyoto Protocol is a flawed treaty that is not in the U.S. interest… The U.S. Chamber agrees with your Administration’s assessment – greater scientific understanding of global warming is necessary to resolve uncertainty concerning the potential affect of human activity on this phenomenon. Further research is needed to develop the best strategies to tackle this problem.” (http://www.uschamber.org July 19, 2001)

In other words, most of big business, not just the GCC (now defunct), is virulently opposed to action on climate change. The Guardian has never discussed this, to our knowledge. It has never pointed to the insane fundamentalism of this level of opposition – Kyoto demands a trivial 5% cuts on greenhouse gas emissions, when in the region of 60-70% are required to stabilise the climate. If you select any day, any month and any year at the Guardian Unlimited website, you will find that, since September 1, 1998, The Guardian and The Observer have managed four mentions of the NAM and five mentions of the US Chamber between them. Not one of these mentions relates to the issue of climate change.

You write that your colleague, Paul Brown, “takes the lead on writing global warming pieces”. How knowledgeable is he on this central issue of massive business opposition to all serious action? Brown has made the remarkable claim that “perhaps the brightest spot in a gloomy picture has been the extraordinary turnaround in the views of big business [on global warming]… With the exception of some US oil companies with Exxon/Mobil (Esso in Europe) top of the list, the business community is reacting rapidly to the threat of global warming.” (“Melt Down”, The Guardian, July 18, 2001; http://society.guardian.co.uk/societyguardian/story/0,7843,523030,00.html )

Brown is correct, but not in the way he intends. It is little consolation to Guardian readers that Brown has written books about climate change and that “he writes on average, one piece a week”, when he gets it exactly wrong, in this way.

Another good example of the deceptiveness of your claims concerns The Guardian’s honourable mentions of the US National Academy of Sciences’ warning earlier this year of a possible climate holocaust, perhaps within the next ten years. The warnings were mentioned in just two articles: Jeremy Rifkin, ‘Goodbye cruel world, A report by top US scientists on climate change suggests that catastrophe could be imminent’, March 1, 2002, http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,3604,659873,00.html; and Michael Meacher, ‘The global warning Bush must heed – The US has to rejoin the climate talks if disaster is to be averted’, May 16, 2002, http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,3604,716256,00.html.

These reports had much merit, but after they appeared the story was simply dropped. The source of the warning could not be more credible, the severity of the warning could not be more extreme. No one can say exactly how much attention should have been afforded to such a horrific warning by such a respectable body of scientists, but it should surely have been front page news. Moreover, it should have initiated a major focus on the threat of global warming – on how corporate power, allied with corporate-controlled governments, protected by corporate owned media, are obstructing action on climate change.

The whole farce could have been exposed – but for the fact, of course, that The Guardian, like the rest of the mainstream, is very much part of the farce. Your paper devoted 2,068 words to this story; that you do not consider this a terrible failure astonishes us. Why, as a reasonable, honest and concerned individual, do you not join with us in condemning your paper’s performance on this vital issue? Do you fear for your own career? If so, we would remind you of Howard Zinn’s words with regards to university employment and honesty in times of crisis:

“In a situation where one’s job is within someone else’s power to grant or to withhold, still… there is the possibility of choice. The choice is between teaching and acting according to our most deeply felt values, whether or not it meets approval from those with power over us – or being dishonest with ourselves, censoring ourselves, in order to be safe.” (Zinn, The Cold War & The University – Towards an Intellectual History of the Postwar Years, in Noam Chomsky et al, The New Press, 1997, p.51)

The essence of your argument, and the reality that lies behind it, is familiar to us. The Guardian does mention important and controversial issues, but only in passing. Occasional gestures in the direction of truth are no replacement for consistently honest and independent free press reporting. The Guardian reserves its serious attention and coverage to issues that fall within the bounds of ‘acceptable’ and ‘responsible’ discussion, as defined by powerful vested interests. This is a disaster for all of us. The fact that trivia-packed journalism is as normal as the air we breathe does not make it less of a disaster. The fact that acquiescent and/or complacent journalists view themselves as an honourable intellectual elite while being blind to the truth also does not make it less of a disaster.

For example, in January this year, The Guardian mentioned that 100 Afghan refugees were dying every day in Maslakh refugee camp, at that time the largest refugee camp on earth. This, also, was an admirable mention of suffering for which the US and UK governments bore very real responsibility. But a search we did at the time (January 3, 2002, Media Alert – The Media Ignores The Mass Death Of Civilians In Afghanistan); http://www.Media Lens.org/alerts/020103_de_Afghanistan.html) showed that, since September 11, the Guardian had mentioned the holocaust of Maslakh just twice – an average of once every two months. By contrast, between April and June 1999, The Guardian mentioned the plight of 65,000 Kosovan refugees stranded at Brace on Macedonia’s border with Kosovo 48 times – an average of once every two days. By contrast to Maslakh, the suffering at Brace could be blamed on our official enemy, Slobodan Milosevic.

The Guardian’s version of a fig-leaf free press performance is everywhere to be found.

Julian Borger of The Guardian has mentioned the links between the current Bush administration and the arms industry, even mentioning that these links are a driving force behind the earmarking of some $238 billion over the next 15-25 years on the futile and unworkable National Missile Defence system (NMD). But, again, we found that over the last three years, Borger has written 53 articles mentioning missile defence, with 23 articles including a mention of NMD. Just three of these directly state the role of big business in driving NMD. As of May 20, 2002, the Guardian/Observer had published 859 articles mentioning the phrase “missile defence”. Of these, 25 mentioned Boeing, the main arms contractor for the NMD system. We found 16 mentions of “missile defence and Lockheed Martin”, and 7 mentions of “missile defence and Raytheon”. (May 22, 2002, Media Alert: Burying Big Business – The Guardian, National Missile Defence And Climate Change; http://www.Media Lens.org/alerts/020522_de_Big_Business.html)

We could give other examples. Most recently (July 26, 2002 Media Lens Alert: Conspiracy-Free Conformity; http://www.Media Lens.org/alerts/020726_Mainstream_Conformity.htm) we reported how two honest commentators with the power to expose the destructiveness of corporate domination – Noam Chomsky and John Pilger – have been treated by The Guardian and The Observer. Again, they have both appeared in your papers, giving the superficial appearance that the Guardian is a friend of freedom. But Pilger has appeared just four times in the Guardian since 1999 and once in the Observer. Chomsky has also appeared four times in The Guardian/Observer, since September 1998. Since September 11 (in fact since October 1999), The Guardian/Observer has published one article by Chomsky, the world’s best-read writer on international politics. At a time of major world crisis and horror, perhaps the greatest dissident ever to have lived has been almost completely shunned by papers that are supposed to be guardians of free speech and honest reporting.

In Part 2 of this alert, we respond to John Vidal’s request for suggestions on what is to be done.


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Write to John Vidal, environment editor of The Guardian. Ask him why his paper has never reported the crucial role of giant industry bodies – the US National Association of Manufacturers and the US Chamber of Commerce – in opposing even trivial action on climate change. Ask him if he truly believes that a total of 2,068 words on the US National Academy of Sciences’ warnings of a possible approaching climate catastrophe is sufficient?

Email: [email protected]

Copy your emails to, or ask similar questions of, Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian:

Email: [email protected]

And Ian Mayes, the Guardian’s readers’ editor:

Email: [email protected]