The Refusal To Publish Letters Is Just One More Example

“A giant oil company professes to take a ‘precautionary approach’ to global warming. A major agrochemical manufacturer trades in a pesticide so hazardous it has been banned in many countries while implying that the company is helping to feed the hungry… This is greenwash, where transnational companies are preserving and expanding their markets by posing as friends of the environment and leaders in the struggle to eradicate poverty.” (Kenny Bruno, Greenpeace Guide To Greenwash)

It’s Snowing Emails

On January 8 we published a Media Alert noting the Guardian newspaper’s hypocrisy in recommending measures to combat climate change while filling its own pages with car, aviation and other advertising. However, our criticisms focused on much more than just hypocrisy. We invited readers to write to the Guardian to address some fundamental issues:

“Why, in reporting the catastrophic effects of global warming, do you make no mention of the global corporate efforts to obstruct even trivial action on climate change and to destroy the environment movement? Why are these political and economic factors bringing mass death to our planet unworthy even of mention by you and your newspaper?”

Guardian environment correspondent Paul Brown reported being “snowed under” by emails. He told one reader his “email count had gone up to 20 an hour of similar letters attacking [sic] both me and the paper.” (Forwarded to Media Lens, January 21, 2004)

A large number of these letters were copied to both the editor and the letters page. Many focused specifically on the conflict of interest between honest reporting and dependence on big business advertising. For example:

“Dear Mr Brown,

Where am I to go for serious coverage and debate on the big issues of climate change and global warming?  Would the front page headline DEAD PLANET not sell a few papers?  Or are the airline, automotive and energy industries such big players that their muscle skews your angle on this topic?  As a dissatisfied consumer of your product could you do me the favour of clearing up once and for all what it is exactly that you produce: is it a platform for advertisers or a medium for serious, free-thinking analysis of the facts?

“Does it not irk you that while you scribble by beeswax candle light and resolve to take fewer baths, the transnational corporations pollute and plunder like never before?
[Name withheld]”  (Forwarded to Media Lens, January 11, 2004)

The media consistently claim to be open to all ideas and voices – people who think otherwise are told to “read the paper” or to pay closer attention. So how did the Guardian respond to arguments challenging its independence and honesty as an integral part of the corporate system?

Letters in response to the Guardian’s climate reporting were published on Friday, January 9, but not one mentioned the concerns described above that had poured into the paper’s inboxes on January 8. None of these letters appeared on Saturday, January 10, or on Monday, January 12.

On the afternoon of January 12 – four days after the original article on climate change had appeared – we emailed the Guardian’s readers’ editor, Ian Mayes. We outlined the substance of our January 8 Media Alert, and asked about the letters:

“Why was not one of these letters published on the letters page? We noticed that in following days the Guardian editors did find space for adverts for Citroen cars, Chrysler cars, Fiat cars, Toyota cars, flybmi.com, the easyJet sale – ‘every+one+ must go’ – and another full-page advert for ‘2 for 1 flights’.”

We received no response, but the next morning (January 13) the following letter appeared on the Guardian’s letters page:

“Headline on Thursday: ‘Global warming to kill off 1m species’; Friday: ‘Top Scientist attacks US over global warming’; Saturday: ‘2 for 1 offer on flights to the US.’ Joined-up thinking?”

It is supposed to be a given that the letters page honestly reflects a newspaper’s post bag. But this short letter on the lack of “joined-up thinking” at the Guardian, appearing five days after the original article, did not remotely reflect either the volume or critical content of the emails sent to the paper.

Did the Guardian simply censor these letters for fear that they might damage its credibility and/or the performance of the American Airlines “2 for 1” flights offer?

An alternative explanation might be that the Guardian felt that these letters were mere robotic responses to an ‘extreme pressure group’, and so did not qualify as authentic correspondence to the letters page.

There are two problems with this argument: first, a substantial number of letters forwarded to us were sent before and/or independently of our Media Alert. Secondly, the Guardian clearly +did+ feel that the large number of complaints merited a substantial response in the form of an article by the readers’ editor, Ian Mayes: ‘Flying in the face of the facts – The readers’ editor on promotion, pollution and the Guardian’s environment policies.’ (The Guardian, January 24, 2004, http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,3604,1130062,00.html)

A very obvious question arises, then: why did these scores of letters merit a column of this kind but zero representation on the letters page?

Mayes Serves Up A Liberal Herring

Bizarrely, Mayes’ article focused on the Guardian’s ‘green credentials’, on the fact that its journalists spent £520,000 on flights in 2002, on the prospect of the paper planting trees to compensate for these flights, and on the possibility of inviting readers to pay more for flights to cover the cost of compensatory tree planting.

This was a classic example of what we like to call a ‘liberal herring’ – the device whereby the liberal media focus intensely on comparatively trivial issues as an alternative to addressing issues that are damaging to powerful interests. The Guardian’s response was particularly disturbing to us because it was a perfect example, in microcosm, of how corporate cynics sought to neutralise the green movement throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Then, as now, sincere public concern was channelled into futile cul de sacs, with corporate power thereby freed to continue pursuing maximum profits in minimum time regardless of the cost to people and planet.

Mayes then wrote:

“To return to the promotional offer of two transatlantic flights for the price of one. The environment editor, and the environment and agriculture correspondent of the Guardian were among those who saw it as, to put it very mildly, completely in conflict with the Guardian’s editorial policies on global warming. They could perfectly understand its conveying an impression of hypocrisy on the paper’s part.”

But: “No one I have spoken to in the Guardian believes the curtailment of such offers, let alone airline advertising, is a serious option.”

Again, many letters did deal with the issue of hypocrisy. But the central issue was the undiscussed contradiction of a profit-driven corporate press reporting on disasters rooted in corporate greed.

On January 26, in response to Mayes’ greenwashing article, the Guardian published one letter from the CEO of Future Forests insisting there are “simple steps that we can all take to actively address the climate change and environmental impacts caused in our day-to-day lives”.

Planting forests is indeed a simple step. One might think, though, that an even more obvious response for an honest newspaper would be to offer a semblance of balance by publishing views challenging corporate ownership and control of the media itself – if only on the letters page.

In response to Mayes’ article, and the letter from Future Forests, we sent a third letter. This, too, has not been published.

We would like to express our thanks to the many readers who have written to the Guardian, providing a powerful example of how popular pressure can begin to haul previously taboo subjects onto the agenda.

Please read Ian Mayes’ response at the link provided above and write again to him, the letters page and the editor (see Suggested Action below for sample letters).

Some readers might wonder at our motivation in continually bothering the press in this way: are we nuts?! Are we just grumpy malcontents with chips on our shoulders?

Consider that predictions of the extinction of fully 25% of our world’s species by 2050 have already vanished from the media’s radar. If experts had warned that nuclear terrorism threatened 25% of the world’s species, politicians, think tanks and other state-corporate interests would have been frantically discussing the issue. The media would have responded with endless front-page articles, high-profile commentaries and reporting. But an honest appraisal of the causes of, and solutions to, climate change is deeply threatening to the powerful interests that dominate politics and media. And so the media is happy to let the most appalling threat of our time drift quietly into the shadows.

Our motivation, very simply, is that we believe that our lives, the lives of our children, indeed of much animal and plant life on this planet, are in grave danger. We believe, further, that the means of mobilising popular support for action to prevent this catastrophe – the mass media – is fatally compromised and in effect silenced by its very structure, nature and goals.

This is no joke; it is not some kind of power-baiting game played out for fun. The drastic limit on rational free speech in response to potentially terminal problems has to be exposed, challenged and changed, or there may well be no future for any of us. We need to pressure the corporate media, and also to build and support not-for-profit alternatives as rapidly as possible.


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 Guardian readers’ editor Ian Mayes:

Email: [email protected]

Preferably using your own words, ask him:

How can you justify your article, ‘Flying in the face of the facts’, in response to scores of complaints from readers? Many people wrote complaining of the Guardian’s silence on corporate obstruction of action on climate change, and many challenged the Guardian’s impartiality given its dependence on advertising revenue. Your article focused merely on the Guardian’s in-house green credentials, and on the charge of hypocrisy, while making no mention whatever of these far more serious topics. The primary issue we are seeking to raise for discussion is this: How can a profit-driven corporate press – one that is an integral part of the wider, climate-bashing corporate system – possibly be an impartial source reporting on the devastation wrought by that same system?

Write to Paul Brown at the Guardian.

Email: [email protected]

Ask him:

How do you explain the fact that not one of the scores of emails sent to you and copied to the letters page have been published by the Guardian? Is this not, itself, a good example of the way in which important facts and ideas are prevented from interfering with corporate media priorities, including advertiser sensitivities?

Write to Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger:

Email: [email protected]

And, very importantly, the Letters Page:

Email: [email protected]