The Guardian’s Paul Brown Replies Again

Following our recent update (January 20), we have received a further response from the Guardian’s environment correspondent, Paul Brown:

“Dear Media Lens, Glad to know you have looked at the book. A lot of those companies have since resigned from the Climate Change Coalition, but you can see from David Gow’s piece on the city pages today the leopard has not really change his spots. There are a lot of issues here, but frankly I do not think that the adversising point is a good one. Years ago we had a long battle with Ford which refused to advertise for (I think) 10 years because of a piece we carried attacking them. Since then companies have written to the editor asking various journalists to be removed, I know I have been one of them, and the Guardian has simply ignored them. I am not aware of any example of companies in the last five years pulling ads because they have been attacked, and internally I have never known a journalist pulling his/her punches because of advertising, still less being asked to do so by the management. That does not mean we are not heavily reliant on ads, we are.

“There are lots of journalists here, like people everywhere else, who either try not to think about the impact climate will soon have on their lives and their children, or have genuinely not got the message. There are others who argue that we need a mix of stories to keep the readership happy, reflecting their interests. As I think I said before we need to be commercially viable to survive.

“Keep reading the paper and you will a lot about this – especially the regrettable 2 for 1 offer. I was as appalled by that as you were and have made my feelings clear, Paul Brown” (Email to Media Lens, January 20, 2004)

Dear Paul

Once again we very much respect and appreciate your willingness to discuss these issues with us – many thanks. Please do not imagine that we are intending to blame individual journalists like yourself for problems inherent to the corporate mass media system as a whole. We know that many of you are doing the best you can in very difficult circumstances. Our goal is to support honest journalism by raising public awareness of just how restrictive these circumstances are.

When we discuss the range of influences filtering media content – the corporate nature, goals and ownership of the media, dependence on advertising, vulnerability to corporate flak, reliance on official news sources, the impact of patriotism, and so on – journalists invariably select just one of these and reject them on the basis that they know of no one who has, for example, pulled their punches in response to a phone call from advertisers. We received near-identical comments from Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow:

“Well where are these pressure coming from – identify them for me? I can tell you if somebody rings me up from Pepsi-Cola – and I must say I don’t think I’ve ever been rung by any corporation, would that I was! – I’d give them short shrift!” (Interview with David Edwards, January 9, 2001. See articles/interviews, www.Media Lens.org)

In other words: ‘It doesn’t happen in a crude, conspiratorial way – I don’t see it, I don’t hear of it, I’m not aware of it – so it’s not a problem.’

Your editor, Alan Rusbridger, gave another interesting example in an interview with us:

“Um, I’m sure there is a… 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.” (Interview with David Edwards, December 22, 2000, articles/interviews, www.Media Lens.org)

What was so interesting was that Rusbridger accepted the basic premise of our argument – that journalistic compromise and conformity can occur in the absence of conscious awareness and conspiracies – and yet he conveniently referred only to the pressures of ownership, from which he feels the Guardian is uniquely free. In other words, Rusbridger was himself filtering out all the other factors compromising the Guardian’s performance, which he preferred not to discuss or even recognise. And as he pointed out: he didn’t have to be told what to ignore.

Bottom line and other corporate pressures quite obviously have a vast impact on the thoughts and actions of journalists, and indeed on which journalists are selected for employment in the first place.

In his book, Disciplined Minds, American physicist and editor Jeff Schmidt describes how professionals throughout society come to promote an elite agenda. The whole process of selection, training and qualification, Schmidt argues, ensures that professionals internalise the basic understanding that they should not “question the politics built into their work”. (Schmidt, Disciplined Minds, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000, p.16)

Schmidt adds:

“Professionalism – in particular the notion that experts should confine themselves to their ‘legitimate professional concerns’ and not ‘politicise’ their work – helps keep individual professionals in line by encouraging them to view their narrow technical orientation as a virtue, a sign of objectivity rather than of subordination.” (p.204)

Psychologist Daniel Goleman argues that this subordination is often based on an entirely sincere form of self-deception. Goleman talks of “schemas” – frameworks of understanding which people seek to protect from conflicting facts, experiences and ideas:

“My belief is that people in groups by and large come to share a vast number of schemas, most of which are communicated without being spoken of directly. Foremost among these shared, yet unspoken, schemas are those that designate what is worthy of attention, how it is to be attended to – and what we choose to ignore or deny… People in groups also learn together how not to see – how aspects of shared experience can be veiled by self-deceits held in common.” (Goleman, Vital Lies, Simple Truths – The Psychology of Self-Deception, Bloomsbury 1997, p.158)

Goleman adds:

“The ease with which we deny and dissemble – and deny and dissemble to ourselves that we have denied or dissembled – is remarkable.”

Indeed it is. You write, for example, of the Guardian’s American Airlines “2 for 1” flights offer: “I was as appalled by that as you were and have made my feelings clear.”

But what about the Guardian’s adverts on the same days for Citroen, Chrysler, Fiat, BMW, Toyota, Audi, Lexus, flybmi.com, the easyJet sale – “every+one+ must go” – Office World, HSBC, Debenhams, Freeserve, MFI, Dixons, B&Q and Magnet? Have you made your feelings clear about these? Your outrage in response to a particular advert makes no sense to us.

Nobody tells Guardian journalists not to write articles and leaders condemning this insane corporate stoking of the fires of climate change. Nobody tells them not to write leaders condemning the values of mass consumerism, not to investigate the role of these businesses in blocking action on climate change through bodies like the US National Association of Manufacturers. It’s just understood because, as you say: “we need to be commercially viable to survive”.

US press critic, George Seldes, made the point bluntly in the 1930s:

“The most stupid boast in the history of present-day journalism is that of the writer who says, ‘I have never been given orders; I am free to do as I like’. We scent the air of the office. We realise that certain things are wanted, certain things unwanted.” (US press critic, George Seldes, quoted Extra! November/December 1995)

You claim that when Ford pulled its adverts it had no effect. But of course it did. The Guardian might be able to withstand the loss of one major contract of this kind, but do you really think the editors were not keenly aware of the catastrophic price they could pay for criticising other corporations in a similar way?

But let’s assume for a moment that you are correct, that a newspaper’s dependence on advertising does not influence the selection of journalists, stories and emphases – that journalists are somehow immune to pressure from interests on which they depend for their survival. The problem still remains of the distorting effects of advertising on the objectivity of +readers+.

In his book, The High Price of Materialism, Tim Kasser, Professor of Psychology at Knox College, has collated research from around the world indicating:

“When people place a strong emphasis on consuming and buying, earning and spending, thinking of the monetary worth of things, and thinking of things a great deal of the time, they may also become more likely to treat people like things.” (Kasser, The High Price Of Materialism, MIT Press, 2002, p.67)

More broadly, materialism of this kind “conflicts with valuing the characteristics of strong relationships (loyalty, helpfulness, love) and with caring about the broader community (peace, justice, equality)”. Researchers have found that exposure to advertising promotes a state of mind that is “less concerned with socially oriented activities” and is, for example, “unconcerned with, or actively hostile towards, nature”.

In other words, adverts promising happiness through holidays, cars, kitchens and gadgets, have the effect of making occasional reports of environmental collapse seem less important and personally relevant to readers. So even if newspaper journalists are delivering unbiased reports to readers, newspaper adverts are delivering biased readers to journalists.

If advertising, together with the other filters mentioned above, did not influence the Guardian’s performance, then we would be seeing many more stories about corporate domination of politics, economics and culture – the kind of material that packs the archives of www.zmag.org. There would, for example, be many more articles about business lobbying to oppose climate-saving policies. And there would be some, rather than zero, Guardian features exposing the oxymoronic truth of the term ‘corporate free press’.

Best wishes

David Edwards and David Cromwell


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 Paul Brown at the Guardian.

Email: [email protected]

Write to Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger:

Email: [email protected]

And, very importantly, the Letters Page and the readers’ editor of the Guardian:

Email: [email protected] and [email protected]