On April 6, we published a Media Alert, ‘Rolling Deeply In The Dust’. We discussed how, despite its professed “idealism”, the Guardian’s new Spark magazine appeared to be primarily designed as a vehicle for attracting and boosting big business advertising. Also on April 6, the editor of Spark sent us this email in response:
“Dear David Edwards and David Cromwell,
Thanks for forwarding your article to me.
All the editorial in Spark is indeed independent of the sponsor – we write it and they have no say in what gets written. The fact that there is an overlap between Spark’s editorial focus and the nature of the car is inevitable. Advertisers place their adverts where they think they can reach their audience. Just as stereo manufacturers place ads in Hi-Fi magazine, DIY centres run commercials in doing-up-your-home TV programmes and ads for sofas appear in Wallpaper* and interiors magazines.
Toyota wanted to sponsor Spark because they thought the sort of people who would find it interesting would also be interested in a more ecological car. There is no secret about this association – which is why I was so up-front about it in the introduction to the supplement.
You are correct to see that the advertorial in Spark is a advert for the car. This is not editorial, not independent, and clearly labelled ADVERTISEMENT PROMOTION. There is no question that these pages attempt to strike an editorial tone of voice. If you think our advertorial is not clearly enough signposted as such, this is of interest to the editorial team and I will pass on your comments to our designer.
Thanks for raising these points. Debate is very much the point of the editorial process.
The following exchange then took place on the same day:
Thanks for such a prompt and thoughtful reply – it’s very much appreciated. Thanks also for your willingness to engage in debate on these issues. Although I totally accept that your editorials are technically independent of the influence of sponsors, was not Spark itself originally conceived as a vehicle for major advertising? Surely the needs and preferences of advertisers were central considerations in deciding the format and focus of the magazine.
“Your point is valid. But certainly not unique to my product.
Ever worked on a magazine launch? The first and only real questions are: who will advertise with in product / Will it be read by people whom advertisers want to reach?
Readers/viewers/listeners are the most important thing to any publisher or broadcaster. But, from an economic point of view, primarily because high numbers of readers means high ad revenue. And media survive only through ads. I and all writers/editors/ broadcasters would love it to be different but there is no option – the basic cost of producing the Guardian every day is (of course) more than the cover price. No matter how many readers bought it, we would lose money, in fact an increasing amount of money, without ad revenue – unless we put the cover price up to what it really costs us to make the paper, which is somewhere north of £5 a copy.
The BBC is the only massive exception to this, where we pay an advanced usage fee in exchange for no advertising. Many people would argue this improves the quality of the programming. But, as the vast amounts of comment about the licence fee testify to, that’s far from a unanimous opinion and raises all kinds of anti-competition issues. Anyway, not my sector so my comments would be mere speculation.
What I agree is important is keeping the readers aware of when an advertiser is talking to them and when an impartial journalist is talking to them. Getting this balance right is crucial, especially in products where all the advertising has been bought by one sponsor. It remains an area we monitor very closely, and we welcome feedback such as yours on this topic.
Nick Taylor” (Email, April 6, 2004)
“Thanks again, Nick. That is pretty much my understanding of how it works – Peter Preston has estimated that broadsheets depend on ads for something like 75% of their revenues. There’s the classic example, of course, of the ad-starved Daily Herald that went out of business despite a large and loyal readership. As we pointed out in today’s piece we know a lot of you are genuinely well-intentioned people who are doing your best in quite restrictive circumstances.
We also suggested that an honest debate on the issue of high-tech corporate solutions to environmental problems would have to include concerns of environmentalists with regards to the often deceptive and destructive record of ‘green consumerism’ and ‘green capitalism’. How does that fit with the reality that “The first and only real questions are: who will advertise with in product / Will it be read by people whom advertisers want to reach?”?
How would advertisers react? Is it something you would consider including in future issues of Spark?
We are grateful for Nick Taylor’s openness, but it was no great surprise that we received no further replies. The question of how honest debate fits with the reality that, “The first and only real questions are: who will advertise” in a magazine, and “Will it be read by people whom advertisers want to reach?” is something the media is not keen to discuss. Perhaps Taylor felt he had already said a little too much about the reality of Spark.
The problem is that advertisers don’t want readers to focus on this issue at all – adverts perform better if readers believe they are picking up a serious, meaningful publication, not a glorified advertising brochure.
Some may agree with Taylor that there is no choice in the media – this is just how things are. We have two responses. First, the issue of journalistic freedom of choice is not our primary concern here – our point is that honest debate on many issues is subject to a de facto ban throughout business-supported media. It’s hard to overstate the extraordinary and disastrous consequences of this suppression of truth for society.
Taylor points out: “media survive only through ads. I and all writers/editors/ broadcasters would love it to be different but there is no option – the basic cost of producing the Guardian every day is (of course) more than the cover price.”
He salves his conscience by agreeing that it is important to keep readers “aware of when an advertiser is talking to them and when an impartial journalist is talking to them”. But how can media output be deemed impartial when its very existence depends on the approval, and in fact enthusiastic support, of big business advertisers? Isolated journalists might indeed be genuinely impartial, but a media entity’s overall commentary and reporting must turn out to be business-friendly; it must provide a basically supportive environment for the ads that appear. If not, that ad revenue will simply flow to more accommodating competitors. Owners and senior managers are obviously aware of this when they recruit editors. Editors are aware of this when they recruit journalists, and so on.
As Time’s international editor pointed out: “We don’t run airline ads next to stories about airline crashes.” (‘Fear & Favor 2000 – How Power Shapes The News’, http://www.fair.org/ff2000.html)
In an interview with Ralph Nader, David Barsamian asked:
“Wouldn’t it be irrational for [the media] to even discuss corporate power, since their underwriting and sponsors come from very large corporations?”
“Very irrational… [There are] a few instances almost every year where there’s some sort of criticism of auto dealers, and the auto dealers just pull their ads openly from radio and TV stations.” (Z Magazine, February 1995)
Our second point is that there +are+ always choices. Historian Howard Zinn writes of university teaching:
“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, Noam Chomsky et al, The New Press, 1997, p.51)
One of the deepest conceits of modern journalism is the idea that taking the corporate media pound or dollar is no big deal. So the media isn’t perfect, but it does a reasonable job – there’s nothing much wrong in working for inevitably imperfect organisations.
But how can we be so sure it is this simple? After all, the media determine how much society knows about what powerful interests are doing to the world. If a million Iraqi civilians are killed by Western sanctions without general public awareness, can we not argue that the media are a central factor in making the atrocity possible?
Likewise, if the media is failing to challenge, and instead promoting, the insane drive to ever greater extremes of fossil fuel consumption, can we not argue that journalists are complicit in the mass death of species, and indeed of the human race? Soldiers may pull the trigger, but the generals writing out the orders, and the journalists failing to write the truth, are vital links in the chain of cause and effect.
We think it is reasonable to be published in the mainstream – we, also, are published there – but we think this should be conditional on exposing the lie of the ‘free press’. To be honest about everything +except+ the media is to reinforce one of the most destructive lies of all. This is +not+ just another issue – we are not dissident anoraks who just happen to have developed an obsession with the media – it is the fundamental issue which determines public access to all other issues.
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.
Email: [email protected]
Email: [email protected]
Email: [email protected]