It is one of the great ironies of our time that, as evidence of environmental catastrophe has inexorably mounted, so the visibility of radical environmental movements has collapsed. In the late 1980s, public outrage at environmental devastation propelled the likes of Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Green Party onto the media stage. With airwaves filled with endless talk of ‘going green’, BBC presenter John Humphrys declared he would flush his toilet less often to save water; Marks & Spencer’s posted green placards in their stores that read: “Please return your trolley – protect your environment.”
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, people like Bob Williams – a consultant to the oil and gas industry – were clarifying industry‘s real priority:
“To put the environmental lobby out of business… There is no greater imperative… If the petroleum industry is to survive, it must render the environmental lobby superfluous, an anachronism.”
(Williams, US Petroleum Strategies in the Decade of the Environment. Quoted, Sharon Beder, Global Spin – The Corporate Assault on Environmentalism, Green Books 1997, p.22)
Since then the eruption of global mass consumerism has been awesome to behold, with elites in China, India and elsewhere lunging at their slice of the Western dream. In the two decades since ‘sustainable consumerism’ hit the headlines, epidemics of obesity have broken out everywhere from Australia to Brazil to Spain to Britain, as the affluent have gorged themselves like never before.
Humanity has chosen to floor the consumer accelerator just as warnings of imminent catastrophe are piling up. Consider the impact, for example, of “global dimming” – the phenomenon by which tiny airborne particles of soot and other pollutants reflect sunlight back into space. The cooling effect of dimming, it seems, has offset the impact of global warming caused by industrial emissions of greenhouse gases. But with atmospheric particulate pollution being brought under control, this man-made break on climate change is being released. Scientists now believe temperatures could rise twice as fast as previously thought, with catastrophic and irreversible damage just twenty-five years away. (‘Global Dimming’, Horizon, BBC2, repeat broadcast, January 15, 2005; www.bbc.co.uk/sn/tvradio/programmes
As the world heats up, reservoirs of frozen methane at the bottom of the ocean could melt, with consequences that would be terminal for human life:
“At this point, whatever we did to curb our emissions, it would be too late. Ten thousand billion tons of methane… would be released into the atmosphere. The Earth’s climate would be spinning out of control, heading towards temperatures unseen in four billion years. But this is not a prediction – it is a warning. It is what will happen if we clean up pollution while doing nothing about greenhouse gases. However, the easy solution – just keep on polluting and hope that Global Dimming will protect us – would be suicidal.” (Horizon, ibid)
Great Green Hope
The public has long placed its faith and trust in the resolute sincerity of the Green movement. We were promised an end to ‘grey politics’ – with its endless greed, sleaze, compromise and corruption – and a new “Solar Age” of sanity and hope. Many assumed a breakthrough was just around the corner: Green lambs would lie down with corporate lions in cancelling public subsidies to the fossil fuel industries, promoting a massive shift to renewable energy, supporting public transport, cutting road building, and so on.
Compromise was the key – after all, chief executives love their children, too! It was common sense that they would also not wish to destroy the world around them. Alas, Greens did not recognise the truly psychopathic nature of a system driven by short-term profit.
A key player in the ensuing demolition of the Green movement – which is what happened – is the mass media, the means by which environmental concerns might have reached and mobilised a mass audience. The media is part of the same corporate system, one that naturally protects traditional centres of power and short-term profits against rational challenges of exactly the kind Greens had in mind. Thus, despite all the evidence, Greens and progressives have continued to be ignored, marginalised and vilified.
Media Lens decided to find out what key elements of the British Green movement have to say about this problem. We wondered to what extent Greens are aware of the systemic bias in the media opposing their aims. We wondered why they have not targeted the corporate media in their campaigning.
Through Green-Coloured Spectacles
We asked Green activists: “Why do you not address the inherent bias in corporate media reporting in your campaigns? How can this be reasonable given that the mass media system essentially involves big business reporting on the activities of big business?”
Stephen Tindale, executive director of Greenpeace UK, managed to avoid referring to the corporate nature of the media at all:
“The media is not one dimensional nor is it the same in every country. If we take the issue of climate change, how it is reported (or not!) in the USA, is very different to how it is reported in the UK. But acceptance of climate change, even if it has taken time to filter into the main stream media in the UK, is still infected by its strange adherence to so called ‘balance’. For example 1000 scientists saying climate change is real is balanced off against one sceptic. This always raises questions marks about the seriousness of the issue useful for those in power who wanted to wriggle off the hook.
“But media reporting has also been affected by governments and companies (including major oil companies) accepting for example that climate change is a problem but then denying their role in finding a solution. Often either blaming the consumer or ‘public’ or doing very small, pretty insignificant activities given the scale of the problem, which are then overblown with greenwash to show how they are seriously responding.
“This is where the media is often at its weakest, failing to hold those with the power and responsibility to account.”
(Email to Media Lens, January 12, 2005)
This is largely nonsense. The media +is+ fundamentally one-dimensional – it is globally corporate, after all, and consistently promotes a mass-consumption, pro-business agenda the world over. Many British liberals like to imagine that the British press is far more sophisticated and honest than the American media. As Channel 4 news reader Jon Snow told us:
“We don’t look to the United States for quality journalism.”
(Interview with Media Lens, January 9, 2001)
But Noam Chomsky, one of the world’s most experienced and astute media watchers, takes a different view:
“I don’t really agree that the British media are better than here [the US]. Different, but not really better. If I was stuck with one newspaper to read, it would be the NY [New York] Times. When I’m in England I find that I have to buy half a dozen papers even to get a general sense of what’s happening in the world.”
(Email to David Edwards, December 12, 2004)
It is false to suggest that reporting on climate change is significantly better in Britain than in the United States. There is substantial reporting of the mounting scientific evidence in Britain, but close to zero analysis of the key extent of big business opposition to action on the climate.
The failure of Greenpeace to acknowledge or address the fact that the media are themselves an integral part of the corporate problem largely responsible for environmental collapse is astonishing.
Tony Juniper, executive director of Friends of the Earth in the UK, also replied. We had already gleaned an idea of his views on the media from his praising of the traditional standard-bearers of liberal reporting in Britain:
“The Guardian is certainly considered the voice of progressive and sound environmental thinking both in the UK and in Europe.”
(Juniper, quoted, 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)
This of a newspaper that forever pushes mass consumer advertising of the most destructive kind – ‘2 for 1’ transatlantic flight offers being a particular favourite. Readers of Media Lens will be aware of the “progressive” and “environmental” credentials of the Guardian Media Group, owners of publications such as Auto Trader, Bike Trader, Truck Trader and the UK’s busiest automotive web site, www.autotrader.co.uk.
In his reply to us, Juniper noted that British journalism has “a reputation for accuracy, quality and depth” that “is not always deserved”. He observed that “the corporate controlled media is reluctant to engage with an agenda that apparently speaks against its interests”.
As we have often pointed out, the media is not in fact “corporate controlled”, it is made up of corporations. It would be absurd to suggest that Shell, for example, was +controlled+ by corporations. Given that corporations are legally bound to generate profit for their shareholders (with some 75% of revenues earned from advertisers), it is false to suggest that the media are merely “reluctant” to engage critically with those interests. Juniper compounds this error when he writes of FoE “embrac[ing] the role of corporations in delivering sustainable development.” He added:
“Friends of the Earth’s response is not to abandon the mainstream media” but to “debate both with it and the corporate interests that lay behind it [sic], for example through our work on corporate accountability.”
In reality, corporate “accountability” and “social responsibility” are the latest versions of “green consumerism” and “corporate responsibility” – cynical public relations campaigns that have successfully duped the public for two decades while big business has sent global consumption through the roof.
Juniper does, however, point to some welcome initiatives in grassroots power:
“We are also engaged in parallel with efforts to gain greater access to official information [the new Freedom of Information act that came into effect in January 2005] so that we can either publish previously hidden information ourselves, for example though the internet, or ensure that it is in the right hands to make a difference in local struggles. We are also investing in building our networks so to be able to work with people directly.”
We invited Juniper to talk about the obvious problem that the mass media is corporate in nature, and is therefore structurally tied into stock markets, maximised profits and hell-for-leather devastation of the planet. This he was apparently unwilling to do.
Traditions Of Independence And Objectivity
Green and social justice groups +are+ aware that there is a problem with media reporting; they are not totally complacent. Many of them, including Amnesty International, Oxfam and Friends of the Earth, are members of a coalition group called the Third World and Environment Broadcasting Project (3WE).
3WE campaigns for more and better media reporting of global development issues. Last year they published a report, ‘The World on the Box,’ which examined factual television coverage of the developing world. The authors found that such coverage was at the lowest level ever recorded. Factual programming about the developing world had actually halved since surveys began in 1989. Astonishingly, BBC 1 and ITV1’s coverage was each less than twenty hours in one year. Equally astonishing, climate change was mentioned briefly – literally once – in the 32-page report. As Don Redding, 3WE co-ordinator, said: “How are UK citizens supposed to understand the world if they aren’t even told about it?” He added:
“The British public are having blinkers slapped on them by TV bosses who are violating the letter and the spirit of their public service obligations.”
(‘TV under fire over factual shows’, BBC news online, 4 July, 2004; http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment
Redding also responded to our email:
“The UK public are reasonably media literate and understand that newspapers are owned by corporations which may not be providing objective information. Every opinion poll shows that the public, rightly, place far higher trust in television news than in other forms of media. We in the UK have been fortunate, first, that a strong tradition of independence and objectivity has been maintained across mainstream television news (whoever provides it); second, that we have the BBC as a pre-eminent provider of news and current affairs across television, radio and online, which tends to keep standards high; and third, that our tradition includes an internationalised perspective.”
(Email to Media Lens, 11 January, 2005)
Once again the complacency is staggering. The idea that there is independence and objectivity “across mainstream television” is almost too absurd to discuss. On the one hand we have the BBC with senior managers appointed by the government. On the other hand we have a largely unaccountable corporate news provider structurally locked into business goals and values.
Redding is right to mention the BBC’s reputation as a “pre-eminent provider of news and current affairs… which tends to keep standards high” – this is indeed the claim – but he is wrong to take it seriously. As we have documented many times, BBC reporting on Iraq bears comparison with the appalling output of many formal state propaganda organs. When a handful of journalists attempted to buck that trend, the government hit back with overwhelming force, quickly crushing the dissent.
It is astonishing that a coalition of the major environment and social justice NGOs in this country has literally +nothing+ to say about the inherent, deep-rooted establishment and corporate bias of the BBC and other major media. It is equally remarkable that it has nothing to say about the catastrophic media performance that empowered British government propaganda in pursuit of a war of aggression on Iraq.
The Pragmatic View
If there is one Green group that would campaign to expose the corporate nature of the mainstream media, it must surely be the Green Party. Alas, no. Spencer Fitzgibbon, press officer for the party in England and Wales, explains:
“Many Greens have a strong instinct to criticise the media. Those of us that seek to publicise the party and its policies have to take a pragmatic view. Given our lack of resources, and the fact that most local Green Parties are only able to distribute local newsletters etc over a small part of one constituency on their patch, almost everyone in the country would never hear about the Green Party – apart from a Euro-election leaflet once every five years – except via the mass media.
“So, notwithstanding one’s critique of the media – its agendas, who owns it, etc – we simply must work with it, or be invisible, which would mean utterly failing to ever have a chance of implementing the policies we believe in.”
Fitzgibbon adds: “if we made general sweeping criticisms of the media, we’d just piss off journalists who would then be less likely to write about us. This would not be a functional way for a political party to behave.”
(Email to Media Lens, 11 January, 2005)
We note, again, the widespread fallacy that it is not “strategic” or “pragmatic” to criticise the media. As a result, virtually the entire Green movement has nothing to say about the oxymoronic truth of a corporate ‘free press‘. It is silent about the disaster that such a media system represents for progressive social, economic and environmental change. It is silent about one of the most serious obstacles to overcoming human rights abuses and environmental threats.
The sad fact is that Greens are so accustomed to minimal or zero coverage that they are pitifully grateful to receive +any+ media coverage at all. They fail to recognise that, despite decades of ‘playing the game‘, they are systematically ridiculed, marginalised and ignored by the media – ‘pragmatic’ compromise has proven anything but pragmatic.
Greens appear to reject out of hand the possibility that by simply telling the truth about the media, they might mobilise massive public support to challenge and change the mainstream, and to promote vital issues that are currently being stifled in crude deference to short-term profits.
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 one or more of the campaigners below. Ask them why they do not address the inherent bias in corporate media reporting in their campaigns. Issues such as climate change, human rights, foreign policy, energy, trade and poverty are of course vitally important, but why do they not challenge the neutrality and objectivity of the corporate media as part of its campaigns? How can this be reasonable given that the mass media system essentially involves big business reporting on the activities of big business?
Write to Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth:
Email: [email protected]
Write to Stephen Tindale, director of Greenpeace UK:
Email: [email protected]
Write to Don Redding, director of 3WE:
Email: [email protected]
Write to Steven Barnett of the University of Westminster, co-author of the report, The World on the Box:
Email: [email protected]