The Mythical Divide Between Journalism And Advertising

In its latest annual report on media performance, US-based watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) noted that:

“Most people are aware that news media rely on corporate advertising dollars – though the fact is rarely discussed, and when it is, editors and producers will generally insist that there’s no connection between the companies that buy ads and the content of the news.” (‘Fear and Favor – FAIR’s Sixth Annual Report,’ Extra!, March/April 2006;

Thus, here in Britain, Guy Keleny of The Independent claims:

“A free press, run commercially, has to set a firewall between the journalistic writing and the advertising that pays the bills. […] The journalists do not allow their reporting to be muffled by the interests of advertisers, and the advertisers are free to say what they like in the space they have bought (subject to the law and industry codes) without regard to the newspaper’s editorial opinions.” (Guy Keleny, ‘Errors & Omissions,’ The Independent, October 7, 2006)

We wrote to Keleny on October 9, suggesting that the picture he painted of a firewall between reporting and advertising did not pertain to reality:

“For example, are you aware that last year BP and Morgan Stanley both issued directives demanding that their ads be pulled from any edition of a publication that included potentially ‘objectionable’ content? BP went so far as to demand advance notice of any stories that mention the company, a competitor of the company or the oil and energy industry in general. [FAIR, op.cit.]”

We pointed out that such agreements are not exceptional. We also quoted FAIR:

“While these demands may seem like an egregious intervention into the editorial process, the truth is, as one anonymous editor told [trade journal] Advertising Age (May 16, 2005), there’s ‘a fairly lengthy list of companies that have instructions like this.'”

We noted that in his ‘Errors & Omissions’ column Keleny had omitted to mention that the quality press, including the Independent, is dependent upon advertising for around 75 per cent of its revenue. It would be irrational to claim that this has no impact on shaping the content of his newspaper. As Keleny’s former editor Andrew Marr has written of his profession:

“The biggest question is whether advertising limits and reshapes the news agenda. It does, of course. It’s hard to make the sums add up when you are kicking the people who write the cheques.” (Marr, ‘My Trade,’ Macmillan, 2004, p.112)

This structural compromise is well-understood throughout the mainstream. In April 2004, Nick Taylor, editor of the Guardian’s Spark magazine, told us candidly:

“Ever worked on a magazine launch? The first and only real questions are: who will advertise in [the] 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, [this is] 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.”

We ended our email to Keleny by saying that we “hope that you are willing and able to respond to the above points, please. These are vital issues, are they not?”

The following day, Keleny responded as follows:

“I didn’t know that about BP and Morgan Stanley. But threats by advertisers to boycott publications that print things they don’t like are nothing new. Every local weeekly newspaper gets them from time to time. The question is whether or not the editor gives in to them. I imagine some do and some don’t.” (Email from Guy Keleny to David Cromwell, October 10, 2006)

This is the sound of a firewall sputtering! Recall Keleny’s bold as brass comment in his article: “The journalists do not allow their reporting to be muffled by the interests of advertisers.”

Spin Cycle – The Rotating Greenwash

FAIR’s annual report pointed out that as well as subverting potentially damaging news reports, powerful advertisers also like to ensure that they are associated with positive spin. Thus, the October 31, 2005 issue of Time magazine featured a section titled “The Future of Energy”. This focused on attempts to find alternatives to oil and to make oil production more efficient. FAIR summarised the piece:

“Throughout the feature were full-page ads for BP, with taglines like ‘investing in our energy future,’ explaining how the company is pursuing alternatives to oil. BP is also mentioned by a source in Time’s feature article as one of the more innovative energy companies. That, presumably, was free.” (FAIR, op. cit.)

Many Media Lens readers will be aware that BP advertising regularly appears in the Independent, with full-page ads in the print edition as well as BP ‘Target neutral’ ads on frequent rotation in the online edition (as they are on the Guardian’s website). Such rotating ads are essentially tools of greenwashing spin, presenting a false image of a huge oil corporation working tirelessly to turn away from fossil fuels towards a greener future based on clean and renewable energy.

It is no surprise that BP is spending big money to reach audiences provided by The Independent and The Guardian – relatively influential and affluent readers with (often) left-liberal-green leanings. By launching a pre-emptive strike on people who might be sceptical of fossil fuel giants, BP aims to get them “on side”. The implicit message is: “We’re like you – we’re concerned about the environment and about climate change. We’re doing something about it by going green – by going ‘beyond petroleum’. We’re all part of the same movement”.

Would senior Independent editorial staff, we wondered, be willing to debate such important matters?

Knowing that the paper’s editor, Simon Kelner, famously never replies to readers, we instead emailed his deputy, Ian Birrell:

“Good to see The Independent’s front-page story today (Michael McCarthy, ‘The century of drought,’ The Independent’, October 4, 2006) – although the online article is surrounded by BP ads, ironically.

“Why does your newspaper group continue to take advertising revenue from BP, a corporation that:

“(a) causes untold damage to climate stability; and

“(b) attempts to cover its tracks by using full-page ads in The Independent boosting its supposed green credentials?

“As the Oxford-based group Corporate Watch points out:

“‘BP’s strategy of appropriating the language of environmentalists and positioning itself as a socially responsible company on the issue of climate change by buying up a solar company (for a fraction of the amount it spends on oil acquisitions) is a clear example of a company attempting to take intellectual leadership of an issue where it finds itself criticised, and has been well documented elsewhere.’ (Corporate Watch, ‘What’s Wrong with Corporate Social Responsibility?,’ p.5, 2006;

“As a longstanding reader of the Independent, I hope you will feel able to respond to this email please.” (Email to Ian Birrell from David Cromwell, October 4, 2006)

Despite a gentle nudge by follow-up email, Birrell has maintained a stoic silence. Emails to Imogen Haddon, managing editor of The Independent and Independent on Sunday, as well as Charlie Burgess, her recent predecessor who is now a media consultant, similarly went unanswered.

Meanwhile, lucrative corporate ads continue to spin in the news media, totally segregated – so we are told – from the steely gaze and independent investigations of the corporate-employed news reporter.


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 Imogen Haddon, managing editor of the Independent:
Email: [email protected]

Write to Ian Birrell, deputy editor of the Independent:
Email: [email protected]

Write to Guy Keleny, Independent columnist (and letters page editor):
Email: [email protected]