On January 31, we published a Media Alert, ‘Welcome to Mars (Or North Korea!)’. The following day, we sent the alert to Fiona Harvey, environment editor of the Financial Times:
“Dear Fiona Harvey,
Please forgive this unsolicited email. I’m one of the editors of Media Lens (www.Media Lens.org). We sent out the following media alert yesterday which, in part, looks at your coverage of climate change. Perhaps you’d like to respond?
Harvey responded the same day:
“You’re pathetic. You haven’t actually read any of my articles, just searched them for some keywords. Why don’t you actually read the pieces and then you might have something sensible to say?
Fiona “(February 1, 2006)
Harvey wrote again on the same day:
“And now your idiot friends are spamming me. Who are you?”
“Thanks, Fiona. We’ll be replying shortly. We are an internet-based media watchdog. The people writing are not friends, they’re subscribers to our Media Alerts. Peter Wilby, former editor of the New Statesman, has reviewed our new book, Guardians of Power, in this week’s New Statesman. He concludes:
‘This book – essentially a best of Media Lens compilation – is mercifully free of academic or political jargon, and is awesomely well researched. All journalists should read it, because the Davids make a case that demands to be answered.’
We then replied to Harvey on February 2:
Many thanks for responding. We apologise for any irritation caused. Our intention is not to anger you but to engage in an open and rational exchange of ideas.
We can assure you that we have read your prolific output on climate change and environment issues more generally. Our Media Alert included several quotes from your articles – an impossibility if we had merely conducted a keyword search. We are confident that we provided a fair representation of your reporting. If you do not agree, then by all means point us to examples of articles where you have addressed the following issues:
* NAM and US Chamber opposition to the Kyoto Protocol – these are two of the most powerful and influential representatives of corporations based in the US (but which also have global operations). Their opposition indicates the true depth of corporate opposition to even trivial action on climate change (the Kyoto targets fall far short of the 80 per cuts required).
* Deceptive advertising/propaganda campaigns by major corporations promoting fraudulent ‘green’ credentials on climate change (“greenwash”), and the big business promotion of unsustainable consumer consumption, etc.
* Corporate domination of ‘democratic’ choices in society: political parties, party manifestos, influential institutions in society (including the EU, WTO, World Bank, IMF, etc.) and government policies.
* What economic ‘growth’ actually entails: the systemic depletion of resources and increasing inequality worldwide.
* The role of the mainstream corporate media in filtering facts and arguments that threaten state-corporate power. For example, have you reviewed the relevance of Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s “propaganda model” of media control for reporting on the environment?
* The hypocrisy of the corporate media in protesting climate change while publishing fossil fuel advertising and promoting exorbitant, ‘high-status’ consumption.
These are just a small sample of obviously vital issues that demand to be addressed by anyone serious about reporting climate change.
We hope you agree that it is important that these issues be discussed and the media be held accountable for its reporting. Thanks again for responding.
David Cromwell & David Edwards
Harvey then replied again:
“Your alert clearly implied that you had not read my articles, merely judged them on some arbitrary keywords. Quoting from one or two of the pieces in which those keywords appeared does not provide any assurance that you read my output in general, just the handful of stories that your search threw up. By judging my output on these keywords, you have in no way provided a fair representation of my reporting.
Searching on the terms you chose was a fundamentally flawed methodology. Let’s take those terms. They appear to be deliberately chosen to minimise the chances that they would be included in my articles. The “NAM”. No, I haven’t written much about them. But I have written a lot about other business groups, eg the CBI, the EEF, the WEF, the International Chambers of Commerce. You don’t mention any of them. I have spoken to the NAM. They didn’t say much of any great interest. So I didn’t quote them.
“Advertising”. I’m the environment correspondent. I don’t write about advertising. We have an advertising correspondent, who does. “Social equity”. I don’t write about that either. We have other writers who do. Ditto “social justice”. “Propaganda”. A word I imagine you will find very little used in news stories in the FT, except perhaps in quotation marks, because we don’t tend to like to use such charged and emotive terms in our news stories, preferring more neutral and less biased terms – and I’m surprised that you commend the use of such terms, as surely you should be prizing fair, balanced, neutral, impartial and objective news? As for “greenwash”, that’s a piece of jargon, and we avoid jargon in news stories where possible. Likewise “contraction and convergence”. Likewise “spin”. So criticising me for not using your arbitrary keywords is a bit like slagging off a library because it won’t lend you vegetables. Or saying Chaucer is a rubbish poet because he never mentions !
As for the following… [Harvey here cut and pasted the list of points we made in our February 2 reply]
Well, none of these are my subject. I am a news reporter writing about the environment. It is my job to write news. It is not my place to pass judgement on the hypocrisy or otherwise of the media, or on the hyprocrisy or otherwise of the promotion of consumer consumption, or on the tendency of capitalist institutions to try to gather more power to themselves. Nor is it my job to comment on social inequalities or on democracy.
You also fail to mention the articles I have written on issues such as climate change sceptics (you can find it here: http://news.ft.com/cms/s/24ec87f2-6132-
11da-9b07-0000779e2340.html), on the problems of climate change: (eg
on China’s environmental problems
could go on…
So, basically, rather than judge my output on what I have written, you have just invented a list of things that you would like to write about. That’s nice for you, and perhaps you can persuade some media outlet to let you write about these interesting matters for them in the future.
I also, by the way, find it absolutely incredible that in your long diatribe on the failings of the British press on climate change you completely overlook the newspapers that almost always ignore climate change, and take a hostile attitude towards attempts to combat it. There are plenty of such newspapers, among the quality press as well as the tabloids.
Your criticism of me, in other words, is biased and full of omissions.
Fiona Harvey (February 2, 2006)
We appreciate such a prompt and thoughtful reply. We also sympathise with Harvey’s evident irritation – nobody enjoys receiving criticism. Harvey is a skilled and sincere journalist, but she occupies an important and privileged position in society – she has real influence on public opinion. It is unreasonable to expect to be able to exert such influence without being held to account, without being subject to reasoned challenge.
In fact our article did not imply that we had not read Harvey’s articles and “judged them on some arbitrary keywords”. The keywords were intended merely to indicate the standard pattern of omissions and emphases in her articles found in almost all media reporting on these issues. The pattern becomes instantly clear to anyone who reads Harvey’s material and is reflected even in her reply to us. She comments tellingly, and predictably:
“I’m the environment correspondent. I don’t write about advertising. We have an advertising correspondent, who does… ‘Propaganda‘. A word I imagine you will find very little used in news stories in the FT, except perhaps in quotation marks, because we don’t tend to like to use such charged and emotive terms in our news stories, preferring more neutral and less biased terms – and I’m surprised that you commend the use of such terms, as surely you should be prizing fair, balanced, neutral, impartial and objective news?”
In other words, Harvey is justifying her performance on the basis that she is a “professional journalist” – it is her job to be “fair, balanced, neutral, impartial and objective“. But it turns out there is a bias in this balance. In reality, “professional” journalists are deemed “impartial” and “neutral” so long as they uncritically echo or endorse the views of the powerful. Journalists who subject power to serious criticism are censured for being “unbalanced“, “biased” and “unprofessional“. It is so normal for journalists to view the world from the perspective of power that, almost comically, no one notices. A February 1 BBC Radio Five live phone-in discussion on Iraq, advertised the topic for the programme thus:
“Are 100 British soldiers’ lives too high a price to pay for democracy in Iraq?”
What could be more neutral and balanced than to assert the government version of events as obvious fact – that the US-UK cause in Iraq truly is “democracy“? Imagine if the same programme had suggested:
“Are 100 British soldiers’ lives too high a price to pay for US corporate control of Iraqi oil resources and to maintain global US hegemony?”
This would have drawn intense flak for being unbalanced and unfair. It was to draw attention to exactly this fundamental bias in media reporting that we wrote our Media Alert.
Consider, for example, that in December 2004, Harvey reported that warnings on the consequences of climate change “have prompted Tony Blair, the prime minister, to make tackling climate change a priority for world leaders in the coming year”. (Harvey, ‘The Arctic ice sheet is melting,’ Financial Times, December 31, 2004)
Is climate charge any more a priority for Blair than democracy is a priority for Bush and Blair in Iraq? Of course that is the official view. Our point is that it is Harvey’s job to report the official view, to take the official view seriously, and to frame discussions within boundaries set by the official view.
Notice, for example, that Harvey did not “balance” her/Blair’s claim with the view of environmentalists who would happily denounce it as “spin”, “propaganda” and “greenwash” (the words Harvey rejects as horribly biased). Well why not? Why is Blair’s view on the issue admissible in “professional” reporting, while the views of radical environmentalists are not?
Again, answers are found in the power relations that compromise media performance in society. “Professional” journalists are permitted to discuss political and economic issues within bounds that do not challenge the fundamental political and economic architecture of society – the status quo must be presented as fundamentally legitimate and acceptable. There is no “professional” reason why Harvey could not publish balancing radical environmental views alongside Blair’s comments in the Financial Times – it is just that she would last about a week in her job if she did. Might makes right, but it does not make “professional” journalism balanced.
Remarkably, in her December 31, 2004 article, Harvey felt able to say of climate change:
“The issue divides scientists, politicians and public opinion…” (Ibid)
Again, this strongly echoed the views of powerful interests – many of them fanatically opposed to action threatening short-term profits. In reality there is an overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is real, human induced and destructive – to emphasise an alleged division is in no way neutral or impartial.
In a July 2005 article Harvey reported big business initiatives on climate change:
“As the momentum behind environmental initiatives grows, even companies that have resisted any move towards limits on greenhouse gases have had to respond. ExxonMobil has in the past given funding to climate-change sceptics. However, the oil company recently launched an advertising campaign emphasising the importance of understanding greenhouse gas emissions and their effect on the climate.” (Harvey, ‘Giant expects its example to be followed,’ Financial Times, July 1, 2005)
But Harvey made no mention of the many well-informed, rational and credible views of groups who describe these “environmental initiatives” as a wretched sham. The recent history of environmentalism – not least as described in the internal records of the companies themselves – simply demands that this challenge be expressed. Andy Rowell, an environment journalist and author of Green Backlash, comments:
“Any good environment correspondent should know that, according to the latest figures available, Exxon’s funding of sceptics is current, not past and also includes sceptical organisations in the UK. Not, as Harvey writes, ExxonMobil ‘has in the past given funding to climate-change sceptics‘. That is inexcusable.” (Email to Media Lens, February 4, 2006)
Moreover, it is outrageous to discuss big business initiatives on the environment without mentioning the staggering history of corporate deception and mendacity on this issue. Harvey states:
“However, the impression remains that the US stance is heavily influenced by climate change sceptics.” (Harvey, ‘Kyoto agreement may come into effect, yet be ineffective,’ Financial Times, January 26, 2005)
Again, it is wrong to point the finger at “sceptics” without at the same time indicating the submerged iceberg of big business opposition out of which these sceptical ’tips’ emerge. Honest appraisal must include mention of the vast big business propaganda campaigns over the last several decades to demolish environmental groups, to pacify public concern, to forestall action on climate change, to deceive the public that the world is under new “green” management. We found no serious attempts to explore these issues in Harvey’s reporting. Instead Harvey comments: “a subtle change has taken place to bring business and the ‘greens’ closer together than ever: safeguarding the environment now requires using the tools of business”. (Harvey, ‘Market rides to rescue of environment World leaders are being asked today to extend emissions pricing,’ Financial Times, July 6, 2005)
Harvey considers this a neutral and balanced view. Many knowledgeable scientists and environmental campaigners consider it one of the great deceptions of our time.
Harvey, like almost all journalists, often takes the benevolent words of political and industry leaders at face value, as hopeful signs of sane people coming to sane conclusions. But as Canadian lawyer Joel Bakan points out the corporate system is fundamentally psychopathic in motivation – it is legally obliged to subordinate people and planet to profit. Alas, ‘psychopath’ is another keyword Harvey has not used in her environmental reporting – perhaps that is the job of legal journalists.
Even if we take Harvey’s arguments at face value, they make little sense. Her equivalent at the Guardian – environment editor John Vidal, no radical – +has+ mentioned the terms ‘contraction and convergence’, ‘spin’, ‘advertising’, ‘propaganda’ and ‘social justice’. On occasion, for example, he has mentioned these in the context of quotes from environmental activists – why would that be deemed unreasonable or unprofessional? Also we note that Harvey has been happy to use a term like “corporate responsibility” – is this not also jargon? Andy Rowell comments:
“’Greenwash‘, as Harvey should know, in fact is not jargon, but is a formal word in the English language, being in the Concise English Dictionary – entered in 1999.” (Rowell, op. cit)
And why does the FT environment editor make numerous mentions of the term “marketing”, if “advertising” is somebody else‘s business on the paper? And why +not+ mention the role of corporate advertising in promoting climate killing consumption when it is quite obviously a huge part of the problem? Which parts of the problem are irrelevant to an environment journalist, and why?
Harvey concludes by observing that our “long diatribe on the failings of the British press on climate change you completely overlook the newspapers that almost always ignore climate change, and take a hostile attitude towards attempts to combat it“.
This is the classic complaint of the media ingénue. There is only one response – look at the shape the planet is in!
How can even the most complacent journalist seriously argue that even the best media are doing an adequate job in reporting climate change? We are, are we not, on the very brink of global environmental catastrophe? Not only is nothing being done, but plenty is being done to make the problem infinitely worse – not least by the fossil fuel-funded corporate media themselves pushing flights, cars and consumption.
But for someone working for the Financial Times – a newspaper that is the beating media heart of the corporate system wrecking our planet – to claim her newspaper is something other than “hostile” to serious attempts to combat climate chaos beggars belief.
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 Fiona Harvey, environment editor of the Financial Times:
Email: [email protected]
Write to Lionel Barber, editor of the Financial Times:
Email: [email protected]