The Guardian this week published an article by the readers’ editor, Siobhain Butterworth, discussing “the contradiction between what the Guardian has to say about environmental issues and what it advertises”. (Butterworth, ‘Open door – The readers’ editor on… the contradiction between what we say and the ads we run,’ The Guardian, October 29, 2007; www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,2200887,00.html)
Butterworth cited comments made by Guardian columnist George Monbiot following a discussion with Media Lens:
“Newspaper editors make decisions every day about which stories to run and which angles to take. Why can they not also make decisions about the ads they carry? While it is true that readers can make up their own minds, advertising helps to generate behavioural norms. These advertisements make the destruction of the biosphere seem socially acceptable.”
Monbiot asked: “why could the newspapers not ban ads for cars which produce more than 150g of CO2 per kilometre? Why could they not drop all direct advertisements for flights?”
These were very sane and courageous questions from Monbiot – he deserves every credit for raising them. Butterworth supplied Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger’s comments in response:
“It is always useful to ask your critics what economic model they would choose for running an independent organisation that can cover the world as widely and fully with the kind of journalism we offer.”
It can of course be useful to discuss solutions in this way. However, we have noticed that the question, ‘Well, what’s your alternative?’, is often a fallback position after sheer weight of evidence has forced the abandonment of denials of the existence of a problem. So, for example, debaters – let’s call them the ‘Free Press’ Faithful – may tirelessly insist that, in the UK, we have “a press which has a relatively wide range of views – there is a pretty small ‘c’ conservative majority but there are left-wing papers, and there is a pretty large offering of views running from the far right to the far left…”. (Andrew Marr, The Big Idea – Interview with Noam Chomsky, BBC 2, 1996, www.zmag.org/chomsky/interviews/9602-big-idea.html)
This may be their firm belief – or at least, what they are firmly determined to believe. On occasions when this position becomes untenable in debate – evidence that a corporate press does not report honestly on a world dominated by corporate power is overwhelming – the ‘Free Press’ Faithful will appear to agree and move on to alternatives.
Superficially, this looks like progress. But, all too often, the underlying conviction remains that there are no credible alternatives. The point being that a problem without a solution is not a problem; it is a fact of life. Rusbridger asked us in February 2004:
“I’d be interested to know what alternative business model you propose for newspapers which would sustain a large, knowledgeable and experienced staff of writers and editors, here and abroad, in print as well as on the web. Do you prefer no advertising lest journalists are corrupted or influenced in the way you imagine? If so, what cover price do you propose? Or, in the absence of advertising, what other source of revenue would you prefer?
“These are all interesting debates, and I wish you well. I can only answer as to my experience. alan.’ (Email to Media Lens, February 6, 2004)
Alas, this was not a precursor of vibrant debate and discussion. For several years now, Rusbridger has refused to respond to our emails. Our 2006 book, Guardians Of Power, discussing these and related issues, has never been so much as mentioned by the paper, much less reviewed. This could, of course, simply reflect the worthlessness of what we have to say. George Monbiot, however – one of the most respected commentators on the paper – appears not to share this view. More to the point, Monbiot’s intervention aside, there has been essentially no discussion of issues that we and many readers (and many excellent writers and media analysts) have sought to raise over many years.
The suspicion that the Guardian editor is not willing to recognise the existence of a problem worthy of serious discussion and action is reinforced by other comments from him cited by Butterworth:
“Alan Rusbridger, warns against creating a ‘joyless’ paper. ‘If you had nothing to do with any form of consumption, your circulation would take a big dip and reading the Guardian would become a duty rather than a pleasure. We would be moving away from journalism… to preaching. So long as you do these things in reasonable proportion and balance, I do not think we should stop covering aspects of consuming such as travel or fashion, eating or holidays and motoring.’”
The Guardian editor is here leading readers away from the issues that matter. In fact, as Rusbridger well knows, if the Guardian “had nothing to do with any form of consumption”, it would go out of business, because it and other ‘quality’ titles are dependent on advertising for “75 per cent or more of their total take”. (Peter Preston, ‘War, what is it good for?’, The Observer, October 7, 2001)
That is the problem and it is why newspapers have to be so careful not to alienate their big advertisers and related political allies. Rusbridger suggests that the real difficulty would be the “joyless” experience of an advert-free newspaper – but this is a mere diversion from very deep-rooted and serious issues.
And let’s consider the suggestion that “reading the Guardian would become a duty rather than a pleasure. We would be moving away from journalism… to preaching“ in context. Consider, first, that this was in response to a very reasonable suggestion that the Guardian might initially look at banning some of the more destructive forms of fossil fuel advertising.
Consider, further, the broader context. Wherever you look, corporate giants are investing in the same high consumption of fossil fuels that has already brought us to the brink of disaster. Last month, the BBC described “Airbus’ gamble on the success of the A380”, the new “Superjumbo” airliner. The “gamble” is based “on what Airbus believes will be ever-growing demand for long-haul travel”. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/7043812.stm)
In June, the Financial Times reported that a survey of business leaders had found that “Climate change is bottom of the priority list for Britain’s largest companies… and their biggest shareholders are not much more exercised by the issue.” (John Willman and Kate Burgess, ‘Climate change “not a business priority”,’ Financial Times, June 4 2007)
More than half of the companies surveyed by YouGov said there were more urgent issues, such as brand awareness, marketing strategies and corporate social responsibility. Just 14 per cent of them had a clear plan for tackling climate change.
A report from Headland, a communications consultancy, says fund managers “do not pay much attention to climate change issues when taking investment decisions”. They regard climate change effects as slow and cumulative and the issue as outside the remit of typical fund managers who “are not looking at 2012, let alone 2050”. Long term for the investment community was about three years, they said.
The New York Times reported last month:
“There is plenty of oil and gas still in the ground, energy executives say. But global consumption is rising so fast that they must keep looking for new sources. Despite worldwide concern over global warming and the role of fossil fuels in causing it, United States government specialists project that global oil and gas demand will increase by some 50 percent in the next 25 years.” (Jad Mouawad, ‘A Quest for Energy in the Globe’s Remote Places,’ New York Times, October 9, 2007)
And yet the Guardian editor chooses to focus on bizarre notions of his paper having “nothing to do with any form of consumption”, of the risk of a “joyless” newspaper. Meanwhile, the world stands (at best) at the very brink of disaster, while big business acts as if nothing at all has changed. To spell it out: Something needs to be done – fast!
Finally, Rusbridger comments:
“The journalism we do matters much more than advertising. That is obvious. That is why the PR industry exists and why people try to buy space nested in the journalism context. As long as the journalism is free and we allow George Monbiot to criticise us and we feel free to criticise people who advertise, that is more important than the advertising.”
Here we face a positive shoal of liberal herrings – each one darting away from problems that are becoming ever more crucial. Of course journalism matters more than advertising. The problem is that a mountain of evidence demonstrates that profit-seeking corporate media – dependent on advertisers and allied government news sources, often also dependent on wealthy owners, or giant parent companies, and under constant attack from right-wing flak groups – suppress much that is important about our world and its problems.
The Guardian might claim to be free of one or more of these constraints, but this is irrelevant because the Guardian is one small part of a biocidal media system, and its record is anyway also lamentable. Holding up Monbiot’s virtually unique intervention as a sign that all is well, that tolerating such criticism is all that is required, is not reasonable. One article from Monbiot is not enough. The presence of one Monbiot tolerated on one newspaper is not enough. These are serious structural issues that cannot be wished away. And incidentally, we wonder just how much more would be tolerated from Monbiot. Would it take one burst of criticism alienating one big advertiser? Or two or three? How long would Rusbridger, himself, then be tolerated?
Monbiot’s questions were vitally important. How can we move away from a media dependent on fossil fuel advertising? What are the first small steps that could be taken? How might readers react positively to offset the financial damage incurred?
We are not economists, or financial strategists with detailed knowledge of the Guardian’s performance. We don’t know how media executives coped with the loss of tobacco advertising – we know it happened after being declared impossible. We are not specialists on how the British empire adjusted for the vast loss of revenue generated by the slave trade, although we know such a loss was declared insupportable (which it turned out not to be).
We believe that we, all of us, need to look beyond blinkered, short-term self-interest towards enlightened self-interest rooted in compassion for the suffering that surrounds us and that is sure to increase. In 1914, the novelist Robert Tressell wrote:
“Even if you are indifferent to your own fate – as you seem to be – you have no right to be indifferent to that of the child for whose existence in this world you are responsible.
“Every man who is not helping to bring about a better state of affairs for the future is helping to perpetuate the present misery and is therefore the enemy of his own children.” (Tressell, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Oxford, 2005, p.129)
If these are harsh words, how then are we to describe the future facing us? Why do we lavish so much time, energy and love on our children, and yet do nothing to save them from a terrifying, collapsing world that they are now almost certain to inherit?
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you decide to write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor
Email: [email protected]
Write to Siobhain Butterworth, readers’ editor of the Guardian
Email: [email protected]
Write to the letters page
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