PARTS 1 & 2 – IN THEORY AND PRACTICE
Hectoring And Censoring – And Climate Catastrophe
Last week, Guardian News & Media (GNM) published ‘Living Our Values’, an independently audited account of the company’s annual performance on sustainability issues. GNM, which encompasses the Guardian, the Observer and guardian.co.uk, claims to have strong environmental ambitions. Its ongoing mission: to seek out and “explore subjects like climate change, environmental degradation and social inequality” in ever greater depth.
The Guardian’s ultimate aim is to be nothing less than “the world’s leading liberal voice”. (Siobhain Butterworth, ‘Open door. The readers’ editor on… the Guardian’s green and global mission,’ November 17, 2008; http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008 s/nov/17/readers-editor-guardian-sustainability-business)
An awkward point for the Guardian, mentioned by the audit, is that their environmental performance has been strongly criticised by one of their own columnists, George Monbiot. Last year, after a gentle nudge from Media Lens, Monbiot asked the Guardian and other newspapers to reject adverts for products and services that are particularly damaging to the climate: ads for gas guzzling cars and flights. He pointed out that, by accepting these ads, his editors “make the destruction of the biosphere seem socially acceptable”. (Monbiot, ‘The editorials urge us to cut emissions, but the ads tell a very different story,’ The Guardian, August 14, 2007; http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree /2007/aug/14/comment.media)
In the same column, Monbiot described most of the negative responses he received to his proposal as “inadequate”.
The Guardian’s latest audit comments on the controversy:
“Our role is neither to hector our readers nor to censor on their behalf. Our editorial coverage informs and influences their choices.”
And yet the Guardian has consistently supported the ban of other destructive advertising. An April 1997 leader applauded one of New Labour’s key promises:
“Now Britain is on the verge of making a much belated further step in health promotion: a ban on tobacco advertising… Any industry whose product kills 300 of its own customers every day will have one over-riding concern: recruiting another 300 more consumers a day to ensure its survival…” (Leader, ‘Dealing with the killing weeds – Tobacco promotion should be banned as well as advertising,’ The Guardian, April 18, 1997)
In 2005, the World Health Organization estimated that global warming was already contributing to more than 150,000 deaths each year – 410 deaths every day. The toll could double by 2030. (Juliet Eilperin, ‘Climate Shift Tied To 150,000 Fatalities,’ Washington Post, November 17, 2005;http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/ content/article/2005/11/16/AR2005111602197.html)
In its reply to Monbiot’s calls for an advertising ban, the Guardian wrote:
“We would rather encourage advertisers… to become more sustainable. We have just appointed a commercial sustainability manager who will be considering ways to achieve this…” (Monbiot, op. cit)
But as the same editors noted of the tobacco industry in the 1997 leader cited above: “The various voluntary restrictions on advertising and promotion have been shown to be a sham.” Attempts to encourage fossil-fuel advertisers to become more sustainable have also resulted in sham and deception on a grand scale.
Guardian leaders since 1997 have been happy “to hector… and censor” on tobacco advertising, for example in a 2002 editorial entitled, ‘A healthy ban on adverts: Motor sport should be included as well’:
“It is not too late for ministers to take a stronger line against motor sport, which has been given an exemption until 2006. It is not that difficult for sports to attract alternative sponsors.” (Leading article, ‘A healthy ban on adverts: Motor sport should be included as well,’ The Guardian, August 23, 2002)
The Guardian editors take a cheap shot in their latest audit when they emphasise that they found more objections to ads for fashion brands that use low cost labour than to ads for cars and budget airlines (11% of Guardian readers and 10% of website users).
Why would readers feel strongly about the need to ban ads for high-emission transport when the subject has almost never been discussed by the media? The public needs access to serious discussion of the issues before it can reach an informed opinion. This is something media like the Guardian have never provided.
Ironically, Alan Rusbridger, editor in chief of the Guardian and Observer, states in the audit:
“One of the roles of the media is to boil down intensely complex subjects and make them comprehensible. If these issues are not aired and placed on the public agenda and debated with facts that are reliable, then it lets everyone off the hook.” (Alan Rusbridger, quoted, in Guardian News & Media, Jo Confino and Emma Wright, editors, ‘Living our values. Sustainability report,’ November 17, 2008;http://image.guardian.co.uk/sys-files/Guardian/documents/2008/11/14/report2008.pdf)
The Guardian has certainly let itself off the hook. Discussion of the media’s heavy reliance on advertising, and its corrosive impact on news coverage, is dangerous territory where journalists dare not venture.
Instead, Rusbridger baldly asserts: “As long as the journalism is free and we allow George Monbiot to criticise us, and we feel free to criticise the people who advertise – that is more important than advertising.”
The problem is that Rusbridger literally does mean George Monbiot. He is the only Guardian journalist who has seriously addressed the issue, and he is the only one likely to be able to do so in future. A lone voice is manageable; the Guardian would have a serious problem if several journalists on the paper began criticising major advertisers, who might well decide to switch to more supportive media platforms. This is a grave threat when advertising provides around 75 per cent of the Guardian’s revenue. (Peter Preston, ‘War, What Is It Good For?,’ The Observer, October 7, 2001)
The Guardian’s ‘Living Our Values’ (LOV) audit is, we are told, “up front about the contradictions between editorial and advertising.” The curious wording suggests that the famous “firewall” protecting editorial from advertising is not quite as all-consuming as we are led to believe.
Ownership by the Scott Trust puts the Guardian “in a privileged position,” the report continues. The newspaper has to be “profit-seeking, efficient and cost-effective,” of course, but it is “values-driven, not profit-driven”. The words are reassuring – and contradicted when the report reveals the underlying reality:
“The reason GNM is able to fulfil its core purpose [providing “liberal journalism”] is because of the financial support of its parent company Guardian Media Group (GMG). Over the past five years alone, GMG has invested £207m in GNM, part of which has gone into new all-colour presses and the development of our global website.
“GMG is able to do this by running a portfolio of profit-maximising businesses in areas such as radio, regional papers, property and second-hand car sales.” (LOV, p. 20)
The Guardian, then, is heavily dependent on “profit-maximising” businesses not normally associated with sustainability or “values-driven” performance.
Asked by the Scott Trust to restate the Guardian’s “values for the online era”, Alan Rusbridger declaims: “the trust exists to preserve the Guardian and its journalistic traditions in perpetuity… our journalists’ main relationships are with our colleagues and with readers, viewers or listeners.”
In the real world, numerous studies have exposed the close relationship between journalists, advertisers and bias. In 1978, Columbia Journalism Review published one researcher’s telling discovery:
“In magazines that accept cigarette advertising, I was unable to find a single article, in seven years of publication, that could have given readers any clear notion of the nature and extent of the medical and social havoc being wreaked by the cigarette smoking habit… advertising revenue can indeed silence the editors of American magazines.” (R.C. Smith, Columbia Journalism Review, 1978, January. See: http://www.ash.org.uk/files/documents/ASH_599.pdf)
Rusbridger also omitted to mention the journalists embedded with the military, with the political establishment, with corporate interests – producing material that is inevitably compromised by the need to carefully nurture influential news sources. Readers may recall, for example, the front-page Pentagon propaganda targeting Iran under Simon Tisdall’s byline last May. (Media Alert, ‘Pentagon Propaganda Occupies The Guardian’s Front Page,’ May 24, 2007)
“There should be a high premium on transparency, collaboration and discussion. At the same time we should allow plurality of opinion … the papers should promote minority views as well as mainstream argument and should encourage dissent.” (LOV, p. 11)
Some dissent, though, is not welcome. Since the Guardian’s cynical smearing of Noam Chomsky in October 2005, Rusbridger has flatly refused to engage with us or our readers – in the last three years he has not replied to a single one of our emails. Recently, in response to an article on media fakery on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website, we posted a comment about the Guardian’s own fakery in its treatment of Chomsky. The Guardian moderators deleted our comments and several others.
When we challenged the Guardian’s censorship, we were told our relevant remarks were off topic and had led to discussion that was “problematic.”. When we offered to publish a critical piece about the Guardian and the Scott Trust on Comment Is Free, we were asked by editor Georgina Henry: “But why would I be interested in commissioning piece about the Guardian and the Scott Trust from you?” (Email, August 22, 2007)
And yet Rusbridger says in the audit:
“We should behave fairly and allow our opponents a voice.”
Admirable sentiments of this kind are sprinkled throughout:
“Social justice has always been at the heart of our journalism.” (LOV, p. 5)
The report makes no mention of the fact that members of the Guardian Media Group Board and/or the Scott Trust have links with the corporate media, New Labour, Cadbury Schweppes, KPMG Corporate Finance, the chemicals company Hickson International Plc, Fenner Plc, the investment management company Rathbone Brothers Plc, global investment company Lehman Brothers, global financial services firm Morgan Stanley, the Bank of England…
Are we really to believe that a newspaper embedded in these establishment and corporate networks, and dependent on advertisers for 75 per cent of its revenues, can provide uncompromised coverage of a world dominated, and exploited, by these same powerful interests?
The Guardian claims to “desire to build trust in the media by becoming increasingly transparent about the decisions we reach and the way we implement them in both our editorial and commercial operations.” (LOV, p. 3)
A good place to start would be for GNM to tell us exactly how much money it takes from oil giants, car companies, airlines and other businesses heavily dependent on fossil-fuel consumption.
When we emailed George Monbiot for his response to the Guardian’s latest comments on advertising, he did not reply. Monbiot is a decent, well-intentioned person – we have great respect for him – but he is caught between the rock of honest dissent and the hard place of corporate priorities. A partial explanation for his silence is perhaps found on page 7 of LOV, where the Guardian unveils a plan:
“Expanding the role of George Monbiot, one of the most respected columnists writing about sustainability, to create video interviews with major figures.”
This is further evidence, if any were needed, that Monbiot continues to be used as a fig leaf to cover the Guardian’s failure to challenge power. Given the “profit-maximising” goals of the Guardian’s parent company, and the establishment figureheads of the Scott Trust, how could it be any other way?
The concession of an expanded role for Monbiot again recalls a favoured tactic of the tobacco industry. A memo from the company Philip Morris noted:
“… by opening a dialogue followed by a few minor concessions, the industry can be saved from heavy legislation for at least two to three more years.” (Philip Morris, 1976, ‘Trust US We’re The Tobacco Industry,’ Campaign For Tobacco-Free Kids;http://www.tobaccofreekids.org/campaign/ global/framework/docs/TrustUs.pdf)
In a recent guest media alert, former Guardian journalist, Jonathan Cook, wrote of dissident writers like Monbiot, Robert Fisk and John Pilger:
“However grateful we should be to these dissident writers, their relegation to the margins of the commentary pages of Britain’s ‘leftwing’ media serves a useful purpose for corporate interests. It helps define the ‘character’ of the British media as provocative, pluralistic and free-thinking – when in truth they are anything but. It is a vital component in maintaining the fiction that a professional media is a diverse media.”
PART 2 – IN PRACTICE
The Observer Smears Climate Activism
Despite the fine words of the ’Living Our Values’ audit, the Guardian and the Observer are part of a corporate system that is determined to prevent the public from interfering with the maximisation of profits.
Earlier this month, the Observer smeared climate activists by highlighting police warnings of a “growing threat of eco-terrorism”. The alleged threat is presented by a group called Earth First!, which the paper claimed “has supporters who believe that reducing the Earth’s population by four-fifths will help to protect the planet”. (Mark Townsend and Nick Denning, ‘Police warn of growing threat from eco-terrorists: Fear of deadly attack by lone maverick as officers alert major firms to danger of green extremism,’ The Observer, November 9, 2008)
The Observer implied no less than three times that Earth First! activists would not only like to see the Earth’s human population drastically reduced, but might be willing to take action to make that happen. The impression given was of a group bent on the mass murder of billions!
And yet, almost comically, the article focused on police concerns that “a ‘lone maverick’ eco-extremist may attempt a terrorist attack aimed at killing large numbers of Britons”.
If an entire group really is advocating mass murder, then presumably the concern is not for “a lone maverick”. And some kind of evidence – weaponry, plans, perhaps a declaration of intent – should be available to justify these extreme allegations. But none was provided by the Observer.
Worse still, the article linked eco-terrorists to some very sane and peaceable climate camps in Britain. A police unit, the Observer reported, “is currently monitoring blogs and internet traffic connected to a network of UK climate camps and radical environmental movements under the umbrella of Earth First!, which has claimed responsibility for a series of criminal acts in recent months.”
It seems that activists “are doing research of possible targets… they could research an airline and see how many of its aircraft are not environmentally friendly.”
The article thus insinuated that green terrorists “could” target airliners – a mere hypothetical possibility, but obviously a key public fear since the September 11, 2001 attacks.
A group of four academics from the universities of Aston, Keele, Kent and Southampton responded to the allegations in a letter to the Observer:
“Neither in Britain nor in the US have even the most radical environmental activists attacked people rather than property… Research on environmental direct action taken in the name of Earth First! in the past 16 years shows that activists are overwhelmingly committed to nonviolence, and are not using terrorism, violence, or any other direct action to seek to reduce the Earth’s human population.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/theobserver/2008/nov/16/18)
And what of the claim that the climate camps fall “under the umbrella” of the Earth First! group? We asked Kevin Smith, a member of the climate camp media working group, someone who has been involved in climate change activism since 2000, if this was an accurate description:
“No, not at all. Not in the slightest. There is no ‘umbrella’ for Climate Camp. It is a stand alone process. It involves a number of individuals who have been active in Earth First! networks, but no organisation has any sort of official representation or affiliation within the climate camp process.” (Email to Media Lens, November 18, 2008)
Likewise, the alleged involvement of a “network of climate camps” – a phrase perhaps intended to trigger fears of al Qaeda-style “cells” – is a myth. There have only ever been three climate camps in the UK – one every year for the last three years. The last was in August, lasting a week. No climate camp has ever resulted in a conviction for a violent offence.
Given the reality of impending climate catastrophe, the Observer’s demonisation of peaceable direct action is deeply irresponsible. The crisis is now so severe that everyone from Al Gore to leading NASA scientist James Hansen is supporting civil disobedience in an attempt to try and get something done. As Smith points out:
“The real extremists are the companies – such as E.ON and BAA – who are hell-bent on profiting from increasing C02 emissions by burning more coal and building more runways, and the government which is doing their bidding.” (Smith, letter to the Observer, email to Media Lens, November 17, 2008)
So what was the purpose of the Observer article? In their letter, the four academics wrote:
“When, in the late 1990s, some American politicians and media started to call activists ‘eco-terrorists’, it was the start of a concerted campaign which prepared the way for repressive policing and new laws curtailing fundamental civil liberties. Is the same thing about to happen here?”
Direct action is a potent way of pressing for political change. By associating that action with terrorism, the Observer is helping to dissuade the public from offering the support it urgently needs. More insidiously still, if the security apparatus subsequently chooses to crush this form of dissent, then the public will be less likely to object in the mistaken belief that a deadly “eco-terrorist” threat has been averted.
Chalk One For Media Activism – The Observer Withdraws The Story
On November 23, Stephen Pritchard, the Observer’s readers’ editor, wrote of the eco-terrorism article:
“It’s perfectly legitimate to report police security concerns, but none of the statements were substantiated. No website links were offered, no names were mentioned, no companies identified and no police source would go on the record.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree /2008/nov/23/readers-editor-climate-change)
“We’ve been here before. Other newspapers reported on a predicted ‘summer of hate’ at climate camps that never materialised and the Press Complaints Commission found against the Evening Standard at climate campers were planning attacks at Heathrow… I can’t verify that or the fears about mass murder because, despite repeated requests, Nectu won’t respond. Accordingly, The Observer has decided to withdraw the story.”
Kevin Smith sent us his response:
“On the one hand, I obviously think it’s great that the article has been taken down. I think this has real consequences in terms of it not being able to be used in court at a later date for the granting of injunctions and so on. I’m also really pleased in that between this and the upholding of the complaint against the Evening Standard last year at the PCC [Press Complaints Commission], we are sending out a message to the mainstream media that people can’t just print outrageous lies and slander against us and get away with it. It sounds like the paper was besieged from a number of different angles by people expressing their dismay at the article – it’s really heartening that so many people took this article seriously and took it upon themselves to make complaints.
“I appreciate the efforts of Stephen Pritchard in going through the process of holding the journalists in question accountable and making the decision to retract the piece, but I don’t want to get into the mentality of being grateful when it’s just horrendous that the article got printed in the first place. These ‘green backlash’ pieces were common at the height of the anti-roads protests in the Daily Mail and such papers, but I didn’t expect that sort of thing from the Observer.
“I’m also incredulous that such odious, shoddy journalism was able to make its way through all the various layers, people who should have checked it out and spotted it for what it was.
“It’s difficult when we spend so much time having to talk about the heavy-handedness of the police and repudiate these sorts of insidious aspersions, when what we are trying to do is have a serious conversation with the mainstream media about the real issues – the unsustainability of the model of constant economic growth in the face of the enormous ecological catastrophe we are facing.” (Email to Media Lens, November 25, 2008)
The last point is the most important. Media like the Guardian and the Observer are run by human beings – people who live on this planet, who have children and grandchildren who will be required to do the same over the next few decades. When will these journalists start having the kind of serious conversation about the real issues that people like Kevin Smith are seeking? When will they wake up from their glossy, PR version of the world to the reality of what we are doing to our planet, to the unimaginable disaster that is overtaking us?
What will it take before they wake up, before we all wake up, to the truth of where we are at this very moment, here, now?
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor
Email: [email protected]
Siobhain Butterworth, readers’ editor of the Guardian
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John Mulholland, editor of the Observer
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Mark Townsend, the Observer
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Please send a copy of your emails to us
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