Rebranding The Conquistadors As Social Justice Warriors – The Guardian, Corporate Sponsorship And ‘Branded Content’

Even a progressive journalist like Glenn Greenwald can’t shake off a rose-tinted view of the paper he once wrote for:

‘Like everything, it’s very imperfect, but survival of the @Guardian as a large, vibrant media outlet is important’

But in what sense is the Guardian’s survival actually ‘important?’ Our response:

‘Important for the hawking of Perpetual War as “humanitarian intervention” and corporate tyranny as “democracy”.’

From the moment Jeremy Corbyn stood as prospective Labour leader, the Guardian has waged a relentless campaign to destroy this rare shoot of progressive hope. The paper has backed away from the truth about state and corporate power fuelling yet more catastrophic climate change. It has failed to fully and consistently expose the corporate basis to the climate denial campaign and the corporate capture of the ‘mainstream’ media in facilitating this. These are salient horrors, but the list could go on…

Like most newspapers, the Guardian is struggling financially and is desperately worried about a dwindling stream of advertising revenue. The paper’s declared intent of becoming ‘the world’s leading liberal voice’, with rapid expansion in the US and Australia, has backfired, leading to the need for significant cuts including likely job losses.

As a result, the paper is heading ever deeper into the murky world of ‘branded content’ to raise much-needed funds from corporate advertisers. This is overseen by the pseudoscientific-sounding ‘Guardian Labs’, a division of Guardian News & Media which was launched in 2014. Guardian Labs currently brings in 16% of the newspaper group’s revenue. But it is expected to ‘make a far, far greater contribution’ over the next three years.

Readers should be ever more sceptical about what this means for the supposed fiercely independent and balanced journalism that the paper forever claims to publish. The latest salvo in this Guardian PR blitz appeared last Monday when Chris Elliott, the readers’ editor, wrote about changes in how commercially sponsored content in the paper is to be labelled.

Firstly, the phrase ‘sponsored by’ will no longer appear. It will be replaced with ‘supported by’ which will, claimed Elliott, ‘describe editorially independent content’ even when the funding has come from ‘third parties’. Such funding includes:

‘The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help support the Guardian’s Global Development site; and a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to support the Guardian’s Cities project.’

These ‘independent’ pieces are written by Guardian and Observer journalists ‘to the same standards expected in all of our journalism’. The mind boggles.

Secondly, straight ‘advertisement features’ will now be labelled ‘paid content/paid for by’. Such content is ‘paid for and controlled by the advertiser rather than’ the Guardian.

In his defensive piece, Elliott dismissed a recent campaign by pressure group 38 Degrees aimed at the Guardian’s partnership with Shell, the giant oil corporation. Last year, the paper had attempted to project a green image by supporting a move away from fossil fuels and to ‘keep it in the ground’ instead. Elliott now provided a corporate response issued by a ‘Guardian spokesman’ to justify its close assocation with Shell:

‘Shell and the community jobs site Working Mums are co-sponsoring the Guardian’s Work/Life balance hub on our Women in Leadership network. The hub is focused on how working parents can use flexible working culture to manage both their job and their home life.’

That PR statement may as well have come from Shell itself.

The ‘Guardian spokesman’ continued:

‘The acceptance of advertising or partnership content in no way affects our editorial position.’

Of course, newspapers always make this claim, adamant that there is a ‘firewall’ between advertising and journalism. The reality is different, as we have noted on several occasions. Indeed, advertising is one of the five ‘news filters’ identified in Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model that provides the best explanation for the state- and corporate-biased output of Western news media.

Even the BBC’s Andrew Marr, a journalist who is about as firmly embedded in the establishment as it is possible to be, admitted that advertising helps to shape the news:

‘It does, of course. It’s hard to make the sums add up when you are kicking the people who write the cheques.’ (Andrew Marr, ‘My Trade – A Short History Of British Journalism’, Macmillan, 2004, p.112)


Corporate Press Release Disguised As Guardian News Article

The Guardian’s trumpeting of its commitment to ‘clear labelling’ of branded content is therefore a cynical distraction from the inherently biased nature of advertising-reliant news media. Moreover, even the paper’s spurious claim to ‘clear’ labelling collapses under scrutiny.

Consider the following powerful example. In November 2014, the Guardian laudably published a piece by investigative journalists Claire Provost and Matt Kennard on its ‘Global development’ website. The article was critical of corporate behaviour over scarce water resources in El Salvador. It noted that:

‘While big companies make millions from El Salvador’s water-rich Nejapa municipality, locals have little or no access to water.’

Large corporations run factories and warehouses in Nejapa, bottling water and fizzy drinks for distribution and export. These industrial operations consume huge supplies of water, even as the locals struggle to find enough clean water to drink. One local woman compared the companies moving into her area to the Spanish conquistadors who invaded America in the wake of Christopher Columbus:

‘I think we are practically reliving the period. They come, they exploit, they destroy, and then they leave to find some other place where they can continue the exploitation and destruction. And we have nothing.’

One of these companies is a subsidiary of SABMiller, the world’s second largest brewer and one of the world’s largest bottlers of Coca Cola products. It just so happens that SABMiller sponsors a section of the Guardian’s Global Development Professionals Network. Just three days after Provost and Kennard’s critical piece appeared online, a supposed Guardian news article was published that was, in effect, a press release from SABMiller intended to limit damage to its reputation. The piece absolved the company of any wrong-doing, deflecting blame elsewhere:

‘Latin America’s efforts to manage its fresh water supplies are being frustrated by poor infrastructure, a lack of sewerage systems and inconsistent regulation.’

The Guardian article largely consisted of a string of quotes provided by Karl Lippert, president of the Latin American division of SABMiller. He was bluntly dismissive of any criticism levelled at his company:

‘The way that the public and the politicians think about water is too simplistic.’

Lippert sniffed that ‘people will say things’ and that while ‘we understand that they’re frustrated’, their anger ‘is misplaced’. The Guardian itself boosted his propaganda by pointing to SABMiller’s supposed ‘commitment to collaboration and sustainability’. The claim was the Guardian’s own; not a quote provided by Lippert. Advertising really does pay, it seems.

That the newspaper should publish what was clearly a face-saving press release disguised as a news story, a mere three days after a critical piece of reporting, is remarkable. This further exposes the deception that newspapers are unbending before powerful corporate advertisers. Can you imagine, for example, an environmental organisation or peace group having that kind of clout with a newspaper? How likely is it that the Stop The War coalition, for instance, would be allowed a puff piece masquerading as news three days after taking a hammering in a Guardian article?

Matt Kennard, co-author of the article exposing SABMiller’s role in water exploitation in El Salvador, told Media Lens that the company has ‘the most aggressive PR team I’ve ever come across’, adding that ‘they went ballistic when I told them I would not send them the article in full before publication’ (email, February 3, 2016).

As proof of their supposed social and environmental credentials, SABMiller sent Kennard a link to what he describes as a ‘CSR [corporate social responsibility] fluff piece’ (since removed) that was published on the Guardian ‘Sustainable Business’ partner zone website. This is illustrative of the cynical way big business can exploit a ‘partnership’ with the Guardian.

They also sent him a SABMiller report co-authored by Coca Cola and Oxfam America, as proof of the kindness of their corporate hearts. The report professed a corporate mission ‘to foster sustainable communities’, to seek ways for business to ‘bring more benefit to more people’ and to ‘meet the needs of our consumers and the communities in which we operate’. All of this corporate PR-speak was given kudos by the collaboration with Oxfam America. The anti-poverty group describes its involvement with ruthless corporations that exploit developing countries as ‘engag[ing] with companies seeking to leverage their resources, creativity, and influence to pro-poor ends.’

As Kennard told us:

‘NGOs [Non-governmental organisations] are very much into taking corporate money now, a story we are working on at the moment.’

We have also previously noted the co-opting of NGOs by big business.

Kennard continued:

‘The Guardian must have come under intense pressure from SABMiller after publishing our piece. The company, I imagine, contacted the paper and demanded they do an interview about water stress in Latin America. The Guardian should have refused, and may well have refused if it were not for the funding. Who knows?’

As we observed near the beginning of this alert, the Guardian is already deeply compromised by its involvement with, indeed reliance on, large corporate advertisers. This particular example brings such compromise into stark perspective; but it is a systemic problem. It would be surprising if similar cases have not happened before and have simply gone unnoticed. Perhaps they have been allowed to pass in silence because the relevant journalists did not wish to harm their employment prospects in the media industry.

The Guardian’s ongoing attempts to sell itself as untainted by the undoubted impacts of corporate advertising in manufacturing consent for elite aims are dishonest and do not fool informed readers.



Suggested Action

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Katharine Viner, editor of the Guardian

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @KathViner