“Truly independent”?: The Guardian and advertising
by Ian Sinclair
3 March 2015
The Guardian’s public profile is shrouded in the journalism equivalent of American Exceptionalism. And nowhere is this delusional belief stronger than among Guardian journalists themselves.
“The Guardian is truly independent”, explains Jonathan Freedland, the Executive Editor for Opinion at the newspaper. “Protected by the Scott Trust…we have no corporate owner telling us what to think… we are free to pursue the facts”. Guardian columnist Owen Jones may disagree with Freedland on many issues but on this topic they sing from the same hymn sheet. “The paper is unique for being owned by a trust rather than a media mogul… I have never been prevented from writing what I think”, the Labour Leftist recently assured readers.
The problem with this self-serving argument is there are obviously more influences on the editorial content of a newspaper than just its ownership structure. For example, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Propaganda Model of the media highlights five filters that produce the elite-friendly reporting that dominates the Western press – ownership, advertising, the sources used by journalists, the flak media organisations can receive and the dominant ideology of the period.
Resigning last month as the Telegraph’s Chief Political Commentator, Peter Oborne exposed how the interests of corporate advertisers had influenced the newspaper’s news agenda, limiting embarrassing stories about HSBC. Oborne’s principled analysis chimes with the thoughts of the BBC’s Andrew Marr, himself a former editor of the Independent newspaper: “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.”
For broadsheet newspapers, the sums are pretty telling, with advertising accounting for around 75% of their income.
Challenged by media watchdog Media Lens about the thickness of the ‘Chinese Wall’ between advertising and editorial at the Guardian, the paper’s most radical columnist George Monbiot retorted “If you have an example of the Guardian spiking a story on behalf of its advertisers, please send me a link.”
The Telegraph soon obliged, reporting how the headline of a 2014 Guardian article about Iraq had been altered to fit with the wishes of Apple, who had stipulated their advertising should not be placed next to negative news. “If editorial staff knew what was happening here they would be horrified”, the Telegraph quoted a “Guardian insider” as saying. Guardian columnist and former editor of the Times newspaper Simon Jenkins made a similar point in his response to the Oborne furore. Writing about the increasing influence of advertising on the layout and content of newspapers, he noted “Even the Guardian cannot be regarded as immune from such pressures”.
Despite this evidence, the focus on overt censorship is something of a red herring. First, because public arguments between advertisers and newspapers are extremely rare. The secretive relationship between the two has been well polished over decades of publishing. It’s rarely in the interest of either party that the partnership be exposed to the light of public scrutiny. And second, because the influence of advertising is far broader, subtler and therefore more insidious than the dramatic spiking of a single story.
James Twitchell, author of Adcult USA, explains the extent of the collaboration: “You name it: the appearance of ads throughout the pages, the ‘jump’ or continuation of a story from page to page, the rise of sectionalisation (as with news, cartoons, sports, financial, living, real estate), common page size, halftone images, process engraving, the use of black-and-white photography, then colour, sweepstakes, and finally discounted subscriptions were all forced on publishers by advertisers hoping to find target audiences.”
Just as fish probably don’t see the water they swim in, Guardian journalists seem unable to comprehend the journalism habitat they work in has been shaped by corporate advertisers.
But shaped it certainly has been. Since the renewed expansion of the Guardian’s US online presence in 2011 the centre of gravity of the newspaper’s online coverage and recruitment focus has shifted across the Atlantic. This shift was driven by commercial interests. According to Andrew Miller, the CEO of the Guardian Media Group, the move to the US was centred on a strategy to “increase the commercial opportunity of our readership”. Or as he put it later in the same interview: to “monetize the readership.” Two years later the Guardian’s website went global changing its domain to http://www.theguardian.com. Tanya Cordrey, the Chief Digital Officer at Guardian News and Media, explained why: “This will open up more worldwide commercial possibilities for us in markets across the globe, enabling us to offer our partners and advertisers increased access to our growing global audience.”
In early 2014 the Guardian signed a “seven-figure” deal with mega-corporation Unilever. The partnership established Guardian Labs, a “branded content and innovation agency” with 133 staff “which offers brands bold and compelling new ways to tell their stories and engage with influential Guardian audiences.” We certainly aren’t in Kansas anymore.
The Guardian regularly publishes sponsored content in the main part of the newspaper including a roundtable on sustainable diets funded by Tesco and a seminar on public health reform sponsored by Pfizer.
Indeed, what is the Guardian’s glossy Weekend magazine if not one giant advert? In 2013 the magazine’s blind date feature had one lucky couple jetting off to Los Angeles for the weekend courtesy of Air New Zealand. The previous October over 100,000 people marched in London in opposition to the most severe cuts to public spending since the second world war. On the same day the Weekend magazine thought it appropriate to publish an interview with actress Romola Garai accompanied by a photo shoot of her advertising a £5,800 dress.
All this is not to say the Guardian is worthless or shouldn’t be read. Far from it. There are many great writers doing brilliant work published in the Guardian – Monbiot and Jones among them – and many important news reports too. I buy the Guardian every day, and have even written for the paper a couple of times when they let me. What I’m arguing is we need to go beyond wishful thinking about Guardian Exceptionalism and seriously consider how corporate advertising and commercial interests influences, and likely limits, the breadth and depth of the editorial content of the newspaper.
This enlightening process is essential for positive social change. Because only once we understand the deficiencies of even our best media outlets can we begin to realise that radical alternatives are needed. And only once we have a clear understanding of what those problems are can we start to imagine what a better media will actually look like.