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2007

EXCHANGE WITH THE INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY’S REVIEW EDITOR

 

independent_070203_review_thumbIn our February 6 Media Alert, ‘In The Spirit Of Nero,’ we examined a cover story in the Review section of the February 4 Independent on Sunday. The cover read:

"Time is running out... Ski resorts are melting... Paradise islands are vanishing... So what are you waiting for?

“30 places you need to visit while you still can - A 64-page Travel Special..." (Shown left, click the image for a larger version)

A large number of readers wrote to the Review editor, Tim Lewis, who responded on February 7:

Dear David,

Thank you for your note. I have read it closely, along with your vigorous comments on Media Lens (as well as those of Media Lens readers).

As I’m sure you are aware, The Independent and The Independent on Sunday have promoted respect for the environment and the impact of climate change more than any other national newspaper group. The subject features frequently – to powerful and uncompromising effect – on the front cover and throughout both newspapers, and recent campaigns (such as criticism of supermarket packaging, for example) have been determined and pursued over the course of a considerable time span (and not just dropped after a couple of days).

We feel that The Independent’s credentials as a green newspaper are beyond dispute. This is one of our great strengths and something that our readers look to us for. To describe us as a newspaper that is “corporate” and one that indulges in “unrestrained consumerism” is trite and completely inaccurate. Of course, we need advertising to stay in business – would you prefer that The Independent and The Independent on Sunday ceased to exist? Who would pick up our high-profile campaigns on climate change? With reference to Marcus Fairs’ article, the idea that we received advertising on the back of this feature is untrue and potentially libellous.

Perhaps you are right to question where Fairs’ article fits in within the context of the “green” paper outlined above. The Independent was set up to reflect a diversity of opinion in the mainstream press, and, so long as this is not done in a reckless manner, we continue to uphold this belief. While the editorial staff of The Independent on Sunday might not share all of Marcus Fairs’ opinions, we will defend to the end his right to express them and our right to publish them. The subject matter was provocative, but we do not take our readers for idiots who can’t make up their own minds about these issues.

Was it irresponsible? Well, we would argue that the subject is not as straightforward as you make out. Our readers continue to use aeroplanes – as, of course, do environmentalists from Al Gore to Prince Charles – and ripping up our passports and vowing never to fly again will not solve the problem of global warming. One intention of the article was to highlight the rate at which our natural wonders are vanishing, which in turn would prompt our readers to consider the impact of climate change and the precariousness of our planet. We also tried, where possible, to lead our readers towards “ethical” agencies like responsibletravel.com

We should also not forget the benefits of tourism to local communities, and the impact this can have in leading them to protect their natural resources. I’m sure you will be familiar with various examples – from protected animals to coral reefs – around the world.

The article is certainly not without mistakes. We regret, for example, that we did not mention carbon offsetting to combat the effects of greenhouse gases emitted by taking any journey by aeroplane. Having said that, we would also call into question the approach of Media Lens. Instead of directing your subscribers to the full article to make up their own minds, you printed the most dramatic extracts in an attempt to rabble rouse and bully a response. You say that “the goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others” – in your response to this article, we have seen little of these qualities.

You are right to be angry about the treatment of environmental issues in the media, but picking a fight with The Independent does not seem the most appropriate place to start.

I am happy for you to reprint this letter on your website.

Yours sincerely,


Tim Lewis
Editor – The Sunday Review


We are grateful for such a thoughtful and detailed response. We replied on February 12:

Dear Tim

Many thanks for your reply. You write:

“As I’m sure you are aware, The Independent and The Independent on Sunday have promoted respect for the environment and the impact of climate change more than any other national newspaper group... We feel that The Independent’s credentials as a green newspaper are beyond dispute.”

It is probably true that the Independent titles have promoted respect for the climate more than any other newspaper group, which is admirable. But this hardly indicates that the Independent is a “green newspaper” or that its green credentials are “beyond dispute“. In evaluating such claims we need to consider what an authentically “green newspaper” would look like and what would characterise acceptable performance.

You write:

“To describe us as a newspaper that is ‘corporate’ and one that indulges in ‘unrestrained consumerism‘ is trite and completely inaccurate.”

To describe the Independent on Sunday as a corporate newspaper is a simple statement of fact. Your newspaper is part of Independent News and Media PLC (INMPLC), a public limited company. The company describes itself as: "a leading international media and communications group, with interests in Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, the United Kingdom and most recently, India... the Group publishes over 176 newspaper and magazine titles with a weekly circulation of over 29 million copies and operates over 70 on-line editorial and classified sites...

"The Group has grown consistently over the last 15 years by building a geographically unique and diverse portfolio of market-leading brands, and today manages gross assets of 3.9 billion euros, turnover of over 1.8 billion euros and employs over 11,000 people worldwide." (Independent News & Media website, www.inmplc.com/main.php?menu=menu2&mb=cp)

The primary focus of your corporate employer is on growing a diverse portfolio of market-leading brands generating gross assets of billions of euros. The wealthy owner of INMPLC, Sir Anthony O'Reilly, is candid enough:

"For the advertiser, the newspaper remains the most effective mechanism to convey to the potential consumer the virtue, value, colour and style of any new product, service or offering that he has." (O'Reilly, Independent News & Media Plc Annual Report 2004, p.3)

O’Reilly forgot to mention the role of the newspaper in overthrowing tyranny, oppression and the suffering that afflicts humanity more generally - perhaps he took that as read.

In our Media Alert we wrote that Independent titles are “crammed with the usual inducements to indulge in unrestrained consumerism”. You respond that this is “trite and completely inaccurate“. Again, it is a statement of fact. The latest advertisers to appear in the Independent on Sunday (February 11) include: Virgin Atlantic, Volkswagen, Ford, Suzuki, Nissan, Vauxhall, Skoda, Saab, Alfa, Barclaycard, Directline Insurance, Abbey, Invesco Perpetual, Nationwide, HSBC, Lloyds TSB, Egg, Boots, Dell, Apple, Sony, BT, Sky, WH Smith, Eurostar, Ebay, Guinness, Greene King IPA, Mornflake, Anglian...

But anyway, how green can the Independent and Independent on Sunday actually be? In his book, The Corporation, Canadian lawyer Joel Bakan notes that the senior managers of corporations are legally obliged, on pain of prosecution, to seek to maximise profits for shareholders. Bakan explains that corporate managers “must always put their corporation’s best interests first and not act out of concern for anyone or anything else (unless the expression of such concern can somehow be justified as advancing the corporation’s own interests)”. (Bakan, The Corporation, Constable, 2004, p.50)

Because investment tends to flow to corporations that maximise shareholder returns, the system powerfully selects for irresponsible greed. It is this relentless subordination of people and planet to short-term profit that has so rapidly destabilised the climate. The Independent is an integral part of this system: any green initiatives within the paper are constantly compromised by the need to serve its very reason for being - profit-maximisation.

A genuinely “green newspaper” would be one that, not only exposes, not only challenges, but actually seeks to loosen the grip of corporate fundamentalism on modern society. This the Independent titles - products of this selfsame fundamentalism - are manifestly powerless to do. It is therefore quite wrong to describe the Independent as a “green newspaper“. Instead the Independent titles have provided a powerful platform for their state-corporate allies and sponsors - and those of billionaire owner, Sir Anthony O’Reilly.

There has been positive reporting in the Independent but it has been contradicted, in fact buried, by the flood of corporate propaganda acting to stifle serious thought and action on environmental issues. Your papers, for example, happily provide space for BP’s mendacious "Beyond Petroleum" campaign directed at what the public relations industry calls "special publics". BP’s advertising for this campaign has been specifically focussed on the Independent, the Guardian, the Observer, the Financial Times, Prospect magazine, Channel 4 News and the New Statesman. James Marriott of the environmental social justice group, Platform (www.platformlondon.org) explains:

"The campaign is targeting the liberal intelligentsia. It's not focussed on drivers on the forecourts - it's focussed on changing the opinions of opinion formers. The idea is to bring them on side, to drive a wedge between them and people they perceive as intractable opponents. Shell has used the same tactic with considerable success." (See our Media Alert, The Insane Society, December 13, 2005)

Of course we can follow your example and argue that BP is a “green oil company” and that “Beyond Petroleum” is a courageous attempt to save the planet - the kind of claims corporations have been making for 40 years as the world has slid further into the abyss. But we cannot base the assertion on facts for the simple reason that, like INMPLC and other companies, BP is deeply secretive about exactly what it is doing, how and why. Ultimately the public is required to take these assurances on trust. The alternative would be for the Independent, for example, to publish full details of advertising revenues received from corporate sponsors, and to host free and open public debates on the issue of advertising in the age of climate disaster.

We have struggled to access detailed information on the advertising that provides 75 per cent of the Independent and Independent on Sunday‘s revenues. However, in 2005, media insiders told us that between January 1 and October 7, 2005, Independent News and Media PLC received the following revenues from advertisers:

BP Plc
£11,769 (this figure has risen substantially since October 2005 as a result of the 'Beyond Petroleum' campaign)

Citroen UK Ltd
£418,779

Ford Motor Company Ltd
£247,506

Peugeot Motor Co Plc
£260,920

Renault UK Ltd
£427,097

Toyota (GB) Ltd
£715,050

Vauxhall Motors Ltd
£662,359

Volkswagen UK Ltd
£555,518

BMI British Midland
£60,847

Bmibaby Ltd
£12,810

British Airways Plc
£248,165

Easyjet Airline Co Ltd
£59,905

Monarch Airlines
£15,713

Ryanair Ltd
£28,543 (Email to Media Lens, December 12, 2005)

You write:

“Perhaps you are right to question where Fairs’ article fits in within the context of the ‘green’ paper outlined above.”

In fact it fits perfectly with the reality that the Independent is a corporate shark, red in tooth and fin, with a green tinge around the gills.

You also write:

“The Independent was set up to reflect a diversity of opinion in the mainstream press, and, so long as this is not done in a reckless manner, we continue to uphold this belief.”

Journalist Hannen Swaffer said it rather better in 1928:

"Freedom of the press in Britain means freedom to print such of the proprietor's prejudices as the advertisers don't object to." (Quoted, The Oxford Dictionary of Political Quotations, Oxford, 2001, p.350)

In hundreds of Media Alerts over the past five years we have shown how, on issue after issue, the “diversity of opinion” in the Independent strongly reflects elite opinion in this way, with very occasional, token contributions from grassroots or radical commentators (such as Noam Chomsky who made one of his vanishingly rare appearances in your paper on February 11).

Dramatic front pages are often positive, but they are also a form of niche marketing - one that obscures the deeply reactionary content of much Independent reporting and commentary.

You add:

“Instead of directing your subscribers to the full article to make up their own minds, you printed the most dramatic extracts in an attempt to rabble rouse and bully a response.”

The extracts spoke for themselves. How is it possible to make Fairs’s brazen call for irresponsibility less irresponsible? Greg King, an area manager for the sustainable transport charity SUSTRANS, made the point that matters in his email to you. We should emphasise that King was writing in a personal capacity:

“It beggars belief how such an article can make it into a newspaper. By any assessment this piece is idiotic and absolutely disgraceful. How can you possibly justify printing an article which states (among many other things) that ‘We are aware that we will soon have to act more sustainably, which gives us all the more reason to be irresponsible while we still can‘.

“There is already an urgent imperative to act more sustainably. Climate change is already destroying peoples' lives in the developing world (according to the WHO 150,000 are already dying prematurely as a direct result of climate change) and it is already putting our children’s, grandchildren’s, and perhaps even our own futures in serious jeopardy.

“This article appearing in your paper reflects very poorly on you and your staff.” (King, email to Tim Lewis, February 8, 2007)

Our readers are not a “rabble” - their rationality often puts mainstream journalism to shame. From the emails you have received, you will know that many of them are the same Independent readers you claim are smart enough to “make up their own minds about these issues”.

As for bullying - media companies are authoritarian institutions in which power flows from the top, and in which journalists are accustomed to unaccountability and public deference. No surprise, then, that public participation - even when limited to the sending of polite, rational emails - feels like bullying. The technical term for what you have experienced is: democracy.

Best wishes

David Edwards and David Cromwell


SUGGESTED ACTION

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 Tim Lewis, editor of the Independent on Sunday’s Review supplement
Email: t.lewis@independent.co.uk

Write to Tristan Davies, editor of the Independent on Sunday
Email: t.davies@independent.co.uk

Ask them how they can justify Marcus Fairs’s article describing mass death from climate change as “a window of opportunity” for long-distance travellers.

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