According to former Guardian editor Peter Preston approximately 75 per cent of British broadsheets’ total revenue is derived from advertising.
Speaking at a Guardian debate last summer on Sustainability in advertising, the paper’s current editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger didn’t just accept the status quo – he actually celebrated it. Quoting Francis Williams’s 1957 book Dangerous Estate, Rusbridger argued that "it was advertising that set the British press free." He went on to note that effectively "it was Wal-Mart that paid for the New York Times bureau in Baghdad." Cynics among you may see pitfalls with this relationship, but not the Guardian’s editor-in-chief. "I’ve always thought if Wal-Mart was happy to pay for the New York Times bureau in Baghdad, that’s great … as long as Wal-Mart demands nothing in return for that support," he said.
Sitting next to Rusbridger was George Monbiot, the most radical columnist at the Guardian. Monbiot took a more cautionary and self-flagellating line than his editor, arguing those who work in the media are "inconsistent and hypocritical" about the role of advertising. However Monbiot’s criticisms – that "advertising is a pox on the planet, rapidly driving us to destruction" – focused solely on the detrimental effect advertising has on a paper’s readers and society.
What both Oxbridge graduates failed to mention is the far more important – and far more worrying – relationship between advertising and the editorial content of newspapers. For starters Rusbridger seems to be unaware that the standard journalism textbook thoroughly debunks what it calls "the legend of the advertiser as the midwife of press freedom" espoused by Williams. In Power Without Responsibility media historians James Curran and Jean Seaton explain that the importance of advertising had a profound effect on the popular and radical press in 19th century Britain. Papers "that deepened and extended radical consciousness" like the Northern Star, Poor Man’s Guardian and Reynolds News "either closed down, accommodated to advertising pressure by moving upmarket, stayed in a small audience ghetto with manageable losses or accepted an alternative source of institutional patronage."
This overarching need to attract affluent readers – and therefore advertising – is the main reason why the immensely popular working-class Daily Herald struggled throughout its history while the business-orientated Financial Times still exists today. Curran and Seaton also argue the power of advertising is one of the reasons why "the press has long been more right wing than the public it is supposed to represent."
Turning to the present day, it is a truth universally acknowledged that those who dare to challenge journalists about the influence of advertising on editorial content will be ridiculed and roundly dismissed.
A few years ago I contacted the Eastern Daily Press querying why an advert for short-haul airline Flybe didn’t appear next to a report of a protest against the negative influence of the aviation industry on the city council. After all, the paper went to great lengths to position car adverts next to motoring editorial. Were adverts only placed next to similar news content only if the news content was positive, I asked? After dismissing my query as one based on "wild conspiracy theories" the then deputy editor signed off "we are a busy and sophisticated news operation, about which it is quite clear that you have not the slightest understanding."
The problem for our dangerously self-assured deputy editor is that there is a plethora of evidence contradicting him. In 2005 Advertising Age reported that British Petroleum and Morgan Stanley had both issued directives demanding that their ads be pulled from any publication that included potentially "objectionable" content. "BP went so far as to demand advance notice of any stories that mention the company, a competitor of the company or the oil and energy industry in general," it reported.
In my files I have a copy of a 1998 Coca-Cola memo which provides guidelines to magazine which Coca-Cola advertises in. Adverts should be placed next to "positive and upbeat editorial," the memo reads, and never adjacent to articles that deal with "hard news," "environmental issues" or "negative diet information (eg bulimia, anorexia, quick weight loss, etc)."
Some may dismiss these examples as atypical, but, as one anonymous editor told Advertising Age, there is "a fairly lengthy list of companies that have instructions like these." Even Andrew Marr, the most establishment of Establishment journalists, gets it. "The biggest question is whether advertising limits and reshapes the news agenda," he writes in My Trade, his personal history of British journalism. "It does, of course. It’s hard to make the sums add up when you are kicking the people who write the cheques."
Occasionally this incestuous partnership breaks down, as it did in 2005 when Marks & Spencer pulled all its advertising from Associated Newspapers’ three main titles in protest at what it saw as negative coverage. But these public flare-ups are extremely rare, as one would expect of a largely unspoken and secretive relationship that has been honed over years and years of publishing newspapers and hiring journalists. "The most stupid boast in the history of present-day journalism is that of the writer who says: ‘I have never been given orders; I am free to do as I like.’ We scent the air of the office. We realise that certain things are wanted, certain things unwanted," commented US press critic George Seldes about his fellow journalists in 1931.
A couple of caveats. First, it is important to remember that the press reliance on advertising is not an all-powerful censor, dictating the content of a newspaper. Rather it should be seen as an influential filter that shapes and limits the news agenda in a business-friendly direction.
The mainstream media is a large, complex entity with competing interests and therefore reports critical of advertisers have and will continue to be published. And there are principled and tenacious journalists such as Monbiot who will criticise the hand that feeds them – but they are few and far between.
Second, we shouldn’t forget that advertising is just one of many factors – corporate ownership, the educational background of journalists, reliance on official sources, the dominant ideology and the power of the public relations industry – that explains why the media acts as it does.
Yet it is clear that a press reliant on corporate advertising for its very survival will by definition always be compromised when it comes to providing accurate and objective information and analysis about the world we live in.
Only journalists whose professional integrity is called in to question by this link and the most naive fools will fail to follow the money and come to the logical conclusion. As US media analyst Robert McChesney succinctly put it, "So long as the media are in corporate hands, the task of social change will be vastly more difficult, if not impossible."