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Climate Of Silence


On May 13, 2002, Media Lens issued a media alert titled ‘The Media’s Stranglehold on the “Climate” Debate’:

We suggested that Media Lens readers contact Michael McCarthy and John Vidal – the environment editors of The Independent and The Guardian, respectively – to ask why their newspapers provide such minimal and skewed coverage of the likely disastrous impacts of human-induced climate change.

Why do these supposedly ‘left-of-centre’ papers virtually ignore the work of climate campaigners, the intense lobbying of politicians by big business, the massive sums of public monies that subsidise the fossil fuel industries, and the inadequacy of the Kyoto Protocol? We could easily have asked readers to email other major British broadsheets, such as The Times or The Telegraph. But for many greens and leftists, The Independent and The Guardian are probably the daily newspapers where they might expect fairer and more accurate reporting on the environment and social justice.

As far as we know, The Independent’s Michael McCarthy did not respond to any Media Lens readers, or to an email from the Media Lens editors. And although The Guardian’s John Vidal did not respond to Media Lens directly, he did respond to at least two Media Lens readers.

To one Media Lens correspondent, concerned about The Guardian’s paltry coverage of climate change and near-silence over the obstructionist business forces that are endangering people and planet, John Vidal responded with a virtual shrug of the shoulders:

‘What can I say? We bang on and on about climate change here and it only very slowly seeps into the public consciousness even in Europe.’ (Email dated 14 May, 2002).

But exactly why public debate should be so constrained, marginalised and manipulated is apparently not deemed a fit subject for readers of The Guardian. Certainly, to our knowledge, Vidal has never discussed the issue in any depth in his many years at that newspaper.

On the other hand, in a review of George Monbiot’s book Captive State in the December 2000/January 2001 issue of The Ecologist, Vidal was sufficiently emboldened to criticise his own newspaper for not running a review of this major book (the ‘reason’ given by The Guardian was that Monbiot has a regular column in the paper). In his review in The Ecologist, Vidal wrote as one clearly enjoying being unleashed from the constraints of what passes for reporting and analysis in the mainstream. He rightly charged that ‘the intellectual and political establishment – and I include the mainstream media of which I am part’ are loathe to tackle ‘the politicians, the local authorities, the corporations, and the many individuals and institutions’ whom Monbiot names and shames in his book.

Precisely why even The Guardian, the country’s top liberal newspaper, should shy away from seriously challenging established power is left unsaid. (But see the following essay for why that might be so: ). Certainly, Vidal is correct to point out that ‘the role of the media’ is a major omission from Monbiot’s book on the attack of state-corporate power on British society. In that case, why has Vidal himself never discussed the subject in depth in all the column inches he has enjoyed over many years at The Guardian?

To a second Media Lens reader, Vidal let rip on the state of the press, his own ‘liberal’ Guardian included:

‘ I find the situation worrying and stupid. The “leftish” press has indeed become cowardly and irresponsible. I regret this terribly. I think here at the Guardian, which for all its credentials as a left of centre paper, we have been terribly influenced by the Labour party and the unions in their long drift to the right. It becomes harder and harder, though this not because the editors are saying “write this or that” but because the whole culture has changed over the past 10 years. Self censorship is the problem. A new generation of journalists who have been brought up in Mrs Thatcher’s times (aaaarrrgggghhhh!, excuse me while I am sick) do not think for themselves, do not travel, only talk to their well-paid peers.’ (email dated10 June, 2002).

‘Self censorship is the problem’, claims John Vidal. That charge can also be levelled at The Guardian’s environment editor himself. After all, who can ever recall Vidal displaying the same refreshing candour about the parlous state of the media in any Guardian articles? But self censorship is only part of the problem; the roots go much deeper. The fact is that Vidal’s work, much fine environmental reporting notwithstanding, fits a wider pattern of media silence: as far as we are aware, there has +never+ been serious mainstream discussion of the implications for press freedom of the fact that the mass media is made up of profit-seeking corporations controlled by wealthy owners and giant parent companies, and dependent on corporate advertisers.

Media Lens is occasionally criticised – even by sympathetic supporters – for emphasising the shortcomings of the ‘liberal’ media outlets in the UK: the likes of The Guardian, The Independent (and their Sunday sister papers) and Channel 4 News. Shouldn’t we be targeting the ‘greater crimes’ of the right-wing press – Conrad Black’s Telegraph or Rupert Murdoch’s Times, for instance? – goes the argument. Why criticise the arguments and omissions of John Vidal, arguably one of the most eco-friendly/pro-social justice journalists in the mainstream today?

Our response first of all is that Media Lens has, in fact, highlighted many examples of media bias and omission in media other than ostensible ‘liberal’ or ‘centre-left’ outlets: both here and in the US (see our archive of media alerts). However, we have deliberately concentrated on the ‘liberal’ end of the media establishment because this is the section in which many people – particularly of a progressive bent – place most confidence (few people presumably believe that The Sun, the Telegraph or The Times safeguard press freedom or consistently challenge state-corporate power).

The point is that supposed ‘centre-left’ newspapers mark the limits of ‘acceptable’ and ‘respectable’ debate: ‘this far and no further’. That is why Media Lens devotes considerable attention to The Guardian, for example – not because it is worse than The Times or The Telegraph, but because it is, or should be, more progressive, probing and challenging of establishment interests. The Guardian is owned by the non-profit Scott Trust and, therefore, is supposedly relatively free of the commercial constraints of having to attract vast advertising revenues.

As senior Guardian columnist Hugo Young told us in response to the charge that his newspaper consistently neglects the role of the mass media in boosting the case for ‘free trade’:

‘The Guardian, being freer than some of crude capitalist proprietorship, may find it easier to raise the issues. Thank God for CP Scott!’ (email to David Cromwell, 2 May, 2000).

But the actual performance of The Guardian gives the lie to such complacency. The paper has by and large provided effective cover for the crimes and abuses of western state-corporate power over the years, while maintaining the illusion of providing a forum for radical challenge and serious debate.

It is not the ‘done thing’ to point out the huge deficiencies in the reporting and analysis of John Vidal, for example. To criticise, and run the risk of alienating, an experienced journalist long seen as sympathetic to environmentalists and other progressive campaigners could be seen as the kiss of death for valuable mainstream coverage. But if Vidal is as radical as one is allowed to be in the mainstream, then his performance ought to be held up for particular scrutiny.

Given that we may be just a few years away from a climate catastrophe, as The Guardian’s John Vidal and The Independent’s Michael McCarthy well know, it is imperative that we shine a spotlight on those who have been reporting on climate for years, while drawing little or no attention to the vast big business, including big business media, opposition to action on climate change. Is this acceptable, given the enormity of the threats facing us? How many people know the extraordinary extent of big business opposition to action on climate change? Should not the media and media personnel that are failing people and planet so badly, and perhaps terminally, at last be subject to serious, vigorous challenge?

We reiterate that Media Lens does not make, or condone, ad hominem attacks on journalists and editors; our approach is as far as possible based on rationality and compassion. We endeavour to hold up mainstream media arguments, omissions and biases for critical public scrutiny; we do not ridicule or abuse those who are responsible. When Media Lens points out the failings, as we see them, of individual editors and journalists, we try to place these failings in the context of the corrupt nature of the institutions in which they work, including the strong economic and ideological links of those media institutions with other centres of established power. Many fine and responsible professionals work as best they can within the constraints they encounter; many others are essentially forced out or leave because they feel that the price of compromise is too high.

The objective of Media Lens is to engage the mainstream in honest debate so that readers can make up their own minds about the relative merit of the arguments. But, as we have pointed out repeatedly, the response of the ‘free press’ to honest and serious challenges is most often silence, abuse or petulance.

Yes, occasionally, the truth does shine through. This should not be surprising. After all, a crucial element in our analysis of the western media is that it is not totalitarian. But the corporate media maintains an impression of openness and honesty precisely by publishing occasional honest pieces in an overwhelming context of propaganda and deception. This is not conspiracy; merely the way the system works. As US historian Howard Zinn, author of ‘A People’s History of the United States’, puts it:

‘All of these [elite power] interests operate, not through any conspiratorial decision, but through the mechanism of a well-oiled system, just as the irrationality of the economic system operates not through any devilish plot but through the profit motive and the market.’


SUGGESTED ACTION

The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Please write to John Vidal, environment editor of The Guardian. Ask him to what extent he feels that his reporting and analysis is constrained. Ask him what he thinks are the underlying reasons for such constraints, given that The Guardian is owned by the non-profit Scott Trust, rather than a media ‘mogul’ like Conrad Black or Rupert Murdoch. Remind him of his Ecologist review of ‘Captive State’ and ask him to expand on his comments on the role of the media in promoting state-corporate power.

Copy your emails to:

Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian:

And also copy your emails to Ian Mayes, the Guardian’s readers’ editor, as well as the Michael McCarthy, environment editor of The Independent, about his newspaper’s minimal coverage of the likely impacts of climate change, the work of climate campaigners, the lobbying of politicians by big business, and the inadequacy of the Kyoto Protocol. Ask him to report fully on the exorbitant public subsidies and tax breaks paid to the fossil fuel industry to the detriment of climate-saving renewable energy enterprises. Ask him why his newspaper makes so few links between the concerns of climate campaigners and ‘anti-globalisation’ protesters. (You could also ask why his newspaper, like other mainstream sources, persists in using that pejorative term, rather than say, ‘pro-democracy’ protesters.)

Copy your emails to:

Simon Kelner, editor of The Independent

and the letters page of The Independent

Please copy all your emails to editors at media lens

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