Can we trust the media on the environment?

Are we getting the facts about the world from a free press, or being led astray by a corporate media uninterested in the real issues? Writer and thinker David Edwards argues it out with environmental journalist Caspar Henderson

Dear Caspar Henderson,

The mass media is made up of profit-seeking corporations owned by wealthy individuals and a handful of giant transnational parent companies. These media corporations are all tied into the stock market and are all highly dependent on advertising revenue. Indeed, the media’s primary products are audiences, preferably wealthy ones, which are sold to advertisers.

Naturally enough, advertisers are extremely sensitive to media content. Proctor & Gamble, the world’s biggest advertiser, has explicitly prohibited programmes ‘which could in any way further the concept of business as cold, ruthless, and lacking all sentiment or spiritual motivation’. No mention was made of programmes accurately depicting the corporate devastation of the environment. The Economist reports that media ‘projects unsuitable for corporate sponsorship tend to die on the vine,’ adding that ‘stations have learned to be sympathetic to the most delicate sympathies of corporations’.

In the US, NBC and CBS are owned by arms manufacturers General Electric and Westinghouse, respectively. Oil companies such as Exxon, Texaco, and Mobil have representatives on the boards of these media giants, as has Lockheed Martin, which builds the F-22 fighter. A survey by the American Society of Newspaper Editors revealed that a third of editors ‘would not feel free to run a news story that was damaging to their parent firm’. In Britain, Donald Trelford came close to being sacked as Observer editor by proprietor Tiny Rowland after he damaged Rowland’s interests by exposing atrocities in Zimbabwe. Rowland openly declared that his company would not support an editor who ‘showed no concern for [its] commercial interests’.

The situation, then, is one in which profit-seeking media corporations, tied into the stock market status quo, are surrounded by giant profit-seeking trans-national corporations, by which they are owned, on which they are dependent, and by which they are subject to levels of influence capable of humbling national governments. As a result, as Noam Chomsky has written, the basic operating principle of the US and British media, rarely violated, is that ‘what conflicts with the requirements of power and privilege does not exist’.

Because the corporate media system is in no way separable from the wider corporate system, the question should properly be reformulated as ‘Can the corporate system be trusted to police and reform itself?’ The answer, quite obviously, is, ‘No’. Political scientist Thomas Ferguson observes that the major media, ‘controlled by large profit-maximising investors, do not encourage the dissemination of news and analyses that are likely to lead to popular indignation and, perhaps, government action hostile to the interests of all large investors, themselves included’.


No issue is more hostile to the interests of large investors, media included, than the corporate destruction of the environment for profit.

The Channel 4 series, Against Nature, claimed that environmentalism is ‘based on a fear of change’, and has its roots in ‘xenophobic right wing movements’, such as 'the German Nazis’. In response to my complaint about this programme, Michael Jackson, Chief Executive of Channel 4, wrote, ‘The small but significant group of people who hold views opposed to the environmental lobby have rarely been seen on British television.’

Endless adverts, business dailies, and programmes pushing cars, travel and fashion, do not qualify, apparently. Occasional references to environmental issues feels like balance to media executives like Jackson, because even a little of this self-harming coverage seems a lot. Unfortunately, many environmentalists – raised on a diet of media exclusion – have also lost sight of what constitutes appropriate coverage, as the sheer weight of scientific evidence and public concern have forced the environment onto the agenda to a limited extent.

Global warming, for example, is reported, but the level of coverage - even now, with thousands dying in giant storms ‘clearly tainted by human actions’, according to scientists - is dwarfed by the seriousness of the threat. Likewise, the pitiful response that is the Kyoto Protocol - proposing a 5.2% cut in greenhouse gas emissions as against the 60% required to stabilise the climate - and the true depth of business opposition to even these cuts, are accorded a tiny fraction of the coverage they merit.

Compare the mass hysteria generated by the media in response to the merely hypothetical (and in fact largely invented) ‘threat’ of Soviet invasion during the Cold War, with floods of Hollywood films, front-page stories and documentaries. What is the difference? The ‘red menace’, granted official approval by business-dominated Western governments, powerfully boosted corporate interests, generating massive arms budgets for high-tech industry. It also provided a pretext for military interventions securing Third World resources for Western corporations against the real threat of independent nationalism in countries like Guatemala, Nicaragua, Vietnam and Indonesia. Global warming, downplayed by the same governments, does not promote but threatens giant oil, automobile and construction interests; facts similarly reflected in the media where, as journalist Ross Gelbspan has noted, news on global warming evokes an ‘eerie silence.’

David Edwards

Dear David Edwards,

Can we learn the truth about the environment from the media?  Yes, one can glean a lot if one is prepared to make an effort. The war is not lost.

The abuses you point to are indeed matters of enormous concern.  But your analysis does not tell the whole story. Firstly, not all mass media are driven solely by the logic of profit maximisation - yet. Secondly, one should not overestimate the power of the mass media or oversimplify a situation in which competing commercial interests do not always share common goals. Thirdly, one should not underestimate power of smaller media, such as specialist publications, and new media, such as the internet, to communicate truth about the environment in ways that can help to bring about change for the better.

In the UK and some other countries we still have public sector broadcasters which, on the whole, are not subject to the constraints you outline. I certainly don't contend that public corporations like the BBC are anything near perfect; but they do provide relatively unbiased and informative accounts of many issues, including environmental ones, to a large public. Occasionally, they do a very good job of it.

As for the commercial mass media, ownership is excessively concentrated amongst a handful of mega-corporations in Europe, North America and other regions, and the existence of such powerful cartels is almost always inimical to the greater public good. 

Of course, commercial media organisations are highly dependent on advertising revenue - but not all of them are solely so. Newspapers, for example, can also benefit from increased sales directly to readers. This means that, where they think it will sell copies, some papers will run with a story that is unsympathetic to commercial interests.
Take a recent example in the UK. Some mass market papers saw a chance to increase sales with stories hostile to genetically modified foods. While some of this coverage was sensational, did not reflect the full complexity of the issues and frequently central points, it did help to stymie the plans of at least one extremely powerful corporation for a while.

Or look even at Hollywood. An industry which is entirely motivated by profit and is or was until quite recently the United State's biggest export earner, is producing blockbusters about major wrongdoing by corporations like The Insider and Erin Brokovitch. While these films are unusual, they did reach a big public.

But sporadic and inconsistent exposure is certainly not enough, especially when it comes to really big issues like the one to which you have made particular reference, global warming. Even here, however, things are not as bad as they could be. And, as you appear to concede, we are not in a situation where, in the words of Noam Chomsky, a man seldom characterised by understatement, ‘what conflicts with the requirements of power and privilege does not exist’.

This brings me to another key point - the importance of smaller and specialist media. Taking global warming as our example, consider some relatively small but influential publications (the instances I mention are from the UK because that's the country I know best). Some of the best coverage of climate change issues in English that I'm aware of has been in the New Scientist. This magazine, owned by Reed Business Information Group and run for profit, has a circulation of well over 100,000. Its readers are highly educated, and, while I don't want to suggest that such self-selecting élites are as important as some of their members might wish, you would surely agree that they are not without influence.

Or take The Guardian, a newspaper in a highly competitive market which carries as much advertising as other broadsheets, but still manages to include good coverage of climate change, among other issues. The Guardian regularly sells around 400,000 copies - not a mass market, but not peanuts either.

I do share your concern that present coverage is insufficient given the scale of the problem - perhaps even hopelessly insufficient.  But I do not believe that this is all the fault of ‘capitalism’. There is an understandable human tendency to be concerned about the issues with the most immediate impact on one's own life and the lives of those close to us. In most places climate change is not in that category.

You write that the question introducing our debate should properly be reformulated as ‘can the corporate system be trusted to police and reform itself?’ My answer is: obviously not. One of the really big questions, I think, is how do we create a system in which abuse of media power at the expense of public goods like protection of the environment is ended, without curtailing a free media? 

Among the first steps, I'd argue, is to ensure that all corporations making substantial profits pay meaningful amounts of tax. It's a small step but still an important one. Another point to consider is how new media such as the internet can do in spreading more progressive views. I hope we may discuss this in future letters. 

Caspar Henderson

Dear Caspar 

You say of media performance on global warming that ‘things are not as bad as they could be’. Caspar, people are dying in their thousands, a century of ‘super-disasters' is predicted, massive cuts in emissions are required now, significant cuts are not even on the agenda, while even the tiny cuts proposed are being vigorously opposed by business. Where are the front-page stories, the media campaigns, the TV series, merited by a situation in which the planet is quite possibly on the brink of an environmental holocaust? Frank Mankiewicz, a senior PR executive, has said: ‘The companies are too strong, they’re the establishment. The environmentalists are going to have to be like the mob in the square in Romania before they prevail.’ That’s the attitude, the truth, and it applies equally to the corporate media.

It’s unfortunate that you should choose the BBC as an example of a ‘relatively unbiased’ public broadcaster. The BBC’s World Service was originally called the Empire Service, was funded by the Foreign Office and still is. After the Second World War, its role was to ‘preserve and strengthen the Commonwealth and Empire’ and ‘increase our trade and investments abroad’. The BBC’s founder, Lord Reith, once described the real relationship of the BBC with the establishment in his diary: ‘They know they can trust us not to be really impartial.’

In December 1997, the BBC2 series, Scare Stories, said of global warming, ‘they [environmentalists] have cried wolf once too often… It’s been a campaign driven by passionate belief rather than verifiable fact’. This, two months after 1,500 of the world’s most distinguished scientists had signed a declaration urging world leaders to act immediately to prevent the ‘potentially devastating consequences of human-induced global warming’.

Newspapers are not wholly dependent on advertising revenue (although the New York Times, for example, is made up of 60 per cent adverts); this is only one of a range of important constraints. As you say, newspapers benefit from increased sales to readers. Best of all, then, are harmless stories which intrigue readers but do not upset owners, advertisers, parent companies or governments: David Beckham’s haircut, perhaps, but not the hideous truth of what corporations are doing to our world.

The GM debate in the media has certainly hurt big business. But how did it get there? Sue Mayer of Genewatch worked with Greenpeace on the GM issue in the early nineties. Mayer says that ‘trying to get coverage and to get the media to take it seriously in those days was next to impossible. There was a real unwillingness.’

Newspapers only overcame their natural reluctance to confront big business when members of the public, outraged by the BSE disaster, refused to tolerate the fact that they were being force-fed GM soya in food, without even labelling: ‘Public interest groups forced it onto the agenda’, Mayer says. ‘People say this has been whipped up by the papers. That just simply isn’t the case. They are rather belatedly reflecting popular concerns.' Popular pressure succeeded despite the media – the opposite of your contention.

The Guardian does occasionally report stories with merit, but journalist Andrew Rowell, who helped break the GM story in The Guardian, does not share your optimism: ‘It is becoming increasingly difficult to get hard-hitting current affairs stories that have an in-depth understanding of environmental, development or human rights issues into the media, especially the broadcast media.’

Business-unfriendly facts and ideas are reported; it’s not monolithic, but it doesn’t have to be. Occasional crumbs of truth serve to keep us passive and trusting, unaware of the barely believable scale of the havoc being wrecked by corporations in the environment and the Third World.

David Edwards

Dear David,

James Lovelock, one of the most significant contributors to the science of climate change, told me in a recent interview that he thought the most stringent targets – such as a 20 per cent cut in emissions of greenhouse gases by some industrial nations – were a joke.

He continued: ‘It's almost a waste of time trying to do anything about significantly reducing emissions until the first disaster hits us and people's minds are suddenly concentrated… I wish I could be more optimistic; but consider: it's taken nearly a century to build mechanisms for peace in Europe, and we have nothing like that where the environment's concerned. Yet severe [climate] destabilisation is coming on us faster than ever’.

I fervently hope Lovelock is wrong, but do not discount the possibility he may be right. It may be true that people are dying in thousands because of climate change, but it's important to understand a central, uncomfortable point: this is happening ‘elsewhere’, so far as the majority of the public here is concerned.

J.K. Galbraith characterised nations like ours as ‘affluent societies’, where a preponderance of people enjoy pretty good living standards. But a large minority still live in appalling conditions. A recent BBC report showed social workers from Nepal, one of the most materially poor countries on Earth, commenting after working in Britain that the poverty they experienced at home was not nearly as bad as the poverty of spirit and the social isolation found in places like Glasgow sink estates.

The point is that even terrible things happening close to home don't necessarily lead to revolutionary improvements when a majority is apathetic. So the prospect of people coming out on the streets in this or other industrial countries in numbers big enough to topple an administration over a complex climatic phenomenon that is having no apparent adverse effect on their everyday lives is slim indeed. For this reason, Mankiewicz's analogy with pre-1989 Romania is misleading. We do not live in a society with no free media, where people are forcibly trans-located in huge numbers, and where the best-funded and most effective organisation is a paramilitary secret police.

Thanks for the history lesson on the BBC. I'd guess Lord Reith was writing fifty years ago or more. More recently, the Corporation has, on occasions, been far too close to government for comfort, and, as someone who has worked there, I can attest it has its share of toadies and dunderheads. But the fact remains that the BBC continues to broadcast challenging environmental coverage on TV, radio and the internet.

I agree with you that many newspapers often do a lousy job. To my earlier comments that they are sensational, simplistic and frequently miss the main point we should add ‘often very slow to react’.

On the issue of GM foods, what I actually wrote was that newspaper coverage ‘helped to stymie the plans of at least one extremely powerful corporation’. Sue Mayer is right when she says pressure groups forced the issue onto the media agenda. The papers reacted to and capitalised on this. Their mass market appeal was an important factor, but not the only one.

Paul Brown, Environment Correspondent of The Guardian, confirms Andrew Rowell's experience. Even at supposedly enlightened papers, he reports, there is an entrenched attitude of ‘we've had enough of that ecobollocks’. 

The point is to keep fighting. This is necessary and possible. Look, for example, at John Pilger's recent TV programme about Iraqi sanctions: an hour of prime time on the most watched national network in the UK (a commercial one too), demonstrating that US and UK government behaviour can, at best, be termed criminally stupid. Let us hope that programmes like this help move us to a ‘tipping point’, where big changes happen suddenly.

What are your thoughts on the question posed in my first letter about how to create a better media worthy of an open society?  And what about the role of alternative and new media?

Caspar Henderson

Dear Caspar,

I cannot accept your view of the ‘apathetic’ majority, with its ‘understandable human tendency to be concerned about the issues with the most immediate impact on one’s own life’. Following John Pilger’s documentary, Death of a Nation, on a far-distant place called East Timor, British Telecom registered 4,000 calls a minute to the ‘helpline’ number displayed at the end of the programme. After a unique televised debate between Andrew Marr and Noam Chomsky on media control, the producer was ‘inundated’ with a flood of letters the like of which he had never seen. Your comments bring to mind John Milton’s words: ‘They who have put out the people’s eyes, reproach them of their blindness.’

Mankiewicz, I think, did not intend his comments literally. He was suggesting what has been obvious for a long time: in societies run by elites profiting massively from injustice, exploitation and cruelty, there never have been and never will be ‘gifts from above’. As with GM food, as with East Timor, as with Seattle and globalisation, the best ‘journalists’ are ordinary people whose compassion and rationality, combined and focused, are able to overcome the irrationality and brutality that are the hallmarks of concentrated power to force issues onto the agenda. 

Alongside our ozone, global warming and anti-globalisation campaigns, green and human rights groups desperately need to campaign on the issue above all issues: the right not merely to listen but to speak. Only when the public demands that the channels of mass communication be liberated from the corporate stranglehold, will there be a chance of understanding, much less solving, the problems facing us. As Eduardo Galeano has said, beneath the TV smiles and the multi-layered makeovers: ‘Never have so many been held incommunicado by so few’.

David Edwards

Dear David,

I've never been called an eye-gouger before (‘alas, poor Gloucester; lost he his other eye?’). But seriously, it's great that thousands of people in this country feel sufficiently concerned after seeing issues like the massacres in East Timor presented on mainstream media to telephone for more information or to write a letter. I hope a significant proportion follow up that small step with more substantial political activity.

The more that ‘ordinary’ people do their own analysis and provide their own accounts the better. And Mark Twain's description of hacks as 'ignorant, self-complacent simpletons who failed at ditching and shoe making and fetched up in journalism on the way to the poorhouse' is as true as ever. Nevertheless, for the foreseeable future, society can benefit from having appropriately trained specialists in journalism as much as in fruit growing or health care.

Calling for people to 'liberate mass communication from the corporate stranglehold' may give you a buzz, but it's not a plan; it's a post-Marx version of summoning spirits from the vast deep. Recall another Twainism: ‘we all do no end of feeling and we mistake it for thinking’.

In addition to saying what we feel, let's use our heads. What is the strategy? What are the tactics? Will there be a role for existing commercial or public media?

In the four days of our exchange, Channel 4 and BBC2 have broadcast hour long programmes at prime time on the serious threats of global warming (Deluge: the Drowning Earth, and Nature Special: A Warning From the Wild), and the Chairman of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution has told Radio 4's top show why 60 per cent cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are essential.

Caspar Henderson

David Edwards is a freelance writer, and author of Free to be Human (published as Burning All Illusions in the United States) and The Compassionate Revolution, both published by Green Books.

Caspar Henderson is an environmental journalist, who writes for the Financial Times, New Scientist, Green Futures and others. Last year he won the 1999 Reuters-IUCN Award for Best Environmental Reporting in Central and Western Europe. 

This article first appeared in the Ecologist June 2000


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