The elephant in the newsroom

| 12th July 2019
Photo: Steve Heap / Shutterstock.com.
Photo: Steve Heap / Shutterstock.com.
Events hosted by Flight Free UK challenge the media to reconsider its promotion of flying.

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Sir David Attenborough denounced flying as being ‘extraordinarily cheap’ when he addressed a committee in Parliament on Tuesday to discuss climate change.

He suggested restrictions were needed on aviation habits, and that economic regulation was perhaps the only way he could see to achieve that. Yet he acknowledged this would create social injustice, with the rich being better able to afford to fly - and indeed they are the most frequent flyers.  

He indicated he has been wrestling with guilt over how much he flies: “I certainly worry that the job I do involves me travelling,” he said. “I have travelled by air only too frequently in the last six months, in order to make programmes, which is, I daresay, a paradox.” 

Accountability

Brits are near the top of the list of global flight customers, and flying is one of the single biggest impacts that individual can have on climate change. 

This week, events hosted by the campaign group Flight Free UK have challenged the British media to pause a moment from telling the rest of the world how we are not doing enough about climate change and how we need to change our behaviour, and confront an awkward home truth: that most of the mainstream media are complicit in supporting, promoting and benefiting from carbon-heavy travel promotion. 

The media likes to consider itself independent, that its journalism speaks truth to power and holds it to account. 

But what happens when they are asked to look in the mirror, hold themselves to account, and see that they are funded by and promoting the fossil fuel industry? Almost complete silence, I have found.

Isn’t it time we and the media properly faced up to the toll that flying has on our planet and future generations, and asked why we Brits are still doing an increasing amount of it, and promoting it so widely across all the media, without restrictions or health warnings to accompany advertisements and travel features?

The advertising of long distance travel and flights partly funds journalism. And for decades, journalists have personally enjoyed the privileges of free travel in return for writing features about holiday destinations. This is not journalism, it’s bribery.

Media hypocrisy 

As I've argued here before, media outlets are widely influencing the holiday decisions of millions - to be clear: a combined newspaper print circulation of around nine million people and a further 27 million daily readers on the top four news sites, which include Mail Online, Metro, Reach and The Sun. Readers of the regional press and magazines add a few more million British people being influenced by air travel advertising in the media.

Each plane passenger is likely to double, triple or even quadruple their annual domestic carbon footprint and bust their yearly safe CO2 budget every single time they fly.

The hypocrisy of promoting aviation whilst their journalists are simultaneously telling the world how we all need to act on climate change, will be one of the issues highlighted this week during public talks hosted by Flight Free UK, in Bristol and Cardiff. 

Flight Free UK are also questioning the insanity of airport expansion plans in a climate crisis and the fact that most politicians are still ignoring the problem of rising aviation being incompatible with necessary carbon reduction targets.

The big British newspapers have been contacted by climate campaigners and invited to comment on their policies about promoting flying to millions of readers.

So far, over a six month period, with reminders, almost all of them have chosen not to respond. Only one publisher, The Guardian, has responded to campaigners and said they are looking at promoting more sustainable travel and clearly showing readers the honest cost of flying.

Flight Free UK 

Author and campaigner Anna Hughes, who is leading the Flight Free UK campaign inviting 100,000 people to pledge to ditch flying for a year, said: “It seems the climate crisis is not pervasive in most media travel reporting. 

"It’s not much use promoting low-carbon travel and UK holidays in one article if long-haul weekends in Rio are advertised in the next. The climate crisis is not a side issue - it is the most important issue we are facing, and as such should filter into all travel coverage.” 

Some of our biggest media organisations are owned by millionaires and billionaires, so it’s not easy to show sympathy with their shrinking advertising income and funding model. But more widely, journalism has been in a funding crisis for a long time.

And so journalism is complicit in promoting and facilitating the fossil fuel industry in accelerating our living planet’s demise. The industry is cap in hand to the bringers of existential doom. Good journalism matters. A financially sustainable but also environmentally sustainable free press is vital. 

And yet so far, most of the British written word media have remained in denial of campaigners’ repeated requests for a response and action. 

Privileged position

It is time to call into question what the media are doing about their responsibility on this - what more could they do? Are they still ignoring this elephant in the newsroom? Have they considered this issue and reviewed their organisation’s policies in regard to being sustainable and promoting sustainability? 

They continue to carry flight and flight/cruise promotions unabated, without telling readers the truth about their impacts. I see an analogy with the advertising of smoking. Whilst that was eventually restricted, carried compulsory health warnings and was finally banned, climate change will undoubtedly kill more people than smoking, and flying is one of the most significant and harmful personal contributions to its cause. 

Campaigners have asked publications to consider displaying the carbon footprint of travel choices they publish, perhaps showing offsetting options, or either reducing or ditching air travel promotion altogether. 

Publications could also ask their flight advertisers what they are doing to calculate and offset the carbon burning they are paying the media to promote. 

Many campaigners believe the media should be using their privileged position in a more responsible way by promoting choices that cut carbon emissions, instead of advertising and travel features that are increasing them. It is not a mere coincidence that aviation is expanding, when it needs to be reducing.

This Author

Alex Morss is a freelance writer, author and ecologist. She tweets @morss_alex. Aviation and Climate Crisis will take place in Cardiff on 11 July. 

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