Fires, floods and media failures

Crews worked night and day shifts in 2018 to suppress fires at Interstate 5 in northern California.

Jim Bartlett Team Rubicon/BLM for USFS
There are hundreds of journalists publishing tens of thousands of articles attempting to hold power to account, attempting to educate the public about climate breakdown.

The newspapers did at times speak truth to power. But once the power of the unions and civil society more generally to hold power to account, such complaints were not effective, and not really that interesting.

Most people now appreciate that climate breakdown is the most urgent issue of our time. It does and will affect every person on the planet. It is also inseparable from other crises that are global and historic in nature: biodiversity collapse, the exhaustion and pollution of farmland and forests, the increase in pandemics. 

The evidence that climate breakdown is real, that is going to have significant negative impacts, and that it is a direct result of human actions is overwhelming - both intellectually and emotionally. So I want to focus here mostly about the third aspect addressed in the title: media failure. 

I have worked for more than three years as editor of The Ecologist, and before that I have been a journalist for approaching three decades. I observe journalism up close, and practice it. But I also don’t want to drill down into specific complaints about stories that are not covered, reporters who do not understand and media empires that are impervious to lobbying. 

Peasants

Instead, I want to talk about the systemic problems of the media in totum - including the problem that what we now call the mainstream media has always served the same interests who have caused climate breakdown, and environmental catastrophe more generally. To do this I want to go back to 1842.

1842: It’s October 1842 and a local newspaper, the Rheinische Zeitung, has sent its new hire, a 24-year-old philosophy graduate, to report on the proceedings of the Sixth Rhine Province Assembly. The cub reporter is allowed into the meetings but is not given a copy of the agenda, or indeed the new laws and regulations that are under discussion. 

He watches attentively and scribbles down notes, capturing quotes from those taking part, including a deputy of the knightly estate and an urban deputy. The members of the assembly have discussed the freedom of the press and now they are turning to an apparently unrelated matter: the law on thefts of wood. The local landlords want to stop peasants from scavenging for “dry fallen wood” on their land. 

The change of the offence from simple “pilfering” to theft would mean that such an act could result in criminal, and not civil, action and prison. The assembly goes further and says those imprisoned for stealing wood should be fed only bread and water while serving their sentence. 

It had long been the culture and the practice that peasants could in fact gather fallen branches to use as fuel, often keeping them alive through the hard German winters. The change in the law would cost lives - but it would also drive people away from freely available fuel to fuel for sale. 

Powerful

The reporter applies his philosophical training to the events taking place before him, pointing out the contradictions of the claims of the legislators, calling for a better definition of theft, of law and indeed of right. He concludes that while the aristocracy and the landowners have the “pure gold of right” the landless, the dispossessed, have nothing. 

The law is passed by the assembly. The reporter complains that the assembly acted in the interests of the powerful landlord, and not the powerless peasant. “The Provincial Assembly, therefore, completely fulfilled its mission. In accordance with its function, it represented a particular interest and treated it as the final goal.”

The article addresses the issues of the day, and of today. The intersection between human society and nature, the use of natural resources, access and ownership of land, social inequality. This is a clear example of a journalist speaking truth to power. In this case, it is a highly educated philosopher challenging a change to the law that would impact the poorest in that society. The author of this news article was Karl Marx. 

The consequence for Marx in writing this and similar articles personally was immediate and dramatic. The newspaper was shut down by the Prussian sensors, and Marx was exiled from Germany having just been married. "I can do nothing more in Germany," Marx wrote in a letter to fellow-radical Arnold Ruge in January 1843. "Here one makes a counterfeit of oneself." 

More importantly, the experience gained from frontline reporting had a profound effect on Marx’s thinking. He had through a fairly basic act of journalism - attending a local government meeting - seen “at ground level” how the rich and powerful were extending and completing their control over natural resources - and the most socially important resource of all - fuel. 

Economics

Marx famously went on to develop a searing critique of capitalism. He explained how capitalism is organised around capital accumulation, through profits, gained through the sale of the commodity.

The commodity in turn always contains both natural resources - including that used as fuel - and also human labour. His complaint was that capitalism as it expanded would exhaust and destroy both humanity and nature. This is what he learned from his shift at a local newspaper reporting from the local council.

1984: I want to travel forward 150 years towards our present. Nigel Lawson was born in London in 1932. His father was a derivatives trader and his mother was from a family who had made a fortune from stockbroking.

He was privately educated at Westminster School and graduated from Oxford in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. He became a journalist for the establishment Financial Times and was successful as its City reporter. Here Lawson entrenched his view that the rich created wealth, that the capitalist is a good egg. 

Lawson was headhunted from the newsroom to become a Tory speech writer. He was later appointed Chancellor of Exchequer under Margaret Thatcher. Both were advocates of neoclassical, or neoliberal, economics. This is the dominant form of economics, but one where nature has no value until it appears on a spreadsheet as “raw material”, where climate breakdown is an externality. 

Coal

The dispute at this moment in history was not between landowners and peasants collecting firewood, but about the future of Britain’s massive coal industry. There had been more than a million coal miners in Britain in the 1920s, and there remained a quarter of a million at the end of the 1970s. The miners had enormous political power, and their strikes brought down the Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath midway through the decade. 

When Lawson and Thatcher came to power the government owned almost the entire coal industry, through the Coal Board, and the National Union of Mineworkers and its members were included in the decision making about the country’s energy policy.

Lawson and Thatcher changed that for ever. They provoked a strike in 1984 and after almost a year had broken the NUM, started to close down the mines, and broadened their attack on other major unions. Lawson sold BP from public to private ownership. And British Gas. And British Airways. The mass use of fossil fuels was no longer under democratic control. 

The media played a significant role in supporting the government through the “national crisis”. The BBC indulged in “fake news”, reversing footage of miners who had been attacked by the police to make them seem like the aggressors.

The newspapers and broadcasters obsessed about the number of miners going to work, and ignored the fact the country was weeks away from running out of coal - which would have meant victory for the miners. The media slandered the leader of the NUM - The Sun wanted to publish a front page with the headline “Mine Fuhrer” but the print-workers refused to publish it. 

Critical

Lawson was a former journalist and the promise to the media was that they would be rewarded for such loyalty. But the opposite happened. Just two years later Thatcher did to the National Union of Journalists what she had just done to the miners.

She supported Rupert Murdoch in buying the Sunday Times - evading the law on monopoly ownership. He built “Wapping” - a new print centre - and began the shut down of Fleet Street, with its plethora of competing newspaper titles. Perhaps most importantly, Rupert Murdoch stopped printing news and turned to celebrity gossip. 

Lawson was later elevated to the House of Lords and would become Britain’s climate denier in chief. Thousands upon thousands of journalists have since lost their jobs, the entire apparatus that existed then is now gone. Very rarely now do reporters attend council meetings, local court hearings, or even Parliamentary committees.

The newspapers did at times speak truth to power. But once the power of the unions and civil society more generally to hold power to account, such complaints were not effective, and not really that interesting. Which brings us to today.

2021: These two moments in history tell us how we got to where we are today, but more importantly are useful in orientating ourselves in our current times. The title of the meeting is based on a series of assumptions that we (probably all share). The climate crisis is real, urgent, critical. 

Publishing

The media should perform some role in making the public aware of the reality of the crisis. The broadcasters and newspapers should amplify the message from climate scientists, should platform those political leaders with real solutions to these social problems and should amplify the voices of protesters and campaigners. This is the kind of journalism that Karl Marx was practicing back in the 1880s. It did exist. Perhaps at times it was effective. 

But what we find today is that the newspapers are owned by the billionaires, the modern equivalent of the landowners demanding people be sent to prison for collecting wood. And these billionaires have no interest in investing in any real journalism.

What we have is the client journalism practiced by Nigel Lawson in his earlier years, with a revolving door between the Sun and the Mail and the Conservative Party press office. There was no golden age of journalism - as we see from 1984 - but there was a period when there were lots of journalists, competing to publish actual news, where careers were made by making ministers resign, not from being a minister’s spokesperson. 

This problem is systemic. There is nothing to be gained by appealing to newspaper owners to understand that climate will destroy their children’s planet also. And power in the news media is now so concentrated there is really no point appealing to individual editors, commissioners or journalists. They follow the agenda, they do not set it. We cannot rely on the mainstream media, and therefore we need our alternative media. 

So in some respects we have to go back to the 1880s and support an independent media. There are hundreds of journalists publishing tens of thousands of articles attempting to hold power to account, attempting to educate the public about climate breakdown. Some of these have been really successful: Open Democracy, Double Down News, Novara Media, The Ecologist.

Collective

But there are here real problems that are also systemic and difficult to address. There is a chronic lack of funding. There is also a fracturing. Individual journalists are now building closed audiences on Patreon. 

The rich and powerful are accumulating huge wealth, and in the process building monopolies across industries and also ideas, and the current government is nothing more than their union, their trade association. This is based on an ideology of individualism and competition. And so far, our response has been to splinter into a hundred thousand individual publications. 

More importantly, our news product remains simply a progressive, environmentally aware commentariate. We do not often send reporters into actual meetings. We are therefore not holding people to account.

People do not come to us to find out what is going on, and then trust our interpretation of those events that we have reported. These are complex, difficult problems, and there are therefore no easy, simple solutions. But to conclude I would set out three simple actions:

  1. Support independent media, especially financially.
  2. Encourage the media you support to consolidate, network, cross promote.
  3. Be the bridge between good independent media and the environment movement, and the trade union movement. 

 

The media can speak truth to power, but only the power of collective action can actually hold the powerful to account.

This Author

Brendan Montague is editor of The Ecologist. This article is an edited version of a speech given at the Media Reform Coalition event.

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The Ecologist has a formidable reputation built on fifty years of investigative journalism and compelling commentary from writers across the world. Now, as we face the compound crises of climate breakdown, biodiversity collapse and social injustice, the need for rigorous, trusted and ethical journalism has never been greater. This is the moment to consolidate, connect and rise to meet the challenges of our changing world. The Ecologist is owned and published by the Resurgence Trust. Support The Resurgence Trust from as little as £1. Thank you. Donate here