I worked at the Guardian as a subeditor and occasional writer between 2007 and 2013. It’s been my newspaper of choice since university. Ten years previously I’d decided to train to become a journalist, and I considered working there in whatever capacity as an ambition. When I finally managed to get some casual freelance shifts, I felt a sense of achievement. When those shifts turned into the offer of a short-term contract to work as a subeditor on the environment desk, I felt everything was coming together. Having spent much time and commitment on antiwar and climate change demonstrations, with what I would describe as a mixture of eco-spiritual and anarchist communities, I believed (rather naively, it would seem) that my interests would chime, or at least not provoke suspicion among fellow workers at the Guardian and on that section in particular.
I found to my dismay this was not the case, that in fact there seemed to be a culture of open disdain at anything remotely radical or spiritual and, along with some very dubious office politics, which I openly and forcefully contested to no avail via official channels, I eventually had my contract terminated. I did manage to continue working as a casual freelance subeditor in different departments at the Guardian for another four years, proving both that I was capable in my job and friendly and forgiving enough to work with and that the Guardian has a varied group of editorial staff, some welcoming and friendly, others not so much. The experience of losing my contract was a bitter one, and resulted in me casting a perhaps jaundiced, but certainly critical eye on the editorial hierarchy. I was now conscious of resistance to certain opinions I held, which resulted in me recasting myself in a more self-effacing light to make sure I continued getting casual work shifts.
In such subtle ways, and though difficult to objectively confirm, parameters of debate are determined, even in casual workplace discussion. It was not that I held on to any particular worldview or identified with any political grouping. I welcomed, even craved, discussion on such matters. But discussions on controversial issues were not encouraged. They seemed, in fact, to be passively discouraged. For example, any comment I made even remotely critical of western mainstream media propaganda, whether from myself or others, anything suggesting that the (then Labour) government’s economic policy was neoconservative, or any suggestion that Tony Blair should be tried as a war criminal for his conduct in sending the UK to war on false premises, would often result in either an abrupt put-down, or an awkward silence, rather than open, welcoming dialogue. The political narrative in office consversation seemed to be dominated by New Labour thinking. There was a clear indication on certain desks that openly controversial discussions were not welcome in a busy newsroom, certainly not between production editors and commissioning editors. There was a clear demarcation line, but even among subeditors, the political viewpoints I would say leant towards a damp, liberal conservatism.
These are, of course, personal impressions, and details of my personal story at the Guardian and how my political/spiritual beliefs were treated could fill an essay in itself, but suffice to say the atmosphere was often cold and unwelcoming between myself and certain editorial staff members, conveniently it seemed, those in the most startegic positions, often editors or commissioning editors. In terms of my treatment in having my contract terminated (a few weeks before Christmas 2008 at that) I could additionally detail the almost complete absence of advice from my National Union of Journalists’ in-house chapel on my demotion back to the ranks of casual staff (not quite a freelancer, but not quite a staff member, a curious role for an ethical liberal newspaper that should be considered anachronistic). The NUJ chapel (what a quaintly religious and apt description of an outdated and musty organisation, which is supposed to represent the collective and individual rights of workers) was a grouping structured very rigidly within the Guardian’s offices among a small clique, with seemingly little time or inclination given over for counsel or informal discussion (again, in my personal experience).
But considering the social, political and environmental crisis we face in the world and the mainstream media’s inability or unwillingness to form an informative viewpoint which echoes public discontent, I’d like instead to concentrate on how I believe certain media narratives are constructed and maintained, and particularly on how the so-called liberal media, of which the Guardian is the flagship publication, seems to determine its editorial opinion. I’d like us as a society to begin to look critically on what ethical and moral basis such narratives rest. Though these are all personal impressions, I make no claim for objective fact, I will say that I am by no means the first, or likely to be the last, to make such claims. Thus they bear closer scrutiny among those on the political left. It is only a wonder that it is not common knowledge among the more noted young radical activist circles, though given that many of the more media friendly groups are often comprised of a mainly white and middle class demographic, perhaps that is not so strange.
I would suggest that it is the internal political and cultural make-up of individuals, from what appears to be an almost exclusively singular ethnic and class background, which ensures that specific viewpoints are only understood and expressed from within a narrow bandwidth of political and cultural reasoning. More often than not, this monoculture would seem to express itself through the prism of what has become known as Oxbridge bias, which manifests in many other British institutions, but which is in fact only a subset of those universities, specifically seeming to come from an even narrower cultural and political background. Many of the editors and commissioning editors are alumni of Oxford and Cambridge universities. It has been noted elsewhere that Oxford university’s Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) degree has a higher than usual representation in the higher offices of politics (David Cameron and Ed Miliband to name the two most prominent) and particularly the mainstream media, whether of left or right.
While much discussion has been formulated to describe the conservative roots of the upper echelons of British society, most recently in Owen Jones’s book, The Establishment, little focus has been given to this conservative elite’s liberal counterpart, the liberal establishment. The editorial line of the Guardian would seem to conform to a specific liberal secular viewpoint that is considered favourable to an establishment class, a liberal aristocracy of sorts, that stretches back in wealth and reputation to the European Enlightenment thinkers of the 17th-18th century, which follows a traceable line into postwar secular, liberal, democratic socialism and pacifism.
While radicalism has never been part of the Guardian’s official political line (this is, after all, a newspaper that condemned the direct action of the Suffragettes) it seems to have had a greater acceptance as a viable political viewpoint in times past. But while the right has become more extreme in many ways since the events of September 11, 2001, the Guardian and the liberal establishment in general has appeared to veer to the right in its qualified support for war and liberal intervention and its generally dismissive attitude to what was known in the 1960s as countercultural thinking. As such it has been unable, or unwilling, to mount a successful challenge to an increasingly bigoted form of multicultural class war.
Despite some mutlicultural and sometimes radical leftfield thinking contained within the pages of the newspaper and on the website, the hierarchy of the organisation remains ethnically Anglo-Saxon and culturally liberal conservative in its outlook, and, as such, it is prone to the same inability to objectively examine itself and the world without succumbing to cognitive and cultural bias, as other cultural groupings of classes and ethnicities might be accused of elsewhere. There would appear to me to be smatterings of other ethnic and establishment religious thought nestled within what seems predominantly a post-Anglican atheist, secular demographic. But the dominant political and societal narratives are viewed through this narrow post-Anglican prism, and I would contend that it is this cultural distortion that actually gives the neo-conservative military hegemony its moral and ethical basis, even as there exists an internal battle from within this establishment family, of the methods through which this western secular establishment maintains its power (the establishment fundamentalist and liberal Protestant Christians serving as a convenient buffer to hide the essentially secular atheist nature of western hegemony).
The Guardian undoubtedly has strands within its editorial staff and roots within its core readership, known historically for its socialist/communist/green philosophies, and such demographics were in times past characterised as the Guardian’s muesli-eating, sandal-wearing, hippie activist contingent. But this demographic was at least able to express itself more freely, though it was often mocked by the rightwing papers and the more conservative elements of the Guardian’s own hierarchy. In the past few years, though, with the rapid growth of the digital technocracy and a scientific materialist ideology presented as the only system of legitimate thought, there has been an increased obsession in society with visually impressive data sets that purport to give factual information as truth and to relegate all other forms of knowledge such as intuitive or spiritual, as irrational “woo”. This muesli-eating editorial line, a beloved accusation of rightwing commentators, is a myth. It no longer exists in any identifiable form. The liberal conservative technocracy is the predominant narrative of the Guardian’s editorial line.
Much like the Labour party at the height of its power, a misplaced and seemingly exclusive faith in technology and statistics above intuitive and experiential knowledge, is often at odds with grassroots community action and nonconformist spiritual and ecological traditions. Spontaneous individualism and collectivism is often treated with suspicion. Ironically, such exclusive binary, reductionist reasoning is being challenged in leading edge scientific, environmental and technological fields, with systems theory and holistic methods of social and environmental organisation such as permaculture gaining in prominence, and peer-to-peer structures in computing technology translating into real world methodologies, with innovative methods of communication gaining in popularity and efficacy. Yet, time and again, the Guardian’s hierarchy maintains a centralised, linear, top-down decision-making process, undermining editorial staff and often defying union advice, showing it to be conservative in nature.
In my experience, I have found there are individuals in the newspaper who are progressive in outlook, both in the suggested methods of production and in political opinion. They do try to implement more nonhierarchical, inclusive strategies. But openness and accountability from the management, though offered, often feels contrived. Open meetings, where editorial members are invited to express themselves freely, are periodically organised. But, in practice, when this happens, the meetings tend to have an awkward atmosphere and there is a very precise way that contentious points are dealt with. It is an overly formal and strained affair, like bringing different sets of friends to a birthday party and struggling to get them to mingle. One almost longs for the days of Fleet Street, when the local pub and alcohol would provide both a social lubricant and a cultural leveller. But these are different times, and different tactics need to be employed. One senses that the Guardian hierarchy is trying to be more inclusive, but once again, culturally it appears to me stiff, formal and conservative.
Business strategy is cloak and dagger and the NUJ chapel also negotiates in a very formal and rigid way. Union meetings appear overly hierarchical in structure, a desk of official representatives sat on a table at the head of a meeting room, taking questions in linear fashion, with no cross conversation between members allowed. Dissenting or radically alternative opinions were batted away by the overwhelming attendance at important meetings of the more outspoken conservative members of the editorial staff. In the past four years, editorial members have been culled in a voluntary redundancy scheme that was on the borderline of coercion, yet this was accepted as inevitable by a series of often unpopular agreements between the NUJ board and the Guardian Media Group (GMG) leading to a strained atmosphere among editorial staff that has lasted years and which I doubt has improved much since I left.
Finally, on the issue the editorial line of the Guardian, and how narratives can be constructed, I will return to the Guardian’s celebrated environment section, which underwent a significant change in 2008, during the very period that I worked there on a short-term contract. There is an ironic coincidence, considering my eco-spiritual and activist interests. It was at one of the first editorial meetings I attended at the newly set up online environment section. At the meeting, a decision was made to make the Guardian’s environmental focus an exclusively scientific (read reductionist) one. Alongside this, was a direct, expressly outlined decision to distance the newspaper from environmental campaigning and activism, offering a neutral stance in order not to alienate governmental bodies and fossil fuel and energy corporations, many of which were at the time undergoing a variety of what now would retrospectively appear to have been greenwash public relations exercises, but which were presented as ethically conscious strategies.
The Guardian seemed content to take these greenwashed claims at face value despite some prominent journalists at the time raising concerns (and being allowed to write the odd article decrying the companies in question, but never the Guardian’s specific involvement). At the time companies such as Shell and BP advertised across the Guardian’s environment site, among other companies with questionable environmental credentials, and excuses were given by management at the time for why such associations were needed (always a business decision over an editorial one and always maintaining the Guardian remained independent). Eventually, in the course of a few years, and after much complaining from readers and journalists, many of those questionable and high-profile associations have been severed. But, more recently, the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation, though ostensibly a charitable organisation, but one that is heavily linked with Monsanto and the landgrab in Africa, has invested in GMG, though it has not been made clear just how much or how extensive this investment is. Along with such associations, a seeming lack of editorial scrutiny of biotech corporations has been noted by many anti-GM and green campaigners.
A clear editorial line a few years back would seem to have cast GM agriculture and nuclear energy in a more positive light than previously, presenting “new evidence” of these technologies as part of a varied solution to climate change and food and energy scarcity, though there were a variety of campaign groups whose voices were drowned out by the increased prominence of positive GM and nuclear stories. Even when the Fukushima disaster in Japan happened, the slant of the news narrative insisted that any disaster claims had been exaggerated and public concerns were downplayed, though such concerns have a legitimacy simply on a human interest level. It must be sad for any regular Guardian reader and concerned environmentalist to see such a brilliant writer and human rights activist as George Monbiot become so closely aligned with the pro-nuclear narrative that he ended up downplaying the Fukushima disaster in several articles, against any ecological sensibility. Many more seasoned ecologists were not surprised at his stance, given his previous writings on nuclear energy. Such distorted narratives would seem to invite cynicism in those who take a more holistic approach to ecology.
While scientific reasoning and a solid evidence base is vital to gaining an understanding of our environment, there is a strong argument to suggest that activism of any kind, whether official campaign or unofficial pressure groups, plays a vital part in raising public awareness. Such voices have long been neglected and diminished by insidious coverage. They deserve their place in a supposedly liberal media organisation which claims to have a strong emphasis on presenting itself as environmentally conscious and representative of community rather than corporations. More recently, many of the same narrative techniques of context, feigned balance and editorial “neutrality”, taking corporation and government claims at face value, have been seen in relation to the coverage of the fracking plans to extract fossil fuels from the English countryside, and the activism that has sprung up to challenge it has been downplayed and presented in a supposedly neutral way, but often derogatory way. It is the faintly withering critique that can be the most damaging.
Scepticism of government and corporation claims should be the default position, knowing as we do that evidence can be manipulated by large corporations with teams of lawyers and scientists, as was the case with the tobacco industry over decades, while there should be a more encouraging, if equally sceptical, view of activists who are, after all, campaigning on behalf of the public, rather than shareholders or lobby groups. While the public was wary of such corporate shenanigans and sceptical of their claims, it seems the editors of the Guardian were not. This may be have changed somewhat in the past year or two, but there is a strong sense that it is not nearly enough, that government and corporations are still given a higher priority than environmental groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth who, after all, have existed for decades and been at the forefront of raising environmental awareness. Should they not be afforded at least the same status as corporations whose primary purpose is private profit?
That grassroots campaigning groups were marginalised and continue to be marginalised, in order to curry favour with politicians and corporate bodies, shows how narratives can be distorted to place a false consciousness in the public mind of what the environmental priorities should be. Scepticism of environmentalists, which is often presented in the Guardian as solely backed by fossil fuel lobbies and conservatives, can also comprise, at the marginal end, working class and anti-corporate opinion that has become disillusioned with doomsday scenarios and centralised plans in the face of a growing distrust of the corporate agenda including the liberal media, often represented by the Guardian. A news organisation that was once a supporter of a more engaged grassroots environmental activism should not be bogged down in statistics and exclusively scientific jargon. It could and indeed must reinvigorate public interest by presenting ecological issues in a tangible and urgent, but also a positive light, inviting vigorous dialogue and collective action, rather than seeking to polarise opinion for sensationalist ends such as comment click-bait.
In becoming too closely aligned with corporations and government and dismissive of ecological activists, described by one staff member to me sardonically in an unguarded moment as “treehuggers”, the Guardian lost a key differentiation between corporations and grassroots environmentalism. It is not too much of a stretch to imagine how such editorial decisions can be extended to affect the paper in matters of economics and politics, finance and war. The delusion of treating the Guardian as a leftwing liberal news organisation, which has a multicultural and multidisciplinary make-up, has to be challenged in the interests of creating a news medium that is a truly balanced representation and reflection of British leftwing radical and liberal viewpoints. In order to even begin to do that, the editorial staff would need to hire from radically varied cultural, educational and ethnic sources to ensure that opinions and viewpoint emerge organically through different cultural prisms, rather than by patronage from a ethnic monoculture that may believe itself to be liberal, but which bears all the hallmarks of insular, upper middle-class thought.