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Why is the Guardian Accepting a Dodgy Subsidy from this Dodgy Government?

Brian Cathcart reveals how the paper that exposed phone hacking has joined the cosy newspaper cartel that publishes Government advertorial in return for a bung from Michael Gove

C. P. Scott, Editor of the Manchester Guardian, from 1872 until 1929

Why is the Guardian Accepting a Dodgy Subsidy from this Dodgy Government?

Brian Cathcart reveals how the newspaper that exposed phone hacking has joined the cosy newspaper cartel that publishes Government advertorial in return for a bung from Michael Gove

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That the billionaire newspapers have wangled themselves an unprecedented public subsidy from their close friends in the Government may be vile and corrupt, but it is hardly surprising. Those involved, after all, are well accustomed to underhand dealings at odds with the public interest. 

That the Guardian has chosen to participate in such an arrangement will, to many, appear less natural. 

Yet that is what has happened. The Guardian is a full participant in the £35 million ‘All In, All Together’ deal negotiated with the Government by the News Media Association (NMA), the club dominated by the big corporate newspaper publishers of which the Guardian is also, discreetly, a member. 

‘All In, All Together’ may at first glance look like an advertising deal – and that is how the Guardian would like us to see it. But it is the direct result of behind-closed-doors NMA lobbying for special Government help in coping with the steep falls in newspaper revenues caused by COVID-19. 

The NMA bills it as a ‘partnership’; Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove declared it a way of “supporting cherished institutions”; the Society of Editors (another press bosses’ club) called it “a vital boost” to the industry; and the Chancellor Rishi Sunak said that the money was being spent “in support of the print newspaper industry”.

In short – and although advertising is indeed involved (we will come to that) – no one is pretending that this is not a tailored benefit, funded by you and me as taxpayers and delivered to these news publishers to support their bottom lines. In other words, it is a subsidy, and the Guardian is taking a share of it. 

What’s wrong with that? Why would any news organisation purporting to uphold ethical standards not accept a subsidy at a difficult time?

Reasons not to be Cheerful

Here are five reasons. 

1 ‘All In, All Together’ is a scandalous abuse of public funds. Those receiving the most public money include the billionaires Rupert Murdoch, Lord Rothermere and the Barclay brothers (all of whom are known users of tax havens). Also well rewarded are the three big asset-stripping companies responsible for devastating the local and regional press: Reach, Newsquest and JPMedia.   

2 It is politically corrupt. In a genuine democracy, a single governing party does not channel taxpayer funds, without any public scrutiny, to a club of news publishers that are overwhelmingly and often hysterically supportive of that same party. That is what happens in dictatorships. (Applicants for help are actually vetted by the NMA, which according to analysis by Byline Investigates has given 92% of the cash to its own members).

3 It penalises independent, modern journalism. Hundreds of news organisations not associated with the NMA asked for emergency help, but only a handful have benefited. Thus our Conservative Government helps mostly Conservative legacy brands with large annual turnovers while leaving smaller, newer and often more innovative publishers to struggle and sometimes perish in the crisis. (Three-quarters of independents fear they may have to close).    

4 The leading NMA members are unfit to receive public funds. Polls consistently show that most people do not trust these brands because, though their journalistic mission may be to inform, they persistently spread falsehoods. (In nine of the past 10 years, Eurobarometer has placed the UK last among 33 European countries when it comes to ‘trust in written press’).   

5 NMA members abuse ordinary people with impunity. Though found by the Leveson Inquiry to be “wreaking havoc in the lives on innocent people”, these organisations (including the Guardian) still refuse to participate in effective, independent regulation to standards recommended by Leveson and endorsed by all parties in Parliament. Instead, most belong to a puppet complaints body called IPSO. 

Whither Independence?

From the point of view of free and independent public interest journalism, therefore, there is no defending ‘All In, All Together’. Yes, these are difficult times and, yes, there is a case for public support. The National Union of Journalists, for one, has made a case for this in a form that might be defensible

But ‘All In, All Together’ is so flawed it bears comparison with the notorious secret press subsidies of King George III, deployed on the grand scale to buy support from and reward editors and newspapers.   

Yet the Guardian – which takes pride in its relationship with its readers – has not, so far as we can tell, engaged with them about accepting these funds at all. Again, so far as we can tell, there has been no leading article, no specific public justification, no airing of the pros and cons, no invitation to comment. The step from unsubsidised to subsidised appears to have been taken in silence. When we asked the Guardian if it had engaged with readers on this, it declined to comment.

Can the case be made that ‘All In, All Together’ is harmless, or that the emergency was so great there was no alternative? 

When we approached the Guardian, its response was this:

“The Guardian is part of a national and regional newspaper advertising campaign organised through industry body Newsworks for the Government’s response to the Coronavirus pandemic. Advertising in no way reflects or impacts our editorial and we remain free to, and often do, criticise those who are our advertisers and sponsors. All advertising and funded content on the Guardian is clearly labelled in line with our published guidelines.”

In short, this is an advertising arrangement and does not affect the newspaper’s political freedom. 

Though we asked specific questions about its understanding of the character of the scheme – including about the near-exclusion of independent news publishers and about the scheme’s portrayal by the NMA and by ministers as support for the industry – it declined to respond. 

There can be no doubt, however, that it knows the background, because it is a full member of the NMA and played a full part in the lobbying.  

It is surely never satisfactory, even in an emergency, for a newspaper to benefit where public funds are being abused or to share in the privileging of corporate over independent journalism. And it is surely proper for a newspaper to take great care and be as transparent as possible when accepting the money of any government, let alone one so partisan and given to impropriety as the present one. 

Government-Sponsored Content

What about the quid pro quo? What is the Guardian doing for its share of this money? 

Just like the corporate papers – the Sun, Mail, Telegraph, Mirror etc – it has published some COVID-19 ‘Stay Alert’-type public health advertisements, including a conspicuous ‘wrap-around’ of the front page. And there is also advertorial (advertisements that look like articles), the public benefits of which are less straightforward. 

For example, you may read an article on the Guardian website headlined: Now I Have a Future’: How Furlough Helped a Paddle-Sports Business Stay Afloat. This describes, in upbeat terms, the experience of the manager of a Scottish outdoor adventure company: “The furlough scheme announcement was a jaw-dropping moment,” it reports, and it quotes him as saying: ‘I thought, wow! This is giving me a vision of a future.”

Who benefits from this content? It might be said that it is a creative way of alerting the public to the existence of the furlough scheme, so spreading the benefit wider. Equally, however, it might be said that this is Government propaganda, uncritically encouraging public support for a Government policy. 

Similar content appearing in the Mail prompted the actor Stephen Mangan to tweet: ‘I for one am thrilled to learn that my tax money is being used by the Tories to pay for articles in Tory newspapers to explain to Tories how well the Tories are doing.’ 

The Guardian asserts that this is just another advertising/advertorial contract of a kind that it has with a number of big corporations. It does not appear to see a difference between advertising by Tesco and eBay and advertising by this Government about policy matters.  

Interestingly, a very similar article about the same Scottish adventure company, featuring very similar quotations (“it was jaw-dropping, to tell you the truth… I thought, wow! Now this is giving me a vision of a future”) appeared in the Telegraph, raising at least the possibility that the contact and perhaps even the content had been supplied to both newspapers by the Government. We asked the Guardian about this and it declined to comment.

At the Telegraph – according to a well-informed source who cannot be named for obvious reasons – staff have been told that one of the missions of ‘All In, All Together’ is to “ensure our country remains united during the emergency”. While fostering unity may be a legitimate Government objective, it is a strange one for any newspaper and would be even odder for the Guardian

The Unclouded Face of Truth

There is no suggestion here that the Guardian is passing off ‘All In, All Together’ articles as normal editorial. They are published in the ‘Guardian Advertising’ part of the website on a special grey background and marked ‘paid content’.

Just who paid for them might be a little less clear. Near the top, the words ‘paid for by the government’ are in very small type indeed, and only if you read to the very bottom do you find:

‘This advertiser content was paid for by the UK Government. ‘All In, All Together’ is a Government-backed initiative tasked with informing the UK about the COVID-19 pandemic.’ 

Again, whether such content really answers the description of ‘informing the UK about the COVID-19 pandemic’ is at least open to argument. And it’s worth noting that the NMA said frankly that the scheme involved presenting public service information “in a style and tone more familiar to readers” – in other words, dressing such information in the clothing of journalism. 

A final point. Just as there is no suggestion that ‘All In, All Together’ content is passed off as normal editorial, there is no suggestion that the Guardian has, in accepting this money, transformed itself into a tool of Government policy. That has plainly not occurred. 

We may be talking here about matters that, especially at the present moment, can be made to appear relatively minor in themselves: accepting cash from a dodgy Government fund and publishing Government propaganda in a dark corner of the website do not automatically corrupt the Guardian

But, in such affairs, you must take care of the pennies so the pounds can take care of themselves. And if you don’t, you are likely to run out of ethical currency and lose moral credibility. 

It is worth quoting C.P. Scott, the Guardian’s most famous editor, who wrote almost a century ago about a newspaper’s responsibility in the delivery of news:

“At the peril of its soul it must see that the supply is not tainted. Neither in what it gives, nor in what it does not give, nor in the mode of presentation must the unclouded face of truth suffer wrong.”

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