UK Newspapers Accepted Money to Publish Positive Environmental Stories About Saudi Arabia Around COP26
A special investigation by Byline Times raises concerning questions about editorial independence and transparency at the Independent and Evening Standard newspapers
The Independent and Evening Standard newspapers have been accused of greenwashing after they accepted an undisclosed sum of money from Saudi Arabia to publish dozens of positive environmental stories about the country before, during, and after the COP26 UN climate change summit in Glasgow.
In the days preceding the summit and during its initial days, the Independent published at least 50 stories and videos under a commercial deal with Saudi Arabia, an investigation by Byline Times can reveal.
The bulk of the stories published as part of the deal highlighted positive environmental actions related to the country and failed to mention negative contextual details – such as the fact that Saudi Arabia is the world’s biggest oil exporter and its domestic emissions are nearly three times the G20 average.
80% of the stories either presented Saudi Arabia’s energy ministry or an environmental scheme in the country in a positive light. Just three of the 50 pieces identified under the commercial deal provided contextual details about Saudi Arabia’s oil production. None of them mentioned its plans to increase oil production capacity from 12 million barrels per day to 13 million barrels a day by 2027.
One story was headlined: ‘Saudi Arabia Spearheads New Era of Climate Action’. Others were titled: ‘Saudi Arabia Repositions Towards a More Sustainable Future’ and ‘Princess Reema Calls for Global Leaders to Deliver On Climate Action’.
After COP26 concluded, dozens of further stories and videos were published on the websites of the Independent and the Evening Standard, under commercial deals with Saudi Arabia.
Newspaper content that has been paid for is regulated by the Advertising Standards Authority and is subject to consumer protection law. Under existing legislation, newspapers are required to make it clear that the content has been paid for.
While most of the stories covered by the commercial deals were labelled ‘Partner Content’, Byline Times identified 12 articles on the Evening Standard’s website that did not have any tag informing the reader that the content was paid for by Saudi Arabia.
These included an article and a video titled: ‘Saudi Leaders Are Embracing “Unappreciated” Ways of Facing Climate Crisis, Says Researcher’. Another such story praised a conference organised by Saudi Arabia in London, calling it the ‘COP of Doers’.
Stories that were part of the Independent’s commercial deal with Saudi Arabia were also reproduced on the websites of other news organisations, such as Yahoo News, where they did not carry any label to inform the reader that Saudi Arabia had paid for them to be created.
The Independent and the Evening Standard’s commercial deals with Saudi Arabia raise questions about editorial independence.
Jamie Peters, interim director of the environmental organisation, Friends of the Earth, told Byline Times that news organisations taking money from oil exporters need to provide increased transparency about their dealings.
“If news outlets are going to take money from entities that profit from polluting activities, such as oil exports, it seems right and ethical that they make their readers aware of how much was paid to secure that coverage,” he said.
The environmental group Fossil Free London called the deals “massively problematic”.
A spokesperson said: “People should be very concerned about Saudi Arabian money pouring into publications like the Evening Standard and the Independent and the potential impact on editorial impartiality.”
The Independent confirmed to Byline Times that it was paid by Saudi Arabia to publish stories and videos ahead of COP26, as part of a partnership with the Saudi Green Initiative (SGI) – a Saudi Government entity that is focused on climate change and sustainability. However, the newspaper refused to reveal how many stories it had published under the deal and how much it had been paid, saying that it was “not obliged to share details of commercial relationships”.
A spokesperson added: “The Independent was a partner on the SGI. As part of this partnership, SGI paid for content to be published by the Independent on the SGI website. As per industry protocol, both the site and the content were clearly marked as sponsored or partnership content.”
The Evening Standard did not respond to Byline Times‘ request for comment.
‘Unconventional, Complex, Clandestine’ Deals
This is not the first time the newspaper group has been accused of blurring the line between sponsored and editorial content.
In 2018, the Evening Standard agreed a £3 million deal with companies, including Google and Uber, promising them ‘money can’t buy’ content, according to an investigation by openDemocracy. One insider told the investigative site that “what was being offered was clear – theatrically constructed news, showing everything good being done”.
The London publication’s former editor – former Chancellor and Conservative MP George Osborne – was also accused of a serious conflict of interest in relation to its often positive coverage of the private taxi firm Uber. In 2017, the National Union of journalists took the rare step of publicly calling on Osborne to declare to his readers his own £650,000 job with the fund manager Blackrock, which held a major stake in Uber.
Byline Times‘ latest revelations also raise further questions about the ownership structure of both titles.
In July 2019, the Independent and the Evening Standard were explicitly accused by the Government of being part-owned by the Saudi Arabian state, with a series of “unconventional, complex and clandestine” deals used to hide the sale of stakes in the news outlets to a Saudi Government bank.
Evgeny Lebedev, who controls both publications, sold 30% stakes in the two newspapers to offshore companies fronted by a Saudi businessman, Sultan Mohamed Abuljadayel, in 2017 and 2018. The Independent and Evening Standard said that they were unsure who ultimately employed the businessman.
David Scannell, the Government’s legal representative, told a court that the Saudi Arabian Government could now potentially exert editorial influence over the news outlets. He said that the sale of the shares has “public interest considerations”, citing “freedom of expression and accurate news reporting” as “relevant to this merger”.
He also accused Lebedev of going out of his way to avoid answering questions about the deals.
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Fossil Free London is calling for newspapers to provide more information about content that has been paid for.
“In this ecosystem transparency is key,” a spokesperson told Byline Times. “The fact that the Standard and the Independent are refusing to reveal how much they are being paid to publish greenwashing articles is very worrying. If the public are told how much money is changing hands, they will be able to make their own informed opinions about how much influence Saudi Arabia has at these institutions – and whether the editorial content is being swayed or diluted due to sponsorship deals.
“As is often the case in fossil fuel financing, there is very little transparency here and we are being forced to connect the dots to try and drag shadowy deals out into the light. If we know categorically that a newspaper has a policy to refuse sponsorship from entities that make huge profits from fossil fuels, then we can trust it much more as an independent news source on climate change.
“It’s really sad that, just weeks after COP26, business leaders and newspaper editors are continuing with business as usual.”
The campaign group also believes that clearer labelling is needed to identify content that has been paid for in newspapers.
“The system as it exists today makes huge assumptions about the media literacy of the general public,” the spokesperson said. “The way that these newspapers use the labels ‘Partnered By’ and ‘Partner Content’ create ambiguity and it won’t be clear to a lot of normal people that this is being directly paid for by Saudi Arabia.”
Duncan Meisel, director of Clean Creatives – a US-based group that campaigns against advertising by fossil fuel companies – believes that the newspaper content paid for by Saudi Arabia is damaging to society.
“It’s obvious that the advertisements that the oil-connected countries and oil industry itself run are designed to claim social licence, and to mislead the public about their commitment to climate action,” he told this newspaper. “That is the purpose of these ads – and the fact that you’re seeing so many of them around COP26 demonstrates that the role is to mislead the public at these moments of highest attention on the possibility of action.
“This is a perfect example of the function of advertising for fossil fuel companies being, not just misleading, but misleading with a very specific agenda in mind, which is: to delay climate action. The value of these ads to Saudi Arabia is that they look like normal impartial news articles – that’s why they bought them.”