Great conference on the Guardian, but it misses a vital punch line
Updated: May 7, 2021
This online conference about the Guardian and its history was organised by the Goldsmiths Leverhulme Media Research Centre and held on the 23-24th April. I approached the event with enthusiasm, wanting to better understand what had happened with this centre-left newspaper. It had a history of ground-breaking investigative journalism but seemed to have stumbled since the middle of the last decade. I wrote a blog describing the conference as “an unmissable event” and encouraging others to attend.
The conference was fully recorded (see HERE), and followed the publication of a book containing articles by many of the speakers called “Capitalism’s Conscience; 200 Years of the Guardian”.
Some of the book chapters conveyed disappointment that the Guardian did not support Labour when Jeremy Corbyn was in the ascendancy. In his introduction to the book, Des Freedman questions whether “the Guardian has ever been a reliable ally for the left”. However, he then goes on to mention another contributor, Justin Schlosberg, who said that “the paper eventually came to undermine its own core commitment to ‘the sanctity of facts’”.
I think Schlosberg hit the nail on the head. One can hardly hold to account those who direct and manage the Guardian for failing to implement a socialist programme in which they do not believe. However, one can certainly demand that they act according to principles that they themselves hold dear and doubtless learned in their childhood – simple things like telling the truth, arguing on the basis of facts rather than supposition, and the Judeo-Christian injunction not to bear false witness against others. As I show below, the Guardian has been failing in all these areas, and I think the conference should have been much more forthright in pointing this out rather than dwelling on its lack of socialism.
Despite that, this was an important event, and I learned a lot. I shall now discuss what some of the key speakers had to say. I shall not take them in order, but in a sequence that may help the reader better understand the issues at stake. I apologise in advance for not reporting every speaker, or every nuance; I shall just present the event as I understood it.
This article is over 3,000 words long, so you may wish to jump to the conclusions and work your way back and see how I got there.
Alan Rusbridger, Editor-in-Chief from 1995 to 2015
Rusbridger spoke of the history of the Guardian, from its foundation in Manchester in 1821 to the present day. The founders were a group of mainly non-conformist (Unitarian) businessmen with links to the cotton trade. They were in Rusbridger’s words “not in it for the money”, put “purpose before profit” and “were seeking to report facts”. He emphasised its uniqueness as a “public service” newspaper, particularly under C.P. Scott, editor from 1872 to 1929, and the owner who coined the phrase “comment is free, facts are sacred”.
Scott’s son, John, inherited the business and in 1936 set it up as the “Scott Trust”, partly to avoid death duties, and partly to secure the financial and editorial independence (in perpetuity). The Scott Trust still owns the newspaper, but it is now constituted as limited company, one that pays no dividends. Profits go back into the journalism and “nobody gets rich”.
This business model is radically different from the remainder of the press, and the journalistic culture is more participatory, involving discussions among staff and with readers, and morning conferences where any staff member can discuss and challenge current thinking. There is according to Rusbridger “no-one above us telling us what to think or what line to take”.
The business model, the editorial independence and relatively open environment have borne fruit at different times in the newspaper’s history, for example in the Boer War, in the Suez Crisis and in the Snowden Affair. In all these cases, it has been able to take a more independent view than other newspapers, while braving the slings and arrows of those who accused it of being “unpatriotic”. Some of this anger came from the Guardian’s readers, so as editor one had to be prepared to “bite the hand that reads you” from time to time.
In more recent times the Guardian has engaged in a series of ground-breaking investigations, to name a few: David Leigh’s reporting on the British Aerospace Al Yamamah bribery scandal involving Saudi Arabia; Nick Davies’ exposure of the hacking scandal from 2006 to 2014; the publication of Wikileaks and of Edward Snowden's revelations, and; reporting on torture and rendition.
At the same time, the paper has managed to survive the enormous challenges posed by digitalisation of the newspaper industry, notably the collapse of its traditional revenue from sales of hard copy and advertising. Remarkably, it has come through this with a “reach before revenue” approach: even though the newspaper is available for free online, it now has members who voluntarily subscribe £69 million per annum. At the same time, it has expanded overseas and has 1.5 billion browsers worldwide. This is surely something of which to be proud.
Brian Cathcart throws down the gauntlet
Following Rusbridger's speech, there was a panel session on the regulation of the press. The Guardian’s exposure of the hacking scandal had led to both the humiliation of Rupert Murdoch, and Justice Leveson’s recommendations, of November 2012, to independently regulate the press. There could be no return to the situation under the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), where the press had in effect been "marking its own homework". Under Leveson's recommendations, newspapers could establish their own regulators, but in order to ensure uniform standards, these would need to be approved by an independent "Press Regulation Panel" established by Royal Charter.
In practice however, most of the national press resisted Leveson's proposals tooth and nail, decrying them as a slippery slope to state control and an attack on press freedom. In 2018, the Government sided with the press and reneged on implementing the proposals. However, it did this in the face of dogged opposition from Labour, Lib Dems and some renegade Conservatives who wanted the proposals implemented in full. This remains a hot topic.
In the early stages the Guardian supported Leveson's proposals, resulting in the enmity of the main players in the national press. The first speaker in this session, Julian Petley, Professor of Film and Television at Brunel University, described how they viciously attacked the Guardian, seeking to punish it for the regulatory proposals, while portraying it as part of the “liberal élite” and as a threat to national security.
Strangely however, the Guardian changed its position over regulation, and this was of concern to Brian Cathcart, the first director of the Hacked Off Campaign and now professor of Journalism at Kingston University. Cathcart described how the Guardian came to demand wholesale reform of press regulation, but eventually changed tack and opposed Justice Leveson’s regulatory proposals. In doing so, it joined the bulk of the press in not registering with IMPRESS, the one regulator which the Press Regulation Panel had already approved. It had never provided the public with an explanation as to why it had changed its mind. You can see Cathcart's full arguments in Political Quarterly of 13 Jan 2021.
In this way, the Guardian helped cancel a public inquiry originally established at its own instigation, thereby betraying its initial mission and the thousands of victims of hacking that it had set out to defend. Had the Guardian joined IMPRESS, claimed Cathcart, it might have precipitated a drift towards independent regulation.
Rusbridger countered by saying that the Guardian changed its mind because the regulatory regime was to be Statutory, under the aegis of a Royal Charter, and legal advice about the potential costs of court costs in libel litigations. Cathcart remained unsatisfied with this response, pointing out that the Guardian had previously accepted the Royal Charter and arguing that it had not lived up to the spirit of the legislation. Indeed, it had made an issue of finer points that could have been sorted out in an agreeable fashion.
It is difficult to know exactly what caused the Guardian to change its position, but Natalie Fenton provides some indications in her chapter in the “Capitalism’s Conscience” book. To paraphrase, it seems that the long knives were out for the Guardian. It had not only caused the humiliation of Rupert Murdoch and News UK, but:
it had broken an unwritten code of silence (omertá) among newspaper executives, editors and journalists, causing a “surly sense of grievance”;
it had exposed as unaccountable and obstructive both the PCC, which had been nurtured by the press magnates, and the Metropolitan Police;
it had ushered in Leveson’s proposals that did not fit with the dominant business model in the press, and threatened to expose further wrongdoing by both the police and newspaper groups, earning Rusbridger a Mafia-style style threat as to what would happen if he did not comply with their wishes, and lastly;
it had become the enemy of Britain’s security state. When, in 2013, the Guardian published Edward Snowden’s revelations about the extent of the US National Security Agency’s global surveillance, it experienced unprecedented forms of state intervention and intimidation, including an episode when it was required to destroy computers using angle-grinders.
All this was happening when newspaper circulation and press advertising revenue had been in steep decline and when, despite frantic efforts, newspapers were having difficulties replacing these revenue streams with online cash. As a relatively small company without billionaire backing of the kind available to several of its rivals, the Guardian was especially vulnerable and keenly felt the accumulated power and dominance of the Murdoch empire, which at the time included over 40% of national newspapers – and (as discussed in Nick Davies’ book “Hack Attack”) had a history of using that power to secure advantages and settle scores. Fenton concludes that “the whistle-blower in the national press packed away its whistle and conformed”.
If one considers the Guardian’s financial vulnerability, it is not difficult to see how it may have arrived at the decision to back off from its confrontation with the media conglomerates. If this was the motivation for its change of position, it failed to honour the Scott Trust's view that "facts are sacred" - not just in fair weather but at all times.
Mark Curtis and Ghada Karmi
Mark Curtis, Editor of Declassified UK, delivered a searing critique, basing his assessment on a content analysis he had performed on the Guardian’s reporting.
According to Curtis, the Guardian plays a key role in misinforming the British public about foreign affairs and upholding the establishment. It promotes a benign myth of Britain as “the good guys” championing a rules-based international order, while failing to really cover Britain's role in World affairs. Indeed, it had been co-opting liberal-minded people into thinking they are being told the truth.
With its wars in Iraq, Libya etc. and its role in supporting countries with bad human-rights records such as Israel and Egypt, Britain had been failing to uphold the rulings and values of the UN and could be reasonably considered “a rogue state”. Curtis also found that the Guardian had unreasonably exempted Britain from responsibility for events in Syria, failing to investigate covert support for jihadist groups in the early part of its civil war. While agreeing with the Guardian’s denunciation of the Trump period and acknowledging the hostile actions of countries like Russia, he thought that the Guardian had been excessively enthusiastic about Anglo-American cooperation under Obama and Biden presidencies.
While the Guardian sometimes exposes how the establishment behaves, it largely acts in support of it, and in recent years it has shredded its capacity to do more independent reporting. Much of this can be explained by what happened since the Snowden revelations, i.e. Britain’s security state took a proactive posture so as to neutralise the independence of the Guardian’s coverage of foreign affairs (see mention by Natalie Fenton above). It was now running “puff-pieces” on the security services, notably GCHQ and MI6, and was often acting as an amplifier and conduit for the state’s media operations of unsubstantiated claims by British intelligence agencies about threats faced by foreign powers.
When in 2015, Britain gained a political leader who might have transformed Britain’s policy towards Saudi Arabia, the Yemen War and elsewhere, the Guardian and the Observer dedicated a huge effort to undermining the prospect of a Corbyn-led Government. The Guardian’s posture was overtly hostile and it all but accused him of being antisemitic, while demonising the Labour leadership for failing to address antisemitism in the Party. In the four years up to the General Election of 2019, it had published about 1,380 articles on antisemitism and the Labour Party or Jeremy Corbyn.
The last keynote speaker, Palestinian-born Ghada Karmi, was a valuable complement to Curtis. She pointed out that the Guardian had supported the Zionist cause since the late 19th Century. Since the 1960s, it had sometimes given the Palestinians sympathetic coverage, but it had nonetheless misrepresented the nature of their dispute with Israel as “a conflict”. In reality, it is the product of a straightforward act of colonisation, much like European nations previously practiced in Africa and elsewhere, and it has similarly bred resistance among colonised people.
Reflections from the Editor-at-large
The Guardian’s former “Editor at Large”, Gary Younge gave a keynote speech in a session called: “What’s Left at The Guardian: Corbyn and the Liberal Commentariat”. He painted an interesting picture of the editorial and journalistic culture of the newspaper. On the face of it, the culture was open and collegial (as described by Alan Rusbridger), but there was a lot of groupthink and pressure to conform. The rise of Jeremy Corbyn presented a challenge to the entire media and political establishment. A set of received wisdoms prevailed about what was possible, about who voters were and what would happen at elections, and most believed the Corbyn project would fail. Younge moreover sensed a general lack of curiosity as to what his rise represented.
Journalists like Gary knew that to be taken seriously by management and progress in their careers, they needed to keep within an ‘Overton Window’ (my words) that excluded strong sympathy for Jeremy Corbyn. It was in Younge’s words “reputationally damaging simply NOT to trash Corbyn - - to take his leadership seriously was to risk not being taken seriously yourself”.
After Younge’s talk, I asked “why didn’t the majority of the Guardian staff rebel against the gross misrepresentation in how the Guardian covered antisemitism in the Labour Party”. Various other audience members typed closely related questions. As Mark Curtis noted, the Guardian had endlessly pushed this narrative between Corbyn’s becoming leader in 2015 and the General Election of Dec 2019.
Younge could hardly manage a response, beyond saying that this topic, like the trans debate, was “deeply toxic”. As he struggled to respond, people started typing in comments like “you are floundering Gary and I'm an admirer of your work”. I got the impression that he feared engaging with the topic. As if avoiding an elephant in the room, he never mentioned Jonathan Freedland, the Guardian columnist who led the Guardian’s antisemitism charge.
Younge’s response, or lack of it, bore out what he had just said about the culture of conformity among Guardian journalists, and which may also affect former employees like him. However, I have little doubt it also reflects the fear of being trashed as antisemitic – an ever-present threat that hangs over journalists who dare speak up in support of Palestinian rights.
The Guardian has always been a liberal reformist newspaper, so the last session’s focus on “the left” smacked of unrealistic expectations. To his credit, Younge recognised this in his contribution to the Capitalism’s Conscience book. However, as I said in the introduction, there was every opportunity to hold the Guardian to account according to its own standards, notably those of its non-conformist founders who certainly did not believe in telling lies or bearing false witness, and of C.P. Scott who thought that facts were sacred.
There is much to admire in the Guardian’s history and its business model, and in its managing to survive into the digital age. However, it seems to have yielded to external pressures and sacrificed much of its journalistic integrity during the last decade. Nowhere is this more evident than in its coverage of alleged antisemitism in the Labour Party, where we have witnessed:
a tsunami of articles (about 1,380) on antisemitism and the Labour Party or Jeremy Corbyn from 2016 to 2019
failure to reference or analyse readily available statistical information showing the allegation to be patently false. This article covered similar ground. On one occasion I phoned the Reader’s Editor about this but was told in no uncertain terms that the Guardian would not be interested.
failure to review important research literature on the topic, notably the Media Reform Coalition’s report finding inaccuracies and distortions in the media coverage, and Bad News for Labour.
no attempt to investigate the pro-Israeli lobby organisations individuals and organisations that routinely formulate accusations about antisemitism, something one might reasonably expect given the Guardian’s record in investigative reporting. Specialist media outfits like the Electronic Intifada do this, while Chris Friel had done forensic analysis of “Israel’s troll army”: where is the Guardian’s reporting on this important phenomenon?
that Rusbridger has remained silent on the pro-Israel lobby, failing to mention it in his 464-page book “Breaking News, the Remaking of Journalism and Why it Matters Now (2018). He might for example have mentioned the episode in 2006 (reported on C4 Dispatches, 2009) when a representative of the pro-Israel Community Security Trust (CST) visited the Guardian along with someone from the Board of Deputies of British Jews (BoD) and accused it of fomenting antisemitic attacks, but he steered well clear of the topic. His performance stands in stark contrast to Nick Davies who drew attention to the lobby on pages 122-125 of his ground-breaking book “Flat-Earth News” (2008), under the heading “Avoid the Electric Fence”.
The Guardian spent over four years pouring out propaganda about antisemitism in the Labour Party, while systematically ignoring facts that did not fit this narrative. I cannot imagine a greater betrayal of the principles upon which the Guardian was founded and (according to Alan Rusbridger’s account) functioned for the best part of two centuries. Gary Younge’s testimony suggests a culture of conformity whereby journalists avoided speaking up or pointing out that “the Emperor has no clothes”.
The exposure of the hacking scandal is one of the Guardian’s most heroic episodes, largely down to the tireless efforts of Nick Davies, and editorial support from Alan Rusbridger, from 2006 onwards. However, its subsequent actions seem to have frustrated efforts to achieve desperately needed reform in the way the press is regulated. Brian Cathcart describes it as accepting a regulatory status quo that, for a time, it loudly denounced as intolerable.
The Guardian and the Observer’s support for the Iraq War show that the Guardian Media Group was never a paragon in its reporting of British foreign policy. However, Mark Curtis’s findings suggest that, following the Snowden revelations of 2013, it has come under great pressure from the security services and there has been a marked deterioration in reporting standards.