Flexible Friends – The Observer, The Independent, and The Myth of a Media Spectrum

Mathaba News

Certainly the words ''left'' and ''right'' are ''effectively meaningless'' in today's media. The fact is that the general population is not well represented within elite journalism.

A Vain Search For Principle

(medialens) - In a BBC interview in 1996, Andrew Marr, then of the Independent, described the ’spectrum’ of media available to the British public:

“We have a press which has, it seems to me, a relatively wide range of views - there is a pretty small ’c’ conservative majority, but there are left-wing papers, and there is a pretty large offering of views running from the far right to the far left, for those who want them.” (zmag.org)

The “left-wing papers” Marr had in mind were the Guardian, the Observer, the Independent and the Independent on Sunday.

It is interesting to consider Marr‘s comments in light of the April 10 announcement that Roger Alton, formerly editor of the Observer, will become editor of the Independent in June. Alton resigned from the Observer last year after rumours of a ’civil war’ with the Guardian. There were also allegations that, in 2002, the Observer had suppressed important testimony on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction (see below) even as it was publishing false stories from intelligence sources. It was claimed that Alton’s political editor, Kamal Ahmed, had helped Blair’s aides with one of their infamous “dodgy dossiers” on Iraq’s WMD - Ahmed also resigned. Alton and Ahmed have both denied the claim. Geoffrey Levy wrote in the Daily Mail:

“Alton's real mistake, it seems, was in supporting the Iraq war. This attitude never went down very well at Guardian House, and led to a more localised conflict, which has turned the two newspapers into what one senior journalist described as ‘hotbeds of fear and loathing’.” (Levy, ‘Fear and loathing in Farringdon Road,’ Daily Mail, October 25, 2007)

It is a bitter irony that Alton will soon be editing the Independent, which opposed the Iraq war.

In January 2006, Stephen Glover, the Independent’s media commentator, wrote of the Observer: “one looks in vain to its heart for that old voice of principle and conviction, as well as intellectual distinction. I am not sure that Mr Alton, charming and gifted man though he unquestionably is, believes in very much”. (Glover, ‘Colourful - and that's not just the Observer editor's language,’ The Independent, January 16, 2006)

So was the Observer under Alton really to the left of the media spectrum? In responding to the question of whether he would take the Independent further left, Alton commented recently:

“I wouldn't have regarded myself as the most leftwing person... Left and right are effectively meaningless terms now. I wouldn't define myself by those terms and I don't think a newspaper should either.” (Stephen Brook, ‘Alton aims to make Indy “indispensable,”’ The Guardian, April 10, 2008)

He added:

"I would like to include a bit more luxury and have a sense of specialness.”

Certainly the words “left” and “right” are “effectively meaningless” in today’s media. But then it is the media’s self-assigned task to render just about every issue meaningless. As ever, Noam Chomsky is on hand to restore some common sense to the debate:

“If the left means anything, it means it’s concerned for the needs, welfare, and rights of the general population.” (zmag.org)

News Coverage And The Social Elite

The fact is that the general population is not well represented within elite journalism. In 2006, research conducted by the Sutton Trust found that 54% of Britain’s leading news journalists were educated in private schools, which account for 7% of the school population as a whole. In addition, 45% of the country’s leading journalists had attended Oxbridge. Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust, asked:

“[Is] it healthy that those who are most influential in determining and interpreting the news agenda have educational backgrounds that are so different to the vast majority of the population?“

He also asked:

“Is news coverage preoccupied with the issues and interests of the social elite that journalists represent?” (The Educational Backgrounds of Leading Journalists, Sutton Trust, June 2006; suttontrust.com)

Alton’s dismissal of ’left’ and ’right’ as meaningful terms is surely an example of exactly that. Lampl will not have been surprised to learn that Alton’s father was a distinguished Oxford don and that Alton was privately educated at Clifton College before attending Exeter College, Oxford.

For purposes of ‘niche marketing’, senior journalists are of course very keen to distance themselves from the idea that they represent elite interests. Instead, the focus is very much on high ethical ideals. Simon Kelner, Alton’s predecessor as Independent editor, explained in 2005 what the name 'Independent' meant to him:

"...there will be no retreat from the qualities that have underpinned The Independent since its launch. As we approach the general election, the role for an independent paper, one that is not driven by proprietorial agenda and that has no party allegiance, is as great as ever." (Kelner, 'The Independent: a new look for the original quality compact newspaper,’ The Independent, April 12, 2005)

This is the same myth propounded by Robert Fisk, who commented in 2003:

"I work for a British newspaper called The Independent; if you read it, you'll find that we are." (robert- fisk.com)

The reality is rather less glorious. Former New Statesman editor Peter Wilby wrote recently of Alton and Kelner’s close friendship:

“Both have political views that may be described as flexible or undogmatic, depending on how you look at it.

“True, one committed his paper to supporting the Iraq invasion, the other to opposing it. But given different circumstances, it is easy to imagine either of them deciding on the opposite course. Many friendships were ruptured by Iraq. That between Alton and Kelner survived - another example of how similar they are.” (Wilby, ‘It is. Is he?’ The Guardian, April 14, 2008)

The problem is that many people believe the Independent is a principled voice of left-leaning liberalism. Wilby quietly demolished this illusion:

“[T]he Independent's founders never intended it to be a left-wing paper. Their preference, in the late 80s, was for Thatcherism with a human face. They expected to gain most readers from the Telegraph and Times. As it turned out, they found leftwing journalists more willing to join their venture and acquired more readers from the Guardian than from other papers. The editorial line remained pro-market and generally pro-foreign intervention, but compassionate towards the poor (in a vague sort of way) and leftish on social issues such as race, crime and smacking. Its position, in many respects, anticipated Blairism. Alton, who in 2006 described hostility to Blair as ‘quite baffling‘, could claim to echo the founders' views more closely than Kelner has done.”

Writing in the Guardian, Stephen Brook noted that Kelner, now the Independent’s managing director and editor-in-chief, “has basically outsourced the Independent's marketing department to Freud Communications, run by the well-connected Matthew Freud”:

“Freud will help to fashion the message that it connects directly with brand-conscious, upscale, young, high-earning readers.” (Brook, ‘Upward and onward for the Independent's revolutionary,’ The Guardian, April 13, 2008)

The reality, then, is of a corporate cynicism that places advertising revenues attracted by “brand-conscious, upscale, young, high-earning readers” above the grave problems that afflict and threaten the “needs, welfare, and rights of the general population”. This is the actual and metaphorical bottom line.

Faithfully Reporting Claim And Counter-Claim - Observer-Style

As we discussed on March 5 (medialens.org), in the autumn of 2002, former CIA analyst Mel Goodman told Observer correspondent Ed Vulliamy that the CIA believed Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction. Goodman was speaking out at a time when such revelations might have derailed Blair’s plans to go to war the following spring, with unknown consequences for Bush’s war plan. Over the next four months, Vulliamy submitted seven versions of the story for publication - The Observer, led by Alton, rejected all of them. We wrote to Vulliamy on February 27:

Dear Ed

Hope you're well. I've been reading Nick Davies's account of how your reports on Mel Goodman's revelations were rejected seven times by the Observer. Did you try to publish the pieces elsewhere? Why did you not resign in protest at these obvious acts of censorship on such a crucial matter?

Best wishes
David Edwards

Vulliamy replied with what can only be described as an angst-ridden email, but insisted the contents were not for publication. We wrote again on February 28:

“Can I ask, also off the record (just out of human interest), what reasons did they give you for not publishing? You're a major journalist on the paper, this was cast-iron testimony from a credible, named source - what on earth did they say?”

Vulliamy said he would answer our questions later (again, off the record). We received no further reply. We wrote again, and he again said he would reply. We wrote again on April 21 and he told us he was busy and again promised more later.

We also wrote to Roger Alton on April 21:

Hi Roger

We hope you're well. Congratulations on becoming editor of the Independent.

In his book Flat Earth News, Nick Davies describes how the Observer's Ed Vulliamy told him about his autumn 2002 conversations with former CIA analyst Mel Goodman. It seems Goodman was willing to go on the record in telling Vulliamy that the CIA believed Iraq had +no+ weapons of mass destruction. Vulliamy says he submitted seven versions of this story to the Observer over a period of four months and it was rejected every time. Is this true? If so, why did the Observer reject the story? Was this not a crucial story offered at a crucial time by a highly credible journalist citing credible sources?

Best wishes
David Edwards and David Cromwell

Alton replied on April 25:

Hi there ... Thank you for your good wishes ... I do not start there for some months though and am not the editor of the Independent now

As for your other point, so it was my old pal Ed who grassed me up eh?? Lordluvaduck, what a surprise ... like Falstaff and Prince Hal eh??

Now, I don't know anything about this tale ... while I think an editor should read, or try to read, all the 250,000 - odd words that go into an edition of the Observer, I would not expect them to read all the several million words that are submitted eaxh week ... as I understand it, this story was not used by the desk, on journalistic grounds, and indeed this was a decision taken by a very anti-war executive ..

There was an article setting all this out in a recent edition of Press Gazette, which I am sure you can easily find...

Yours sincerely

Roger Alton

How remarkable that Alton is unaware of the Mel Goodman “tale”. We can find nothing in Press Gazette that explains why seven versions of Vulliamy's article were rejected over four months. We approached several of the journalists involved for comment on this bizarre response, none was forthcoming.

In 2004, we asked Alton about the Observer’s performance on Iraq in 2004. He responded:

"I think our reporting on Iraq was exceptionally fair. Journalism is by definition a first draft of history. It is rough and ready, people doing their best under trying circumstances often. We faithfully reported claim and counter claim in the build up to Iraq. With exceptional journalists like Peter Beaumont, Jason Burke, and Ed Vulliamy our news, feature and commentary coverage was fair, thorough and unbiased." (Email to Media Lens, August 17, 2004)

Ironic words in light of what we know now. A year earlier, a journalist at the Observer, who asked to remain anonymous, wrote to us:

"Your media alerts and website have afforded me great solace and insight over the last eighteen months - making me feel less alone and more angry as the wretched failure of the 'fourth estate' to hold our 'leaders' to account becomes increasingly apparent." (Email to Media Lens, March 2003)

On reflection, it seems incredibly naïve to imagine that free speech will flourish under corporate capitalism. It is true that we do not face the kind of physical threats offered by a totalitarian system - but so what? For most people, the threat of serious damage to a lucrative, high status career is enough to ensure their silence.

In the last decade of corresponding with journalists we have found that they often do behave as though they were living in a police state, or at least in a state policed by corporate power. Many are privately supportive and helpful. Indeed, many journalists who might be expected to be fierce opponents of our work, are in fact enraged by the mendacity and destructiveness of the media employing them. But they tell us their comments must be off the record; that they are not willing to comment over the internet (which is surely monitored); that they will help us only on condition that their names be concealed. Could it be more obvious that journalists do not feel free to write the truth about Alton and Kelner, and much else, because of the likely professional consequences?

Above, we cited the biting criticisms of Alton made by the Independent’s Stephen Glover in 2006. Hugo Rifkind of the Times recalled these comments this month and noted that Glover had also written that the Observer under Alton was "bursting with stuff I do not want to read".

“And, his new Editor may surmise, would not wish to write”, Rifkind commented wryly, hinting that Glover may pay a price for his earlier candour. (Rifkind, ‘Write and wrong,’ The Times, April 11, 2008)

We spend our time well when we recall that Alton and Kelner have edited two of the Great White Hopes of the British liberal press - newspapers which many people believe are deeply concerned about the needs, welfare, and rights of the general population.


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