The Journalism of Attachment
There is no such thing as 'neutral'
reporting - and neither should there be
Talk given to the International Federation
of Environmental Journalists, Bogota, Colombia, October
I'm going to talk on the theme of
communication and the environment, from the perspective
of The Ecologist, the UK-based magazine which I help
to edit. In particular, I want to focus on a question
which I believe is becoming more important every day:
what is the role of the environmental journalist in
a world in which so many of the problems we cover are
growing more desperate every minute - and many of which
cannot be tackled without radical action?
This time last week, I was in a hotel
in London - a hotel rather like this one - listening
to one of the most powerful and influential corporate
executives in the world apologising to a room full of
As you can imagine, this was a pleasant
The occasion was the Greenpeace Business
Conference, and the man addressing the room was Robert
Shapiro, Chief Executive of the notorious Monsanto corporation,
the world's pioneering biotechnology company. As many
of you undoubtedly know already, Monsanto has a long
history of manufacturing some of the most poisonous
substances known to man - from the Agent Orange that
was used by the US to defoliate the Vietnamese jungles,
to the PCB chemicals which are currently to be found
in every ocean, and practically every sea mammal, in
the world. As you will also know, Monsanto's latest
trick has been to turn itself into the world's largest
biotechnology corporation. It has staked its entire
commercial future on the development, manufacture and
sale of genetically-modified organisms.
Up until about a year ago, Monsanto's
future looked rosy. It was selling millions of dollars
worth of its genetically modified seeds to farmers across
the world, particularly in its home country, the USA.
It held patents on a number of 'new life forms' created
in its laboratories, with which it was hoping to vastly
increase its control over the world's food chain. It
had invented seeds resistant to pesticides - its own
pesticides, of course - and was developing the notorious
'terminator' seed, designed to produce only one crop
before producing sterile seeds itself - thus forcing
farmers to go cap in hand to the corporation every growing
season. It was deliberately browbeating farmers in developing
countries into abandoning their traditional farming
practices and embracing GM technology. In some countries,
like India, the corporation even used religious images
to sell its technology to farmers who heard only the
corporation's propaganda, and no opposing views. It
was well on the way to achieving its goal: virtually
controlling farmers, consumers and much of the world's
But then, things began to go wrong.
A combination of factors sent the mighty corporation
into a tailspin. In Europe, consumers began to reject
GM foods. Despite Monsanto's multi-million pound newspaper
advertising campaign, shops began to take GM foods off
the shelves, in the wake of worries about the technology's
safety. In the countryside, campaigns against the planting
of GM crops grew too, with small bands of activists
tearing up crops. I'm proud to say that my home country,
the UK, has been at the forefront of this anti-GM activism.
Soon, Monsanto and other biotech companies were forced
into a retreat. Having failed to bully the European
public into unquestioningly eating their untested foods,
they are now talking of scaling back their activities
Elsewhere around the world, the backlash
against Monsanto has been equally strong. In India,
farmers are tearing up and burning fields of Monsanto
test crops. One State in Brazil has declared itself
a GM-free zone. The more people learn about Monsanto
and their intentions, it seems, the more determined
they are to resist them.
In short, Monsanto is in big trouble
- and I'm not going to pretend that this doesn't make
me a very happy man. Robert Shapiro knows this, and
that's why he was at the Greenpeace Business Conference
last week, apologising for the corporation's past errors.
Apologising is Monsanto's latest PR trick. He acknowledged
that people saw his company as 'arrogant.' He acknowledged
that they had been 'slow to listen'. He even acknowledged
that not all biotechnology products were a good thing
- some, he said, could even be harmful. A remarkable
admission from a company which has previously claimed
biotechnology as the solution for everything from world
hunger to overuse of pesticides.
Finally, Shapiro announced that, as
a result of public pressure, Monsanto would now not
be going ahead with plans to commercially develop terminator
technology. This is a first, small, victory for environmental
campaigners in the battle against biotechnology, and
I can predict here and now that it will not be the last.
So what does any of this have to do
with journalism? What's it got to do with communication?
The answer is: everything.
For the battle against biotechnology
- which is fast becoming one of the most remarkable,
global environmental campaigns in a very long time -
has been, above all, about communications. It has been
about journalists uncovering facts that Monsanto and
other biotech companies would rather keep quiet. It
has been about newspapers running campaigns against
GM foods. It has been about activists communicating
via the internet, and passing information to each other
at the touch of a button. If the campaigns that have
sprung up against biotechnology can be called a war,
it is a war of information. And it is a war that could
not have been fought without journalists all over the
world providing the ammunition.
At The Ecologist, we've helped provide
some of that ammunition, and we've also experienced
the result of challenging a powerful company like Monsanto
in public. Just over a year ago, we published a special
edition of The Ecologist, entitled 'The Monsanto Files.'
It laid bare the corporation's history of lies, deceit
and poisonous promises; it told the scientific, political,
social and economic truths about biotechnology; and
it highlighted the small-scale, sustainable alternatives
to agricultural biotechnology.
The Monsanto Files has sold more issues
of The Ecologist than any other in our 30 year history
- over 300,000 so far, is six difference languages,
and still going strong. But it nearly sold none at all.
For on the day before the magazine was due in the shops,
we were contacted by our printer and informed that,
on legal advice, they had destroyed every single copy
of The Monsanto Files that they had printed for us.
When we asked why, they told us that the contents were
potentially libellous. Under the UK's absurd libel law,
which is virtually unique in the world as far as I know,
not only the editors and journalists can be sued for
libel, but also the printers and distributors - even
if they are completely unaware of the contents of the
magazine. But because of this, we had had the magazine
thoroughly checked by a lawyer before we sent it to
the printers. We were confident of its veracity. And
besides, this was hardly the first time that The Ecologist
has attacked a powerful and destructive corporation.
We've been doing it for over 30 years, and we've never
been sued yet.
The printer insisted it had not been
threatened by Monsanto. Monsanto (who actually subscribe
to the magazine) told us they had not threatened the
printer - though we don't make a habit of believing
them. But whatever the truth of the matter, we lost
time, money and copies of the magazine as a result either
of a direct threat from Monsanto or - perhaps even more
sinister - the very fear of that corporation's power.
We found another printer, and Monsanto
never did sue us. But this little episode was just one,
isolated example of how difficult it can be to challenge
Intimidation like this - whether from
corporations, governments or powerful individuals, makes
the job of the environmental journalist often a difficult
one. But it is precisely for this reason that our job
is so vital. For it is only through journalists that
the public get to know what is really going on. This
makes us, in turn, influential ourselves - for knowledge
really is power. What we tell people can influence their
beliefs, their attitudes and their actions. The biotechnology
debate has shown that very clearly.
But what we don't tell people can be
equally important. For this reason, we have a duty to
tell the truth as we see it. And, I believe, we also
have a duty to take sides.
For almost 30 years, The Ecologist
has set itself the task of challenging the basic assumptions
on which our society bases its standards and institutions
- and the task of publishing what other magazines will
not publish. Sometimes, perhaps, there was a good reason
why other magazines made that decision, but most of
the time, I think, we got it right
But we believe that journalism can
be, no only a means of communicating information, but
also a way of changing things - a way of campaigning
for a different future.
In Britain, a reporter named Martin
Bell, who worked as a BBC correspondent for 30 years,
recently left journalism and became an independent MP.
Bell has reported from most of the world's war zones,
and has covered famines, disasters, major political
developments and much more, for one of the world's biggest
and most respected news organisations. But since leaving
the BBC, he has become critical of the role of many
mainstream journalists in reporting and covering global
events. It is wrong, he now says, to pretend that any
journalist, any magazine or newspaper or TV station,
can be truly detached from the events being covered.
It is false, he says, to pretend that, even subconsciously,
we do not let our opinions affect our work. And, he
says, it is wrong to expect us to.
Bell now argues for what he calls 'the
journalism of attachment' - the journalism of commitment.
Sometimes, he says, journalists need to take sides.
It is no use pretending that the victims of a massacre
and its perpetrators have an equal right to be heard.
It is morally wrong to argue that the oppressor and
the oppressed, the powerful and the powerless, the rich
and the poor, are equal and equally deserving of attention.
In short, he says, it is up to us to decide who gets
This is a controversial view, particularly
amongst mainstream journalists. But in many ways Bell
is right. Certainly, every organisation is different,
and must decide for itself what stance it takes on every
issue it tackles. But how many environmental journalists
can look around them today and argue that the world
is in good hands? How many can say that they are neutral
about the issues they cover? How many can say that they
have never come across a situation in which it is clear
who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? I don't
Without wishing to depress you all
so soon after lunch, it's pretty clear to me that the
world is in trouble. Because of what we've been doing
to the atmosphere for the last 150 years, in the name
of 'development', the world's climate is rapidly spinning
out of control. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change, the international body of scientists which advises
the UN on climate science, has clearly stated that the
world needs to swiftly cut its emissions of carbon dioxide
by at least 60% just to stabilise the climate over the
next century. And our governments response to this?
The developed world has agreed to cut its emissions
by 5% over the next 12 years - and it looks like the
USA, the world's biggest polluter, will not even ratify
this agreement. Scientists now estimate that 1,000 species
become extinct worldwide every year. Forests are disappearing
faster than ever. Meanwhile, the global economy has
never been bigger or healthier, yet half the world lives
in an abject poverty that is exacerbated if not caused
by unelected, unaccountable corporations, international
agencies such as the IMF, the WTO and the World Bank,
and Western governments. Eight of the ten biggest economies
on Earth are now not nation states but corporations
- accountable to nobody but their shareholders for what
they do to people and the planet. The drive to expand
the global market into all corners of the Earth is accelerating,
regardless of the consequences - further widening the
gap between rich and poor, and deliberately destroying
self-sufficient and sustainable lifestyles in the drive
to make a consumer out of everybody of Earth.
Faced with such a situation, what is
the role of the environmental journalist? What does
a journalist do in times like these? In a world in which
800 million people a year go hungry, while the world's
biggest seed company, Cargill, pulls in $800 million
revenues, are we expected to continue to support the
myth that those in power know what they're doing - and
that the current model of global development does anything
else but enrich the powerful at the expense of the poor?
Personally, as you may have guessed
by now, I don't think so. On the contrary, I believe,
and The Ecologist believes, in the journalism of attachment.
A journalism which, as well as highlighting the problems,
talks about solutions, and actively pushes for them.
A journalism which takes sides, which nails its colours
to the mast - which names names, both good and bad.
I've had people say to me that what
The Ecologist does is not journalism but propaganda.
But I'd argue that, as I said earlier, no journalism
is truly detached from its subject. Even as you decide
what to cover in your newspaper, or on your TV station,
you are exhibiting a bias, and making a political decision,
not only about what you include, but also about what
you leave out. All we're doing at The Ecologist is being
more honest about what we want and what we don't - what
we support and what sort of future we want to see.
The journalism of attachment doesn't
work for everyone. I used to work for a national newspaper
in the UK, and I know from that experience that in many
cases journalists don't have the luxury of campaigning,
or making their own views known. What you say, and how
you operate, also depends on where you are, and in what
circumstances you work. Coming from the UK, I am in
the privileged position of being able to campaign for
change with relative impunity. Yes, campaigning journalists
in the UK get slandered, lied about, abused and sued.
But we are largely allowed to say what we want without
fear of more serious official reprisal. I know that
many people elsewhere in the world, including here in
Colombia, are not so lucky.
Yet wherever possible, environmental
journalists should take the opportunity to at least
ask the right questions about society, and to try and
discover the answers. For increasingly, coverage of
environmental issues is becoming a vast topic. Environmentalism
is no longer just about climate change or conserving
threatened species; it is no longer just about deforestation
or desertification. Increasingly, the environment is
a political, an economic and even a philosophical issue.
It is about looking into the workings of a system that
allows such destruction to go on. It is about questioning
our definitions of 'progress' and 'development'. It
is about injecting an ecological morality into politics,
economics and science. It is about asking the Big Questions.
Our job as journalists and communicators,
then, is to inform people not only of the facts, but
of the philosophy of change. To let people know that
there is another way of seeing things, and another road
to go down - another set of values by which we can measure
success, rather than continuing to define ourselves
in terms of money, power, production and consumption.
To talk about a new way of seeing the world - away from
the arrogance of amoral science and the blind faith
in technology. Away from techno-fixes; from remaking
nature in the interests of profit. And towards a worldview
in which nature is valued for its own sake, rather than
simply as a resource to be processed for an ever-growing
army of unquestioning consumers.
None of this is easy, and not all of
it is fun. In fact, to be honest, very little of it
is fun - and if I ever have children, I'll be advising
them not to become environmentalists if they value their
sense of humour.
When things go right, though, it all
seems worth it. The biotechnology battle is one example
of how giants like Monsanto can be forced into retreat
by outraged, ordinary people, if they are armed with
information by journalists and campaigners. And the
issue of globalisation, which has also been discussed
at this Congress, I predict, be the next arena in which
ordinary folk tell their political and industrial leaders
that they've had enough.
The Ecologist has been working with
organisations all over the world for some years to combat
the menace of globalisation which, in the name of economic
growth, is destroying ecosystems, homogenising cultures
and contributing to social disintegration, largely for
the benefit, again, of large corporations. In another
shameless plug, I should say that we produced a special
issue on globalisation earlier this year, which I can
also send to anyone who is interested.
Globalisation is opposed by unions,
environmental groups, social campaigners, traditional
peoples and many others, many of whom are now getting
together to oppose the process - a process, incidentally,
which is not 'inevitable' but which is deliberately
created and subsidised by many of our governments. This
November, many of these groups will be getting together
for what they hope will be the 'protest of the century'
outside the WTO meeting in Seattle, USA. The WTO will
be meeting to discuss a further tearing down of national
laws designed to protect the environment and safeguard
the rights of workers. Corporate lobbyists will seek
to persuade governments to allow the privatisation of
healthcare and the virtual criminalisation of many small
business ventures. In short, the world's biggest corporations
will seek once again to have the scales tipped in their
favour, even as they talk of a 'free' market.
The reason that the World Trade Organisation
- a secretive and highly technical international body
dedicated to laying out trade rules - has become such
a focus of attention for environmentalists and others
is again because of the role that journalists and communicators
have played, over the last few years, in getting globalisation
into the public eye. Global trade rules seem, at first
sight, as obscure and technical a subject as biotechnology
- yet they are creeping into the public eye precisely
because they are so distant and uncontrollable, and
yet affect almost every aspect of life all over the
planet, wherever we live and however we live. They are
creeping into the public eye because journalists are
interpreting them for general consumption - and laying
out the real issues for all to see.
Slowly but surely, people across the
world are waking up to what is being done to the planet
in their name, by those who claim to represent them.
And the more they hear, the less they like it. In order
that people everywhere can truly begin to decide what
kind of a future they would like to see, it is up to
journalists to keep ensuring that people hear the truth
- as we see it - and that they are presented with alternatives
to business as usual.
George Orwell, the famous English writer
and Socialist, writing during the Second World War,
argued that, in extreme situations, there is no such
thing as neutrality. When faced with invasion by Hitler
and his Nazi war machine, he said, there was no room
for middle ground - you either opposed the Nazis or
you helped them to victory. Those who did nothing, he
said - those who preached pacifism or neutrality in
the face of fascism - were, whether they liked it or
not, doing Hitler's work.
Today, it is time for us to arm ourselves
with information and take sides in what is increasingly
becoming a corporate war against the planet. Today,
again, there is no such thing as neutrality.
This is a war of information that none
of us can afford to lose.