The journalism of attachment

Essays Published August 26, 1999 in A talk given in Bogota, Colombia, in 1999

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 environmentalists.

As you can imagine, this was a pleasant experience.

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 food.

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 in Europe.

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 the powerful.

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 heard.

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 know any.

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.

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