The Cockroach Test
Alain de Botton, "Branded Conversations", and Runaway Climate Change
News that philosopher Alain de Botton had been hired as Heathrow's "writer in residence" generated minor ripples across the media pond, including occasional murmurs of disapproval. Journalists momentarily failed to repress their awareness that truth into corporate profit-maximising does not go, although without perceiving the implications for themselves.
Thus Dan Milmo, writer in residence at the Guardian, noted that de Botton was "the latest artistic figure to tread the precarious line between creative independence and commerce after signing a publishing deal with the financial support of Heathrow's owner, BAA." (Milmo, 'High minded: Heathrow hires De Botton: Philosophical author begins work as airport's writer-in-residence,' The Guardian, August 19, 2009)
Milmo recalled how novelist Fay Weldon had been found to be responsible for "one of the most notorious sell-outs of recent times" when it emerged that her latest novel had been sponsored by the Italian jewellery firm Bulgari. Weldon explained last month:
"I was accused of defiling the novel. The deal was that I must mention Bulgari 12 times in a novel I wrote for them as a giveaway. My agent was terribly good and knocked them down to nine and a half mentions. In the end I mentioned them 46 times." (http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2009/aug/30/fay-weldon)
If some small part of Milmo's brain recognised that he also treads a "precarious line" between creative independence and commerce, it didn't show - journalists typically play intellectual possum when the issue is raised. In a recent discussion on the ethics of advertising in an age of climate crisis, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger said it was fine for newspapers to be funded by Wal-Mart, "as long as Wal-Mart demands nothing in return" (http://www.guardian.co.uk/sustainability/video/sustainability-advertising-alan-rusbridger).
This kind of assurance is a complete red herring. The point is that when corporate advertisers keep media corporations in business, the corporate nature of both parties all but guarantees a corporate-friendly media performance. Nobody has to tell a media business to favour business, to tread carefully around issues that harm business control of society. Especially when politics, which is also in thrall to corporate power, has the power to reward and publish, praise and lambast, 'respectable' and 'irresponsible' journalism.
Similarly, the problem is not that writers sell out, but that, as Noam Chomsky told the BBC's Andrew Marr, "if you believed something different you wouldn't be sitting where you're sitting". (The Big Idea, BBC2, February 14, 1996) Chomsky once related a story he had heard from a civil rights activist at Harvard Law School:
"He once gave a talk and said that kids were coming in to Harvard Law School with long hair and backpacks and social ideals and they were all going to go into public service, law and change the world. That's the first year. He said around April the recruiters come for the summer jobs, the Wall Street firms. Get a cushy summer job and make a ton of money.
"So the students figure, What the heck? I can put on a tie and jacket and shave for one day, because I need that money and why shouldn't I have it? So they put on a tie and a jacket for that one day and they get the job for the summer. Then they go off for the summer and when they come back in the fall, it's ties and jackets and obedience and a shift of ideology." (http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Chomsky/Chomsky_Tapes_MAlbert.html)
De Botton was educated at the elite Dragon School, and at Harrow and Cambridge. His father was head of Rothschild Bank, then founded Global Asset Management in 1983 with £1m capital and sold it to UBS in 1999 for £420m. (Sunday Times profile, 'A kicking from the boohoo boy of books,' July 12, 2009)
In the Evening Standard, de Botton explained the Heathrow job spec that so excited him:
"This character would be given free rein to wander the premises for a week in August, from the control tower to the baggage carousels, and talk to staff and passengers alike. Then he or she would be asked to sit at a specially constructed desk in the departures hall and, in full view of everyone (with big screens projecting to the public what was being written on the computer), write a book in a few weeks, for publication in mid-September." (De Botton, 'Plane English,' Evening Standard, August 19, 2009)
A month after the work was completed - 12,000 words with photographic illustrations - 10,000 free copies would be handed out to passengers at the airport. This seemed like "a rare and fascinating offer", de Botton felt. After all, "very few organisations can be bothered to open themselves up to strangers, who might ask the wrong questions and be a nuisance."
In reality, the heart experiences something akin to a sudden loss of cabin pressure at the thought of one more behind-the-scenes report from an airport in the wake of docusoap series like Airport, Holiday Airport, Animal Airport and Luton Airport. Even de Botton's evaluation of the potential risk put the actual danger in perspective. In an age of catastrophic climate change - to which aviation is one of the most potent contributors - a loose philosophical cannon could do far more than ask awkward questions and be an irritant. He or she could conceivably wreak havoc on the image of Heathrow airport, its owner BAA, and the aviation industry more generally.
De Botton realised that he risked looking like someone who had sold his soul. He was candid about his concerns:
"I was lucky to be picked for the job but I had a few long nights of the soul before accepting. Heathrow swarms with contentious issues, not least the burning question of the third runway, and I wanted to be sure that I'd be allowed to say what I pleased. My agent and I devised the cockroach test: in other words, I had to be allowed to discuss every last cockroach I might spot at the airport if that's what I felt like doing. To their credit, the airport took the point and didn't flinch."
In the Independent, Terence Blacker reported that a Heathrow spokeswoman had told him that de Botton "bit our arms off to be involved in the project". (Blacker, 'Why does a philosopher need to join the clamour for speed?,' The Independent, August 21, 2009)
The PR firm, Mischief of London, which was behind the idea, told the Independent that their goal was to inspire "branded conversations through the experience of seeing a top literary figure at the airport". De Botton was delighted: "On behalf of my fellow beleaguered writers, it's nice that writers seem to matter." (Ibid)
Blacker was unimpressed:
"Enough of this nonsense. The publicists may indeed get their 'branded conversations' but beleaguered writers, among whom the millionaire philosopher can surely not be including himself, gain nothing from these marketing games."
We wrote to de Botton on September 9:
Hope you're well. I was interested to read of your work as writer in residence at Heathrow important. In the Evening Standard you wrote:
"My agent and I devised the cockroach test: in other words, I had to be allowed to discuss every last cockroach I might spot at the airport if that's what I felt like doing. To their credit, the airport took the point and didn't flinch."
But surely the real "cockroach" for BAA and Heathrow is the threat of catastrophic climate change. Aviation is one of the most potent contributors to the problem. Did Heathrow pass the climate change test? How much did you have to say about the issue in the terminal and in the book to be released on September 28?
De Botton replied and a series of interesting exchanges followed. He asked that these remain "private". From his replies, it seems likely that BAA was not subjected to our "climate change test" in his book - he had other, "aesthetic" priorities.
De Botton's two articles on the project in the Evening Standard and the Sunday Times mentioned that airports are associated with "our destruction of nature," that "Heathrow swarms with contentious issues, not least the burning question of the third runway," that "Heathrow is routinely accused of being the biggest eyesore in the South-East" and "its environmental and noise impact is hard to forget" (De Botton, 'Plane English,' Evening Standard, August 19, 2009). But these were trivial criticisms when set against the truly awesome crises looming over us all and particularly over the aviation industry. Climate change was not even mentioned. Instead, de Botton wrote:
"There is something sublime about standing in a cloudless dawn at the end of 27LR, as Heathrow's northern runway is known to pilots, and observing a sequence of planes, each visible as a single diamond, lined up at different heights, on their final approach." He observed, further, "there is no one, however lonely or isolated, however pessimistic about the human race, however preoccupied with the payroll, who does not in the end expect that someone significant will come to meet him at arrivals." (Ibid)
The environmental journalist, Andy Rowell, who has often written for the Guardian, made a crucial point:
"Advertising reassures people that it is OK to buy and consume. It provides a safety net to make it acceptable to consume. What makes this so important is the media are often the windows through which we see the world. If we open a paper and see fast cars it makes it acceptable to drive one, if we see cheap flights it makes it acceptable to go on one." (Rowell, speech to climate activists, May 2007)
Similarly, if we read articles and books about aviation that downplay or ignore climate change, the "pathology of normalcy" - the illusion that we are living in an ordinary world in ordinary times - is reinforced. Of course we can argue that not all writing is obliged to embrace political issues, but writing for BAA in 2009 is an unavoidably political act with real consequences.
On September 7, we wrote to Terence Blacker at the Independent:
Hope you're well. I was interested to read your article in the Independent on Alain de Botton's "branded conversations" at Heathrow airport ('Why does a philosopher need to join the clamour for speed?,' August 21). You wrote:
"The world is obsessed with immediacy, as if there is a connection between how quickly a blog, news report, twitter or online video appears and how worthwhile it is. In these times, it is more important than ever that a few serious-minded people are there to remind us that true wisdom comes from thought, quiet and solitude.
"Something sad is happening, a small defeat for seriousness, when a man who has made his reputation with a book on Proust, who has pronounced interestingly on the afflictions of modern society, joins the clamour of instant comment rather than stepping back from it."
But isn't the real problem of our age, not "instant comment", but the predominance of corporate-sponsored "branded conversations"? Corporations aren't interested in "true wisdom", whatever the origin or speed of production; they are interested in profits. You noted that de Botton had been hired by the PR firm Mischief of London. According to Mischief, the aim of the campaign was "to make a passenger's time at Heathrow the best memory of the trip". The real goal, of course, was enhanced PR image - profits, in other words. Inconvenient truths are actually a threat to these aims.
Isn't corporate domination of the mass media the real problem for all who value "seriousness"?
Blacker replied the same day:
Dear David Edwards
Thank you for your interesting email. I agree that a branded conversation is as bad as instant opinion: neither, I would have thought, are fit pursuits for a philosopher. On the other hand, I'm not sure de Botton is exactly mass media. As a columnist, I personally don't feel the heavy hand of corporatism on my shoulder.
We wrote again on September 8:
Many thanks. I wouldn't take too much comfort from the absence of a "heavy hand of corporatism" on your shoulder - it may have surreptitiously entered your heart. The American journalist, Gary Webb, was an investigative reporter for nineteen years, focusing on government and private sector corruption, winning more than thirty awards for his journalism. He was one of six reporters at the San Jose Mercury News to win a 1990 Pulitzer Prize for a series of stories on California's 1989 earthquake. Webb described his experience of mainstream journalism:
"In seventeen years of doing this, nothing bad had happened to me. I was never fired or threatened with dismissal if I kept looking under rocks. I didn't get any death threats that worried me. I was winning awards, getting raises, lecturing college classes, appearing on TV shows, and judging journalism contests. So how could I possibly agree with people like Noam Chomsky and Ben Bagdikian, who were claiming the system didn't work, that it was steered by powerful special interests and corporations, and existed to protect the power elite? Hell, the system worked just fine, as I could tell. It +encouraged+ enterprise. It +rewarded+ muckracking." (Webb, 'The Mighty Wurlitzer Plays On', in Kristina Borjesson, ed., Into The Buzzsaw - Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press, Prometheus, 2002, pp.296-7)
Alas, Webb had an epiphany:
"And then I wrote some stories that made me realise how sadly misplaced my bliss had been. The reason I'd enjoyed such smooth sailing for so long hadn't been, as I'd assumed, because I was careful and diligent and good at my job. It turned out to have nothing to do with it. The truth was that, in all those years, I hadn't written anything important enough to suppress."
Jonathan Cook, who wrote for the Guardian and the Observer for many years, has commented:
"If they are to survive long, writers must quickly learn what the news desk expects of them. Newcomers are given a small amount of leeway to adopt angles that are 'not suitable'. But they are also expected to learn quickly why such articles are unsuitable and not to propose similar reports again.
"The advantage of this system is that high-profile sackings are a great rarity. Editors hardly ever need to bare their teeth against an established journalist because few make it to senior positions unless they have already learnt how to toe the line.
"The media's lengthy filtering system means that it is many years before the great majority of journalists get the chance to write with any degree of freedom for a national newspaper, and they must first have proved their 'good judgment' many times over to a variety of senior editors. Most have been let go long before they would ever be in a position to influence the paper's coverage.
"Journalists, of course, see this lengthy process of recruitment as necessary to filter for 'quality' rather than to remove those who fail to conform or whose reporting threatens powerful elites. The media are supposedly applying professional standards to find those deserving enough to reach the highest ranks of journalism.
"But, of course, these goals - finding the best, and weeding out the non-team players - are not contradictory. The system does promote outstanding 'professional' journalists, but it ensures that they also subscribe to orthodox views of what journalism is there to do. The effect is that the media identify the best propagandists to promote their corporate values."
Cook believes that columnists are 'filtered' in the same way. I'd be interested to hear your views.
Blacker replied on September 9:
This is a big and interesting subject. Speaking personally, I don't sense that corporatism has entered my soul without my having noticed. I didn't have a long training and was never filtered - I write books most of the time and, a little over ten years ago, wrote to the Independent to offer my services as a columnist. I don't have anything to do with the news desk and, have never been leant on to express or suppress a view.
I don't feel like a team player in the slightest. In my experience, the Independent, for all its many faults, does live up to its name and, unlike the Mail and the Guardian, does not encourage (that's too gentle a term) a particular mindset in its writers.
On the other hand, you may be right. Financial nervousness is a great corrective in these matters. There are damned few heroic columnists.
Yet I cling to the belief that people like Nick Cohen and Johann Hari are bloody-minded enough to go their own way.
Where, incidentally, would your model of uninfected press opinion be? In a nationalised press, presenting the government view? On-line?
I think I prefer being in the infected ward. You may, incidentally, be over-estimating the power and seriousness of the mass media. The prejudices and hang-ups of editors are far more pathetic, personal nit-picking than you think.
Finally, we wrote on September 10:
Thanks for responding with such candour. Upton Sinclair offered an interesting observation:
"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."
I think this is why so many journalists are able to tread so carefully around so many powerful toes without realising that they are doing so. You write:
"Speaking personally, I don't sense that corporatism has entered my soul without my having noticed... I don't have anything to do with the news desk and, have never been leant on to express or suppress a view."
Alan Rusbridger once told me in an interview:
"If you ask anybody who works in newspapers, they will quite rightly say, 'Rupert Murdoch', or whoever, 'never tells me what to write', which is beside the point: they don't have to be told what to write."
Journalists simply internalise the values; they quickly come to 'understand' what is and is not acceptable. Or they are recruited because their minds are already 'right' (the public schools and Oxbridge do a marvellous job in this regard). You comment:
"In my experience, the Independent, for all its many faults, does live up to its name and, unlike the Mail and the Guardian, does not encourage (that's too gentle a term) a particular mindset in its writers."
But the Independent, like other quality newspapers, is dependent on corporate advertising for 75% of its profits (Peter Preston, 'War, what is it good for?', The Observer, October 7, 2001). Even mainstream stalwarts like your former editor Andrew Marr recognise the inevitable corrosion of independence:
"But the biggest question is whether advertising limits and reshapes the news agenda. It does, of course. It's hard to make the sums add up when you are kicking the people who write the cheques." (Marr, My Trade, Macmillan, 2004, p.112)
In fact this has really enormous implications for press freedom. History tells us that newspapers that alienate corporate advertisers can suffer a catastrophic loss of revenue that can put them out of business or drive them to the margins. How can they possibly be deemed to be independent of these pressures?
The Independent is also owned by Irish billionaire Sir Anthony O'Reilly, who is chief executive of Independent News & Media Plc (INM). O'Reilly is a former chairman, president and CEO of H J Heinz, the leading food company. He is also a former member of the board of the New York Stock Exchange. His personal fortune has been estimated at £1.3 billion, which makes him one of the richest men in Ireland. He earns £15 million a year in salary and dividends.
O'Reilly has a controlling 72% share in Arcon, the zinc mining operation, and he has interests in oil and gas exploration. He also owns Fitzwilton, a large industrial group with core activities in food retail and light manufacturing. The list goes on... Isn't it naïve to believe that your newspaper is independent of O'Reilly's priorities, or of the senior management he hires in pursuit of them?
In 1996, Marr interviewed the linguist and political analyst Noam Chomsky. Marr commented:
"What I don't get is that all of this suggests - I'm a journalist - people like me are self-censoring."
"I don't say you're self-censoring. I'm sure you believe everything you're saying. But what I'm saying is, if you believed something different you wouldn't be sitting where you're sitting." (The Big Idea, BBC2, February 14, 1996)
I'm equally sure you are sincere in your view that you are free of corporate "infection". But the fact that you can seriously suggest that the Independent lives up to its name suggests otherwise.
"Where, incidentally, would your model of uninfected press opinion be? In a nationalised press, presenting the government view? On-line?"
The corporate obsession with profit-maximising - the deep source of its bias - is really an institutionalised form of greed and selfishness. Outside a few Buddhist meditation masters, it's hard to conceive of anyone being totally free of this distorting "infection". But it's certainly true that non-corporate, online media like Democracy Now!, FAIR, RealNews.org, ZNet, Spinwatch and the like offer far more honest and rational analysis than the mainstream media. For example, I defy anyone to make sense of events in Haiti and Korea relying solely on the corporate press. It can't be done. But understanding +can+ be found on non-corporate, specialist websites motivated by concern for human suffering rather than profits.