Many years ago, in those halcyon days when The Guardian could afford to pay freelancers, I was commissioned to write a piece on the beginnings of TV sponsorship. Shockingly, rules were about to be relaxed to allow commercial channels to seek sponsors for programmes (it was a very long time ago).
In my determination to prove how deregulation would crush creativity and compromise editorial independence, I interviewed sponsorship brand managers. They confirmed my worst fears. Cadbury was the most brutally honest, making clear that it had no intention of diluting its carefully curated family values by having Milk Tray or Fruit & Nut sitting alongside some Channel 4 documentary on paedophilia. QED.
Strangely, commercial television did not plunge into a creative or editorial abyss. And now much the same arguments of imperilling journalistic freedom are being levelled at the Stop Funding Hate (SFH) campaign, with a level of vituperation, intimidation and bullying that ought to shame the protagonists.
SFH has a perfectly simple philosophy: appeal to advertisers not to spend their money in newspapers that demonise foreigners and minority groups through deliberately divisive, distorted, hate-filled, and frequently inaccurate reporting. It quotes the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights who spoke in 2015 of the “decades of sustained and unrestrained anti-foreigner abuse, misinformation and distortion” in the British press, amid warnings from UK experts and charities that hate crime is being “fuelled and legitimised” by the media.
It is a long overdue initiative. As SFH points out, we are all indirectly funding the xenophobic, homophobic, and Islamaphobic agendas of those papers that hide behind the mantra of press freedom to justify their bile. And just as a free press is free to publish its vitriol, so a free marketplace permits consumers to boycott funders and lobby advertisers to withdraw support. That’s capitalism for you. That’s freedom for you.
As those who follow its activities (as opposed to the Mail’s reporting of its activities) will know, SFH prides itself on a courteous and non-aggressive campaigning style, including a non-response policy to the online bullies that seem to populate the “free speech” movement. The Daily Mail has no time for such niceties. It employs its usual mixture of belligerence and boorishness to denounce the free speech credentials of anyone who dares to question those who fund its attacks on Muslims, refugees, and migrants.
So when Paperchase apologised, following an SFH campaign, for launching a weekend promotion with the Mail before Christmas, the Mail launched a ferocious assault on the group, describing it as “hard left pro-remain Corbynistas” and a “tiny bunch of zealots… trying to gag Britain’s free press”, and accusing it (somewhat implausibly) of forcing the press to promote its own views.
Though more restrained, the Press Gazette editor Dominic Ponsford pursued a similar theme in the last issue of the British Journalism Review (“BJR”) attributing the campaign to remainers with a visceral dislike of right-wing newspapers whose “end game is the closure of three national newspapers”. He cited awards won by the offending papers, as if that excuses their perennial diet of nastiness. It doesn’t.
If the survival of those papers’ award-winning watchdog journalism depends on an editorial policy of hounding minority groups – an assumption which I believe is profoundly wrong – then perhaps we should think about the kind of society we want to live in. In 1930s Germany, another minority group was targeted by a populist press using inflammatory language. Would an advertising boycott of those papers have represented an intolerable affront to free speech?
There is a dangerous but growing sense of entitlement at senior levels of our print media that anything which remotely interferes with their absolute freedom to say and do whatever they want must be struck down under the banner of “free expression”. This corporate groupthink is dangerous because it deliberately employs the language of authoritarianism, censorship and despotism when it is wholly inappropriate. Putin, Erdogan, Orban and others who imprison journalists are a mortal threat to democracy. Campaigners for a more tolerant and civilised country really are not.
Thankfully, both Stop Funding Hate and responsible advertisers are ignoring this crescendo of propaganda from increasingly desperate editorials. The movement is growing. As the BJR went to press, both Center Parcs and the Southbank Centre pulled their advertising from the Daily Mail following some typically nasty, homophobic bigotry by Richard Littlejohn, who apparently doesn’t like the idea of Olympic diver Tom Daley and his husband having a child via a surrogate. Poor thing.
He is entitled to his opinion. And those advertisers who object to Littlejohn’s views are equally entitled to withdraw their funding from the Mail – not least because they may wish to apply their ethical stance on recruitment and workplace practices to their media buying.
Just like Cadbury all those years ago, they are taking a commercial decision in their own interests, to protect their brand values and customer base. And just as ITV’s integrity survived that crushing blow to its editorial freedom, I’m sure that the newspapers being targeted by SFH will cope. Who knows? They might even divert resources from assaulting minorities to winning more awards with decent public interest journalism.
Steven Barnett is professor of communications at the University of Westminster and a member of the British Journalism Review Editorial Board.
This article was originally published in the British Journalism Review and is reproduced with permission and thanks.