As Guardian Media Group chief executive Carolyn McCall told Press Gazette this week, national newspaper publishing nowadays is an extremely expensive business. Good journalism costs money, as does new technology and producing the content to put on new platforms.
So to pay for all that good journalism, the national press often produces content which isn’t really journalism at all, but which is financially lucrative enough to support the more noble stuff. Broadsheets have been known to bring out “country guide” supplements produced by outside agencies, who sell top dollar advertising to Government departments in developing countries after no doubt wooing them with the prospect of appearing in such well-known publications.
The “editorial” in these supplements is often signed off by the clients themselves – but at least they are clearly labelled as sponsored sections and there is usually a waiver along the lines of “Times Newspapers (or whoever) is not responsible for the content herein”.
That’s why Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins was so right to sound alarm bells (in his own paper) about the Promised Lands supplement published in Society Guardian on Wednesday last week. He said it was state-sponsored PR masquerading as journalism to promote controversial housing clearance projects.
The design, bylines and style all gave the impression that it was an integral part of the paper. Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed the words “Produced by The Guardian in association with Housing Market Renewal Partnerships” in letters 2mm high at the bottom of the front page. But even then they wouldn’t have known that the supplement had “sign off” from the Government client which had paid a cash sum to get their propaganda message across.
Owned by the Scott Trust, The Guardian has a unique remit which places editorial quality above commercial success. It should be seen to be setting the standard for editorial independence rather than blurring the line between paid-for advertising and journalism.