"Very Clearly Aligned With Our Values" — Guardian CEO on Why the Paper Has Banned Fossil Fuel Ads

By Emily Atkin



The Guardian and Observer office, near King's Cross in London, England. (Credit: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty)

This is a full transcript of Emily Atkins’ interview for the Drilled podcast with Anna Bateson, interim CEO of the U.K.-based news outlet The Guardian, on the paper’s recent decision to cease running ads from fossil fuel companies.


You can listen to this interview online or via the Drilled feed on your favorite podcast app, and read more about The Guardian’s decision in the Heated newsletter.


Check out Heated’s Fossil Fuel Ad Anthology on Instagram for a look at how the oil and gas industry seeks to convince the public that it is committed to fighting climate change, while also continuing to promote fossil fuels as essential sources of energy.


Emily Atkin: The first thing I would love to ask is what the process was like leading up to the decision. When did the issue first cross your desk, and then how long did it take from that moment until [the fossil fuel ad ban] happened?


Anna Bateson: So it's definitely a topic and a question that we have debated at a senior level for quite a while. I imagine it actually crossed desks a while ago, so certainly several months.


I think I should just say that we have always had a process of review and reflection about what advertising we take, and we've for a very long time taken that very seriously. And there have always been, or there have over time become, adverts and campaigns that we have turned down. What has tended to be there is that we have turned them down on a campaign by campaign basis rather than on an advertiser-specific basis.


So in a way, this discussion was not, “Is the process that we have been using to date the wrong process?”, but, “Should we take it up a level and have a category of companies that we won't take advertising from?” And there were, in that debate, people who felt it was very clearly aligned with our values and very clearly consistent with the increasingly strong and powerful editorial line that we've been taking.


But there was also concern about the commercial impact of it, and both the direct commercial impact, but also the message that it might or might not send about how we felt about advertising. So, this debate has been ongoing.


Really, commercially, as you know, it's generally quite challenging for newspapers and news brands. And while we did get to break even, certainly from an advertising perspective last year was tough, you know, and there were all sorts of dynamics going on. So that just gives an extra sort of sort of context, I suppose, to the conversation.


I think the things that changed were that, one, we ran a big series last year called The Polluters, which led to a lot of readers, and even I think advertisers, or people that we work with, increasing the level of questioning just about whether or not that was consistent with taking ads from extractive companies.


Secondly, watching the extraordinary bushfires in Australia, and both seeing the engagement levels that that's driven both in Australia and around the world, but also the amount of reader support in financial terms that it's inspired.


And then I think thirdly, our commercial teams are really beginning to think about a new narrative for advertising, which they're calling modern advertising, which is really as we look beyond a sort of a digital, programmatic world that's underpinned by cookies, and it's become really about audience-buying.


How do we reclaim some of the value that has always traditionally resided with publishers, which are around quality, context, and trust, and values? And once you begin to think of advertising in those terms, of good advertising that achieves good ends, and in those terms of sort of values and trust, it seemed to basically align commercial interests and values interests. It sort of became almost unarguable that this was sort of a commitment and a statement that we should make.


EA: What it sounds like you're saying, and correct me if I'm wrong, is that you figured out that it actually improves your commercial business strategy to only do advertising that aligns with your values because it probably strengthens trust in the brand from readers, probably made them more willing to donate to you because you don't do this anymore.


AB: That's certainly true. I think it goes beyond that, which is I think we actually think it strengthens our advertising proposition.


If we say that there are certain companies that we don't believe, you know, we want to take advertising from, which means that there are other companies that might prefer to advertise with us or commit to advertising with a publisher where values align and that they can be confident that there's a really trusted and real and engaged relationship with readers.


EA: Right. But that's sort of a complicated line to walk because some companies will be like, well, if we advertise in The Guardian, that means that we'll look even more morally responsible. That I mean, even as you guys know in the piece you wrote, you're still taking ads from car companies and other heavy users of fossil fuels. Right. How do you guys grapple with that? Because I guess the argument could be that car companies could be like, “See, we're really great. The Guardian lets us advertise there.”


AB: Yes that is a sort of a possibility. I think we believe that extractive fossil fuel companies are qualitatively different, both in the intent and extent of their advertising and marketing. And therefore, while absolutely I think that we can be criticized by some readers for also accepting car ads and ads for flights and airlines and holidays, we believe that they are in the end around consumer choice and around allowing the individual to make choices about their lives.


Whereas actually the other advertising is really only there to sort of shape perceptions and reputations of the companies, and that's not something that we want to accept anymore.


EA: Right. And I also want to talk about, in the piece, the reasoning specifically for the ban on fossil fuel. The reasoning seemed to really just surround the idea that the paper itself wants align itself with solving climate change and being more climate friendly. It didn't really address the arguments that I've heard a lot of my peers make, that ads from the fossil fuel industry might influence coverage or that they might manipulate readers into thinking that the fossil fuel industry is climate-friendly, when in fact it's not.


So, I guess my question would be, were either of those reasons — that ads might influence coverage or that they might manipulate readers — were those part of the rationale for the decision?


AB: Certainly not influencing editorial, because I think there is a very, very clear separation between editorial and commercial. And I think we can feel very confident about that.

I think to your second point that really these are ads that are intended to shape perceptions amongst readers about what sort of companies these are and what their business is, absolutely.


I think that's what we were really trying to refer to with the intent of this advertising. It's not about consumer choice. It's about them believing these companies are investing in a greener future, which is just not a fair reflection of the realities of their business.


EA: Right. So it's sort of like putting, you know, you have your journalism right there that has a lot of journalistic integrity, next to something that, you know, might be manipulating readers and not having the same kind of integrity.


AB: I mean, there has always been a very, very clear separation between editorial and ads. And I think that, that we've always been comfortable that these things sit next to each other.


However, I think when adverts are about promoting particular products or messages to consumers with the intention of kind of enabling them to make choices, that's qualitatively different from adverts where their sole intention is to change perceptions amongst opinion-formers or readers about what a company is doing, and essentially promoting an agenda. That is very different to what the message of the ad is really about, and is also often consistent with their lobbying agendas.


EA: Right. The ad sells an idea, not a product, really.


AB: Yes, exactly.


EA: I want to move on to also something I noticed was not in the piece, which is that it didn't call out other publications for doing it. It didn't say, “We hope others do the same.” And I was just wondering if that was intentional, or if you guys do think that other papers should follow suit?


AB: I think we’re trying to be quite humble about this, which is we've made a choice. It's very much about our values. I think it's not really for us to dictate to others.


I think we did say in the blog that we hope that brands might want to work with us because of an alignment of values. But everybody, every publisher is dealing with their own challenges, and they have their own brands and values in relationship with their readers. And so I think that's for others to call for rather than us.


EA: That makes sense. And I know readers are particularly interested in this question, which is, how important was fossil-fuel advertising to your news operation?


AB: It's substantive. Without being, I would say, a large percentage. You know, it's probably around 1 percent of our advertising and our advertising is 40 percent of our overall revenue. So it's material. And the revenue itself is important.


EA: I feel like I have to make this point to people a lot when they're like, oh, well, these newspapers get so much money from advertising. It's like, well, nobody at the newspapers is rich. It goes to salaries. Correct me if I'm wrong, if everybody in The Guardian is rich.


AB: No, no, no. Definitely not. No. I think that advertising is very important. It used to be a high proportion of our revenue. And as circulation of the newspaper has fallen and we've migrated digitally, et cetera, it's now 40 percent of our revenue. But that's a very important 40 percent. All revenue matters to us and it's precious. And so therefore, giving up any revenue, it's a significant decision that we have to take.


EA: I want to also go back to the part of the article announcing the decision where you guys said that, you know, you're not going to extend the ban to other polluting industries because that would that would be too much of a hit on a newspaper for now.


I mean, does that concern you for the future? Do you think maybe the campaign to stop running ads at all gets stronger? I just wonder how that might complicate things moving forward, and if you thought about it.


AB: Yeah, we absolutely have thought about it. Again, I would say I do think this category of companies is qualitatively different. And I do think the intent of that advertising is different. We are firmly committed to advertising, but we also will continue to review the advertising that comes to us and make sure that it is consistent and it remains aligned with our values.

And that's, and that's really important to us, because this sense of being true to our values and the covenant that we have with our readers. I think particularly since a high number of them support us financially, it is very, very precious to us.


But I don't think at the moment we see this extending into other categories because we do feel that there is a qualitative difference of these particular companies.


EA: If you guys could be 100 percent reader-funded model, in a perfect world, if there was enough money to do that, would you think you guys would do it? Is that a goal of The Guardian's?


AB: I think diversity of revenue is a strength. I think the direction of our business is to become more reader-funded.


I think one of the joys about the reader funding model is that it allows readers all over the world to support us financially, in places where we didn't have advertising businesses. So that's an enormously exciting thing for us that we have this incredible global audience. And actually realizing a return on that digitally through advertising can be a challenge, but now through reader revenue, that becomes a reality.


But I don't think we see a future without advertising at all. I think, just to say, again, diversity of revenue is a strength and actually we believe in advertising. So I think good advertising, done with good intent, you know, it is a joyful thing. So I think we are comfortable with having advertising in our future.


EA: One of the criticisms that there has historically been of fossil fuel ads in general, in the newspapers and media organizations, is that it may implicitly sort of direct journalists away from actually covering fossil fuel advertising, because it, it's almost like a weird juxtaposition. We're covering fossil fuel ads while running fossil fuel ads. And so I'm wondering if since yesterday you've seen a lot of coverage of your move from other news organizations that run fossil fuel ads, which is to say most of them.


AB: There has been a certain amount of coverage, yes. The New York Times wrote about it. Washington Post wrote about it.


A lot of the trade press have written about it. That's slightly different. But also Nieman Lab wrote about it precisely to call out some of the challenges that news organizations have around these issues. We'll see if others, you know, if others either follow suit or choose to write about it.


EA: Yeah, I think it'll be interesting to see. Thanks again. I really appreciate your guys’ journalism!


AB: Thank you.

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