Everything you wanted to know about The Guardian's historic ban on fossil fuel ads

An interview with The Guardian's interim chief executive Anna Bateson

There won’t be any of these in the Guardian anymore. Photo credit: @fossilfuelads

In yesterday’s issue of HEATED, I asked subscribers to tell me what they’d like to know about The Guardian’s historic decision on Wednesday to ban advertisements from fossil fuel companies.

The British daily—which has a history of setting standards for climate coverage—is now the first major newspaper in the world to ban these ads. On Thursday, I talked to Anna Bateson, the Guardian’s interim chief executive, about how the decision will affect the paper’s bottom line, the morals of banning some ads while allowing others, and whether other newspapers should do the same.

I think I asked pretty much everything you all wanted—and possibly a bit more. If I didn’t, feel free to yell at me in the comments. They’re for subscribers only, though, because subscribers make my journalism possible. Without them, who knows—maybe I’d be running fossil fuel ads, too. (lol).

If you’d like to support ad-free, independent, climate accountability journalism—and get VIP yelling at me access—become a subscriber to HEATED today.

And remember, if you see any fossil fuel ads in other news outlets, HEATED is tracking them at the Fossil Fuel Ad Anthology. Send submissions to fossilfuelads@heated.world.

Now onto my interview with The Guardian’s Anna Bateson, which has been lightly edited for clarity and transitional ease. I’m in bold; Bateson’s not. Enjoy!

The first thing I would love to know is what the process was like leading up to the decision. When did the issue first come across your desk, and then how long did it take from that moment until yesterday?

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; certainly several months.

We have always had a process of review and reflection about what advertising we take. And there have always been adverts and campaigns that we have turned down. But we have turned them down on a campaign-by-campaign basis, rather than on an advertiser-specific basis. So in a way, we were asking “Is the process that we have been using the wrong process? Should we take it up a level, and have a category of companies that we won't take advertising from?”

There was also concern about the commercial impact of it—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, 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 was tough. So that gives context to the conversation, I suppose.

Was there a particular moment or event that made it clear a ban on fossil fuel ads had to happen?

I think some things have changed. One, we ran a big series last year called The Polluters, which led to a lot of readers and people we work with increasing the level of questioning about whether that was consistent with takings ads from extractive companies.

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

Thirdly, our commercial teams are really beginning to think about a new narrative for advertising, which they're calling modern advertising. As we look beyond a sort of a digital programmatic world that's underpinned by cookies, it's become really about audience. How do we reclaim some of the value that has always traditionally resided with publishers, which is about quality, context and trust? Once you begin to think of good advertising in those terms, it seemed to align our commercial interests and our values, and then it became almost unarguable that this was a commitment and a statement that we should make.

It sounds like what you're saying is—and correct me if I’m wrong—that it actually improves your business strategy to only take advertising that aligns with your values, because that makes readers more willing to donate do you?

That's certainly true. But I think it goes beyond that. We actually think it strengthens our advertising proposition. If we say that there are certain companies that we don't want to take advertising from, that means there are other companies that might prefer to advertise with a publisher where values align, because they can be confident that there's a really trusted and real and engaged relationship with readers.

Right, but that's a complicated line to walk. Because some companies might be like, “Well, if we advertise in The Guardian, that means that we'll look even more morally responsible.” In the piece you wrote, you said you’ll still take ads from car companies and other heavy users of fossil fuels. The car companies could be like, “See, we’re really great, the Guardian lets us advertise there.” How do you guys grapple with that?

Yes, that is a sort of a possibility.

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

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

The Guardian’s announcement really leaned on the argument that the paper wants to be climate-friendly. But it didn’t address other common concerns with fossil fuel ads—like that they might influence coverage, and that they might manipulate readers into thinking that these companies are climate friendly, when they’re not. Were those concerns part of the decision?

Certainly not the argument about 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—absolutely. That's what we were really trying to refer to, is the intent of this advertising. It's not about consumer choice, it's about consumers believing these companies are investing in a greener future, which is just not a fair reflection of the realities of their business.

Promoting a product to consumers is qualitatively different than trying to change perceptions about what a company's doing. They’re essentially promoting an agenda—one often consistent with their lobbying.

Actually Mark Ritson has just written a very interesting article in Marketing Week on precisely this, essentially calling out the hypocrisy of marketeers who use advertising to promote a pretty ugly agenda.

[Reporter’s note: Definitely read that article. It’s great.]

The Guardian’s article announcing the decision on fossil fuel ads didn't call out other publications for running them. It doesn't say, “We hope others do the same.” I was just wondering if that was intentional. Do you think that other papers should follow your lead?

I think we're trying to be quite humble about this. 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 every publisher is dealing with their own challenges, and they have their own brands and values and relationship with their readers. And so I think that's for others to call for, rather than us.

That makes sense. How important was fossil fuel advertising to your news operation? Do you have a rough number of the percentage?

We probably wouldn't give the number. It’s substantive without being a large percentage. It’s probably around 1 percent of our advertising, and our advertising is 40 percent of our overall revenue. So it’s material.

I feel like I have to make this point a lot to people, which is that the revenue is important to the journalism. Like, nobody at the newspaper is rich. Correct me if I’m wrong and that everyone working for the Guardian is rich.

No, no, definitely not. Advertising is very important. It used to a high proportion of our revenue, and as circulation and of the newspaper has fallen, it's now 40 percent of our revenue. But that's a very important 40 percent. And so, genuinely, you know, all revenue matters to us. It's precious. And therefore giving up any revenue is a significant decision.

If you guys could be a 100 percent reader-funded model, would you do it? Is that the eventual goal?

I don’t think at the moment we see [the fossil fuel ad ban] extending to other categories. We are firmly committed to advertising. But we also will continue to review the advertising to ensure it remains aligned with our values.

I think diversity of revenue is is a strength. The direction of our business is to become more reader-funded. But I don't think we see a future without advertising at all. And actually, we believe in advertising. I think good advertising done with good intent is a joyful thing.

So, I would say we are we are comfortable with having advertising in our future.

Have you seen a lot of media interest around your decision? I ask because one of criticisms of fossil fuel ads in media is that they might make editors uncomfortable with covering the ethics of fossil fuel advertising. Have you seen a lot of coverage of your efforts from other news organizations that run fossil fuel ads?

Yes. The New York Times wrote about it, and the Washington Post wrote about it. A lot of the trade press have written about it. But also, Nieman Lab wrote about it precisely to call out some of the challenges that these organizations have around these issues.

We'll see if others follow suit, or choose to write about it.

OK, that’s all for today—thanks for reading HEATED!

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