Back in February the Guardian quietly announced a deal with the global consumer goods corporation Unilever. Here is the beginning of the Guardian’s press release:
Guardian News and Media today officially launches Guardian Labs – its branded content and innovation agency – which offers brands bold and compelling new ways to tell their stories and engage with influential Guardian audiences. The official launch of the new commercial proposition is marked by the announcement of a pioneering seven-figure partnership with Unilever, centred on the shared values of sustainable living and open storytelling. … The new Unilever partnership will create a bespoke engagement platform to increase awareness of, and foster debate about, sustainability issues, and ultimately encourage people to live more sustainable lives.
I wonder how many of those who proudly declare themselves “Guardian readers” recognised their beloved newspaper in that statement.
In fact, it makes perfect sense for Unilever – a corporation whose brand “positioning” depends on its customers identifying it as a responsible and caring business, despite the evidence to the contrary – to team up with the Guardian, another corporation whose brand positioning has already persuaded most of its customers that it is a responsible and caring business.
Today the Guardian columnist George Monbiot does something pretty brave for a Guardian columnist: he alerts his readers to the existence of this arrangement and gently questions what it represents, in an article bewailing the fact that “corporations have colonised our public life”.
Here is what he says:
I recognise and regret the fact that all newspapers depend for their survival on corporate money (advertising and sponsorship probably account, in most cases, for about 70% of their income). But this, to me, looks like another step down the primrose path. As the environmental campaigner Peter Gerhardt puts it, companies like Unilever “try to stakeholderise every conflict”. By this, I think, he means that they embrace their critics, involving them in a dialogue that is open in the sense that a lobster pot is open, breaking down critical distance and identity until no one knows who they are any more.
It’s worth noting how rarely journalists criticise the nature of the media they work in. Maybe that is not so surprising: few businesses, the media included, are happy having their flaws paraded in public. But what Monbiot has done here is to appear brave while really shrinking from the truth. He criticises the Guardian while really not criticising it.
Monbiot’s implication in the nice metaphor above is that Unilever is the the lobster pot, while the poor Guardian is the lobster in danger of being “stakeholderised”. Or, in another metaphor he uses, the Guardian is the one being led up the primrose path.
What he encourages his readers to infer is that the Guardian is the victim in this deal, being seduced and violated by Unilever. The reality is that Unilever and the Guardian are both wolves in sheep’s clothing. The arrangement works to the benefit of them both. In Monbiot’s reckoning, the Guardian is “public life” being colonised by Unilever. In fact, the Guardian is no more public life than Unilever. Both have colonised the public space, in the interests of maximising profits whatever the consequences to the public good and the planet. (And please, no one try to claim that my argument is refuted by the fact that the Guardian loses money. It is not a charity. Its goal is not to lose money; its goal is to find a strategy, like the one with Unilever, to revive its fortunes in a dying industry.)
In fact, the lobster pot metaphor would be much more apt to describe Monbiot’s relationship with the Guardian. The newspaper has “embraced” him, “breaking down his critical distance and identity until he no longer knows who he is”. Now if he told us that, I really would be cheering him for his honesty.